In the classroom over the last few years, I’ve been discussing the psychology of closure. That is, not only how to approach a poem’s end, but how to calmly resist the premature impulse to create an electric ending. After all, one of the things that can stymie a writing project is the subconscious pressure to get to the ending, to close the work. Too often, we may hasten our writing because the need to finish the work is too much with us. I’ve asked my students and myself the following questions: How can writers find the path to the ending without worrying about getting there? How can we open the doors to the imagination without concerning ourselves with the finished product?
Poets have heard the following lesson all their lives: “The most important lines of a poem are the first and last.” I think fiction writers hear that they should “hook” their readers and then close the story with a bang. I’d like to discuss strategies for deferral and exploration that may help us become simultaneously relaxed and focused while freeing ourselves from the pressure toward closure.
In April of 2007 a friend offered me his empty house in Santa Rosa Beach on the gulf coast of Florida for four days, and I began writing what turned out to be an atrocious poem. It was six pages long and not remotely close to finding closure. Even the title was truly awful: “Luce Ideale,” Italian for “ideal light.” For six hours a day for three days I wrote, thinking, I can wrestle these lines into submission.
The protagonist is a woman is unhappy in her marriage, and she begins telling her friend everything that’s wrong. I’d known a long-married guy decades ago who claimed he broke up with his wife because she told him he had no imagination in bed. He couldn’t handle the insult. He was incredulous: “Year after year, same thing in the same order, no matter what, she’d said.” Later, I thought to myself, hey, that’s a subject for a poem—only I’ll change the facts and the locale, and I’ll make it from his wife’s point of view. In fact, she’ll tell her friend Dixie how she’s going to leave her husband. And so there I am on the coast of Florida, writing about a woman who’s unhappy about her husband’s lovemaking. And I know the poem has to be about more than that, but, well, for three days the poem never finds itself. The writing itself is flaccid, and there’s inadequate conflict.
I’d been bending my mind trying to figure out how to find an ending that revives the poem. And not only was I worried about creating effective closure, but I realized that the poem was too simple: Is she going to break up with her husband simply because he’s too rote in bed? Not inattentive, but rote? Could that be the only reason? So I thought, Okay, say there was some guy from her past who was really loving and imaginative in bed. And say her husband’s dull erotics are symptomatic of his all-around lifelessness. And I start writing about that.
What had I done? I’d broken back into the poem to go find something fruitful. This writing choice involves Kent Meyers’ idea of infinite time. (Kent is a brilliant novelist, author of Twisted Tree. In discussion and lecture, Kent posits that while we are writing we need to act as if we have an infinite amount of time to go exploring. Writers should follow the offshoots, the little streams that take us away from the central narrative or metaphor or impulse. Kent’s notion is akin to “free writing,” but with a key difference. Free writing typically takes place when we start writing. What I think Kent is talking about is a process that may take place after we have a good start. We need to let the poem or the novel or the story happen, and we do so by following tributaries that may lead nowhere. Or—they may lead to untold fruition.
One thing I’d like to add to Kent’s idea is the notion of layering. This is a term you’ve probably heard before. No matter what genre you work in, the idea is that you write something and then, not only do you go down those tributaries to see what may be waiting, you go back and you add something else. And you do so on throughout the entire process. By repeatedly going back and adding something (as well as deleting the unnecessary bits), you provide context, depth, resonance. Layering requires infinite time.
So, with permission to behave as if my poem had infinite time to create itself, I went back and layered in a new idea…and then another. I decided the speaker had a lover in college. In fact, back when I was in college a woman I’d known spent junior year in Italy and had a love affair with an Italian guy. So since I’ve lived in Italy myself I make him an Italian tourist. And, since I wanted to change locales, I opted to have them meet in Mexico during her spring break from college. What happens? Cultural difference leads to extra sizzle. This Italian guy is enthusiastic and caring in bed. Plus: He’s romantic. And he’s not just faking it. He’s taken with our heroine. He’s into Italian poetry, by god, and he reads a poem to her that night. In fact, he reads several, all by one of my favorite poets, Eugenio Montale, widely considered among the best two or three Italian poets of the twentieth century. But our heroine had never heard of him and, nearly four decades later, she can’t remember him now, though she certainly remembers listening to the poetry.
But, still, the poem continued as if in a coma. If only the permission we grant our selves to explore was a guarantee of excellence. But it’s not. We know that permission must be linked to commitment. We must commit to come back the next day (or week or month) and explore again. But even then there is no guarantee. Here’s just one sad stanza in which the speaker begins to explain to a friend how dull her husband has become:
I knew for all untellable reasons, Ok,
I’d be with him for life─
and then Brita was born and all the while his business took off he never left me standing
in the rain, damn well never played around,
never forgets my birthday or shit like that, and I still love him, Dix…
There was no linguistic compression in my poem and there plenty of clichés. But I had to give myself a chance to see if something would emerge. And even though the woman is telling her story to a friend, there’s too much distance between the speaker and the reader. The central character is not very appealing, in part because she’s not believable. I had to risk trying to figure out what a middle-aged heterosexual woman would say to a good friend about an unlikely but transcendent sexual experience years ago—and I had to risk sounding stupid in saying it.
