The Sound of Poetry

Today’s poem is quite different from what I usually write. That’s because it’s an older one: I’m hitting up the archives, trying to save time while working on my copyediting backlog. It didn’t work. I’ve had too much fun with today’s poem, as you’ll see, spending an hour editing it, concentrating on getting sound to carry the weight of the imagery in the poem.

Here’s the first draft:

Walking Home

Used to do this nightly alone,
my poverty self unafraid
of streets empty except
for the carapaces of cars
waiting curbside under
streetlights. Whistled
when I saw a man,
to show I wouldn’t go
quietly, usually
Prokofiev, something
jerky to make them move.
It always worked. I never
knew knife’s edge,
the dragging of heels, mouth
gripped by teeth-bitten
hand. Only the smell
of worms rising on wet
concrete, leaves blowing
greenly in wind, and the peace
of a closed door.

When I read a recent version of this poem at Tree Reading Series’ open mic last summer, that night’s featured reader David Starkey, Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, praised it. But still, I wasn’t quite satisfied so as I started to write this post, I decided to play with it some more.

I didn’t want to stretch the poem much. I’m still copyediting madly so time is at a premium and I’m determined to send poems out to journals. I’ve been bad about keeping up with submissions lately. As in, I haven’t sent anything out in ages despite being asked for poems. So at first, I just tweaked a few words.

And then I got sidetracked by an interview on The Malahat Review’s website with Steven Heighton (one of my favourite poets) where he talks about the “re-enactive techniques–the little tricks and torques by which a poem’s word-music and rhythm, punctuation, structure, and layout all embody and re-present their subject matter instead of just describing it” which he says “are at the very heart of poetry.” I kept going back to reread his words, looking at my poem to learn how they could be applied. In the end, he prodded me to edit more keenly than I normally would have. Taught me how to push an image hard until its sharpness (in this case) shone.

You’ll notice I’ve only used a few of the tricks in Heighton’s bag. I’ve only played with the words and the rhythm. So far, I’ve not started experimenting with punctuation, structure, or layout in my poetry, preferring instead to concentrate on its sound. I’m not saying I won’t work on the visuals one day. I never rule anything out. But for now, I’m still specializing.

This was once a small poem, another one for the mulch bed. But I’m getting fonder of it. Let me know what you think.

Current version:

Walking Home

Used to do this nightly, unafraid
of streets empty except
for the carapaces of cars
waiting curbside under
the shells of streets’ lights. Whistled
when I saw a man
to prove I wouldn’t go
quietly, usually
Prokofiev, the tune
prickly to prod them
along. It always worked. I never
knew the sharp slit
of a knife’s edge,
heels black-dragged under
a heaving hot heaviness, mouth gripped
by teeth-bitten
hands, a belly’s blood
bruising. Only
the soft scent
of worms rising on wet
roads, leaves blowing greenly
in wild wind, and the luck
of a locked door tight
at my back.



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