Writing Poetry: Inspiration vs. Craft (pt. 3 — the backburner)

In the shaping of a poem, inspiration provides its genesis: the recognition of the moment, image, feeling, etc. that you as the poet are trying to capture. Craft provides the structure and the technical work that allows you to capture it. But what about when neither of them seems to have an answer?

A few years ago, I wrote a short poem at a poetry slam (at a seniors’ centre, which is another story), riffing on the theme of Little Boy Blue. The second stanza starts like this:

Little Boy Blue, your music is fine,
[da-dum] than coffee and [dee-dum] than wine

… so what are da-dum and dee-dum? For nearly three years I have been playing with this line, trying to figure out whether it’s supposed to be

smoother than coffee and stronger than wine


stronger than coffee and smoother than wine

or something else entirely. I like the mild alliterative effect of having both adjectives start with S. My trouble is that both adjectives apply equally to both nouns: we talk about strong wine, or smooth [tasting] wine, or strong coffee, or smooth [tasting] coffee. I like the first line better, because I like the image of the music being intoxicating, like strong wine. But then I like the second line better, because I like the image of the music being invigorating, like strong coffee. But actually I like the first better, because I like the image of the music going down smoothly (as it were) like dark black coffee. But really I like the second better, because I like the image of the music going down smoothly like rich red wine. And around and around and around I go.

In this case, neither inspiration nor craft seems to be able to help me much. I’m stuck; perhaps the best thing to do is simply to pick one and let it be what it will be. (Yet even that is somewhat unsatisfactory, because I am left with the gnawing question of whether I picked the right line.) So now what?

Now comes another tool in my poet’s toolbox: leaving it alone. Forgetting about it. Letting it sit in one of the dusty back corners of my mind until, one day, it will suddenly jump back to the forefront, triumphantly declaring what it ought to be. This has worked for me before. I had a poem I wrote once that wasn’t quite right in its last stanza — but I couldn’t pinpoint the exact problem, and so, of course, couldn’t fix it, either. So I let it alone. About two years later, it suddenly occurred to me when I was in the middle of doing something completely unrelated, that I had used the word “turn” twice in the last stanza, the effect of which was rather clunky. I changed one instance to “face,” instead, and presto — a fixed, finished, poem. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my subconscious, inspiration and craft had been having a quiet conclave, working slowly but surely to give me the right word.

Inspiration and craft are useful tools, but they’re not always the kind we can wield totally at our own will. Sometimes there is simply no way to force the [rhyme/line/stanza], despite our best efforts. Sometimes the best thing we can do with a piece of work is to walk away.