Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns

In honor of my trip to Scotland, the harvest season, nature poetry, and Scottish National Poet Robert Burns, this post shares a few excerpts and a discussion of his famous poem “To a Mouse.”

See the end of the post for links to more information and the poem’s full text, as well as a list of earlier posts from this blog series on nature poetry by well-known poets.


To a Mouse
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
               Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
               Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
               Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
               An' fellow-mortal!

Language.

The first thing you may notice in these first two stanzas is the unorthodox orthography. Contractions for words like “cowering” and “timorous” and unusual terms such as “sleekit,” “bickering,” and “brattle” used in stanza one challenge the average reader.

The poem begins in a Scots dialect using conversational vernacular. This approach both conveys the startling nature of the encounter for the ploughman and creates intimacy between speaker and subject. The ploughman deeply sympathizes with his frightened, thwarted neighbor who happens to be a mouse. The regular, liberal use of exclamation points heightens this effect.

Distinctly formal diction then counteracts that sense of closeness with a thoughtful, reverential tone when Burns opts for the dramatic “O” and distancing pronouns “thy,” “thou,” and “thee” in place of “your” and “you.” Such choices set the mouse on a pedestal, almost as an object of worship.

Between word choice and ideas, the poem amounts to a humble, emotional message of significant length, firmly declaring Burns’s love for even the smallest wildlife despite its serving no utilitarian purpose as either food source, working animal, or even personal pet.

Scots terms in the first stanza:

  • sleekit – adj., sleek or, figuratively, slick (in Outlander ep105, Willie facetiously praises braggart Angus’s sexual prowess using this word: “Aye, aye, ye sleekit dog!”)
  • na – not
  • awa – away
  • sae – so
  • bickering – adj., hurried
  • brattle – n., scamper
  • wad – would
  • laith – loath
  • rin – run
  • pattle – plowstaff (“paddle”)

The stark shift to a philosophical tone in stanza 2 coincides with a shift in dialect from Scots to more standard English. While still directly addressing the mouse, this stanza’s language sets it apart from the rest, presenting the poet’s main thesis in words that non-Scots readers also will easily understand. Stanza 3 then returns to dialect, which persists through the end of the poem.

Central to the poem’s meaning, an oft-quoted line appears in stanza 7 of 8:

7
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
               Gang aft a-gley.
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
               For promised joy.
8
Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e
               On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
               I guess an' fear!

This famous line, of course, inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.

Scots terms in the last two stanzas:

  • no thy lane – not alone
  • gang aft a-gley – often go awry
  • lea-e – leave
  • e’e – eye

Rhyme scheme. “To a Mouse” gives us a unique opportunity to explore the nature of rhyme. The overall pattern in the poem for each stanza is a rhyme scheme of aaabab. Six lines containing two distinct sets of rhymes in each stanza. The repetitive sound of the first three lines creates a build-up of emotion and suspense. Next, the change late in each stanza accents the new indented lines of a different rhyming pair, leaving us with those ideas to ponder as we move on to the next stanza.

The effect of his use of near rhyme adds interesting possibilities. Debates have surfaced over the centuries as to whether writing in dialect is a legitimate enterprise. Burns, among others, was heavily criticized by some for his chosen approach in cases like “To a Mouse.” As time has passed, judgments of acceptableness have evolved and varied. Ultimately, it is each reader’s prerogative to judge the work being read. So you decide: Do you see an artful use of “slant” or “near” rhyme, a perversion of standard English, or something else entirely? Consider the patterns and their aberrations.

In “To a Mouse,” if we go by only the vowel sound of the very last syllable of each line and follow standard English expectations, the rhyme schemes of the dominant rhyming lines in each stanza (lines 1, 2, 3 and 5 as opposed to the indented 4th and 6th lines) would be as follows:

  • St. 1: beastie breastie hasty thee – a a a a
  • St. 2: dominion union opinion companion – a a a a
  • St. 3: thieve live thrave lave – a b ? c
  • St. 4: ruin strewin new ane ensuin – a a b a
  • St. 5: waste fast blast past – a b b b
  • St. 6: stibble nibble trouble dribble – a a b a
  • St. 7: lane vain a-gley joy – a a a b
  • St. 8: me thee e’e see – a a ? a

On the surface, with simple line analysis, there appears to be no consistent rhyming pattern at all, but at least the first two lines of each stanza usually rhyme with each other. For larger patterns, only the first two stanzas of these groupings, that we can say with certainty, consistently rhyme with each other.

