Q&A: With Drizzled Warm Butter, Intensely Rendered
This poem is five lines long and presents almost as an epigram. How did this come to be? Do you have any thoughts about the challenges and rewards of writing a very short poem such as this one?
The poem begins with a rephrasing of an observation about artificial light’s effect on colors. I’m a dismal painter myself, but I’m sure all painters know how changes in light affect the perception of colors. When I wrote out the observation, the natural pause in saying the phrase aloud caused a caesura after “forget.” When I looked down, I found a rhymed couplet. There was some work to find “most others” to make sure the line didn’t resolve into exclusive iambs. The same kind of substitution for regular iambics is in the second line (“bright colors”), where, additionally, the rhythm complements the feeling of colors dimming.
Then came a jump—what one of my old mentors, John Berryman, called “a leap”—to something else. And since I try to have each “Chinese Menu Poem” contain amalgamations of both food and painting, the leap landed on lobster. What occurred is what always goes through my mind when I see those supermarket tanks of live lobster: how you’re supposed to boil a live lobster to death and then eat it as soon as possible for the best taste. (Forgive me, I’m too squeamish to have done so.)
The first line of the second stanza was set down, then the second line gave rise—following the sounds—to the near-rhyme of “death” with “fresh.” Finally, “death” leads via sound to “set” and “teeth,” and it finally resolves itself with “flesh.” Fresh-death-flesh is a frightening progression.
I should stress here how writing about all this is like seeing backwards in utter slow motion, for all these things that go into a poem happen simultaneously—sounds and ideas and feelings occurring as a constant. If the poet is too conscious of what’s happening, the poem will itself likely become too rational.
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This poem originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Poetry magazine