Where do poems come from? Part one: Boring, everyday life.

Here’s a bit of juvenelia:

 
SOUVENIR
 
The flowers you gave me
are wilting;
they fade,
they shrivel,
disintegrate,
and blow away like white ashes.
 
When I was in college, potpourri burners were in fashion. I loved the smell of roses, and it was easy to find a good rose potpourri. One afternoon, I decided to light the votive inside my potpourri burner, but I didn’t have a good match – just a lighter. Rather than mess with lighting the candle and then placing it inside its little niche, I rolled up a piece of paper and used it like a lighting stick to reach the candle in the burner. You guessed it: when the paper burned to ash there on my desk, it resembled a flower petal.
 
How mundane. 
 
The truth is, I have no idea where poems come from. Or, rather, I’m certain they come from many different places. Sometimes they come from the most everyday sources, and that’s what this post is about. I’ve mentioned here before how my poem, “New Year’s Eve,” originated with a sun that looked exactly as I’ve described it there. That’s not enough to explain the whole; the rest was a condensation of mood and scenes from my own treasury of imagery absorbed over the years from the culture, from experiences, from anywhere, really.
 
Not very satisfying, is it?
 
Shouldn’t there be some deep meaning? But perhaps there is. I’m of the opinion that meaning resides in the work, but in the work as a sign that relates author and audience and their shared experiences and cultural milieu. Is that inchoate enough?
 
Here’s another example:
 
 
APPARITION

All day, the sun dropped its
hooks of ultraviolet and
ensnared this house, a
small white prisoner of
summer heat, a

Petri dish for sleepless thoughts.
The slow hours settle,
crimson dust on the window sill.
The moon, behind a filter of clouds, soaks up
the day’s excess of sunlight,
leaving only this
unreal warmth,

the lingering sensation
of a touch out of vacuous air,
an echo
emerging from the persistence of silence,
the haunting familiarity
of a dream that has not yet been dreamt.
 
 
One thing I can’t get used to while living out here in Northern California is that when the sun goes down, so does the temperature. Back home in Michigan, that is certainly not the case. Hot, muggy summer days make for hot, muggy summer nights. Sometimes you come home and have no energy to do anything but lie around trying to keep cool. Sometimes you write a poem about it. Then it can become a metaphor…for what? Well, that’s part of the point of poetry (and all art, really): if you could say it plainly, you wouldn’t write the poem. 
 
But sometimes a metaphor strikes you or, in the case of the following example, catches your attention in a gutter in a street in Ann Arbor while you’re there, walking alone at night, as you do. And then you press it into service.
 
 
PORTRAIT FOR THE WALL OF A PRIVATE DRESSING ROOM

The mirror won’t reflect me anymore.

It shows me pictures of this
woman with no smile-muscles
and no soul.
Her skin, a worn-through garment,
clings and sags, betrays
the twisted bones and knotted fibers
of a crumpled-and-
discarded-empty-
candy-wrapper body.

 

Her eyes are wild, confused,
and go their separate ways,
chasing chimeras.
No voice
escapes her fluttering lips.


She presses her face to the
glass that confines her.
By the awkward light
of her incommunicative gape I
cake on more make-up: decorate
each blemish, map out
the growing shadows underneath
My eyes.
 
 
Sometimes poems come from very mundane things: a burned piece of paper; the temperature indoors on a summer night; litter in the street. Sometimes they are more directly about an experience. Sometimes they are thinly-disguised memoirs. Sometimes they are responses to other literary works—I tend to write poems after reading biographies, and I’ve written in response to poems too. In future posts, I’ll give more examples. For now, I leave you with hum-drum detritus.
 
The above poems are found in When Midnight Comes Around (1998), Deciphering Scars (1997), and When Midnight Comes Around (1998), respectively.
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