And, as you can see, I sounded really stupid. But allow me to paraphrase something the poet Brenda Hillman once said to me when we were discussing long poems we’d been working on: “Sometimes it seems that the only writing worth doing is the writing that embarrasses us.” Even though it could turn out to be kind of cheesy, my notion about the Italian tourist reading poetry eventually led to another idea.
Montale often wrote about the quality of light in his hometown of Monterosso in the Cinque Terre along the Ligurian Sea. All along I had to figure that amid the embarrassingly bad passages maybe some lines were really good. Of course, I couldn’t know, because I was in the middle of it. I asked myself: Could there be a kernel of something save-able here? I thought of Brenda’s comment: “We must be willing to embarrass ourselves.” Anyway I returned home from Santa Rosa Beach, and a week later I took out the poem and I think, Man, this is awful. I say to myself, Kevin, this is embarrassing, even for you. So I put it away. I didn’t know if I could recue a line. I write other poems…and then…
…a few months later I went to Bolinas, a little hippie town on the Pacific coast above San Francisco where the poet Hannah Stein [http://www.amazon.com/Earthlight-Hannah-Stein/dp/0964434830] and her husband offered me their old cabin where I’ve stowed away to write many times before. Something was in the back of my mind. I opened my computer and there it is: “Luce Ideale,” the poem again… and it was still just as bad as it was when I last re-read it. Too simple. Not complex enough. The language a joke. But in that cabin in Bolinas I began musing: What if this woman who lives by the ocean and hung out with surfers is a good Catholic girl? Is there a potential lifelong conflict there? You know there is, I said to myself, because you grew up Catholic. You were an altar boy, for god sakes. You know all about the opposing forces of celebration and prohibition. Committed Catholics always worry about being good. Very few exceptions. There‘s all these rules that we follow to be good. And then I thought: What if the Italian guy she meets was raised Catholic himself? After all he’s from Italy, a country over 90% Catholic. Plus: What if he’s a poet who’s going to become a professor of Italian literature, an expert in Montale? And what if he’s one of these guys who never settles down with one woman…? I thought to myself, we may have some kind of frisson centered around love, intimacy, and religion. Is there anything more conflict-bound than religion?
Now we’re getting somewhere, at least in theory, primarily because I’d given myself permission to re-enter infinite time. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but there’s a tone bubbling up behind the work. And that’s what we want, right? That tone. That magical sensation behind the whole piece. The thing that guides us… Here’s John Irving in The World According to Garp: “What Garp was savoring was the beginning of a writer’s long–sought trance, wherein the world falls under one embracing tone of voice.” You’ve heard of “the music of the spheres”? In a way, I think that’s what Irving is talking about. If we worry about the ending, if we want too much to rush to that magical closing moment when the reader is filled with surprise and thrill, we will not fall under the trance that is the music of the writer’s sphere. On the other hand, if we are free to explore we can discover that music. If we have permission to imagine unexpected events or images or metaphors or dialogue, then we give ourselves a greater chance of being overtaken by the writer’s music.
So along with the idea of infinite time and layering, we might freely ask ourselves a question I’d heard the suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark discuss as her own continuing prompt: What If? What if this happens? What if that happens? Much of what I’m saying concerns narrative considerations. But the question (“What if?”) applies to many different aspects of writing, including form: Quatrains? Tercets? Irregular stanzas? Third person? First person? Standard punctuation? No punctuation? Metrics? Syllabics? Free verse?
As simple as it may seem, it strikes me that this question, even in poetry, is a requisite aspect of infinite time. It involves a form of play that releases anxiety and makes possible creative avenues for exploration. We need to take the time to ask this question, even if we’re doing it subconsciously. In fact, over time, that’s what we learn to do: We ask it subconsciously. It becomes part of our way of writing. Isn’t that the way the best writing occurs? When we’re so practiced that we are asking What If without even knowing that’s what we’re doing? We’re not worrying about the ending. Good or bad, we’re soaring on and on into the what-comes-next… Of course, we’ll come back to the desk tomorrow and we’ll realize much of it is not working. But often enough, some if it will shine like pearls in mud. And we’ll cut away everything else—because we’ve become good at getting rid of stuff that doesn’t work, a topic for another time. But we’ll exploit what works, and we’ll layer on what else works to whatever worked previously, until we see the piece make a turn for the ending. (The turn, often likened to the volta in a sonnet, is a topic I discuss in an essay review in the 2012 edition of Paddlefish.
