Where Poems Come From

DIANE SCHARPER

April 13, 1992|By DIANE SCHARPER

I had wanted to write a spring poem. I had hoped it would showyou what goes into the making of a poem, the subject that I am to address. However, I had a paper to write and a deadline to meet. So I began my paper, this paper, in fact.

While writing it, I was besieged with wonderful images and phrases that I couldn't use. I felt as if I could see them flying in at me through the window. They appeared to be little yellow winged things. They may have been butterflies or moths or gnats. They flew so quickly. I thought of sunlight. I thought of dust with sunlight on it. I thought of words. I was trying to work.

Then I had the first page; soon I had the second. But I couldn't get any further. So I turned my attention to the poem. After I wrote the poem, I'd return to my paper.

I was ready to sing, to belt out Beethoven's ''Ninth.'' Now was the time to gather those creatures made out of sunshine, to shape them into a poem. But they had vanished. I had no little yellow wings, no fliers made out of light. All I had was the desire to write a poem.

Marianne Moore called poems ''imaginary gardens with real toads in them.'' She didn't say that those toads jumped out sometimes. But she knew it. They jumped at her and made her write the poem. They jumped at me and made me remember her poem.

When people speak to us, we respond to only a fraction of their meeting. And we respond with only a fraction of our meaning. If there are any shades of meaning in our daily lives, we usually do not recognize them -- until the toads jump out. Those shades become the poem. A poem is nothing but shades of meaning.

When you write the poem, it's as if you were hearing music, something never heard before. The music goes through your brain, your nervous system. You tap your fingers and feet to it. It gets into your blood. Your relief is in finding the words to that music.

You don't put the music into words so much as find the words. The words and the music exist together -- similar to the statue present in the marble. You must listen to what the music says. You must listen to the way it sounds as it says. These are the words.

You don't write a poem. You transcribe it. You do revise poems. But that's later. In the poem's earliest phase, you serve as an equal sign between two sides of an equation: the music and the world.

A poet needs to breathe the air between those two sides. John Keats called this, ''Negative Capability.'' He meant that poets let life make them dizzy with possibilities. To regain their equilibrium, poets make the poem. It steadies them and simultaneously sends them spinning.

Each poem you write is a sum of each poem you've ever written. Think of the ocean: A wave pushes up the beach; it pulls back; it folds into a larger wave; it builds itself and its momentum. Momentum gives the poem power.

Poems, although they seem like such a ragtag assemblage of words, are precise. Precision too gives them power. Even parts of poems can re-create the most complicated feelings. Recall Shakespeare's lines: ''Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee/ Calls back the lovely April of her prime.'' Can the connection between parent and child be put more precisely?

Can any lines say more clearly that the poem also gets its power from love? Every poem -- no matter its subject -- is a poet's love letter to someone or something. ''The poet,'' Robert Frost so aptly said, ''has a lover's quarrel with the world.''

Poets choose the poem as their medium, because a poem is made of words. A word isn't a thought. It isn't even a breath. Yet, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, words are the force driving the green fuse of life. This is the mystery behind every poem.

My poem did eventually come to me, just as the last page of this paper came to me. The paper is about the poem that I wrote and what led up to it. The poem is about spring and love. It contains everything I know about the creative process.

Diane Sharper teaches at Towson State University. She gave a longer version of this paper at the College English Association, -- Middle Atlantic Group Spring Conference.

Spring Fever

Spring and love come at you suddenly.

Darting out on yellow wings, they glisten and distract

You try to look away,

but you see how they catch the light.

How they're as fragile as butterflies,

soft as moths.

Outside, they shimmer against the window.

Inside, they flutter past the curtains,

even brush your hands.

They move quickly, nervously.

Their bodies are zigzags

of pollen and sunshine.

Their thin tense antennae flash so brightly

that you notice them

out of the corner of your eye.

Saying you have work

and serious things to do,

you try to look away.

But its spring.

+ So you don't try very hard.

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