Where You're Going


I hope to enliven the blog by soliciting guest contributions from time to time. For the nonce guest contributions are by invitation only. Alas, I do not have the personal bandwidth to handle queries or submissions at this time.

Doug Spangle kicks it off with this essay about crafting a poem. I should note my debt to Doug for the expression "David Matthews and his portable bohemia," which he used one evening in an introduction when it came my turn to read at an open mic he hosted. I am delighted to have this opportunity to express my appreciation for the phrase and for his permission and encouragement to adopt it for my own ends.

Douglas Spangle, after spending years in Europe and points east, came to Portland almost forty years ago, and has been a literary jack-of-all-trades ever since, being given the Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award in 2016. He is also in the International Who's Who of Poetry. His most recent book is A WHITE CONCRETE DAY: POEMS 1978-2013 from GOBQ/Reprobate. He provides literary and editorial services for a modest fee.

Where You're Going

Ever since the first time I wrote a discernibly good poem, I’ve wanted to know, how did I do that? The process has fascinated me for years, has led me through labyrinths of analysis, has driven me to read volumes of Litcrit; I’ve tried diagramming poems out in traditional and eccentric metrical analysis, I’ve attempted formulae of phonetic break-downs, I’ve penciled arcane-looking symbols on my manuscripts. Interesting as it has all been, none of it has accounted for the weave of sound, imagery, rhythm, argument and phraseology that make a poem, even a short and simple one, do its work.

The apparent beginning, the triggering, which seems the most simple and seamless part, is the most difficult to account for. Most of us call it inspiration and accept it as a sort of metaphysical phenomenon, whatever it is that makes all those strands go looping and twining, and combining in poetic form. It can occur at the most unlikely times.

You start out sitting in a burger joint in Southeast Portland with a cup of industrial-grade restaurant coffee rapidly cooling in front of you. You’ve been looking in vain for work all day, and every want ad you peruse, every application you fill out, seems to prove how under-qualified and expendable you are. You don’t know it yet – and a good thing it is, too – , but your girlfriend’s pregnant. It’s late afternoon now. You’re tired and demoralized. Your life seems a blind alley, a lab rat’s maze.

The traffic lights change, the traffic pours east-west, then north-south. You stare out the window at the forlorn old houses that line the subindustrial frontage road, the West Hills, where Portland’s upper classes reside, rising on the skyline, a reproach of sorts. You glance down to your coffee, light a cigarette, glance back at the traffic swelling toward rush hour. You can’t stay here.

Is it therapy or perversity that makes an ordinary phrase into a mantra, the sprouting germ of a poem? Whatever the case, you’re a poet, with a pen and a Newberry’s spiral notebook in your bag. You know the pressure of words and ideas building up, and you set about writing, not aware so much of what you’re going to say as that something needs to be said.

Stanza One:

All depends on where you’re going.

That’s vague enough – it ought to give you plenty to work with.

You can go

any way;

The traffic flows east-west, north-south, east-west again.

at this intersection any road

looks directionless as any other.

This is pretty simple; you’re just stating your condition – maybe this line of inquiry will provide some kind of answer. At any rate, it looks like you’ve got a good stanza form: two lines of about six beats per followed by a shorter one with four. You count as a “beat” a syllable with conversational emphasis or syllable stress. It’s a little vague as a practice, but obsessing about metrical niceties just won’t do – it’s against your own nature and the spirit of the day. Now you try to follow the first stanza with another one. You glance, mentally, south, toward the freightyard tracks you know lie a few blocks in that direction – you crossed them on your way here.

Stanza Two:

You can go south past the slash and burn

of the railyard.

What’s further in that direction?

You can go beyond, toward

the sunny fiction of California.

For a recent transplant to Oregon, it’s childsplay to sling Chandleresque imputations at your former home state. What the hell?

Stanza Three:

Getting there’s easy.

Well, in your imagination, a lot of things are easy.

The impacted frame houses

would frown, decaying.

Reflexively grinding your teeth at the orthodontic imagery, you hope you’ll get away with this. It does seem to work, anyway. Just keep going.