Whether we apply the question—What if?—to poetry, fiction, drama, or essays, it can lead us to potentially fertile plot lines, metaphors, lyric tropes, stanzaic arrangements, tonal shifts, etc. What if the husband’s robotic sexual behavior is due to something else? What could that be, I asked myself? So I thought, maybe he’s a vet. Maybe he went to Vietnam and the war screwed him up. Could he have become compulsive? One of those guys who does the same thing in the same way all the time? Might that explain his lovemaking?
Now I still don’t realize that there needs to be something truly shocking that happened to him, some foundational trauma during the war. Turns out, that event will strike me later in the process. (For examples of poems in the voice of the husband, you might go to diode in which I published a sequence of them. When I tell my students various aspects of this process, I remind them all of this kind of thing could happen if you’re writing a sonnet. That is, one individual poem or short story might require plenty of infinite time or layering or asking What If? But since I like narrative, I thought to myself, This sounds like a verse novel you’ve got on your hands here. And so I came to ask myself: What if I wrote poems about all three characters?
In Bolinas I went outside on the redwood deck without the computer and sat in the sun. I’m not thinking about the damn poem, but of course I can’t stop thinking about it. And suddenly I realized one of the many reasons it was awful from the beginning is that the woman’s voice was all wrong. I thought, You’ve made her a wise-ass Jersey girl without any remorse, even though she’s from LA. And you know down deep that she’s way more intelligent than she sounds. But, how do you make the voice right? I ask. And I rely on the new tone, the writer’s music. And I went back into the cabin and right there in Bolinas I drafted three poems, all in the woman’s voice. She now had a name: Marie.
Eventually, long after I’d returned home and was writing the poems pretty much willy nilly in three voices, Marie’s voice and those of the two men, I realize that at one time she was uber Catholic! Who knows? I thought. Maybe she still is… And so the verse novel proceeded to center on these questions about the relation between religious faith and sexual intimacy. While some of it explores the comic aspect of growing up a Catholic girl in Newport Beach, California, with parents who were fervently religious as well as faithful and carnal, some of it grows elegiac. Ultimately Marie never communicates with her Italian friend again, she has a daughter, and she divorces her husband, not because of his lack of sexual imagination, but because the trauma he suffered during the war makes him more distant and idiosyncratically compulsive.
Here’s a poem from the manuscript that recently appeared in print:
WATCHING KIRA LEARN TO SURF
A separating parsed out in increments
so fine I hadn’t felt the distance
as terminal until it broke hard
like waves on a steep beach.
I must have felt it as respite, a woman
and a man fused only by their love
for a child and the grinding habit
of twice weekly sex. When Kira stood
for those few seconds on her board
as if she’d given herself over, a plummet
become ascent, her arms barely winged
from her sides. The rolling dark surface
seemed an afterthought, her face
a saintly calm I’d last seen nursing.
Then a surge bellowed up
from a dormant, pre-verbal crux
of animal gut, the diaphragm’s relief
pushing a volume of stuck air
so fast from my lungs that the cry
exalted in a lowest register—
one burst, two conclusions. Her father
—who’d taught her how to trust
in balance—looked at me with the eyes
of a man gone back in time, then leaned
against me. My heart pressed into a seed
of dust, I leaned back in mercy.
I knew he’d thought I’d returned
from exile, as if I’d come up to breathe.
His face in my hair, he imagined he’d
returned, too. As I held still, Kira
stepped firmly into the undertow,
waving at the apparition on the shore.
I’d originally been using serrated, sometimes terraced five-line stanzas. I hope readers might find that the verse here is more controlled. More importantly, not only is the speaker more charitable in her world view; she understands so much more than the speaker of “Luce Ideale.” She’s filled with sadness and her language is, I hope, elegiac. She knows she’s about to break up with her husband.
So I never wrote the ending to the original poem. Sometimes I manage to push through to an ending, sometimes not. If we are to have liberty to go exploring in any genre, we have to find a way to give ourselves that permission. To read our own signposts, even if it means radically changing the project. Though a necessary step, the first poem written on the coast of Florida was awful, a true failure. Though right now I believe the work in this verse novel (tentatively titled Magdalene in Ecstasy) is better than “Luce Ideale,” I understand that much of it may not be working and that perhaps I’ll have to re-work or abandon some of it. Which means what we all know: In order to write well, every day we must risk utter failure. I think it was Willa Cather who once said, “The end is nothing, the road is all.” Thankfully, we can find transport in the daily effort.
book of poems In the Evening of No Warning earned a grant from the Academy of
American Poets, and his poetry has appeared widely in such journals as The Georgia
Review, Ploughshares, Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, and Crazyhorse. A regular critic for
The Georgia Review, he publishes criticism in many venues, including The Southern
Review, Papers on Language and Literature, and Contemporary Literary Criticism.
He teaches at both Cal Poly and the Rainier Writing Workshop.