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"A poem is never finished, only abandoned"

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An aerial view of the harbor at Dunkirk, N.Y.

A couple of weeks ago, I dreamed about a phrase that deserves to have a poem written around it. The capricious muses, though, are teasing me. They’re not opening the door to the place where unwritten poems are stored.

To try to find a different door, I’ve been writing flarf since then. I like the way flarf shapes itself; I’m as much spectator as writer. Flarf, though, becomes tiresome quickly, and after a couple of weeks of flarfing, the poem remains unwritten.

Instead of saying “the poem remains unwritten,” I was going to say, “I’m no closer to writing that unwritten poem.” But that’s not true. Any kind of writing keeps the brain’s spark plugs firing better. So the flarf has brought me closer to the poem, but it’s hard to see, sort of like starting a walk toward a distant landmark. During the first few minutes of the walk, it’s tough to see the progress.


Last night I remembered a poem I’d written 35 years ago and thought it might be fun to rewrite it. Naturally, I couldn’t recall much more than a couple of phrases from the piece, but I remembered enough about the way it felt to be able to take a shot at redoing it. I knew I had a copy of it filed deep in a drawer in my cellar, so I knew I could eventually compare the two versions.

Here’s the original:

Poem on Dunkirk Harbor, Pike Street
September 1974

This is a dingy harbor.
The land ends suddenly at the water by
Turning into concrete and metal rails,
A walkway where little kids
Fish for small silver bass with
Cheap department store tackle
And then carry their catches,
Regardless of size, proudly home,
Hopefully not to eat …

Dominating one shore is a power plant,
Grimy bricks and dirty steel.
Beside it, a mountain of coal
Alongside which bulldozers and
Railroad cars look like toys.
The plant belches its smoke and noise
Loudly enough to drown the cries of the
Gulls that slice through the sky,
Crying and diving.

I don’t care for the first stanza at all, but the second stanza lends itself to a bit of polishing. This is by no means a final version, but I think it’s better:

A power plant towers across the bay,
Grimy bricks and gritty steel,
Flanked by a mountain of coal that makes
Bulldozers and train cars look like toys.
The plant belches smoke and noise,
Drowning the insistent chorus of
Gulls slicing sky, crying and diving.

Anyway, I had a general impression of all of that when I played around with this whole-poem rewrite:

A tall Indian stood between
the road and the lake,
his back turned to
four elements in poisonous proximity,
a pile of history across the bay
rising high as cries of spiraling gulls.
Spanish-speaking boys seemed not to notice,
shirtless as they pattered barefoot,
hands lined with silver,
westward along the steel border.

I don’t know who it was who said, “A poem is never finished, just abandoned,” but that idea means more to me today than it did a day ago. When I sat down to write last night, I had no idea I’d find myself back beside the harbor in Dunkirk, clueless about where my writing would take me and mystified—as I still am today—about how words string themselves together.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 22nd, 2009 03:33 am (UTC)
I eat lunch along Dunkirk harbor very regularly when I'm there for work. Your poem re-write nails the scene -- and will be in my mind the next time I look out over the water.
Dec. 22nd, 2009 04:06 am (UTC)
Thanks, Rich; glad you liked it. I kept flipping between this image and one from Google Earth to zero in on exactly where I was when I wrote the poem in 1974. Lots of memories from those days.
Dec. 22nd, 2009 02:13 pm (UTC)
Gulls that slice through the sky,
Crying and diving.

Gulls slicing sky, crying and diving.

rising high as cries of spiraling gulls

What an interesting glimpse - a "behind the scenes" lj post. How much of the original were you able to accurately recall? Is that what's written above, or is that from the filed-away copy you found?
Dec. 22nd, 2009 02:42 pm (UTC)
I should have been clearer. The original poem appears first here. The rewritten version appears last; that was the second thing I wrote.

The rewrite of the second stanza was the last thing I wrote. I did that after keyboarding the original and asking myself if there was any merit in it; after all, it would have been great to say, "Here's a poem I wrote in 1974, and its hair was perfect! (ah-OOOO!)" In retrospect, the original version was pretty much a clunk, but I rewrote the second stanza to see if anything about it could be salvaged.

Whether the original was "good" or not doesn't really matter to me; I think what's important is the fact that I was always writing and reading back then, which helped build skills for later.

As for the "A tall Indian" rewrite, there's work to be done on that too ("poisonous proximity" doesn't work), but I was glad the Indian made it into the poem, especially at the beginning. It's a reference to a totem pole that stands at the foot of Pike Street, but it can be read on several levels, especially with the mountain of coal having morphed into "a pile of history" that the Indian has turned away from.

Of course, none of that went through my mind before I wrote it or as I wrote it.

Dec. 22nd, 2009 02:47 pm (UTC)
You were clear enough - I was just wondering if you found the written version of the original, or if you were able to fully recall it from memory...
Dec. 22nd, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
Actually, all I could remember verbatim was the first line, but I recalled all the "things" that were in it.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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