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Rewriting the Poem

 

Luce-Kapler, Rebecca

 

After basking in a rereading of Seamus Heaney’s (1996) marvelous poem “Personal Helicon,” I find myself whispering the first line: “As a child, they could not keep me from wells.” And I wonder: what could I not be kept from while growing up on the farm? I open my journal and begin to write.

As a child they could not keep me from exploring outside . . . I was often out by myself, imagining and thinking. There was the big old Balm of Gilead east of the house that had a wide crotch to sit in beneath large leaves-or rather-I think the tree was a Russian poplar . . . I vividly remember one summer evening sitting in that tree, its leaves rattling as a warm breeze blew. I looked back to where the sun was setting, the land stilling at the end of the day . . . I imagined multiple lives for myself and yet did not begin to imagine the one I am living now.

As I continue to write, I remember places that had drawn me over and over again: the chicken house with its nest boxes, the cows’ trail down to the aspen woods bordered by Deer Creek, the meadow where I tried to stage plays with my recalcitrant sisters. Yet it was the tree to which I return, and my journal writing ends with a web that brings to the surface some of the ideas that linger around the poplar.

 

I realize that I am unwilling to break my connection with Seamus Heaney and have been searching for a possible entry into a poem through the journal writing. The tree offers the possibility: “location for imagination; human attachment to trees.”After I create the web, a halfhearted stanza wobbles out to distinguish itself from the spill of words.

 

When or where does a poem begin? We try to identify a moment where the emerging writing begins to find form, where our life experiences assume a particular shape. Did the poem begin in that tree? In reading “Personal Helicon?” In creating a word web? Yes, I think. In all of those. So when does rewriting begin? I return to work on the poem again, starting by rewriting the first stanza and then attempt to write two more.

 

The lines are quickly drafted, some crossed out as I reach dead-ends in my attempt to describe as succinctly and clearly as possible the memory of being in that tree. I can envision the texture of the light in the summer sunset, my fingers remember rough bark, and a faint memory of smells like sweet clover and crushed grass returns. As I search for the words to convey the sensations, I am reflecting on an experience that has been “written” and “rewritten” in my memory and that I am now trying to write on a page. I wander through language, choosing my words and rewriting the memory yet again, but I am not yet rewriting the poem. Not enough of the experience has travelled to the page for the rewriting of the poem to begin. The first stanza is but a moment’s clearer vision for one small part of an imagined whole.

 

The language spills onto the page as my mind races ahead of my hand, sometimes flying down dark alleys that are only realized when the words are written. I am trying to find language for the feelings and intuitions that swirl about this tree, and in searching for that language, I sometimes stumble, trying one word and then substituting another.

 

I return to writing in my journal in an effort to realize the poem and finally ask myself a question that provides the impetus to finish the poem. I write:

What kind of mystical connections are there to trees?
-taste the bark-beads of its sweat
-my flesh grows into its white sweetness
-swim up the root capillaries
-exploding through green-feel the sun nourish me
-strengthen my limbs from the
bite of a woodman’s axe wanting to dull
the edge of his blade with the sticky saliva
from my chlorophyl tongue, shaking my leafy
head in defiance. “Become Daphne.”

This journal entry moves me beyond the sensory impressions of the experience to the deeper mythical implications that I felt but could not articulate before. I sense with this entry that I have discovered the centre of gravity for the poem. Knowing this, I now finish the first draft:

I spent half my childhood nestled
in the crotch of our Russian poplar.
I loved the scored bark, the broad, and bitter leaves
Smells of clean, woody flesh and greening

 

Once, in the summer, just at sunset
I climbed up its generous limbs
imagined the mellow motes of last light
were choices I had yet to make

 

The blizzard of tree cotton
that had earlier filled the sky
was subsiding, settling to the ground
like drifts of snow marking a new path

 

I tasted the rough skin of the tree
licked the beads of sweat from its runnels
until my flesh grew into its white woody sweetness

 

I swam from the root capillaries
warm in the sap
and exploded into green
where sunlight could nourish me

 

Strengthened my limbs to resist
the bite of the woodman’s axe
dulling his blade with sticky saliva
and shaking my leafy head in defiance.

 

Titles: Spending Time with Daphne
Tasting Daphne’s Flesh
Another of Daphne’s Daughters

With the first draft completed, could I now begin to rewrite the poem?

