Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

Location: North Carolina, United States

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Writing Spontaneously

An off-the-cuff poem:


A Riff on That Pulchritudinous Chick

Yours is the pulchritude that lands me in the madhouse,
untousled and easy to commit to, like a jump
from a two-foot stump, which is safe, till you surmise
for a bit, and realize that two feet is really ten—
what then? when you figure that the stump is a tree,
and obliviously, you climbed and just couldn’t find
the other eight feet, left behind in that daze
that amazes us, when later we look up from below
after the painful, fast-slow leap from above—
call it love, if you want—and cannot believe
that we committed to all that heaving and hunger,
and sung all those ballads from way up there,
grinning with our own share of happiness and headiness,
till loneliness emboldened, collapsed, and subdued.


Let's start by just talking about the poem. Okay—so it's silly, especially at the start. But that's not a bad thing; poetry can get too bogged down and serious, especially when talking about topics like love and loss of love, which have been beaten down by super-serious suitors for centuries. And, it doesn't stay completely silly—in the last few lines (and last couple lines, especially), it veers to a more serious tone, which actually gives the end some extra punch because of the contrast. Also, the stumbling, off-kilter pacing is maintained throughout, partly by the poem's breathless, one-sentence structure, and partly by sudden transitions in tense and subject: the poem starts with the narrator making a specific statement about someone, shifts into a general sense of "you", then broadens further into the general "we", including everyone in a reflection on the odd and sometimes unbelievable hindsight we have after falling out of love.

More broadly, let's talk about methods of improving (or at least diversifying) writing. A lot of writers are almost always deliberate, carefully weighing all their choices—and of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with that approach. However, quick and spontaneous writing can have interesting results, especially if your usual modus operandi is slow, serious and detail-oriented. Sometimes you get phrases you would never get otherwise—stuff like "Yours in the pulchritude that lands me in the madhouse", which is, y'know, crazy and would be stupid, if not for the off-kilter, spiraling feel of the whole poem. If you tend to always go with serious—and especially if you feel like your writing often ends up being a slog—try going with silly for a change, if only to explore and possibly find a happy medium. But, also remember that writing a free-wheeling first draft isn't an excuse to forgo revision: fine-tuning things like music and cohesion is always important and rarely comes off perfectly the first go 'round.

For good measure, here's another example of this kind of approach:


This Sonnet Is About Love

LOVE—what if I told you, my little persimmon, to
exist as a mixture of sexiness and danger? Would you
oblige, or just kick me? Ah, but to kick would be
to oblige my request, and increase your love for me
(You may not realize it right away, but—trust me, my dearest
artichoke—love is not of a simpleness that garnishes the nest
of easy consciousness, and we do not always understand
why we wake up with such a fondness for summerland
papayas. Sometimes, I wake up in a fruit basket and wonder
why, myself!)!           
                          So go ahead and kick me (or not!), dammit! I’m sure
that for all that show and twirling of hair and soft demure
you’ll oblige me in the end, though (sad to say?) I finally know
there’s a difference (a la Gershwin) ‘tween tomayto and tomahto.


Sure, it's not the heaviest or most complex subject matter—love is complicated, sometimes we don't know why we love who we love, and at some point we all realize that unrequited love isn't the same as shared love—but if you're going to talk about this stuff at all, why not have a little fun while doing it?

And again, the Willy Wonka quote goes: "A little silliness now and then is relished by the wisest men."

Take care,

(P.S. Using "pulchritude" started as a joke from an e-mail exchange with my grad school advisor, but it actually does some good, 'cause a) it's unabashedly silly, just like most of the poem, and b) it sticks in memory strongly enough to pull off the "pulchritude/subdued" rhyme that has 13 lines of separation and pulls the rhyme scheme of ab/bc/cd/de full circle.)