You’d pass the forests

– Oregonian forests, of course.

only to d̶i̶e̶ on a̶ ̶d̶i̶e̶t̶ ̶o̶f̶ asphalt.

starve boiling

Your first choice is awful. You get it right the second time. Now for the next stanza: how about trying another direction . . . umm, try west this time . . .

Stanza Four:

West doesn’t look too promising,

You look out the window again, beyond toward the iron towers of Ross Island Bridge, the barge tie-ups, the foundry, the ruin of the Gender Machine Parts structure, then the West Hills again behind it all.

but cross the river

and follow the rumor of water moving until

You’re starting to get a Staffordy feeling from this . . .

you crest over those mountains

That last line has got to go, but not now. You’re rolling, and you’ll think of something better later on. The rhythm has established itself and you want to go with it while you can. See if you can elaborate this idea and shore it up a little. Go further west, young man. See what’s out there.

Stanza Five:

and the ocean scoops your skull out, fills

your marrowbones.

Another one of your Yeatsian turns, except this one is gruesome rather than grand: keep it. The body-parts line of metaphor seems to be developing parallel to the directional motif. Each direction carries a suggestion of its own extremity and a fatality. This is the death of ____, in Eliot. Here’s your death by drowning.

You could go that way, sink

in yourself and never return.

That takes care of west. It looks as if this is going to be a very symmetrical poem. Next direction, following the compass around, ought to be north.

Stanza Six:

North you can cross the border, trace yearning

white

across canvas, walk far enough to pass

world's

the unmarked axle

A cartographic metaphor seems to have gotten loose here, but it comes so naturally that you decide to let it go on prowling – besides, the echoes of Donne’s imagin’d corners are nice. Now to go beyond the map.

Stanza Seven:

and not even know you’ve gone too far. You could

just

sail and blaze like aurora borealis before

you pivot and scribe a hyperbola.

You’re pretty sure that a hyperbola is an orbital path with no end. You make a mental note to check it in a dictionary when you get home. The rhythm’s not quite right here, but there’s still more to be done, and you can fiddle with that later. East should come next, meanwhile, and then you can go about wrapping this up.

Stanza Eight:

You could go back east.

That’s just rhetorical. You came out here from Wisconsin two years ago, in 1978, and you did it for a reason. You’re not fooling anyone, in case you think you are.

You could cross the divide

past which the rivers run backwards,

relative to the West Coast, anyway. But something in the phrase makes the country sound like you’re some early explorer, Lewis and Clark or somebody, to whom all these phenomena are marvelous and a source of wonder. Okay, you’re east of the Rockies, and then you’re in the Great Plains, right?

drive

endlessly on midwestern chessboard

This reminds you how much you hate the Midwest. You turn your mind to finding the words to say how the pettiness and flatness depress you. Nothing worthwhile comes out, though, so you press on:

Stanza Nine:

where nothing happens but sky.

Another Staffordy line. Funny how the guy can affect you, bringing a really surprising image out of something that seems at first really ordinary, like pulling a rhinoceros out of an old slouch hat.

You drown there,

spit out your last mouthful of sod, go down

forever under dust and stubble.

That about takes care of the compass points. Now you can go about concluding the poem. A couple of more stanzas ought to do it.

You light another cigarette and look out the window again to see if there are any ideas out there, hidden in the view somewhere. Rush Hour’s pretty well over by now and it’s started to get dark while you’ve been writing; the neon signs on the other side of Powell Boulevard have been turned on, casting their weird halos into the surrounding air. Another day of fruitless and halfhearted job-seeking shot to hell. Oh well. At least you ought to be able to get this poem out of it. Then you can go home.

Stanza Ten:

From here it’s all the same. The five o’clock

shadows here at 21st and Powell promise

nothing but ceaseless motion.

Stanza Eleven:

But even the blind storefronts, even the neon’s

counterfeit arteries tell you this much:

you can’t stay here

There’s that line that had been gnawing at your brain earlier, the one that started this whole process. But there’s still a little more to say before you’ve wrung this dry. So just where are you now? Good question.

