Poems, In Their Youth

by Philip F. Clark

A poem will constantly say, “I’m finished, right here,” or “No yet, not yet, keep looking at me; there’s more to say.” In preparing my thesis manuscript, which includes the work of more than five years of writing poems, it is fascinating to me to ‘hear’ former and present work on the page, and to then go back and revise (or not) particular poems. And the process of then forming the book — which poems begin it, which end it — is the crux of stasis and change. The work however, is always that of trying to see how best to find the choices that keep the progression alive: particular poems continue to stand confidently and still have a sense of resonance, while others simply have been a sketch to something still to be finalized. It’s invigorating as well as frustrating, in the best way. How to make a collection find its identity and shape, how to truly listen and know when to say, “Sorry, you’ve got to go, thank you for your time,” and “Yes, I still hear your voice. You still resonate.” Risk is inordinately necessary.

It’s also the structure of the formal choices one makes: short, long, couplets, tercets, ghazals, sonnet — or none of these things — but something that is organic only to the moment it is written on the page. It’s not serendipity as to how a line walks itself; it can never be that. It is simply a matter of trusting how the poems are shaping themselves as you write them, and then how you recast them. But you must listen and watch closely. Particularly with very short poems, the impulse is to wait. Sometimes you wait a long time.

Going back to the oldest poems is finding their and your genealogy. It is also the most intriguing mirror; a contact sheet, from which you pick that single image that works among all the others. So this has been and will continue to be my work for the next six months. At the end? We will see. There is a lot of good chaos now.