In this context, as one might expect, the more formal second stanza is among those with the most regular rhyme. The most divergent vowel sounds occur between the first three lines and line 5 of stanza 7, as the long “a” sound in “lane,” “vain,” and “a-gley” doesn’t even remotely resemble the vowel sound in “joy.” (Farther down the page, I discuss the special cases of the Scots terms in bold above.)

The only dominant pattern overall is of consonance or assonance ending each line, specifically, with the consonants n, v, st, and b, as well as the e vowel sounds. All stanza 7 gives us is the visual common y consonant between “a-gley” and “joy.” Like stanza 2, stanza 7 is an outlier.

The result of this close investigation might suggest unintended sloppiness on Burns’s part.

Form and meaning. However, is it coincidence that the themes of stanzas 2 and 7 match their respective degrees of exactness in rhyme? Standard English, -ion endings, and the idea of unity in stanza 2? Dialect, divergent line endings, and the idea of destroyed plans in stanza 7? Even if it was done subconsciously, Burns was an artist, an educated man, an intelligent person, and, like the rest of us, an incorrigible “schemer.” So, no. It’s not likely to be coincidence.

And what about their placement in the poem–a sort of thesis position for stanza 2 and similar location for stanza 7, the second and second-to-last stanzas, placed symmetrically in relation to one another across the whole poem?

Perhaps Burns is making a statement not only about man’s relationship with nature–between the broken union with the wild and the industrialization of the field–but also about man’s relationship with man, particularly, the relationship between the masterly English and the servile Scottish peoples. Or, is it a more egalitarian critique of the hubris and, thus, inevitably negative effects, of at least some of everyone’s best intentions?

Boldfaced Scots (no pun intended): I used question marks to indicate my ignorance about how to pronounce the bolded Scots words. I would be inclined to pronounce “breastie” like “beastie,” assuming a humorous intent on first reading the poem, but it could be pronounced with the short e vowel sound as in the typical pronunciation of “breast.” As one reads more of the poem, its serious tone becomes apparent.

In the next instance, not knowing the word at all, I would most likely take it on face value and pronounce “thrave” like “grave.” Lastly, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce “e’e” as a contraction of “eye.” Is it the long e as in “thee,” the long a in “way,” or the long i sound as in the standard “eye”?

At the very least, first-hand knowledge of this Scots dialect in its 18th-century context and perhaps a scholarly knowledge of Burns’s intent and poetic patterns across his body of work would be required to say definitively. It’s possible, however, that pronunciation could vary even further, placing spoken vowel sounds, not just of these isolated words but of any number of others, in between the surmised alternatives we know from standard English.

There is no single, perfected version of a dialect of any language, just as what we think of as standard language can vary within itself as well. In other words, there are multiple Scots dialects within the umbrella of English dialects.

If Burns and other writers in dialect teach us anything about spoken language, it’s that it is subjective and fluid, different and constantly changing across all sorts of cultural boundaries. Those boundaries are not stark black dividers, but gray realms of overlapping traditions and identities. Whatever linguistic purists might say, certainly spoken language, along with written language in many ways, is a living, breathing, moving–and sometimes wild–thing.

Meter and rhythm.

Further evidence of Burns’s well-laid schemes emerges with a look at the rhythmic elements of the poem. The meter is set down regularly as iambic tetrameter paired with iambic dimeter, and the changes closely match the rhyme scheme shifts. Lines 1-3 and 5 follow tetrameter, with 4 iambs per line, and lines 4 and 6 use dimeter, with 2 iambs per line. An iamb is a set of two syllables, also known together as a metric foot, that begins with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

A simple illustration of an iambic foot is in the infinitive form of any one-syllable verb: to go, to breathe, to call, to jump, to know. We pronounce this pair of words with emphasis on the unique word in each pair: go, breathe, call, jump, and know. We don’t pronounce each set in the opposite manner, which would result in phrases with the sound of “TOO go,” “TOO breathe,” and so on, making the words sound strange, like the Roman garment “toga” or imaginary “tookle” for “to call” or “tune-o” for “to know.” Theoretically, one could create an iambic phrase solely out of infinitive verb phrases:

to WANT to KNOW, to WALK to YOU to SMILE  (iambic pentameter, five metric feet of syllable pairs, the first being unstressed, the second stressed)

where the capitalized words signify landing on them more heavily than on the word “to.”