 

Moving into Rewriting

Our memory of an experience encompasses both the explainable which we can describe in language, and the ineffable, whose reverberations we can only sense. Within the words of the first draft lie those inexplicable sensations, and it is with the desire to reveal experience beyond language that we return to rewrite, to write a poem rather than a cathartic draft. A poem, Octavio Paz (1990) suggests, is made of words but “for the purpose of containing and secreting a substance that is impalpable, resistant to definition. . . ” (77).

 

Through the work of rewriting, the heartbeat of the poem grows stronger, its unity more assured, and the writer can discover the beauty of the piece, the epiphany that James Joyce (Grundin 1990) described in his unfinished novel, Stephen Hero:

First we recognize that the object is one integral thing, then we recognize that it is an organized composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relationship of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognize that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany. (58)

 

The roots of my poem are deeply anchored in personal experience. My journal writing stirred the memories to the surface, and by exploring almost forgotten childhood obsessions, I returned to a summer evening when I was ten years old. From a literary point of view, the poem now has to move from my recounting and imagining of experience to a text where image, rhythm, and form work in concert to become a poetic and aesthetic experience for the reader.

 

Stepping Back

Rewriting seems to begin with a stepping back, a cooling from the first heat of spilling our thoughts onto the page. We need a chance to clear our vision and to move away from the initial deep attachment to our words. Bonnie Friedman (1993) tells the story about attending a poetry coffeehouse where a woman announced to the audience, “I wrote this poem this afternoon. . . .I hope I can read it before my throat closes up” (76). The poem, Friedman says, was about loneliness and lying in bed at night with the heart pounding:

She read it in a soft, breathy voice, and when she was done she looked up. We applauded politely. She blinked, then rose stiffly, as if her stomach were full of splintered glass, the disappointment palpable about her as she returned to her folding chair. Watching her I thought, I hope to God I’m different, although I suspected I was not. (76)

What feels so forceful when we write, Friedman continues, is not always forceful when it is read. Enraptured with our work, we may be unaware of the faults and inconsistencies that cause our readers or listeners to pause or stumble. Initially, we may write for ourselves, but it is in the rewriting that we remember we also write for others. We must return to our text and position ourselves as readers rather than creators this time. We read searching for the possibilities that present themselves: what images are evoked? what metaphors are suggested? what universal meaning reverberates through the words? But these question require time for the emotional distance between ourselves and the text to grow. Franz Kafka kept a sign above his desk that read “Wait.” Waiting, knowing that you will return to the writing, is necessary to the revision. Writers need that time: time to move from the one who originated the writing to the one who will discover its achieved version (Plumly 1992, 244). The vision needs to clear for a re-vision.

 

Stepping back from the work is not only temporal but spatial, an attempt to see it from the third person rather than the first. Seeing the work from a different perspective can profoundly affect the rewriting as illustrated in a story Ray B. West (Hodgins 1993) recounts about William Faulkner. A young American soldier, early in World War II, visited Faulkner who was rewriting a story. As Faulkner worked, he dropped the rejected pages onto the floor. When the soldier asked if he might have a few of the pages as a souvenir of the visit, he was given a handful. A year later, those pages were examined by an instructor at the University of Minnesota who made an interesting discovery:

What Faulkner had been doing was changing the story from the first person to the third person narration, but in so doing, he had not merely worked automatically, changing the pronoun “I” to “he.” He had discovered (or had sensed intuitively) that in making the change, he had shifted the delicate balance of authority in the story from the principal character, a young boy, to the author. In the sample pages that the young soldier had brought away with him, the telling had been extremely vernacular, as it must have been, being told so directly from the character’s point of view. In making the change as it appeared in the finished book, the author became the narrator and took on a greater burden of authority, so that the whole tone and the language had to conform more to him than to his character. (239)

Several days of emotional turmoil go by before I return to my poem and journal again. During this time my grandmother has died and although her passing was a peaceful slipping away and not entirely unexpected, my grief is deeper than any other death I have experienced. I realize that her death marks the end of a generation in my family. With that ending, a time in history to which we had access seems to close and my generation ages overnight. I am dealing with a sense of loss greater than just my grandmother’s presence. When I return to my poem and reread it, something jars me: the hopeful memory threaded through the lines. I am still reading it as a cathartic, personal experience. I crave some distance and so rewrite the poem in third person:

She spent half her childhood nestled
in the crotch of a Russian poplar.
She loved the scored bark, the broad and bitter leaves
smells of clean, woody flesh and greening.

The distance indeed widens, but with that, all pleasure in the poem disappears. I decide it should stay in first person, but the dissatisfaction I feel with this draft enables me to approach the poem on a deeper level, searching for the patterns that would change it from a personal reminiscence to a poem, from catharsis to illumination.

 

The Palimpsest of Rewriting

The stepping back has begun the complex process of rewriting which van Manen (1990) suggests is one of “re-thinking, re-flecting, re-cognizing” (131). My initial writing of the poem conjured up the memory of my attachment to trees. Now, however, I must return to the memory of that writing and reflect on it. The body is a palimpsest where the tracing of experience remains-both the experience of the tree and writing about the tree. In rereading the poem, I alternate between my memories of that time-the feel of bark against my skin, the sound of the wind in the leaves, the early evening light of summer-and the memories of writing. I wonder what impulse gave rhythm to the writing of the poem? How had I remembered the experience? What sensations was I trying to evoke? In the rewriting, these questions become important.

 

Rewriting establishes the palimpsest and permits you to stay in touch with the first cause of the poem, regardless of the number of erasures, writings-over, transformation: the first impulse is the secret that will be revealed the more it is concealed through rewrite (Plumly 1993, 243).

 

By reflecting on remembered experience, I could begin rewriting the first draft and perhaps begin to realize or re-cognize the poem in that draft. The poem that would be, as Charles Olson (Lee 1994) describes it, “energy transferred from where the poet got it” (27).

Before I write the next draft of the poem, however, I begin by reading “Personal Helicon” aloud to revisit the images and rhythms that had recalled a memory of childhood summers, gnarled trees, and rustling leaves. “In writing poetry,” Rilke (1954) wrote, “one is always aided and even carried away by the rhythm of exterior things; for the lyric cadence is that of nature: of the waters, the wind, the night” (112). Something in the rhythm of Heaney’s poem had called to me and reminded me of the trees where I spent hours as a child. In reading his work, I seem to have physically stored the felt qualities of his writing (Lee 1994, 37), and in rereading, this is recalled. I write another draft of the poem, reading and rereading it aloud to hear the rhythms suggested by my reading of Heaney and my own words and line breaks.

ONE OF DAPHNE’S DAUGHTERS

 

I spent/lived half my childhood nestled
in the crotch of a Russian poplar.
I loved the scored bark, the broad and bitter leaves
smells of clean, woody flesh and greening.

Once, in summer, just at sunset
I climbed her generous limbs
imagined the mellow motes of last light
were choices I had yet to make.

The blizzard of ripened tree cotton
earlier blotting the sky
now subsided, settled in drifts
a white pathway inviting footprints.

My tongue touched the rough tree skin
licked her beads of sweat from runnels
As my flesh commingled with
her inner/white woody sweetness.

I swam through root capillaries
washed in warm sap
and exploded into green
arching for sunlight to nourish.

I strengthened my limbs to resist
the bite of a woodman’s axe
dulling his blade with sticky saliva
and shaking my leafy head in defiance
the shake of my leafy head defying
the shake of my leafy head a defiance

 

Discovering the Pattern

Beyond the personal experience of the poem lies the deeper patterns which were beginning to be revealed through my rewriting. By attempting to say exactly what I mean, I discover what I mean to say. Still, I find myself becoming confused by the words. What should I keep and what needs changing? I am losing sight of what is important until I remember what Richard Hugo (1979) said about poetry and words: “The words should not serve the subject. The subject should serve the words” (6). Perhaps what I need to do is leave the draft to one side and entirely rewrite the poem. From that process, what is important should emerge. I am again reminded of Hugo’s advice to poets:

 

When rewriting, write the entire poem again. If something has gone wrong deep in the poem, you may have taken a wrong turn earlier. The next time through the poem you may spot the wrong path you took. If you take another, when you reach the source of your dissatisfaction it may no longer be there. (38)

 

I begin a new draft without referring to the old.

