"How do you know when you are finished with a piece of writing?"—Evie, age 10 Evie, you've asked a stumper. I wish I had a clear, concrete ... Read More
I spent the better part of last year trying to write a poem a day as a writing exercise. When I began, the first thing I told myself was that it was okay to be bad. I knew there would be days when the best I could muster would be tripe unfit even for a Hallmark convention. And I was 100% correct as lines like the following will surely attest:
“Life’s short in the mouth
Of my dinosaur love
But fail early and fail often, I say. Get the dinosaur love out of the way so something better can find its way onto the page. I’m not a great poet, nor will I ever be, but I did manage to wring out about 150 poems last year, and out of those I hope there will be a few gems worth going back to over the years to hone and polish. In early June, though, after writing the first hundred poems, something happened that I didn’t expect.
My wife Jennifer and I took a short vacation to Florida, and near the end of our visit we settled on the beach in the late afternoon to wait for sunset. Jennifer spent her time quietly reading and dozing off for a nap, and I, bound by my resolution, cracked open my leather-bound poetry journal and scribbled out a dreary something about sunsets and wind and city lights. We got up after a while, went to dinner, and then drove two hours back to my parents’ house to stay the night before the long drive north to Nashville. The next morning when we packed up, my poetry journal was no where to be found. I went to the car, to the last place I’d seen it, and there on the red metal roof was a faint rectangular outline of beach sand. When we left the beach, I’d set the journal on the roof of the car and left it there. Somewhere in the intervening miles, it had flown off and there was nothing left of it but an outline, a sandy ghost.
I told Jennifer and she turned white. She insisted we go back and look for it, but I knew better. We’d driven nearly a hundred miles and the journal could be lying beside the road along any one of them. I shrugged and said, “It’s gone. There’s nothing we can do about it.” And oddly enough, I was okay with that. After all, the point of writing hadn’t been to publish. The point of those 100+ poems had been discipline, and exercise, and practice. And those were things that, once gained, I couldn’t lose.
So I went to the bookstore, and I bought a new journal. And I went on with my resolution. In a last ditch effort, however, I did post an ad on Craigslist. I described the journal and left my phone number and address–just in case. I also added this little vanity:
There is nothing in it to entertain you
And there is certainly nothing to learn
So there’s no point in thinking of ransom
Because it’s more than this journal deserves
I can’t even offer a gracious reward
A writer’s salary is less than you think
The best you can do is return it by post
And trust that I’ll pay you in thanks.
Imagine my excitement when I had a Craigslist response in my inbox the next morning. It said:
“If the poems you wrote in your journal are anything like this one, it’s in the trash where it belongs.”
At least I still had my discipline, if not my pride. And that really was the point after all. I was a better writer after those hundred lost poems than I had been before I wrote them. I didn’t regret writing them, and I didn’t regret losing them. It was exercise and the writing muscle was stronger for it. Move on. Keep writing. Make sure the work isn’t wasted. I went on filling the new journal with new lines and new poems, some good, some dinosaur lovely, and those eventually matured into a marriage proposal in verse that won me the hand of the woman of my dreams.
Poetry has been a part of my relationship with my wife from the very beginning, and I have her to thank for my love of Yeats and his “bee-loud glade.” On one of our first dates, she gave me a suitor’s challenge. “There’s one line in one Yeats poem that perfectly describes how I think a man should feel about me. Find it,” she said. And I did, within hours, though I didn’t tell her so until months later, when I read it to her out of that new journal of poems and she said “Yes.” (The Yeats’ line, if you’re wondering, is: “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you / And loved the sorrows of your changing face.“)
A few days before the wedding, a package arrived at the house. It was covered in dozens of differently sized stamps and my name was written on it in a bright, jubilant script that I suspect only bubbly, hippie girls master entirely. I tore open the package and inside was a banged up leather journal, its pages filled with lost poems. A stranger had found it on the roadside.
Was I glad to have them back? You bet. There’s something beautiful and possibly even mysterious in the fact that they came back to me only after I’d learned that I could let them go. In losing them I perceived a valuable lesson. There’s high value in taking the time to sit down and create something when you least want to, when you’d rather watch a movie, or take a nap, or read someone else’s words. And sometimes the artist’s greatest reward may be in his creating rather than his creation.
April is National Poetry Month. Create something. It’s worth the work, even if it’s not Yeats, even if it’s never read by another, even if you lose it.
Here’s one of the “lost poems.” I wrote it about this time last year and it’s evidence, I think, that I did eventually make it beyond “dinosaur love.” Share your own–if you dare.
In the early sun, I awake
I move through the city
And the city moves beside me
From each doorway, a rivulet runs
Winding down to the river rushing
We gather, washed up like
Deadened wood at the foot
Of a timeless oak
I stand in a line and shuffle forward
Before me a saint
Behind me another coming
We kneel at a table
We strip off our rags
Naked, we wrestle ourselves down
To still and quiet
And take hold of the broken loaf
And water our roots with sanguine wine
I rise and look behind me
A chain of saints stretches unbroken
Back to the beginning
Before me they vanish into the light
Linked by blood and flesh
Undying, eternal, a memorial
Settled ‘til time and memory
No longer have need
Of our withering rites
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.