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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

I used to think it very odd that Ben Jonson first wrote out his poems in prose and then "versified" them, but I've realized lately that it's not far from my own practice. In fact, I think a case could be made that nearly all poets do something like that nearly all the time — otherwise, why revise? — but I won't argue that here, not now.

It's not that when I sit down to write that I make a little paragraph and then off I go. Usually I spend far more time than I can afford just typing nonsense or fairly random observations about the people and things around me, the books I'm reading, how horny I am — I do live three hundred miles from my wife. But something catches my attention, and I stop doodling because I know what I want to do, whether it's tell a particular story, make a particular argument, or just evoke a particular mood. Being a rhymer and a metrist, I'm supposed by the common wisdom to find the challenges of rhyme and meter leading my poems into unexpected territory, and it does sometimes happen. But not often. The rhyme and meter are for the reader, whom I want to remember what I wrote in the words I wrote.

Three things have led to this revelation. One, fairly obviously, is translation, about which Douglas Hofstadter has a wonderful book, Le Ton beau de Marot, which explains and explores far better than I can what choices and responsibilities are involved. But surely it's one's job when translating to make the best possible poem in one's own language which remains essentially faithful to the sense and the sound of the original, and the riddle is why people who think Jonson's practice odd and artificial will praise translation as a way of writing through dry periods, when the poems won't come.

The second is an odd habit I've acquired recently, very like translation, of rewriting my own poems in different forms. One sonnet became first a triolet and then a rondeau redouble; a long blank verse monologue shrank to a sonnet; a free verse rant became rhyming anapestic tetrameter quatrains. It's wonderful fun, and I sometimes like each of the versions equally. I call them Transformer Poems.

The third thing is writing on the computer, being careful not to erase anything, and posting all my drafts of the poems posted here at the Draft House, where they forcibly remind me of the process I described three paragraphs ago. It astonishes me how quickly the poems take on nearly their finished forms, despite my gnawing at particular lines and the way those changes propagate through the poems.


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