The practice of imperfect

So I re-started a practice I used to do: write a poem every night, before sleep. It’s the time when I’m most relaxed, and least coherent. I have no to-do list. I have no expectations. Most nights it’s hard going. I have a habit of trying to explain everything, describe it to death. I’m pedantic, dry, scholarly. I keep banging away at an idea, but there’s no magic. The results are deadly.

But some nights, I’m lucky. Some nights a good line will just arrive. As Mark Doty puts it in The Art of Description:

It’s a familiar experience to poets, that arrival of a phrase laden with more sense than we can immediately discern, a cluster of words that seems to know, as it were, more than we do.

More and more, I’m looking forward to this exercise, maybe forty minutes in all, when I write down, “Write a poem. What poem?” and then just begin. What am I going to write about? I might come with an idea – write about camellias, how they bloom in December; or write about the ragged ear of a friend’s tomcat – but I almost never get anything out of these mental notes. No. It’s the thing I don’t want to write about that owns all the energy in the room. While discoursing on the cool and scentless camellia blossoms, some complaint will come up, a statement of longing or loathing. If I’m smart, I’ll willingly go off on that tangent.

I suffer occasionally from a whole night’s worth of insomnia – it was on one of those nights, in a state of exhaustion and gloom, that I wrote – “the blue soak of dawnlight” – and in that phrase was a strangeness and an energy. Something melancholy and synesthetic. The draft took on momentum from there.


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