Often, then, the stressed half of the metric foot (in these cases, the iamb) is where the more important words, and natural stresses in multi-syllabic words, arise. Another iambic pentameter line:

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words if, fail, call, know, left make the central message.

The unstressed half of an iambic line is where the connecting words, less important words, and natural lack of stresses in multi-syllabic words would be.

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words And, I, to, you’ll, I’ve are links and pronouns.

The unique feature of the iambic lines in “To a Mouse” is their often ending with a weak final syllable after the recognizable pattern of four or two iambs. Stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6 contain this feature, ending on words like “beastie,” “startle,” “ruin,” and “dribble”–all words with a strong first syllable. There are exceptions even in these stanzas, with lines 4 and 6 in stanza 4 ending in “green” and “keen,” for instance, with stressed final syllables.

Still, the overarching tendency to add half an iambic foot to the end of many lines creates a lilting rhythm and lightness in tone, suggesting affectionate tenderness, as we sense from words like “beastie” and “nibble,” which are emotionally similar to diminutives like “sweetie” and cutie.”

The alternating stanzas with stressed last syllables and regular iambic feet include, from stanza 3, lines 1 (tetrameter, 4 stresses) and 4 (dimeter, 2 stresses):

“I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve; / . . . . ‘S a sma‘ request:”

The final two stanzas, shown above, also have regular iambic meter throughout, emphasizing the message there contained, for example, in the poem’s final two lines:

“An’ forward, tho‘ I canna see, / I guess an’ fear!”

In his poem, Burns deliberately places men and mice on an equal plane, both subject to the whims of fate and nature. Equating man with mouse is a startling choice, provoking thought and sometimes indignation. But the poet takes it one step farther, elevating the mouse above the man again in the final stanza: You know only how to live in the moment, you free and lucky mouse, whereas I’m a slave to regret for the past and to fear of the future.

For the full text of this poetic ploughman’s speech to a mouse, visit “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. For an annotated version defining all the Scots terms, try scholarly sources such as page 748 of the full fifth edition (paperback) of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. My source for the terms I defined was the fourth edition.

The Burns legacy.

To learn more about Scots poet Robert Burns, check out the extensive article at Poetry Foundation. I also enjoyed visiting The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which featured artifacts, writings, illustrations, and recordings about authors Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are many other sites in Scotland dedicated to Burns and his legacy that I did not get to visit. I’ll share more about Scottish literary tourism in an upcoming post.

As the National Poet of Scotland, Robert Burns even has his own holiday: Burns Night, January 25th, when people in Scotland and worldwide Scots create and enjoy a special feast and a night of beloved poetry.


Previous posts in this series, featuring nature poems from both the Canon and a few contemporary poets, include:

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1: Sun Spots
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1a: “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 2: Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 3: Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 4: Promise of a Fruitful Plath

I also wrote about the use of Burns’s work in the first Outlander TV series by STARZ:

Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy

Five-Phrase Friday (32): Remember This

A daily e-newsletter I’m receiving inspired my second post of phrases for National Poetry Month. Of breaking lines and cracking art projects, I sing with the chorus (the featured poet’s piece), and of the need to be gentle with oneself and one’s art, lest either one break and crumble.

The Cuyahoga County Public Library’s program “Read + Write: 30 Days of Poetry” each day presents a short poem and a poetry writing prompt at readwritepoetry.org. Today’s (April 8) featured poem is Maggie Anderson’s “The Thing You Must Remember.”

The portion that especially caught my notice emphasizes the delicate work of art making and, in a sense, the perils of a perfectionist approach to art, as that drive is grounded in fear of not being enough. (The arts and perfectionism are recurring themes of my blog.)

The passage also happens to speak directly to a major theme of the novel I’m writing for Camp NaNoWriMo this month about a young teacher’s obsessive efforts to combat bullying among her students. What a fine synchronicity of events and ideas!

With this sample of verse, I altered the format to make my usual handy grouping of five lines. My unsanctioned re-formatting raises the question of the mechanics of how to read a poem and how you can arrange the lines while writing one. I address these questions with some analysis below the excerpt.

Note: Ellipses for omitted text, brackets adding text for clarity, and slash lines signalling the end of a line as originally formatted–these are all my marks.

So here are lines 8-13 of the single-stanza, 16-line poem “The Thing You Must Remember” by Maggie Anderson, from Cold Comfort. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.

. . . When the [clay] dog’s back / stiffened, then cracked
to white shards / in the kiln, you learned
how the beautiful / suffers from too much attention,
how clumsy / a single vision can grow, and fragile
with trying too hard. . . .

