Saying No to Bad Poetry (even if it comes from the Universe)

While I was working with Don Domanski at the Banff Centre, Don bought himself a meteorite. Well, a lovely great chunk of one, at any rate. Having paid the fees to go there, I couldn’t afford to buy quite such a large piece, but I knew I needed to get one for myself. As I’ve said before, I’ve been an astronut all my life, wanting to go into space and see the stars. If I couldn’t do that myself, the next best thing was having a rock that had. Or so the theory went.

I was so excited after I bought my rock, that I went back to my room and wrote this poem.

First Version:

Shopping for the Universe

It’s a short hike down into town, quiet
today, only the sound of wind soughing
through pines far overhead, a song
I know by heart. I keep my eyes
open, watching for the rutting
of elks, not wanting to intrude on antlers
long enough to gore me until
I bleed but the way is clear. When I reach
houses, their lawns are smooth, no
hoof has marred the green.

The sun is so far away, a cold
thought in a blue scattered sky. I tie
my scarf tighter around my neck,
walk a little faster as I search.
I expected to be pulled
to the shop, a power stronger
than a magnet to grip
my heart as I neared and pull
me closer but no. I have to walk
looking up in the usual way.

And then I find it, the place where
earth’s heart lies sliced, displayed,
parts wrapped in silver to hang
around a neck, grace a finger
where light can see it. Still
no call, no way to tell
which cabinet holds outer space.

I ask for help, am guided to the boring
part of the store. Plain black, only
the slimmest glimmer of red
an occasional streak. A silver
polished side to show how pretty
the universe can be, if you
work at it.

But I don’t need
prettiness. You place
a planet in my hand, what was once
part of its heart or maybe
a mountain range. We’ll never
know. All I see is the end, edges
smoothed by air’s hot
buffing but I know, oh
I know where it’s been. It’s seen
more than me, slipped through
the rose gas heart of a nebula, flying
on its way to me.

I use credit
and walk out, wearing
the universe around my neck.

Don saw a later version of the above draft and he hated it. He’d warned me and his other students that he would be blunt. And he was. This poem didn’t work for him.

Or for me. I’d got carried away in my enthusiasm for the meteorite and had allowed it to overrule my standards. I knew the poem needed a lot of work. But I didn’t do it then. Instead I buried it until it spoke to me again a few weeks ago.

When it did, it came back in a new form:

Shopping for the Universe

You’ve come a long way from home, flying past
the dust space holds, the iron sparks
of stars clustered in black vacuum, the swirling
clouds of nebulae where worlds
are born. Did you see Alpha Centauri
or the rose gas beauty of Orion? Did Sirius’
gravity tug at you as you flew? We’ll never
know where you came from: ripped
heart from a planet’s rage, a collision, the deep
thought of a star’s explosion. Only
your landing remains, the scattering
of tektites past impact’s high wall, the sizzle
of the small ones caught under
your hot breath, the scorched earth, the fried
worms not able to grow
again. And the long settle, the wait
for time’s cooling years, the chisels
to carve your ribs into splinters that land
continents away, in a cold
place where you sit polished on a glass
shelf. Twenty-nine, ninety-five says
the sticker and you’re mine.

But sadly, this still isn’t good. I foolishly sent it off to Don before it was ready and before I’d received comments back from a previous set of poems. His comment on one poem in that set was that I’d started with just one idea and stayed with it throughout, that I hadn’t allowed my imagination to move beyond. Ouch. But he was absolutely right. And worse yet, I could see I had done the same with this poem.

It’s a nice idea, mind you. I like it. But that’s because I like space and the thought of where my meteorite’s been. But is that enough to carry a poem? No. There has to be a deeper thought. A deeper reason for it. The language has to challenge the reader in some way. As Don said to me, “If you feel comfortable writing a poem, you know it’s the wrong path.”

So here’s the current version of this poem:


I’ve pulled it. Watch this space in future. It may reappear.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.