...and I'm exhausted. But I'm sitting in front of my laptop, bleary-eyed, listening to a muted Lightnin' Hopkins and staring at the 17th line of a poem that I've been working on for four years.
This profession--this writing of measured and meaningful lines--is for crazy people. I can hear the warm, contented snoozing of my husband and granddaughter, and I long to join them in the sleep of the blissfully unaware, but there's this--line. I could forget it for now, sleep on it, but I can't help feeling that I'm on the verge of a breakthrough. And after four years of nada breakthrough, I'm not about to doze off and miss the big moment.
I know that this line will complete the poem--finally--and that the poem has the potential to be a soul-shaker, a disturbance, a ripple in the cosmos. It's like being on the verge of childbirth. It's just that I've been in labor so long everyone's lost interest. Before giving up on me an hour or so ago, the 12-year-old dismissed my delirium with an exasperated roll of her eyes and this oft-repeated phrase: "Oh, that poem. Grandma, it's just a line."
Just a line? They really don't get it, do they? There's absolutely no way to explain that nine words, tweaked mercilessly at least once a week for the past 1460 days, can feel so vital, so damned necessary, and not tomorrow, but right now. It's like childbirth. You struggle and sweat to bring something into being. And once it's there, out in the open air, you should feel relieved--but damned if you don't miss the pain.

Originally Published: August 11th, 2007

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017); Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler (2008), a chronicle...

  1. August 11, 2007
     Steve Davenport

    I watched each of my four daughters being born, and each one brought a different story of pain. I'm not about to wake their mother, my wife, up to ask her if she misses any of the pain, but the stories of the pain? We always miss those. That's why we keep retelling them. The pain of birthing a line is different. For me it's the same old pain every time, the same set of struggles. I rarely come away with a story of that pain. I come away instead with a line that pushes and pulls me into another line. There ain't no tearing and bleeding and risk of death, just the train in my brain that won't stop until I arrive at the Station of Momentary Completion or I throw a triple sour mash on the tracks. Something about the favorite glass and the chipped ice and the whiskey bruise that slows that train so I can sleep. And be back next time for more of the same. Because it's the sameness I'm after, not a different experience every time, but the same pain over and over.

  2. August 14, 2007

    Indeed. Writing poetry, perhaps unlike fiction, can be like assembling a puzzle, conquering a crossword or passing Mario Bros. 3 for the 51st time. (Who doesn't love the old school Nintendo?)
    Why do we stare at words, sentences and stanzas for hours, days and years? Why, when we think we've finally got it, do we revisit those same phrases over and over? Sometimes, I wish I knew the answer. Most times, however, I'm certain that not knowing is why I keep writing.

  3. October 6, 2007
     Sangeeta deogawanka

    I agree with J here, poetry writing is much like assembling a puzzle. Sometimes you hit upon the right combination of words in an instant, sometimes the same eludes you for months, until maybe you abandon it, or like Ms Smith, you take it up after years. I can identify though with her night long vigils of those lines evading the ultimate solution. Ah, I guess its difficult for non-poetry writers to identify with our plight, and kids, their take-off on most things give me a totally new perspective !