This afternoon I sat down to write and the first thing I wrote was a rather scathing free write addressed to myself. In this free write the words “shame,” “fraud,” “lazy,” “unfocused,” and “cowardly” came up. I didn’t realize how pissed off I was at myself until I started writing about pissed off I was. The simple truth of the matter is that I have not written anything that remotely resembles a poem in about 5 months. It’s despicable. I internalized my feelings about this lack of productivity but whenever I would stand in front of my creative writing students and talk about revision and the only way to get better is to keep writing, well, I felt like a jerk. Because was I doing any of that? No. I was reading a lot and I did have a lot of ideas for poems floating around in my head, but who cares? Nothing was making it to paper.
It felt good to get it out on paper, and once that was out of the way, I felt renewed. I always feel better after working on a poem for a few hours, even if it isn’t any good and even if it doesn’t go anywhere, so I turned the page from my angry free write and started to draft a poem.
Last fall (sigh) I took my creative writing students to the IMA and found myself meditating on the painting Hotel Lobby by Edward Hopper. I blogged about the experience here, but here’s another look at the painting:
And here are the notes I made:
Oil on canvas. “Though this looks like a scene from a story, it’s not clear there really is one.” Two women and two men. Two older and two younger. Point of view seems to be from the doorway. Hopper’s paintings are always “busy” in terms of people but they are so lonely because the people always seem to be ignoring each other. Even in conversation they are lonely. Women are always young, blonde. There is a darkness in terms of color that seeps into the atmosphere as if something horrible is just below the surface.
I’ve done a little more reading since then about Hopper and the painting:
* Robert Henri, Hopper’s mentor/teacher, once told him “It isn’t the subject that matters but how you feel about it.”
* Hopper placed his characters as if they were captured just before or just after the climax of a scene. The characters in this painting could be based on Hopper and his wife, Josephine. There is a contrast between the two older individuals in the painting and the two younger people.
I wrote out a couple of drafts of this poem and then thought about maybe working it into a villanelle but after about an hour it occurred to me that the villanelle wasn’t the form for this poem. Mostly because as Strand and Boland say in The Making of a Poem:
“…the form refuses to tell a story. It circles around and around refusing to go forward in a any kind of linear development, and so suggesting at the deepest level, powerful recurrences of mood and emotion and memory.”
My poem was trying to tell a story, so the villanelle wasn’t going to work. I’d already put myself well into the narrative. Anyway. This is what I came up with after about three hours:
His brown wool overcoat drapes
heavily over his one arm, close
enough so that the hem brushes
the green brocade armchair. She looks
up, the peacock feather on her hat whispering
against the mahogany molding at her back.
Together they arrived with their monogrammed
luggage packed with diner dress. This lobby is known
familiar in its overstuffed chairs, rich wood and shadow.
It is empty, save one golden haired girl reading
a book. She is oblivious to the young clerk, who stares
at her long legs from behind his desk.
The dining room is now dark, deserted. It is late.
The lobby cast in shadow and the young clerk’s face
illuminated by one lone lamp.
It is 1943 and the war is on. Yet hotels still
run, guests still dine, clerks still stare at young girls
who still read. He still stands up and she still
looks to him in question.
I’m not in love with it because it doesn’t work towards that final stanza like I want it to. As per usual, I’ve got too much going on in my brain and it didn’t quite make it all onto the page, but I think it might be worth working on it some more to see where it goes.