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Journal, Day Five
I virtually always know the last lines of my poems first. Almost always. I have friends who start with the title and then proceed. I know others who know the first line and come up with the title as the poem progresses. I find the various ways poets compose fascinating in a nerdy kind of way. I am sure I would have a mild heart attack if tomorrow I woke up and knew the title of a poem I was going to write. It just never happens that way for me.
Several years ago, I had a wonderful conversation with Susan Hahn about this. She found the idea of knowing the last line first a somewhat scary prospect. She commented that it was like Cassandra writing prophecy, to know the end first. But I never encounter drafting of poems that way. For me, the joy of writing the poem is to see how I get to that final line. Sometimes, in the drafting or revising, the last line must be changed, but this is rarely the case. The last line comes, then the first. The lines in between don’t come in any particular order.
I have joked with many that Medicine taught me discipline as a writer. I should better explain that. Medicine steals my time, but it has also taught me ways of storing information. I can see three to five patients for up to 1 hour each, listen to their stories, look over their information, and then, even 48 hours later, dictate a 3-5 page consult letter. All of this with very little written down in terms of notes. Once I dictate, however, it is gone. Blank slate. Literally, once dictated, the information is gone. The reason I can do this is nothing spectacular or secret. Virtually any physician in clinical practice can do the same. A Consultation, a History & Physical, has a standard format, a schema, so to speak. The information is stored within this framework in much the same way over and over. The Identification or Chief Complaint is followed by the History of Present Illness, which is followed by the Past Medical History, followed by Medicines, Allergies, etc. It is always the same format, though different specialties will modify it slightly. Medicine teaches its students how to route information in short-term memory for a specific reason, to dictate, to write it down. Once down, it is purged to make space for another “story.”
My point is that having to learn that schema opened my eyes to how the mind stores information. Even to this day, I can work on most of my poems in my head. I have different schemas for poetry I carry with me. When lines start to stick with each other, I start to organize them, shift them around. Usually, when I sit down in front of the computer to draft a poem, I have anywhere from 12 to 28 lines of it in the order they should appear. Once I draft, the lines are gone from my head. But they are there on the screen for me to revise and tinker. There was a time, before Medicine, that I wrote everything longhand and transferred it to type via a typewriter (later, via a computer). But I don’t have that luxury of time anymore. If the line doesn’t carry some weight, I won’t be able to carry it around with me in my head. If the poem has no urgency for me, it will die. Lord knows, there are more than enough bad poems in the world. I feel no impetus to add poems unless I have to do so.
I have enjoyed my time here this week, among these virtual pages. I have enjoyed this time I have had to think inside these sentences. On a talk show recently, I listened to a man lament the waste of time he called Art and Culture. It saddened me. Now, more than ever, Art and Culture are necessary. They are among the few things left in our world that slow us down, that prompt us to think, to converse with ourselves and converse with the dead. I suspect it is part of the reason there is a slow resurgence of interest in Poetry. It is an ancient Art, a necessary one. I will never stop believing in its power. It changes, as it was so famously written, nothing. I would rephrase that to say it might not change things, but I still believe that it can change someone. I know many will call that idealistic. But when it comes to Poetry, I remain an idealist. How can I not?