Disembowelling poetry

Mine, you understand, not other people’s, that would just be rude.

For me trying to edit poetry is the most messy process. I start off with what I think are some respectable enough poems, that might be built upon somewhat, or improved.

I go back with fresh eyes and consider rhythm, metre and form.
I look at the words and imagery and see whether it works.
I speak aloud and see how it sounds and feels.

Then what I do is awful. After a few hours, or days, I end up with sentences pulled apart, words all over the floor, ideas stuffed into forms that don’t suit and generally get to the point where I have most certainly lost the itness of the original; that elusive essence of anything that makes us what we are, life what is and a simple poem work, or not. Don’t ask me what that essence is though, because if I knew, perhaps I wouldn’t lose it in the first place.

The whole process becomes a traumatic incident in my head. Instead of a couple of poems I end up having a whole heap of tangled thoughts and words in all the wrong places, and I have only two choices. One is to go further into the torture of the poor poem, the other is to shove the pile under the carpet and pretend it never happened. I have done the former before. Today I did the latter. It was like being a butcher.

I hung, drew and quartered, I disembowelled. I burnt whole sentences on the stake and pressed others to a slow and painful death. I dragged verbs through the street until they cried out in pain. I walled up sonnets and I stuck the heads of villanelles on stakes on the bridge. It was a bloody and brutal exercise and nothing like the one I expected which would have been something like a neat little back and sides and a bit of a trim up.

All this bloodshed and torture only goes to show me that I have probably never done the job properly before. Living and learning I suppose, for now.

Here’s someone who has done a proper job.

The cats of Greece

The cats of Greece have
eyes grey as plague.
Their voices are limpid,
all hunger.
As they dodge in the gutters
Their bones clack.
Dogs run from them.
In tavernas they sit
at tableside and
watch you eat.
Their moonpale cries
hurl themselves
against your full spoon.
If you touch one gently
it goes crazy.
Its eyes turn up.
It wraps itself
around your ankle
and purrs a rusty millenium,
you liar,
you tourist.

by Marge Piercy, from Eight Chambers of the Heart

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Posted on September 18, 2012, in Cats, Poetry and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Sounds like the normal ‘pain of the poet’ process. Michael would say you need an editor.

    • Michael would be right (I wrote ‘write’ first…) I also need a mentor, an agent, and a majordomo. Perhaps if I resurrect my belief in Father Christmas I’ll find at least one of the above at the foot of my bed on the 25th.

  2. Though it would be a long time before I felt safe enough to share lines of poetry with anyone again, all through my confusing adolescence I often returned to this poem and these words to reassure myself that beyond the cool, rule-bound, shaming world into which I was born, another world of strong passions, intense feeling, and deep connection between two people could actually be imagined and aspired to. Now, married over thirty years, I read these lines, grieve for my father’s death, my mother’s lonely life without him, and in my own marriage try cultivate a garden blooming not only with pansies or lilies-of-the-valley but which is deep like a rose/tall like a rose.

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