Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Methods of Composition


No one has asked, but I started thinking about how I compose prose poems these days and it has me thinking about how I compose all sorts of things. So here it is. I'll call it:

Methods of Composition

I begin with whatever image, phrase, or idea occurs to me: A cat who disdains poetry, preferring abstract painting. My wife looking through the classifieds for a poem of mine she is sure was published there. Trying on shoes with my father-in-law, served by his ex-wife. And so on. Often enough, I begin with the first thing that catches my eye or lodges in my ear.

Starting there, I let the words run the way I've read that fisherman let fish run on the line. I want to see where things might go, but I'm not just letting out line. I'm paying attention to any turns that might appear along the way. I want to know what strange direction I can let the thing go to. At the first chance, I turn the idea and see where it goes from there. This is the time in the composition when I try to take chances. I'm letting myself get lost in a strange place quite on purpose and hoping that I'll know the way out.

The turns, by the way, are the sorts of things my mind does in my dreaming sleep. Scenes shift, I split in two, characters disappear or change into other characters, time runs backward, continents drift. Anything, in the prose poem, is possible. Strange is good here.

Finally, lost in the odd place into which my idea has run, I look for a way out, a route back toward the idea I had at the beginning. I try to find something that feels right, which makes at least a kind of dream-sense and that gets me to some sort of finality. The piece can't simply end with a period and the blank space at the end of the page. An ending has to happen and has to be something that completes the piece such that I couldn't go farther if I tried. It has to be done. Finished.

Then, if all has gone well, I come away from it with a smile, a sense of wonder, a feeling that something good has just been done. I have to go back after that first draft and read the thing. Doing that I will chop out words and lines. I'll rework the language and the punctuation. I break sentences into short blocks that pace the thing as it should be done. I make it clear who is speaking and what is happening. Clear enough to suit the dream. I tinker with it until, again, it feels right, I smile and feel that sense of wonder.

When I'm through, and only if things have gone the way they need to have gone, the poem reads as a narrative of falling asleep on the couch while thinking of an idea, dreaming the idea into some Tim Burton dream, and then waking into the world with almost equal measures of understanding and confusion. A working prose poem awakens me to a feeling of being slightly off-balance in the world. I wake from it still hung with the cobwebs of sleep but my eyes blinking in the light of a new day. I often enough come out of the poem feeling that if I had been able to dream for just a moment longer everything in the world would now be clear.

This is how I compose prose poetry and, with only slight alterations, it could explain how I write these blog posts. It's also how I set out on a run in the afternoon. It's how I think of parenting my two children. It's how it is to be in love with my wife. It is the process I use to think about who I am, have been, and someday might be.

All of this sounds pretty highfalutin. I'm not really this full of myself (though I'm pretty damn full of myself, truth to tell) or think that I have the one true way. It's just that I have found one way that works for me in composing prose poetry and the more I think about it the more I understand that it is the framework for many more things in my life than I had previously thought.

One last thing about the process. I write that first draft within the confines of my own mind with only my voice and the scratch of my pen or the tap of my keyboard's keys. Revising it, and thinking about things in this way, brings in an audience. I'm learning every single day that almost everything I do is better when I do it first for myself and then shape it to fit the needs of readers.

Write on.