Stanza Twelve:

at the Whizburger stand letting your coffee

go cold. This is just another ugly

– take any road

intersection. M̶o̶v̶e̶ ̶o̶n̶

Nice save. That line was not moving in a very useful direction. Now you need just one more line so that you can break out of the three line stanza pattern. Than you can say that you’ve wrapped this poem up right, so:

but go.

Of course you go.

You leave a 15¢ tip and head out the door feeling a little dazed but a whole lot better than you had when you’d come in. You still don’t have a job, but tonight you’ve got a poem, which is nothing to cry about. And you have a feeling about this one: it has complexity, elegance, symmetry. It has a kind of inevitability about it, like it shouldn’t turn out any other way than it does.

That night you revise it. Luckily, this poem is extraordinary in coming out nearly right on the first draft – it just ran away with you, which can sometimes be a very good thing for a poem to do, to just get up on its hind legs and run.

Things need to be done to it, though: some of the lines are a little too long, some are a little too short. You rob Peter on some to pay Paul on others until it feels okay. You finish a second draft.

There are still a couple of trouble spots, though, places that bothered you from the very beginning, places where it just doesn’t look and sound right. Stanza Seven works itself out the next morning: take the you pivot from the third line and hang it out on the end of Line Two; then you add outward to the end of Line Three to make the rhythm work out. Now the stanza reads:

and not even know you’ve gone too far. You could

sail and blaze like aurora borealis just before you pivot

and scribe a hyperbola outward.

Right. You really must do something about the fourth stanza, though. The rhythm pattern’s off and the words just aren’t saying what you want them to, so you’ll have to do something more radical. Now, you’ve had Stanzas Two and Three correspond to the element of fire – and south. Six and Seven – north – line up with air. Eight and Nine – east – are earth. Stanza Four, accordingly, would be water, which is already present in the ocean and river there. You’ve always thought of water as being feminine; what comes to mind? You think of the lush, gentle Coast Range, wanting to continue the body-parts theme. Of course. Breasts. You’ve, um, breasted the, uh, measure of hills. Now you have:

West doesn’t look too promising, but cross the river

and follow the rumor of water moving until

you’ve breasted that measure of hills

Okey doke. And you’ve got the nice rhyme there too. That’s the poem, which now reads like this:

21st & Powell

All depends on where you’re going. You can go

any way; at this intersection any road

looks directionless as any other.

You can go south past the slash and burn

of the railyard. You can go beyond, toward

the sunny fiction of California.

Getting there’s easy. The impacted frame houses

would frown, decaying. You’d pass the forests

only to starve on boiling asphalt.

West doesn’t look too promising, but cross the river

and follow the rumor of water moving until

you’ve breasted the measure of hills

and the ocean scoops your skull out, filling

your marrowbones. You could go that way, sink

into yourself and never return.

North, you can cross the border, trace yearning

across canvas white, walk far enough to pass

the world’s unmarked axle

and not even know you’ve gone too far. You could

sail and blaze like aurora borealis just before you pivot

and scribe a hyperbola outward.

You can go back east. You can cross the divide

past which the rivers run backward, you can drive

endlessly on midwestern chessboard

where nothing happens but sky. You drown there,

spitting out your last mouthful of sod, go down

forever under dust and stubble.

From here, it’s all the same. The five o’clock

shadows at 21st & Powell promise

nothing but ceaseless motion;

but even the blind storefronts, even the neon’s

counterfeit arteries tell you this much:

you can’t stay here

at the Whizburger stand, letting your coffee

get cold. This is just another ugly

intersection. Take any road,

but go.

Next Tuesday, you take the poem to the open mike reading. It’s gotten to be something of a ritual, something you regard as finishing the poem off, a post-final draft, to discover how it really sounds to pronounce it to a roomful of drunken fellow-poets. On-mike, it slides right out of your mouth as if it had a life of its own, something foreordained. Like the poem itself is telling you, its author, where it’s going to go.

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