Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Start at the very beginning

I came across an interview with the American poet, Richard Wilbur, the other day.  It goes back to 1977, so in one sense it's well out of date.  In spite of that, what Wilbur has to say (often funny, always perceptive) remains worth reading not just for readers of his poetry, but for poets and writers in general.  

He's asked, fairly early in the interview, that typical question: how does he go about writing?  The interviewer means in practical terms, not in reflective ones.   Wilbur's response is:

With pencil and paper and laboriously, very slowly on the whole. I do envy people who can compose on the typewriter, though I reject as preposterous Charles Olson's ideas about the relation of the typewriter to poetic form. I don't approach the typewriter until the thing is completely done, and whatever margins the typewriter might offer have nothing to do with the form of a poem as I conceive it. I write poems line by line, very slowly; I sometimes scribble alternative words in the margins rather densely, but I don't go forward with anything unless I am fairly satisfied that what I have set down sounds printable, sayable. I proceed as Dylan Thomas once told me he proceeded—it is a matter of going to one's study, or to the chair in the sun, and starting a new sheet of paper. On it you put what you've already got of a poem you are trying to write. Then you sit and stare at it, hoping that the impetus of writing out the lines that you already have will get you a few lines farther before the day is done. I often don't write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let's say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper. Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely distinguishable from catatonia.
Wilbur as a young man
That wonderful last word, catatonia, is at once a joke and a truth.  To the outsider, at the best of times, it often looks like a writer is doing nothing.  (In the movies writers are always hammering away at typewriters or keyboards; this is only true in part.)  Wilbur here explains why it looks like that. 

What he says also explains why writers have a tendency to fiddle with things when they're 'supposed' to be writing.  The desk name plates, for instance, or a family portrait, or the pens and pencils in the holder, and so on.   It's like writer Anne Lamott wrote in a recent tweet: Wrote one hour, 7 minutes. Not great but had VERY low expectations: and met them. Not life-threateningly bad. So I get a partial credit.

I'm intrigued by Wilbur's approach to writing - he seems almost to be saying that once he's got one line right he proceeds to the next.  I don't think it's likely to be that simple.  However, there's a parallel in how I do much of my writing, I think: poems tend to start at a point and go from there.  They seldom start in the middle and work outwards, or backwards.  Music, especially songs, tends to start with the first words of the poem I'm setting and keep moving forward.  Of course in each case there's lots of revision and sometimes there'll be switching around of material, but in general the framework applies: start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.  

I haven't read much of Wilbur as yet, though I got his Collected Poems out of the library today.  However I came across one of his wittier poems the other day: The Prisoner of Zenda. 
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