Happy Accidents

October 2, 2013

Word poster made by my daughters

Word poster made by my daughters

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

T.S. Eliot

Anyone who has ever tried to write something in verse—a poem, song lyrics—has likely realized, with mounting despair, that words get in the way of what one wants to say. Unlike a painter’s brushstroke, words appear on the page naked and unpretty, loaded with meaning made stubborn and static through their regular use as tools for daily communication. Words are primarily functional, and in that respect they serve us well. They create at least the illusion of a shared reality, however mundane that reality might be (e.g., “Hot enough for ya?”). There is, of course, great comfort to be found in everyday speech. No one would remain sane for long if we were somehow compelled to speak in rhyming couplets.

As I see it, the poet’s task is to manipulate words in order to overcome the limitations of words. Or, to say what words cannot express. This seemingly insurmountable oxymoron has led countless would-be bards to throw up their hands, develop a fondness for liquor, and (if the urge cannot be stilled) scrawl free-verse tantrums on soggy cocktail napkins.

But it is worth keeping in mind that words are man-made constructs—signs and symbols that have no intrinsic meaning. A tree is not a tree because we call it a tree. That is, words come after the fact. They are abstractions.

It is this approximate nature of words that makes possible the ambiguity necessary to communicate poetically, which is to say, emotionally. If prose is the language of the material world—everything that we apprehend with our senses—then verse is the orderly expression of our scattershot inner lives. The best poetry offers us a reflected glimpse of both our own felt experience and the experience of others.  There can be wisdom in those words.


But how does one go about selecting and arranging words in such a way that the desired effect—or any effect—is achieved? Here I will speak only of my own lengthy but largely fruitless experience. With very few exceptions, I have not purposefully sat down with a blank page and attempted to compose something in verse. It seems unnatural to consciously will or demand something of my unconscious. I accomplish much more when writing poetry is the last thing on my mind. These occasions include, but are not limited to, walking, heavy lifting, and cleaning out the litter box. Certain lines or phrases sometimes burble to the surface and I immediately write them down. Even if I’m aware that the words are awkward, I save them. I have a notebook full of these fragments. Later, while reading through my lists of other blurted half-thoughts and impressions, I sometimes discover that a flimsy line fits well with an earlier, unrelated phrase to create a new and unexpected meaning. It’s like a mad experiment, with no hypothesis and nothing to prove. Most of my successful poems and lyrics have been, in short, happy accidents; a matter of finding significance in coincidence. To a certain extent, it’s as though the poem and I have met halfway, and what follows is a feeling of recognition, of reuniting.

And I will end this here. That litter box ain’t gonna clean itself.

Thanks for reading! Comments and criticisms are always welcome!