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The Making of a Poem

I apologize that this post is a little longer than usual. I wanted to give you a look into how I write a poem. Note: This poem was relatively easy to write. There are plenty of poems I spend more time on and work harder on. But you do get a little glimpse into my process and internal dialogue when writing a poem.

The Making of a Poem

When I first began my MFA program, my professor told me: “Find a couple poets you like, and emulate them.” It is advice that many writing students have been given: Copy, copy, copy, and eventually, your own voice will emerge.

A few months ago I began to draft a new poem, and the first line was:

Give me a God that I can touch. I had a few more lines, including ones similar to this one that started with the imperative form Give me. But every time I would get the poem out to work on it, my mind was blank.

I recently saw a call for submissions based on a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “I Am Waiting.” Ferlinghetti is one of the founders of beat poetry, and his poem is a commentary on American life disguised as a litany of “I am waitings.”

I am waiting for my case to come up

and I am waiting

for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone

to really discover America . . .

Read the entire poem here. I enjoyed the lyrical quality of Ferlinghetti’s poem, in which “I am waiting” felt like a familiar song chorus. On the other hand, the constant repetition of the phrase felt a little like . . . well, waiting. By the end of the poem, I was ready to be done with the phrase, but I also felt like I wanted for all those things the speaker listed to come true. I was waiting for them to happen, too!

I went back to my poem, wondering if I could revive it using Ferlinghetti’s approach. I started with the very first line, changing it to: I am waiting for a God I can touch. Without the imperative form, the urgency underlying the words was gone, replaced by something stationary, something that requires patience. But I wondered if I could bring back some urgency in a different way. I ended up with:

 

I am waiting for a God I can touch.

I am waiting for the stars

to explain themselves instead

of disappearing into the past.

I am waiting for the earth

to rise up and claim itself

away from us. I am waiting for

an earthquake to split the chrysalis

wide open until every tethered

winged thing breaks into flight.

 

Suddenly my quiet musing about God turned into a call to the universe to readjust itself, to speak, to move, to show that it is stronger than us. But there were a few problems. I really liked the last sentence. The consonance and assonance of “every tethered” appealed to me, as if I could hear the fluttering wings of the tethered creatures. I liked the rhyme of “winged thing,” and I liked the hard /g/ sounds that produced a contrast to the soft sounds of “every tethered.” I also really liked the imagery of being freed. The problem is that I felt like those last few lines would be a great ending to the poem. I also felt that I’d made a leap between the first line about God and the rest of the lines, and I needed to close that gap somehow. How were my troubles with God connected to calling the earth to break open? I didn’t want to discard my first line, so I decided to move the rest of the lines to the end of the poem and keep working.

 

I am waiting for a God I can touch.

I am waiting to feel the world turning,

to sense myself moving at a thousand

miles an hour. I am waiting to shout

to the universe I am here! To hope that

something out there is silent enough

to hear me. I am waiting for a voice

that echoes.

 

I had tried again to put words to my God-wrestling and come up with more language about the universe. However, these lines questioned whether or not anyone was out there. Was there really someone who could hear my voice? I really liked the way these lines juxtaposed the enormity of the universe with my small voice. Yet that yearning to be seen, to be heard, to mean something, was there. These lines hold hope that there is a being out there who can find me, even when the world is spinning and mine is one out of a million voices.

I wasn’t completely happy with the last sentence in the verse, though. It felt too easy, too cliché. I really wanted something in the verse that suggested creation, so I tried:

 

I am waiting to birth

a voice that echoes.

 

And the addition of that one word, birth, satisfied me. I think that word is ripe with so many images – some painful, some joyous.

When I was thinking about Ferlinghetti’s pattern I am waiting, this phrase popped into my head: I am waiting for another I am. I decided to use that to introduce the second verse of the poem, in which I move from the universe back to one isolated human event: Moses and burning bush. I wanted to sort of play with the idea of miracle. I started with:

 

I am waiting for another I am,

for the smell of burning bushes

on the air, for something I might recognize

as miracle

 

“The smell of burning bushes” didn’t sit right with me. Again, it seemed too boring, too cliché. I tried substituting “aroma” for smell, but I still wasn’t happy. It hit me that since I was using religious imagery in the poem, it might be interesting to use the word “incense” or “censing.” I tried this:

 

I am waiting for another I am,

for the incense of burning bush

on the air, for something I might recognize

as miracle, which might be as

quiet as a naked branch in winter

or my son’s heartbeat beneath my fingers.

 

I thought that just taking away one syllable of “bushes” really made that line stand out. The last three lines of that verse might be the weakest in the poem. A naked winter tree branch is probably an overused image in poetry already. But I think that putting some boring, everyday miraculous minutiae in between two verses that are more grandiose is appropriate. And I do believe that small miracles happen all around us, but we tend to be blind to them.

Lastly, I had to come up with a name. I typically like the name of my poems to come from a word or phrase within the poem, but not always. That same poetry professor once describe a poem title as a hat you put on a poem to help the reader recognize it. I kept going back to that final image of the earth literally splitting open and releasing a barrage of beautiful flying things. I decided on Chrysalis as the title because it symbolized both transformation and freedom.

My final change to the poem was to change God to god in the first lineI did that partly to appeal to a wider audience, and partly because this entire poem was, in a way, a challenge to the details of Christian faith. Maybe changing that one letter was my little act of rebellion and wrestling.

I submitted the poem to the journal, and they accepted it! Many thanks to Silver Birch Press for publishing my poem for the I Am Waiting series! See the poem over at their site, which is accompanied by a gorgeous Andy Warhol painting of a butterfly. (P.S. They forgot to italicize the words I am here! But that’s okay. You and I know what I meant.)

 

 

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2 comments

  1. Joanne Corey says:

    Thank you for sharing your poetic process for this poem. As a poet, I love to hear how other poets go about crafting their work. Congratulations on the publication!

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