Q & A

POETRY: Why does the form of the poem change from section to section?

CAMPBELL MCGRATH: Good question, to which I have a somewhat enigmatic, three-part answer: 1) the poem evolved that way, organically; 2) I don't know; and 3) every poem needs to identify a line that accommodates its particular voice, and these three sections possess entirely distinct voices, and are even, in some sense, distinct poems—thus their varied lines and styles. Usually I try to write as if I were the boss and the poem needed to accommodate itself to my hubristic will. This is one of those occasions where the poem told me what to do and I had the good sense to shut up and listen.

P: Did the poem arise out of your discovery of the epigraph or was it worked into the poem after the fact?

CM: I had been working on a poem about a recurring dream set in a dark and alluring city. It's a real dream; the first draft was scrawled in a notebook and over time I had worked it into long, sinuous lines, which I felt matched its syntax and its motif of wandering and seeking. I liked it, but it didn't feel complete. It felt like part of a larger poem—perhaps about dreams, or about cities—and I put it aside with the many other such writings I carry forward. Over the next summer, I happened to read Wolves and Honey, and came across the quotation that became the epigraph for the poem. That passage bowled me over with its combination of scholarly knowledge and deeply poetic writing, its mix of etymology, mythology, and lyrical imagery. The notion as an entity seemed fantastically intriguing, as well as night as a mirror world to day, and right away the phrase popped into my head "how strange that they arrive at all, nights on planet earth." So that's where the first section of the poem came from, tracking down images of light and darkness, illumination and shadow.

It seemed to me, too, that the "mystery" of night deserved further exploration. I became aware that I was a poet of the daytime, that I write about work, landscape, society, and the world I see when I write is a sunlit world. Night is more complicated than day, it is the home of dreams, sleep, shadowy eroticism. If day is like reason then the night is like intuition. It is also the home of the soul, it occurred to me, a word and an idea that I would rarely dare to write about in the harsh light of day.

P: Which came first, the title or the poem?

CM: Section two preceded the title, section one was written concurrently with the title, and section three came later. Armed with the notion of "nights on planet earth" I had completed section one, but understood that it, too, was only part of a larger poem. Then, I began to write down a series of the night—images that relied on intuition to guide them, images that wandered across the boundary of dreams and reality as they saw fit. In general I harbor a deep suspicion of surrealism, but it seemed like the only way to write about the night was to adopt its voice and methodology. So I tried it, and section three is what I came up with. Finally, I realized that the dream-city of section two belonged with the others. I juggled those three sections around, and decided that this order worked best.

P: How would the poem be different without the epigraph?

CM: The long citation from Wolves and Honey explains and introduces the other sections, as is traditional for an epigraph, but it also stands beside them on the page as an equal. Walter Benjamin offers a critical defense of writing as incorporating large bodies of quoted or interpolated work (thought ), which I have relied on in some previous poems—but this was a more nuts and bolts decision. The poem feels richer with the epigraph; it works better as a quartet than a trio. Normally, for me, the architecture of the poem comes first—the engineering and shaping of its movement from inception to closure—and the final stage is polishing and editing, line by line and word by word. So here again the poem confounded my normal procedures, much to my ultimate delight.


This poem originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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