I learned it from watching you

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I learned it from watching you: everything starts with oneself.
There’s nothing but tomorrow: a single shot, a single
Life, narrow as a line that runs through me. I fell in love

With the child of Dawn and Night: the sturdy one who set out
Knowing only one language; drank from the well of sorrows
Between the worlds; Spring-trap; Storm-starter, who set the earth to

Quivering. The stars wheel about us, and all that matters
Happens between us. The young leaves are coiled. Their uncoiling
Tells the story: nothing will ever be as we had feared.

Just think of it: one day there will be none to remember
When things were not this way: the sky grey, like no tomorrow
Will ever be enough to save us. And then the rainbow.

Under the hood:

Michael Apted’s documentary 1997 documentary Inspirations follows each of seven artists through the process of actually creating something. It’s a fascinating film; I highly recommend it. Anyway, one of the artists was David Bowie, and the film documents Bowie (naturally enough) writing and recording a song. Part of his process was to take newspaper stories that he found interesting and feed them into a computer program called the Verbicizer, which would garble them up, recombine the sentences, and spit back new, interesting, occasionally poetical or songworthy lines. These, Bowie used as raw material for lyrics. He and his band would jam then, reworking the music and lyrics until they had something they liked. The idea has stuck with me, as a variant of William Burroughs’s cut-ups, or Dada techniques, or collage, or… you know, reading and remembering.

Then recently, while aimlessly browsing the web (is that redundant?), I came across a clever website called Google Poetics, which collects screenshots of Google’s autocomplete suggestions as poems. Here’s an example (not from the Google Poetics website, I just made it today):

google i shouldn't have poem

So then I thought I’d try using Google’s autocomplete as a poor man’s Verbicizer, to try to kick-start some poetry. Turning to an easily available source – one of my own poems, sorry if that sounds like a failure of imagination, next time I’ll use one of Blake’s – I started plugging word pairs into Google’s search engine. For “drinking the,” Google gave me four suggestions, one of them “drinking the well of sorrows.” I put in “the sturdy” and Google suggested, among other phrases, “the sturdy child of nuclear terror.” For “dances” alone the best I could get was “Dances with Wolves,” but “dances between” led Google to suggest “dances between worlds,” which was a cliché but still I rather liked it.

And so it went. I finished processing that poem, started on another, then got bored and stopped. The result, as you might expect, was fair gibberish, but there were a few interesting turns of phrase in there, and a few of them, placed side by side, had turned strange and new. I played around with juxtapositions, and turned some of the phrases again (I liked and didn’t like “the sturdy child of nuclear terror” so I turned him into “the sturdy child of Hiroshima and Three Mile Island” but that didn’t quite sit right either. Eventually I tore the whole phrase apart while recombining it with other lines, and ultimately “I fell in love // With the child of Dawn and Night: the sturdy one…”)

I ended up with a free-verse lyric of perhaps seven or ten lines. Somewhere toward the end of the process, I decided to check in on NaPoWriMo, where there was a suggestion that the world in general should try writing a “fourteener” – a poem, any poem, with lines of 14 syllables. I thought that form might work for this one, so I tried it, and (after tucking in the corners) found I rather liked the result. The long lines gave a swing and a movement that the original free verse lacked.

Initially I’d put a period at the end of the words “I fell in love.” It felt complete that way, but disappointingly slight, particularly since in the transformation from free verse into the fourteener, it ended up just three lines long. Also I still had lines and lines of material, and since I’d had to do a fair amount of work to get it, not to use it felt like a waste. I tried to write another poem with the leftovers, but it wouldn’t cohere. Eventually (I come to these things slowly), I found that kneading the longer bit into the shorter bit made a poem that did feel complete, and was long enough to breathe and make connections and end up somewhere. It became more of a process, and less of a thing.

Image: Monument Valley – Sunrise, by Jason Rogers; published under a Creative Commons  Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

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10 thoughts on “I learned it from watching you

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your process in such great detail–I found it fascinating to discover that Google Poetics could be so, well, poetic. And it sounds also like you were able to go with the creative flow and trust in the currents that caught your mind. What was most reassuring for me was the I understanding (if I’m not mistaken) that you ended up putting a fair amount of time and work into your lovely poem. I often end up with inferiority complexes after reading beautiful poetry, because some part of me says that I simply do not have the talent to write something so achingly beautiful. When I’m reminded that sometimes good art takes a great deal of time to process and refine, then I can relax about my own roughness. I can open to the possibility of allowing myself to create, regardless of how “good” or not my creations are.

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    • I’m glad you found the process account interesting. I find people’s creative processes fascinating, and I’m impatient with the notion that art can be divorced from its making. And thanks for your kind words about my poem. It was largely improvisational: working with set material, cutting and pasting, then tweaking the words to fit. I tried to work quickly so as not to overthink it… but I did spend a fair amount of time working quickly! I’ll read it again in a couple of years and see if I like it.

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      • Yes, thank you. How can art be divorced from its making? Even Marcel Duchamp’s readymades had to be conceived of in some way before they were presented as art. I appreciate your thoughtfulness! Thank you.

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  2. Pingback: Poem / Poetry – “When The Tornado Strikes” | toofulltowrite (I've started so I'll finish)

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