First Things Mostly First


The first unwritten rule of writing is to improve on the blank page. There’s probably a reason it’s unwritten, maybe it’s obvious, maybe everything that falls from your mind’s eye to the great white below is worth salvage, recognition, and a few pennies per page. We begin to trust the nudge to put thoughts, ideas, or at least a construct of letters on paper by the way they look to us at first glance. Even without a meticulous re-write, the notion that a particular grouping of words might resemble a paragraph, or if you’re creative, a stanza, is food to the soul and intoxicating to the ego that has long suspected the imminence of being discovered.

Hold your first page up to the light. Don’t read it, just compare it’s physical composition to other pages you may have seen in a book. Is it about the right size? Is there an appropriate space between anything? Does it suggest meaty substantial content, or whimsical musing? You can’t judge a book by it’s cover, unless you’re in marketing or production design, but you can tell a lot about a page by the way it hangs. At the risk of sounding as if I’m advocating for style over substance I am only pointing out that the purpose of any page is to lead the writer, and hopefully a reader or two, to the next one and like a billboard interrupting our view of the unspoiled world around us, it must catch the eye if it ever hopes to engage our mind.

It is helpful not to give the sheet we are writing on too much value for maintaining it’s original state. The tree it came from is already dead, no use trying to memorialize it. There is plenty of children’s art taped to the refrigerators of the world to negate any inherent value in blankness. Writing something across the top of a piece of paper isn’t like tattooing it on your forehead, and word to the wise, if you do the forehead thing remember it’s in reverse imagery. So, start somewhere, I won’t even insist on the beginning since many a professional writes the end scene to their story first and then works toward it.

In my experience as a poet the writer doesn’t start a poem as much as the poem starts the writer. Startles may be a better word. Something peripheral almost whispers in a weighted cadence that settles into a first line. Something natural speaks to or from a superimposed perspective. The language of trees is suddenly common. The turn of seasons becomes a personal monument. The film that coats our experience becomes porous and layer by layer the telegraphic buzzing stirs up recognition as we reap the vibration of eons. The voices in our head prod us toward word placement like a humming radio wave we are wired to receive like a waking dream. The one sure thing I know is the first line is always bestowed as grace is bestowed. To say we are inspired to write doesn’t quite get the button in the right button hole. Required is a more accurate term.

A notepad, a voice memo on a phone, the cliché paper napkin at the coffee shop, the tool we use to get it down doesn’t matter as long as the words get down. Repeating the line like a mantra helps set the receptive groove for the next line to come, maybe even a theme. The world doesn’t have to stop to start a poem. The strength of the suggested beginning might be reinforced by the real world around us, or lead us, like a child, to the real world within us. The time space continuum allows for sticky notes, sketches, and snap shots. We’re picking up chunks of ore, finding the gem inside comes later.

Another connecting strand on the spider web of inspiration might be the person the potential poem is intended to reach. Certainly, a love poem ought to mean the most to the lover. Romeo’s serenade to Juliet succeeds because we’ve all wanted to say such a thing to somebody. Who we write for, our audience, is the stabilizing wing of our flights of fancy. To be understood is the treasure we hunt. We want to put our words on someone else’s lips. They aren’t really ours to begin with and, odd as it may seem, ownership begins with giving them away.

The poet is part priest, part jester, part provocateur, part historian; both particle and wave, bound and unbound, prancing without a foot to stand on, rock steady as a mountain goat, and as tenuous as a butterfly in January. The practicality of poetry can only be transferred by experience. What can be more satisfying than someone saying, “Hey I’m not a poetry guy, but that last one slayed me dead.” The margin for error is perilous if cleverness supersedes sincerity. The line in the sands of time between unique perspective and universal participation is the poet’s prerogative and responsibility. We are both guest and host on the table for discussion.

The pen is only mightier than the sword applied to paper. The most powerful thing we ever write may well be a letter to Congress. The most useful words we pen will be thank you. Another unwritten rule is things have to ring true, especially when we make things up. A poem does well to approximate the same weight, the same credibility as a newspaper all the while combining the slightly foreign with the familiar, the foreboding with the forbidden, the fantastic with the matter of fact. What a poem must not be is entirely forgettable, some piece of it, some line must linger as either part of the shipwreck come ashore or as testimony of the rescuers drawn into heroic communion.

Making things clear doesn’t mean it has to be plain. The phrase “a curtain of birds” explains the visual phenomenon of watching a group of birds seeming to flit and fly in unison. I’m told the scientific word for this swarming behavior is murmuration and, had I known this word at the time, I may have tried to work it into the poem. The sight of the birds, possibly plovers, became an ‘arrester’, something to stop the ordinary sky on my way to work and suggest there is a life beyond, behind, or before us that is a now you see it, now you don’t event. The image of it being a curtain lent it self to opening up a stage for future contemplation.

I knew I ‘had’ a poem with just that bit of information and I relaxed, joyfully, in anticipation of receiving/working the rest of it out during the day. I can’t aggressively search the world like a scavenger hunter looking for the stuff of inspiration, but some days the antennae are out. It is more like a spiritual muscle memory begging for a workout after too many days on the therapist’s couch. Maybe the light reflecting off a flattened piece of gum in the street makes you think you found a coin, maybe the cardboard roof of a homeless person’s camp sags in a way to suggest the sway back of a horse, maybe, against all odds, you found a public restroom, with toilet paper.

Poets put down the net on the other side of the boat, not because there might be buried treasure, or a spectacular catch of fish, but because deep calls to deep, because no one else is looking at the lake, the lake going dark to make clouds, the clouds going dark to make tears. Compulsion, intuition, personal magnetism, an as yet unspoken conversation with ancestors or descendants; the draw, the pull, the flip of a switch, call it what you will but answer the call when it rings. Trust me, it’s for you.