The same excerpt with the poet’s original breaks of selected lines 8-13:

. . . When the dog’s back
stiffened, then cracked to white shards
in the kiln, you learned how the beautiful
suffers from too much attention, how clumsy
a single vision can grow, and fragile
with trying too hard. . . .

A poem of this general form–containing relatively equal-length lines whose endings do not rhyme (free verse) and bearing punctuation at the middles and ends of lines–is meant to be read fluidly across the line breaks. It uses punctuated pauses (commas) and stops (periods) as if it were prose, as do most poems, even if those pauses and stops happen to correspond with line endings.

This “continuation of the sense of a phrase beyond the end of a line of verse” is called enjambment. The online Encyclopaedia Britannica has a helpful entry on this concept with an example to illustrate it clearly.

When we read the above poem aloud, then, we pause not after “back” (l. 8) but after “stiffened” (l. 9), and not after “shards” (l. 9) but after “kiln” (l. 10), and so forth.

Hearing the reading under such conditions, one might think this is not a poem at all, but other characteristics, such as length, word choice, point of view, and often style of voice while reading, all help signal to listeners that they are indeed hearing a poem.

Poetry is meant to be read aloud, but when line breaks don’t match pauses and stops, that doesn’t mean the break choices have no use or purpose. The visual effect can also be part of the package.

Aligning these phrases as Anderson does brings words with similar sounds (with techniques like internal rhyme, assonance, consonance) and similar appearances closer together. For instance, notice the internal rhyme of “back” with “cracked” and the consonant combination “nd” sound at the end of “stiffened” and “learned” (consonance).

Both visually and aurally, the pattern of short “i” rhyming words (assonance) lining up with each other is clearer than it would be if the commas and line endings corresponded; the cascade of the words “stiffened, in, kiln, single, vision, with, trying” all comes down the left side of the stanza in a delicate, suggestive bombardment.

The effect of certain sounds on a reader can vary, but for me, lots of short “i” words all stacked up like that suggests a sense of claustrophobia, being hemmed in and flattened like the very letter “i,” an application of pressure mirroring what happens to the clay figurine that “suffers from too much attention.” Think “squish” or “pinch.”

With this interpretation at least, form and meaning reinforce each other, and you notice these aspects more with free verse because there is no end rhyme to distract you from them. Similarly, any alliteration, repeated consonant sounds at the beginnings of words, is barely noticeable in the poem. Consonance describes matching consonant sounds at the ends of words.

Attention away from the ends, we are free to focus on the middle.

So now, you may start to see how poetic form and presentation can work together to encourage readers to take time, take it all in, and notice the clever or beautiful little convergences and connections–of word with word and word with meaning and meaning with meaning.

Once this happens, the overall message of the poem can more readily penetrate and resonate.

Check your favorite poems for enjambment, seeing how the arrangement of parts adds to the whole, and how these intentional choices of the poet communicate meaning and art.

And remember this: Treat your artwork and yourself gently, with a sense of trust and calm, so that both of you may remain whole and beautiful.

All the little clay puppies thank you for your kindness and mercy.

Image_dog_clay_black_figurine


Image credit: clay figurine from etsy.com via duckduckgo.com search.

 

Five-Phrase Friday (13): Eerie Emily

On the 13th of the month! This week, I’m doubling back on the Emily Dickinson quotes and renewing a little Halloween spirit, if for no other reason than it’s far too soon to be stringing up Christmas lights (next-door neighbor! #LetTheTurkeyCool), and because it works. Dickinson had a knack for the morbid. See Five-Phrase Friday (2) for the first round featuring her unique turns of phrase.

1. "a tighter breathing and zero at the bone" 
               - from "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass"

2. "in horrid-hooting stanza"
               - from "I Like to See It Lap the Miles"

3. "a druidic difference"
               - from "Further in Summer Than the Birds"

4. "on whom I lay a yellow eye" 
               - from "My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun"

5. "I heard a fly buzz when I died"
               - from "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died"

Note the personification of the train in the title of 2, the subsequent line being “and lick the valleys up.” Metaphors also abound in Dickinson’s work. One of the more interesting ones is her equating of life and a loaded gun.

Until next week, enjoy resisting the holiday season!

Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 1 of 10

From my poem “If I Had Known,” finished April 2013:

How could I think ice is anything but alive, 
be duped by the same deception as living coral,
calcifying architecture, fanned like some ghost
town cascading down the hillside, fixed in place
but all the while eating, growing, breeding?

copyright C. L. Tangenberg

Wildlife Poem: Sea Otter in Progress

As promised, here continues my focus on nature and wildlife poetry that began with Call of the Wild Poetry. See my prewriting for this poem at Raw Poetic Material: Sources and Destinations. In response to my writing group moderator’s assignment to “write a poem about a sea otter” (which I had only partly attempted), I began with a more meandering subject matter focus and less formal stanza structure than you’ll see below, but with similarly short lines.

Step 2 zeroed in on the target subject, and I wrote a longer collection of 6-line stanzas with no end rhyme. The poem at bottom represents the latest (third) iteration, taking what I felt was the best (last stanza) of the intermediate material and building on it. This version employs 4-line stanzas using an ABXB (or ABCB) rhyme scheme. It is still a work in progress.

My revision goals include:

  • Let the poem stretch and breathe a little to see if idea clarity improves without wrecking structure or sound. Make the poem feel less stilted and claustrophobic while still preserving economy of word choice. Specifically, reduce the number of hyphenated phrases.
  • With increased clarity and space, home in on a definite theme and/or message to dovetail with the sensory detail. Make sure the poem communicates what I intend it to.
  • Decide how form may best serve content, and whether to make a series or set of parts out of the different treatments tested during the drafting phases.*

It may seem backwards not to start with the message you want to convey and then seek the words to express it. While I do begin with a concept in mind, my entry into verse writing is more predominantly through its music–the sounds of words, the rhythm of phrases, the frolicking through rhyme and alliteration. For students of poetry and speech, this collection of aspects is called is called prosody.

Sound, sense, and form all must work together for overall poem quality.

Sometimes I emphasize form excessively, spending more time experimenting with line and stanza breaks than is beneficial. Likewise, I tend to obsess over punctuation, probably using too much of it. (This habit comes both from my college poetry instructor’s admonition to “study [verse] punctuation” and from my own pique over comma errors committed by my writing students and others.)

For additional insight into the state of my verse writing process, see the 4-post series beginning with On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation. In that series, I use the writing of an elegy for Leonard Nimoy to illustrate both poem creation and my development as a poet.

I hope you find these descriptions and samples instructive. Happy verse writing and reading!

Watery wiles gild sea
waves, yield thick-furred
off-white young, black-
eyed dark, five fingers.

Coats arc down through 
copper-coated ocean tents 
with slick black-coffee sheen 
toward gloaming, up again.

Porpoising, then a raft,
mother floats belly up, 
one light pup suckling;
now hunts, stones mollusks. 

Sharp teeth keep urchin 
counts checked, kelp alive, 
frond forest sound, safe,
for otter sleep, more life.
Sea otter with kelp Image sourced through Wikipedia

Sea otter with kelp
Image via Wikipedia

* Sometimes a writer must face the fact that the chosen form or style may not be what the content calls for, which can mean, e.g., changing a poem into an essay or end-rhymed verse into free verse.

Happy Poem-In-Your-Pocket Day!

Led to it by the episode “Rent” from the Starz TV series Outlander (current screen adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s novel), I hold in my pocket John Donne’s poem “Present in Absence.”

Claire recites the opening stanza that opens the episode:

ABSENCE, hear thou my protestation
    Against thy strength,
    Distance, and length;
Do what thou canst for alteration:
  For hearts of truest mettle
  Absence doth join, and Time doth settle.

What’s in your pocket?

I hope it has been a versified National Poetry Month for you!


Other Outlander posts on this blog include the following (the first two are closely related):

On Process: Verse Writing, Part II: Developing an Idea, Trying a New Form

Last Time

In my last post, this series began about my poetry writing process and how it is evolving. Part I focused on my background and motivation; this post represents a key piece of the evolutionary puzzle. The discussion arose out of my attempt to complete an elegy assignment from a recent, free online course hosted by The Daily Post called Writing 201: Poetry.

Feel free to comment or tweet @Carrielt37.


The Verse Writing Process, Part II: Developing an Idea

Inspiration: Getting It Down and Getting Down to It

It turns out that I am also glad that I waited to tackle, for instance, Day Five’s assignment, an elegy related to fog using metaphor, until after hearing of Leonard Nimoy‘s death. Having such a meaningful, interesting, and personally impassioning subject present itself and align with the purpose of a task with a clear and fitting goal has brought new depth to my process.

A new approach to the writing of a substantial, formal poem has proven fruitful as a result, in the sense of ensuring (I hope) quality, cogency, and justice to the subject, in this case, the departed.

