My latest entry in the Journal of Radical Wonder is "Ride Home," a poem that originally came out in the 2016 book Angels in Seven. There is no great inspiration behind this one; like many poems, it simply arose from free writing. A mother and son return home from a fair in the rain. The son has won a stuffed giraffe. The mother hopes he had a good time. There is another person, apparently her husband and the boy's father, waiting at home. Something is amiss with the family, but they survive, at least for another day. Dinner is soup, and they sleep in separate rooms. At least, they plan to -- the final lines of the poem use the future tense with "will." Perhaps the characters have their routine memorized.
For this poem, I used couplets, which is a form that I gravitate to frequently. I think I like the visual look of them; even with enjambment, they have a pleasing rhythm on the page, with a line, then a response, and then a pause. Many of my favorite poems are couplet poems. Here is one called "Nocturne" by Jennifer K. Sweeney, which opens her book How to Live on Bread and Music (Perugia Press, 2009):
There is a blue city in mind
along a rippling canal,
clean and unpeopled but for a musician
who plays a harp without strings.
The city has one chair
where he sits by the broad strokes of water.
A lone streetlamp tends
its blue arc of light.
A Persian door. A zeppelin sky.
The world filters through
his empty frame as he plucks the air.
Maybe you hear a song or maybe you don't.
That is the choice we are always making.
That poem probably inspired any number of mine. I can't say which ones, or how, but it probably did. I have found that poetic inspiration works that way -- not a matter of imitation, but absorption. Often, before I start writing, I read a poem by another author. It doesn't matter which one. Someone has begun a conversation on the page, and I keep that conversation going: by borrowing a single word, structuring a sentence a similar way, taking an object or emotion and twisting it into new associations. Consider some of the phrases in Sweeney's poem: What color other than blue might a city be? What other locations might have a single chair? A harp without strings -- what other item might go without an essential part?
Many of my first drafts begin with questions like that. By the time the poems are finished, they bear no trace of the original inspiration; through multiple drafts, they've found their own way. My own pieces may inspire others. Likely, I'll never know. What matters is that we try. Poetry is written by human beings, and I think we'll go on writing it as an act of defiance no matter how powerful ChatGPT becomes.
"Ride Home" is one of my personal favorite poems that I've written. Originally, it was a much longer piece, but the revision process condensed it. I am particularly proud of the phrase "say grace for what is second-rate," which I may have written as an admonition to myself. I have a history of wanting things to be sublime. Sometimes, we have to accept the imperfect. That's another choice -- to borrow a line from Sweeney -- that we are always making.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.