How a poem gets written

Last autumn when I got to do a talk about “the art of noticing” — the relationship betwen wonder and the act of creating — one of my friends asked what my creative process was like. My first thought, honestly, was “what process?”

Most of the poems I’ve written have been spontaneous; rarely do I sit down and say “I am going to write a poem now, and it’s going to be about such and such a thing.” Planning is not something I’ve been very good about when it comes to writing, and so I usually wait until the spirit strikes me between the eyes with an idea. (That’s one reason why I try to participate in poem-a-day challenges in April and November and why I pray and pull out a lot of my hair when writing Advent poems each week in December — both exercises tone my flabby writing muscles a bit. Well, I guess pulling out my hair doesn’t really do that).

Sometimes, though, there is a component of planning, and sometimes it takes a long time for an idea to take hold and take shape enough to then write about it. I see why the ancient Greeks had the concept of muses who inspired creative activity — sometimes a poem has seemed to leap from my mind onto the page in a matter of minutes, while other times it’s taken hours of slow, painful writing, thinking, rewriting, rethinking, etc., to finally drag the sorry thing into the world. I thought I’d share with you examples of both kinds of poems and how they came to be.

A couple of years ago, in November, a writing mentor’s father-in-law died. This mentor wrote a tribute to his father-in-law in his weekly e-newsletter for writers and shared a story about the live oaks and other large, slow-growing trees his father-in-law had planted on his property because he had a vision for what they would one day become. The day the newsletter came out a tree-loving friend texted me encouraging me to read it, as it had touched her heart and she thought it would mine, too. It did. My friend and I were both struck by the deliberateness with which the father-in-law had cultivated his land and the blessing he wanted to bestow through trees that he would never live to see fully grown (a live oak takes about 75 years to reach its mature size and shape, the internet tells me). We also both had deep longings for places of our own, places where we could plant metaphorical as well as literal roots, flourish and grow, and nurture the flourishing and growth of others. “A place for planting trees,” my friend texted me. Bing! went the muse.

It’s been many years since I read The Secret Garden, but I read it often enough as a child (and have listened to the musical enough as an adult) to hold the crucial parts in my imagination — and who, having even once read it, could forget Mary Lennox’s timid plea for “a bit of earth”? I knew the poem I was writing was going to end up with “a place for planting trees,” but to plant trees you have to start, at least, with a bit of earth — so I did. I honestly couldn’t tell you now (or, perhaps, even then) how the poem got written or why I chose the images I did. I think, though, that it was a distillation of ideas and images that said “home” to me — all the wooden floors I’ve ever loved in my family’s and other families’ homes; glowing candles from Sally & Sarah Clarkson’s The Life-Giving Home; hearth-fires and havens from the home of childhood friends; trees and birds and aspects of nature that are dear to me. We all long for home, whether we realize it or not, and I think the poem was born from the comradeship of experiencing that same sort of yearning beside another person as you both witness someone pay tribute to a person who has stewarded his place on earth well and is now enjoying his eternal truest home. I think it might have written itself in about 30 minutes.

You can read “a place for planting trees” here, and it’s also in my collection no forgotten grave.

The next poem happened rather differently.

Eleven or twelve years ago I was at our neighborhood garden nursery at Christmastime, browsing through their magical displays of ornaments. (They really have the best store at Christmas; it’s exactly like being in Santa’s workshop.) Among the gorgeous red and gold baubles I saw some decorations that immediately captured my imagination (and, when they finally went on sale, some of my paycheck): silvery, water-splotched “mercury glass” shapes with intricate casings of rusted wire. I don’t know why I thought they were so amazing, but they said something to me about mystery, how death and beauty walk hand-in-hand in so many things in this broken world. I get them out at Christmastime and hang them up in my room, and they still evoke those feelings of “thin places,” of peering through the cracks in the world into the deeper mystery that carries us all. This was inspiration 1.

Around the same time I was introduced to Andrew Peterson’s Advent/Christmas album Behold the Lamb of God. This collection has a song called “Labour of Love,” which is about the moments immediately surrounding Jesus’s birth. It opens with the lyrics “It was not a silent night … there was blood on the ground.” Five or six years ago I got to sing the song at my church on Christmas Eve, and since then I’ve been fascinated by the messiness of the Incarnation and how excruciatingly human Christ became on our behalf. This also raised in my mind the idea of “two Christmases,” how on the one hand we have the happy tinsel Santa Claus Christmas (nothing inherently wrong with that, necessarily), which tends toward the secular and commerical (and, perhaps, socially acceptable), and then, beneath that shiny veneer, there’s the true Christmas, the ancient, mysterious, actually rather unsettling story that involves most of the unpleasant things we don’t like to think about … and miracles we don’t know what to do with. This is what I came to think of as the “blood and wonder” Christmas. That was inspiration 2.