The approach constitutes my first real foray into any significant development of ideas and intentions before applying poetic form to the content. Aided by my determination not to stop writing and thinking until I was satisfied that I had said all that needed saying about Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock, I developed not just a poem but also the patience to do it with rich intention and to do it Aha_white_on_black_inside_lightbulbwell.

I have yet to learn whether the quality will fulfill its promise or whether this could serve as a formula to perpetuate, but I know with certainty that the experiment signals a new phase in my development as a poet. That realization alone is invigorating and encouraging.

Paradoxically, embracing the idea of development and the need for it has lifted, if just temporarily, the burden of perfectionism, which only ever becomes a block to progress. Patience replaces anxiety, and daily (or every other day’s) attention replaces the impulse do it all in one sitting.

These elements, along with years of experience, in turn have opened the valve to a freer flow of creativity. Faith in my skills and talent bring me to the next station, where I believe that this journey will end in more artful and satisfying results. I am the Little Engine That Could and Can. Although I know it will be difficult, I will do my best to leave judgment of quality and what the results indicate to the reader alone.

Development

With the goals of getting the content right, writing an elegy of some length, and making it a traditional type with rhyming couplets, four-line stanzas and other formal features, here’s what I did to apply The Daily Post‘s fog/elegy/metaphor assignment to create a tribute to Leonard Nimoy. Disclaimer: Remember, I’m not advocating a particular approach or duration of time spent, just sharing my own experimental steps. For the purpose of development, brainstorming through lists played a central role as I focused mainly on ideas first, then form.

  1. I started with a list of words associated with fog that I could write about, which I wrote before Nimoy died.

  2. After I learned of his passing, I made a new list of terms, phrases, ideas, and quotes that I associate with both him and Spock.

  3. Then, I copied the new combination of these two lists to bring together the most relevant concepts and appropriate pairings.

  4. Next, I wrote out lines of concepts and points I knew I wanted to make, seeking the essence of what I feel needs to be said from me personally and as a member of the American populace.

  5. I then researched and read about the Spock “canon” (a little), not having read any Star Trek books myself and harvested quotes on the Imdb.com database from select Star Trek movies.

  6. I drafted a rough, inconsistently metered and lined set of elegiac stanzas toward expressing poetically what would probably be easier said in prose. Patience is key in this phase.

  7. Afterwards, I highlighted the best of the lines, terms, quotes, and concepts to bring myself closer to the crux of what I wanted to focus on.

  8. In between some of these steps, I let things percolate, giving the subject more thought away from my notes. Here comes form. . . .

  9. I started over with a new poem that covered some of the conceptual territory I hadn’t quite hit upon in the first draft, focusing a bit more this time on form and wording.

  10. When I returned to the draft in the next sitting, I transferred it from paper to computer along with all the preceding lists and quotes. In the process, I added more poetic lines.

  11. I printed out the draft alone, without all the notes, and scanned it for lines that were really duds and ideas I decided against or facts that I mistook.

  12. I highlighted parts of the poem that I liked best, that felt most right, and also scanned the lines for meter and rhythm, isolating the parts that flowed more naturally than others.

  13. Upon reviewing the highlighted parts, I added lines for concepts I felt needed more, better, or different coverage or any coverage at all.

  14. With a few semi-intentional gaps between writing/assessing days for my poem, I began to lose some momentum, feeling inadequate to the task of writing an elegy about such a storied public figure and the American icon he created.

  15. Then, I pressed on to soul-search, seeking a way through.

The poem remained a work in progress when I first shared this post.


Phew! Lots of steps, right? So what do you think? Consider the above process and these questions in light of your own work:

? Do the above steps seem excessive or seem to constitute perfectionism? 

? Which steps seem most worthwhile? Which ones seem unnecessary? (Keep in mind that the elegy has a particular form with a set of guidelines to follow.) Perhaps some steps work well for some types of poems but not others?

? What steps do you go through and find most fruitful in writing poetry?

? What insights have you learned from other poets’ processes?


Want to know how it turned out? Me too! Tune in for the next post in the series, On Process: Verse Writing, Part III: Home Stretch and Final Draft, which will address the results of the development and drafting process, providing insight into the schedule I followed. Plus, I’ll discuss the journey of revision and reflect upon each phase undertaken so far.

If you’re just joining me and would like to read about how this project began, go to On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation.

I welcome comments and tweets @Carrielt37.