Sometime in the late nineties a writer friend of mine said that if you ever wanted to write a Charles Simic poem all you needed was the moon, an alley, a young child, a woman in a babushka, and perhaps a chicken. I thought of this recently after finishing up a first draft of a new poem. Some first drafts make me feel like there are miles to go before the poem gets to sleep, some make me want to throw it away, and a few, like this one, make me feel excited about poetry. Then I reread it, and it felt like it hit a few of the check boxes of some of my poems: a bit of physics? Check. A train? Check. Nostalgia–often in the form of adolescent love? Check. Catholicism? Check. The moon (ala Simic above)? Check.
Fortunately, somehow, I managed to stay away from snow or rain. And birds of any sort. And New York, punk rock, and fire (this last is an image that permeates my forthcoming collection The Story of Ash).
My friend Joseph Fasano writes about horses. His books could run all the races in an afternoon at Belmont. The first section of Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid is filled with poems working similar themes, using similar phrasing, form, and imagery in new and different ways. Poems work not by rejecting previous convention but by taking conventions—even those of our own design—and turning them in new ways. By establishing patterns, we can establish reader expectations and then subvert them.
Make it new, the Modernists implored. And we try to. We really do. Our obsessions may evolve, but perhaps not so much our metaphoric objects. And let’s face it, no one ever said to Monet, Claude, perhaps we should talk about your haystack obsession. Or to O’Keefe, Georgia, another flower? No one ever says to a math professor, X again? Can’t we mix up the variable? The fact is that I can write rules for myself (and I do), telling me to avoid certain imagery, but that doesn’t mean my variables for understanding the questions of the universe differ. The go-to catalogue of images are ways of defining and understanding the world of the poem, and through that, understanding the world around us. They are hallmarks of a style just as much as form, voice, or perspective might be.
And the fact is, after recognizing that the poem in question shared some imagistic and thematic hallmarks with my other poems, I thought to make some changes. Could the trains be trucks? Could the middle school students in the poem be senior citizens in an assisted living facility? Variations of the poem answered that perhaps these changes could be made, and the poem’s outcomes would ditto be radically different: If you alter the numbers, the equation at the end will be different, and where this poem wound up surprised me and seemed right. So I made the choice to keep the majority of these “familiar” images. If the poem’s conclusions felt like I’d seen them before, the poem would have required the major re-workings above. Instead, to use the math analogy again, one can do different equations with the same numbers, just by changing the functions (addition and subtraction, multiplication and division…). Ditto, we can draw new conclusions by how we choose to work with those returning tropes.
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra talks about the eternal return of the same. Things repeat. Time is a circle (is it any wonder the face of a clock is round). Or to stick with physics, I might mention the oscillating universe theory: the universe ends in a big crunch which is then followed by a big bang, and so on.
Or let’s think of it this way: our obsessions are our obsessions and our sensual stimuli— surely a potential basis for many of our go-to images—are often things we see every day. The world of things is where the ideas lie, and it’s where we live. Is it any wonder writers love to travel? New places provide an opportunity to restock the image warehouse, to provide us with new rhythms, to break us from the familiar. Remember familiar shares an etymology with family. Eventually, we do have to return home. For the poet, that means a return to our home images, our home subjects. Our alleyways and chickens. Our subways and pigeons.
In this way, I am no different than many contemporary artists in general and poets in particular. The goal isn’t to always come up with fresh images so much as we have to come up with ways to make those images seem new. Chefs, in the end, only have a limited number of entree options. The goal for them is to re-imagine what one does with a filet, more so than it is to get a different protein to work with each night. Ditto, my “physics” wasn’t the Big Bang or String Theory (both of which have appeared often) but Dark Matter. Just as a writer of a villanelle has to make the repeating lines not seem the same (and now, it’s become common practice for those repeating lines to only sort of repeat), so, too, do we have to write our familiar images and themes in new ways. They’re familiarity ought to provide comfort for experimentation and function as a leaping off point for us to explore new potentialities. The goal is for them to repeat but not be redundant.