ONE OF DAPHNE’S DAUGHTERS

 

I spent half my life nestled
in the crotch of a Russian poplar
The feel of the rough, scaly bark
the smell of leaves broad and bitter

 

Once, at summer, just at sunset
I watched mellow motes of light
choreograph possibilities
of my life not yet lived

 

The tree cotton blizzard
subsided, settled into
drifts of white fluff
emptiness inviting footprints

 

I tasted bead of sweat from
the tree bark’s runnels
merged my flesh into its
sweet white woodiness

 

I swam root capillaries
soaked in sap
and exploded into green
stretching my limbs for sunlight to nourish

 

Strengthening my trunk to
withstand the woodcutters axe
dulling his blade with sticky sap
shaking my leafy head in defiance

Now I have two versions with which to work. I compare the relationship between the two, trying to determine the important images and the particular words that surface again. Then I rewrite the draft stanza by stanza.

I spent half my childhood nestled
in the crotch of the Bam tree.
I loved the scored, scaly bark,
the smell of leaves broad and bitter.

I return to the word “spent” since its sound is echoed by the other “s’s” in this stanza, which also are reminiscent of wind through the leaves of a tree. The second version enables me to write the last two lines more tightly and to focus on the smell of the leaves as being the strongest scent rather than deferring to the wood odour. I change the name of the tree, which is referred to by both Bam (for Balm of Gilead) and Russian poplar in the district where I grew up. Besides, Bam is what I called the tree as a child and it does have a more childlike sound than Russian poplar.

Once, in summer, just at sunset
I climbed her generous limbs,
and imagined mellow motes of light
choreographed choices I had yet to make.

This stanza becomes a blending of the two versions. In the second rewrite, an interesting word “choreographed” appears which suggests the dancing of the light that I had imagined, but had not said. “Her generous limbs” is an important phrase to me although it didn’t appear in the second version. I want to suggest the tree as having a feminine quality early in the poem, so I retrieve that image and of course keep the mellow motes which appear both times.

The tree cotton blizzard, subsided,
settled to the ground
in drifts of white fluff
marking the emptiness of possibility.

Again, with this stanza, I think the second version helps me tighten up the first. I entirely delete the sky reference which is not necessary because of the word blizzard and make my snow bank reference more oblique by using “white fluff” instead. From the words “new path” and “inviting footprints,” I think I am finally able to describe in the last line what it is I am really trying to express, the ambiguity that is present when as children we consider our future.

My tongue touched the rough tree skin
licked the beads of sweat from runnels
as my flesh commingled
with her white, woody sweetness

This stanza has lost extraneous words and found a better word than “my flesh grew into” or “my flesh merged.” Commingled seems to describe the effect I want more clearly. I also have returned to the feminine pronoun rather than “its” for consistency and to remind readers of the gender I am imagining.

I swam up root capillaries
washed in warm sap
until I blossomed into green
arching for sunlight to nourish.

 

My limbs strengthened to resist
the bite of the woodman’s axe
finally dulled by his frantic efforts
and the defiant shaking of my leafy head.

In the final two stanzas, I delete repetitions such as “sap” and the awful choice of “saliva.” There is still something not quite right about the final stanza however. I cannot seem to get the rhythm or the words right. I wonder if perhaps it doesn’t belong, but I resist that idea. I want the sense of strength and success suggested by this stanza. Daphne, of course, is relegated to spend her life as the tree, but I want to show that we have moved from there. I decide to rewrite that stanza after leaving it for a day or two.

 

For me, the tree has become a symbol for the growing up of a young girl with her connection to the nature and the mythical past, but I continue to wonder about the woodcutter. As a symbol, is it too much? W.D. Valgardson (Hodgins 1993) has a warning about symbols. He writes:

I think one of the worst things any writer can do is impose symbols. That’s a dreadful thing, to nail them on. It should be like driftwood. You don’t nail the knots on. The water washes and erodes and what’s left are these hard knobs. That is the way that symbols should be. They should rise out of the material naturally. (211)

I realize that I have “nailed” on the woodcutter in my enchantment with the idea. I am overly pleased that I thought of the woodcutter as deepening the allusions present in the poem, but that pleasure is a warning that this does not belong. As William Faulkner advised, “Kill your darlings.” The strength of the tree/girl has to arise from within rather than without. There still, however, has to be some sense of this strength being in the world. I reread my poem and think about the sound of the wind that has guided some of my decisions, and how it was the sound of the wind through those Bam trees that comforted me as a small girl in the darkness of my bedroom. Perhaps what needs to arise from the material is the wind rather than a woodcutter. My relationship with the tree is also my connection to the wind. “We take our identities from our relationships,” Richard Hugo (1979) writes, “just as the earth takes its configurations from the time of day, the position of the source of light. This is a warm, fluid world” (8). I decide to rewrite the last stanza yet again.

