For a long time, whenever I would drop my older daughter off at a birthday party, she would cling to my leg and beg me to stay, promise me half her slice of cake if I promised not to leave.
Then one day I brought her to a classmate’s party and before I knew it she was off running around with her friends without even waving goodbye – and I just stood there, with a dull, nameless pang rooting around in my chest.
It’s the same feeling that I get whenever I’m in middle of writing a poem and begin to feel it slipping away from me.
A poem can be said to have two subjects, writes Richard Hugo, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during writing.
But I always find it so unsettling whenever I’m between those two subjects – when I realize my original vision for a poem isn’t yet fully realized, when I know something is off but I’m not sure what.
If only our early drafts of poems were better at just saying what they meant – if they were as blunt as my four-year-old who recently told me, you’re my best buddy. But I wish Tom Brady was my dad.
But more often than not a draft will present us with some vague sense of unease – a disquiet that’s almost too quiet to hear, a suppressed angst that communicates in hushed tones.
Sometimes, a poem will simply refuse to click shut, as Yeats said a poem ought to.
We make it to the final stanza and can’t quite compress all we want to say into a single line or decide between two closing images.
And before long it becomes clear that it’s not just a matter of struggling to put the best words in the best order, but that we actually have two poems, here, that want to go in two separate directions.
Other times, after finishing a draft, we’ll come upon a title that would have been absolutely perfect had we written a different poem. And though it would be so much easier to just keep tinkering with those two words on top, some small voice inside of us begins whispering something about keeping the title and starting anew.
I know there is an etymological link between author and authority, and I’m familiar with Nabokov’s interview in The Paris Review where he claims his characters are galley slaves to his imagination. I’ve even read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
But helicopter-poeting has never quite worked for me.
Sometimes, I wish my poems would just do what I want them to do. But their refusal to do so has made me a better listener, forced me to pay closer attention to their textures and tones.
It reminds me of when my daughters were babies and would begin to fuss and my wife could almost tell immediately by the pitch of their cries whether they wanted to be held or whether they needed to be changed.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, came out last year from Able Muse Press. And his new book, Then Again, is due out in November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman