Imagery: Backwards on a Donkey

I have never had writer’s block, but I certainly have a deep fear of editing – which makes writing rather awkward. Ernest Hemingway used to smooth the previous day’s efforts off before moving forward to the new pages. Once you get to the end of something in excess of a hundred thousand words, that approach makes sense. My method is to press on, and then rewrite and edit from the beginning. By the umpteenth time around, I am dizzy.

Chief amongst my editing fears is missing the what I call the backwards on a donkey moment. This is when some word, or phrase, or sentence jars the reader up. Either by a lack of clarity, poor imagery, the wrong idiom, or sheer clumsiness of composition. When writing first drafts the backwards on a donkey moments are inevitable. It is the job of the writer to edit them all out later. I fear I will not. The fear stays my eyes, and my fingers. Nothing gets done.

There it is out.

Now it is out, I must press on.

The backwards on a donkey description for words that don’t work well came to me, when I misheard an Anne Sexton poem, read out late one night on the radio many years ago.  The poem was called Flee on Your Donkey. It’s long, and confessional, as her poetry was. In it, she reflects on being in a mental institution, again.

Sexton was a Pulitzer prize winner.  She committed suicide aged 45. She suffered others; others might say they suffered her, including herself.

We call it life I suppose. Here are the lines – they are the last of the poem. The ‘hotel’ is the hospital. My problem has always been one of imagery – the backwards bit – she is sitting backwards, and the donkey gallops, as they do?  The first time I heard it, I did not hear the word backwards, and could not understand her description at all.  Of course, now, it all makes perfect sense.  I think.  One word, misheard, not said, can make so much difference.


Anne, Anne,
flee on your donkey,
flee this sad hotel,
ride out on some hairy beast,
gallop backward pressing
your buttocks to his withers,
sit to his clumsy gait somehow.
Ride out
any old way you please!
In this place everyone talks to his own mouth.
That’s what it means to be crazy.
Those I loved best died of it—
the fool’s disease.

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Posted on September 2, 2014, in Poetry, Words and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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