White Chickens and the Art of Poetry

I turn on 11th
May 31, 2012
Reverie in Cana
June 4, 2012

I often have friends who read my writing and ask: “What’s your inspiration?”

It’s a fair question, but not one easily answered. I considered it recently while shaving in the shower, and decided that the explanation was a bit fuzzy: a flurry of sparks combining in a perfect storm to render poetry and prose.

For example, one of my recent compositions, “The Mountain Kings Three,” was largely inspired by a hike I took near Nederland in Colorado. The final stop on that hike was a lake at the foot of three peaks—the inspiration for the three characters in my story. But the plot, along with other images I used, came from a smattering of ideas and snapshots in my head.

It’s also been noted—by me as much as anyone else—that my writings are never very long. Many writers dream of composing the “great American novel,” but the appeal isn’t strong for me. I’ve chided myself for lack of patience (which is certainly one reason I haven’t written a novel), but I believe there is something else at work.

Much of the fiction and poetry I write is short, honing in on an individual character or event. Instead of painting a fuller picture, or advising readers to watch out for future episodes (which I have done in the past), I leave my pieces hanging. Truthfully, they feel a bit naked—and I like that.

The explanation for this quick-hit technique comes from my experience with poetry early on. One of my favorite poems from those days was “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. It goes like this:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

When I first read that, I was remarkably uninspired. But then it began working on me, and I spent considerable time with it. It became clear that Williams’ intent in the poem was not at all to capture the whole of something, but a mere part of it—enough to understand there is a cadence and theme extending beyond the end. I remember thinking, “What comes after the white chickens?”

The prompt was undeniably brilliant: Williams’ poem forced me to imagine what it was that was so important, what came after the white chickens, and on and on until the whole world surrounding the poem was created—not by Williams, but by me.

Lately, I’ve found myself enjoying this style from the perspective of the poet. This is why I’ve drafted hyper-focused character profiles with no plot and only a little action; why poems seems curtailed, stringing off into emptiness; why stories lack a satisfactory conclusion. I relish the idea of an engaging piece of writing as much as anyone else, and have learned that the writer need not fill in all the holes and answer all the questions to make it attractive. It is better when the reader—without even noticing—follows the windings of their own imagination.

It’s pretty clear to me now: I employ a William Carlos Williams method in just about every genre I write. Perhaps someday that will change, but he—along with all my experiences of life and people—is now my inspiration. I just had to shave very slowly to figure it out.


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