With my limbs thus strengthened
and a defiant shake to my leafy head
I would begin to dance
with the coming of the wind.

At last my poem seems to find its shape and realize a sense of knowing that goes beyond words. The process reminds me of Lynn Emanuel’s (1992) words about revision: “the choosing, and shaping, looking backward and forward, the sense of materiality and the sense one is working on something that already has its own shape and exists and can be altered-is something that confronts us moment to moment. . . ” (256).

 

I am now at the point of rewriting where the final questioning of the presence of words and punctuation can begin: the stage where I ask myself, “How little can be said to still convey the sense of wonder that I hope this poem can offer a reader?” Plumly (1993) writes: “The silence out of which a poem comes is part of its power, just as the words first written are inditements and indictments of what is possible” (244). And van Manen (1990) warns us about overwriting and emphasizes the importance of leaving some things unsaid: “the silence of spaces is as important (speaks as loudly) as the words that we use to speak” (113). Every word has to be considered, particularly connectives and transitional words that are often not necessary in a poem. At the same time, I must read and reread the poem aloud, feeling the rhythm through my breath, responding to my body. As I read the lines, can I breathe softly like a quiet wind? Do I have to gasp before the endpoints, stiffening my muscles so that I lose the contemplative mood of the poem? Do the sounds of the words remind me of summer evenings? Can I smell the scents, hear the sounds, envision the sights of that moment?

 

Rewriting is always surprising. In working with each line and word, in reading aloud to hear the rhythm, I realize that the third stanza about the blizzard does not really belong. The idea of possibility and choice is covered in the second stanza. This one is gratuitous, a hanging-on to the “reality” of my memory. The image does not add to the poem; indeed, it detracts from the sunset-lit atmosphere that I envisioned. In removing it, I feel the poem reveals more clearly what I hope the reader will imagine and sense. Still, there is a sorrow in taking out a stanza at this late time. In living with and working through this poem, that idea has been there from the beginning and as with all things to which we become attached, I find it difficult to let go. What if my instinct is wrong, I think. What if it really is better being left in the poem? But I know it is not and so I must let it go, the words trailing away from the body of the poem. For now, the rewriting comes to rest:

ONE OF DAPHNE’S DAUGHTERS

I spent half my childhood nestled
in the crotch of the Bam tree.
I loved the scored, scaly bark
the smell of leaves, broad and bitter.

Once, in summer, just at sunset
I climbed her generous limbs,
imagined mellow motes of light
choreographed choices I had yet to make.

My tongue touched rough tree skin,
licked beads of sweat from runnels
as my flesh commingled
with her white, woody sweetness.

I swam up root capillaries
washed in warm sap.
until I blossomed into green,
arching for sunlight to nourish.

With my limbs strengthened
and a defiant shake to my leafy head
I began to dance
at the coming of the wind.

 

 

References

Emanuel, L. (1992). In praise of malice: Thoughts on revision. In R. Behn and C. Twichell, (Eds.) The practice of poetry. New York: HarperCollins.

Friedman, B. (1993). Writing past dark. New York: HarperCollins.

Grudin, R. (1990). The grace of great things: Creativity and innovation. New York: Ticknor & Fields.

Heaney , S. (1996). Personal helicon. [Online] Available: http://sunsite.unc.edu/ dykki/poetry/heaney.

Hodgins, J. (1993). A passion for narrative. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Hugo, R. (1979). The triggering town: Lectures and essays on poetry and writing. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Lee, J. (1994). Writing from the body. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Paz, O. (1990). The other voice: Essays on modern poetry. (Trans.) H. Lane. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers.

Plumly, S. (1992). The rewrite as sssignment. In R. Behn and C. Twichell (Eds.) The practice of poetry. New York: HarperCollins.

Rilke, R. M. (1954). Letters to a young poet, (Trans.) M.D. Herter Norton. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Van Manen, Max. (1990). Researching lived experience. London, ON: The Althouse Press.