03 Oct

By Rodney Nelson

(This contribution was originally featured in Wolftree Magazine.)

to be read before the poem or during it

A poem does not come. It flies by, leaving not much residue but enough to work with when you sit down and write. You happened to be “on location” when you saw this one. The few sense data you got had to do with the trail you were on. At writing time (two days later in Fargo, North Dakota) it did not occur to you to use proper nouns. More about this below. Generic details would establish the kind of setting: “wooded ridge,” “midlake,” “trail,” and three trees of the north. The “white” you applied to each of the latter was accurate and also hinted of light and lack of undergrowth—a wooded ridge that let you see out. The time of year and the point in that time showed in the third stanza; and the next got to the pith of all backcountry walking, viz., that you don’t need to know where the trail will go or to pin a tag on it (because it may have a name that you have not yet heard). Your syntax became tricky in stanza five, which could be read in either of two ways: “to live on the rock/ of the windy point/ and be there—be here!”; or be here be there, whichever, it’s all one. It seems you already had been to the point and left the point, which you had, in that “here” and “there,” all one or not, were distinct. At the end you might have been watching the new moon—from camp?—and were glad to have avoided any manic human reactions to the full one.

the poem


a one-mile narrow
and wooded ridge to
the point in midlake

but an open trail
in white cedar and
white pine and white spruce

summer coming down
to end among them
and at the water

this walk to open
another without
any name or with

to live on the rock
of the windy point
and be there be here

new moon tonight of
no glorying no

to be read later

Robert Bly liked to make use of proper nouns, e.g., “in a wheat field outside of Madison, Minnesota”; and that is just what you do not want to do. It would ruin your tone and evoke a clutter of wrong associations. But now that the poem has been read, you can show all: Chase Point Trail between lakes Coon and Sandvik; Scenic State Park; Bigfork, Itasca County, Minnesota. Poetry is a life, a way you chose or were chosen to be. You do not need to adhere to a writing schedule, but you have to be ready when a poem flies through to write as much of it as you can. So you don’t write at the prompt of anything adventitious—not on assignment, not to theme (although you may look back and see a hitherto unnoticed thematic connection between or among certain poems)—and in fact you never plan ahead. When asked about something you have written, you are pleased to reread and remember. That’s all the compensation you want. You are unworried about the unreliability of what they used to call inspiration. Just go trekking around the woods and the prairies and the buttes as usual, and a poem will find you.


(Rodney Nelson has a book forthcoming through Middle Island Press: Time Tacit. He also has many other books available online.)


Posted by on October 3, 2017 in News & Reviews


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