Peter Filkins on Writing Poetry

Guest post by Peter Filkins

Randall Jarrell said that writing poetry was like walking across a field at night while hoping to be struck by lightning. While the fickle and unpredictable nature of genuine inspiration can be much like that, there are also poems that you know are sort of there and waiting to be written, but which need the slow stewing of time and experience to bring them to full realization. “A Stand of Maple” was just such a poem for me, for I knew I had its essential subject matter several years before I wrote it. Traveling often on a back road through the hills of western Massachusetts, I can’t even recall when I first admired a long allée of tall sugar maples lining both sides of the road, a heaving surge of stone wall lacing together their sturdy trunks, and sap buckets nailed to them each spring. I would often say to myself, “Now that’s something worth writing about,” and then tuck it away in a mental file of images and subjects I wanted to get to, but without any essential bit of language having offered the right inroad into the experience.

And then one day at home, for whatever reason, the venture of a poem about them seemed worth it. In fact, by then the maples were much the worse for wear, and it was starting to become clear that they would not be around all that much longer. I suppose that glimpse is what even gave rise to the analogy of the sapping tubes as life support, as well as how novel their very existence was after having seen who knows how many New England winters. Still, I did not want it to be a poem about loss or mortality, for I had enjoyed the life of those trees for so very long, and it was that life that indeed came to seem wondrous, “intrepid and insensible,” even “unlikely.” Yet I recall being most satisfied with thinking of their very nature as “irrecusable,” that they were simply there, bearing a kind of silent witness to the possibility of beauty and hardiness and the perception of both, as well the ironic offering culled each spring from their haggard trunks, “amber on the tongue” being, for me, the only real way to convey the sensory integrity of maple syrup and what it means to be alive and lost to its sweetness.


A Stand of Maple

Either side of the pot-holed postal road
they rise, imperious in their haggard bark
against a stone wall spilling boulders like coins
among caramel-colored rays of winter sun
conceding snowdrift shadow its ice-bound blue.
Soon sap will fill them, swelling sagging veins
of plastic tubing stretched like life support
above mercurial rivulets of melting snow,
while nearby and palpable, hints of green
will rouse a meadow to swaying life again.
And yet for now, frozen in this aching cold,
recalcitrant as a riddle, branches whistling
in a razor wind, who could possibly know
their future a season hibernating in starches
released by fire boiling their sugars clean?
How intrepid and insensible, how unlikely
the world can seem, an empty length of road
boring through maples, bitter capillaries of cold
promising sweetness, irrecusable the thrum
of buckets in springtime, amber on the tongue.

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