Chapter & Verse: How I write verse

Chapter & Verse is a series where JHU Press authors and editors discuss the literary landscape of poetry and prose, whether their own creative work or the literature of others.

Guest post by X. J. Kennedy

Most of my poems begin in bed. I’ll wake up in the morning with a line or a couple of lines rattling around in my mind—a fragment composed during sleep—like a beached stick of driftwood. If it rhymes or has rhythm or makes some odd observation, it looks promising and worth pursuing—like “How suddenly she roused my ardor, / That woman with wide-open car door.” That beginning, despite its outrageously far-out rhyme, led to a short poem, “Close Call.”

Writing in rhyme and meter holds at least one advantage. It enforces memory. In bed, I can tool a poem around on the screen of my brain-pan, revising and fussing with the lines as if I were sitting at a computer. As a rule, I can remember maybe eighteen, twenty lines before my head starts to slop over. Then I have to go set down those lines on paper before they disappear.

Sometimes I start writing a poem without the faintest notion of what I’m going to say. In fact, some of the best stuff began when I didn’t have an idea in my head, letting the rhymes lead me wherever they wanted to go. When I used to teach courses called “creative writing,” I would urge students, most of them free-versifiers, to write a poem in a rhyme scheme—a sonnet, maybe, or a villanelle. “I can’t stand rhyme,” they’d complain. “It won’t let me say what I want to say!” “Exactly,” I would counter. “It won’t let you use that bright little clever idea for a poem you’re so proud of. It wants you to say something better than that and surprise yourself.” As Robert Frost put it, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I love the poem that, when I’m just going from rhyme to rhyme, sneaks up and surprises me. To be sure, this is a wasteful way to write. A lot of fragments lead only to dead ends. I save those fragments, keep them for a dry time when I can browse through them and see whether any will be reinspired and leap back to life.

To tell you the truth, as I’ve grown older, that kind of beautiful unexpectedness doesn’t happen so often anymore. The trouble is that, still trying to write poems in my ninth decade, having been doing it since my second, I’ve become, not better at it, but more facile and in control. Nowadays I’m able to persuade a poem to say what I want it to. This method is unsurprising and less fun, but at least it lets me write something. Nowadays, the poems tend to start with an idea or subject—not a bright or clever idea, but one that rouses emotions in me. Lately I wrote about Lonesome George, a famous giant land turtle of the Galapagos, the last of his sub-species, whose custodians at the Darwin Research Station kept trying to persuade to reproduce. As a versifier writing for print in a digital age, I couldn’t help feeling that both George and I were facing extinction. So, impelled by this feeling of sympathy, I was able to coax the poem to say what I wanted it to.

As a rule, when hard up for a rhyme, I don’t rummage through a rhyming dictionary. The most natural rhymes are the easy ones that occur from saying the alphabet (A, ace; B, base; C, case . . . ). But on those rare occasions when I’m stumped and going nuts, I resort to a wonderful book, Willard R. Espy’s Words To Rhyme With, much more than a rhyming dictionary in the examples of Espy’s light verse strewn through it. It also will suggest near-rhymes galore, which can’t be effective unless the sense of the poem you’re writing calls not for a clink but a clunk. (For poems that deliver such meaningful clunks, Emily Dickinson’s are the great example.)

I try to get the poem right the first time, but it seldom turns out as good as it’s going to be. Revision for me is a process of correcting endless short-sightednesses and stupidities, and urging the words to sound as though they came out of a human mouth. I do a lot of revising, which sometimes continues even after a poem has seen print. I can sympathize with Yeats when he wrote a correspondent that he had a bunch of drafts on hand and faced months of nothing but revising—“What bliss!”

Close Call

How suddenly she roused my ardor,
That woman with wide-open car door
Who with a certain languid Sapphic
Grace into brisk rush-hour traffic
Stepped casually. I tromped the brake,
Her lips shaped softly, “My mistake”—
Then for a moment as I glided
By, our glances coincided
And I drove off, whole ribcage filled
With joy at having not quite killed.

X. J. Kennedy’s most recent Johns Hopkins University Press books are In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955–2007 (a Notable Book of the American Library Association) and a translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Bestiary, or Procession of Orpheus. He has also written some widely adopted textbooks and twenty children’s books. Kennedy lives in Lexington, Mass. For more information, visit his website.