Poetry is rewarding in practically every way but the usual one. While there’s not a lot of money in it, it has other perks.
For example, it’s sexy. I’m an ordinary roly-poly, pleasant-looking woman, middle-aged, some crow’s feet, a chin-hair or two if you’re really looking. But I’ve had the experience of reading certain sexy poems in a dark bar, and suddenly people are buying me drinks, standing close, talking low.
And for another example, poetry gets arranged into skinny books that come to your door in a box and you can pull them out, see your name on them, and measure how they just fit your hand.
But the very best thing about poetry is the scraps.
When busy people write, it often means keeping track of fleeting ideas on scraps—backs of envelopes, wrappers, the palm of the hand.
It’s a foolish habit. The truth of the matter is that whatever ethereal visitor handed us a scrap of language won’t be back. It’s kind of like manna, sent to the wanderers in the wilderness to sustain them, but it had to be eaten the same day, because it would turn spoiled and wormy if stored.
I don’t actually believe in ethereal visitors—or manna, for that matter—but the comparison holds. We do receive poem ideas from somewhere, and they come in a flash. In a best-case scenario, when that splitter leaves the pitcher’s forked fingers, we’re squatting behind the plate with our glove on, ready to receive it. But maybe this comparison is off; maybe the poet is more like the cleanup hitter, who, with bases loaded, sends the ball across the fence, over the back wall, to light somewhere on Waveland Avenue.
Whatever. I’m no athlete. I just know that scraps of poems rain down sometimes, and when we’re not at our desks, we’re compelled to find some way to keep them. After the game is over, though, and the players are home watching Netflix, a ball is sort of an afterthought. It would take a lot of work to get something going, and even if we did, the game would be happening on a whole different level.
I’m looking at some scraps right now. One came from an overhead conversation at a local coffeeshop this weekend, where a woman was talking about her role in a murder trial. “She says a word / like deposition and throws up / her hands” is what I wrote. I can’t go anywhere with that, and the line break that suggests this witness to an attempted murder barfs is not something I can reconcile with good sense.
Here’s another: “Committee, venue, volt, kettle, and wake.” These are group names for vultures—the first three in trees, the kettle in circling flight, and the wake feeding on a carcass. I still like that—a wake. I passed a wake for a deer the other day—all those heads buried deep inside the chest cavity.
And I’ve written the words “mercy in eyes kept blank,” because I was thinking about the compassion that shows itself in non-attention and non-action. Sometimes someone falls and you help her up. Sometimes someone trips and you pretend not to have seen. You scan surreptitiously; if the person is hurt, you help. But sometimes the most gentle thing we can do is not announce that we are witness.
Many of my scraps are things children have told me. “Keats is sad that we have only one basement,” says one. Or “Keats is said that it’s raining on the spiders.” I remember years ago, my son found a broken fingernail of mine, declared that opaque half-moon to be beautiful, and asked if he could keep it. This wasn’t a set of words, but it was a special moment. I look at the scrap now and kind of wonder where my fingernail is. Of course, it was never about the nail.
Sometimes the scraps are not on paper at all, but in the Notes area of my computer.
Me: “Does your ear hurt?”
Keats: “Not yet.”
I’m not sure why, but this little exchange really stuck with me, and while it has all the earmarks of pessimism—that eventually everything is bound to hurt—it didn’t sound that way aloud. Then, he sounded like he felt very lucky.
I’ll admit that these aren’t particularly great scraps—I’m not giving those away in a blog post. (I’ve found that I can’t write about something I’ve talked about; it kills the energy even more than missing that initial windup and pitch.) I have some scraps that may, against all odds, turn into poems or, more likely, essays. For me, essays aren’t as urgent; in fact, they require time—usually a lot of it.
I really like how these fragments function as the diary of an extremely rushed person. I’m not that rushed—just a little pressed for writing time. It’s the kind of journal a TV depiction of an executive might keep: “Doris, take a memo: committee, venue, volt, kettle, wake.”
Each time I encounter one of these artifacts, I am thrust very nearly back into the original moment. It turns out they are a more honest diary than any other I’ve tried to keep.