And then 2020 unrolled. We’re all familiar with the larger wounds laid bare in our country (and others) last year, so I won’t elaborate on those. Suffice it to say, in mid-November I was thinking of the utter corruption of mankind apart from God, and how even good desires can be twisted into something immensely evil. Perhaps I was thinking of my Christmas tree ornaments. Perhaps I was thinking of something completely different. At any rate, the phrase “all man’s desire is rusted wire/that poisons as it pricks the skin” popped into my head. I think I wrote it down somewhere. At some point, another half-phrase and rhyme pairing sprang to mind: “So Christmas calls in blood and wonder … ripped asunder.” I jotted it down on a sticky note and put it somewhere — maybe in the notebook where I was trying to write my poems out by hand, because that’s where it is now.

On November 18 I sat down with my notebook and fountain pen and wrote the following stanza:

all man’s desire is rusted wire
that poisons as it pricks the skin
oh, who shall lead us, who shall ever
let us come back home again?

I scribbled down another stanza, too, but that one seemed more like an ending than the second piece of a poem. I was stymied … so I put my notebook and pen away and determined to come back to it after awhile. Five days later I wrote six more stanzas, crossing out and rephrasing things as I went. The page looks a mess, and I can hardly make out what some of the lines say or what the final iteration is supposed to be. Everything is out of order — the first stanza I wrote became the final poem’s fourth; the second stanza written is now the last one; everything in the middle lands more or less in the order in which I wrote it.

I also tend not to write in rhymed stanzas as I often think it comes out sounding trite, but I’m going to give the blame/credit for this one to G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien. Characters in several of Chesterton’s books compose songs (which the reader then has to imagine a tune for) with very definite rhythm and rhyme schemes, and I’ve often found myself “ta-tum, ta-tum, ta-tum, ta-tumptety-tumptety-tum”ming afterward whether I have definite words in mind to fit the rhythm or not. Tolkien’s song “Over the misty mountains cold” in The Hobbit is also in this vein, though in a somber rather than rollicking mood. His phrase “on crowns they hung/the dragon fire, on twisted wire/they meshed the light of moon and sun” echoes in my mind frequently, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where the phrase “all man’s desire is rusted wire” sprang from, as the syllable counts as the same. This is probably “unconscious inspiration 0.5,” in that case.

I often don’t revise my poems very much before publishing them (which probably shows), but this one took a lot of revising — and I’m not sure whether I’m completely satisfied with it now, to be honest. Rhyme and rhythm often make it difficult for me to judge something fairly because both of those supports are necessary to the structure of a poem written in that style, so changing things is sometimes more complicated. Here, however, is the version of the poem that appears in “all now mysterious,” my Christmas collection from last year.

blood and wonder

earth still lies heaped upon the graves
of children who too young have died
but who can stand with blameless face
since adam wrecked the world in pride?

and mother eve, without a thought
played god while all her children slept
thus cain in anger murder wrought —
and we our brothers ill have kept

the earth burns dry and floods rain down
but we our faces turn away
to curse the tares by others sown
while darkness steals the light from day

all man’s desire is rusted wire
that poisons as it pricks the skin
oh, who shall heal us, who shall ever
let us come back home again?

so in the dark we wail and mourn
yet in the clutch of suffering
lo, unto us a child is born —
the only one Who could be King

and into grief He came — a babe —
the weakest thing the world could stand —
He, tightly wrapped and swaddled safe
still held that whole world in His hand

so Christmas comes in blood and wonder
and God takes flesh and bones like ours
then the gloom of grief is ripped asunder
for the dark is pierced by a thousand stars

and now we see through a lightening glass
the hope that one day bright will be
when night is finally in the past
and morning breaks eternally

There’s a lot in here that reminds me of Chesterton, and there are even some lines or phrases that I’m not entirely sure are originally my own. It’s certainly made up of lots of bits of other things and people — as, I suppose, much of any writing is (especially since we begin to talk like the people we “hang out with,” even if those folks happen to be writers who died a long time ago).

What interests me most about this poem, however, is how long it took, from the initial awakening of an idea, to come to fruition. More than a decade! And yet, all of those various elements — including, I think, the events of 2020 — were necessary in order to bring it into the world.

I wish I had a pithy and super-inspiring way to wrap up this unnecessarily long explanation, but just two things come to mind: listen, and be patient. You never know what good you might hear that will spark inspiration … and you never know how long it might take (or what else you might need along the way) to fulfill that inspiration. And that’s OK.