Lately I have been working on a series of poems to memorialize a long-lost loved one. Given the rich store of memories I have of this person, the poems start easily. Sometimes they develop and end easily. That’s not good. Poems that please me are not easily written. Most often I get a good start overwriting what I think the poem will be and stare at the page, underline the good bits, rewrite several times longhand, then move to the computer to see what the shape of the work will be on the page. I imagine my most knowledgeable readers and try to anticipate their responses. I know that one will opt for clarity, one will resist any hint of sentimentality, and one will applaud craft. But each of them will demand depth.
Reaching deep means questioning why I write each poem in this series. Am I soothing my own grief? That’s therapy, not poetry. Am I attracting attention with the drama and flash of words? That’s egotism, not poetry. Am I keeping the memory of this person alive? That’s what–manipulation of reality/using anothers history for my own purposes? But if I can do all of these and more, then I might have a good poem: honestly identify my own feelings and actions, bring to light a life otherwise lost in time, provide the readers with fresh images of a world seen through my eyes. Rarely do early drafts do it all; finished drafts come closer, though never perfectly meeting these criteria. Somewhere along the path from impulse to image, I have to interrogate the writer in me and ask her if she’s really being honest. If so, let’s do it. If not, tear it up and start again.