What I have loved about John McPhee is how he manages to be transparent in his telling of his tales. It’s like he’s standing behind you, just out of range of your peripheral vision, but speaking into your ear, whether he is narrating a raft trip down the Colorado or trying to explain the many geologic folds of the eastern seaboard. But in his recent book Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, he reveals himself, and his approach to writing, all the things he’s learned over his long career, primarily as a staff writer for the New Yorker. If he gets a little cute, maybe it’s because he’s not used to talking about himself, and, after all, after all the fine books he’s written, I guess he deserves to be as cute as he feels like. But he is also generous in offering readers a glimpse into his thought process as he has put together some of his classic stories.
The most interesting essay to me was “Structure.” He talks about the process of trying to figure out where to start a story, not to mention where to eend it. And as a poet, I appreciate this dilemma. I often find, both in terms of genuine interest, and in terms of energy, the power of a poem often starts several lines after I think the poem starts. I often find this in other people’s poems as well, people who have entrusted me to look at an early darft and comment. Other people have characterized it as “throat clearing.”
But McPhee usefully talks about the structure of a story, and how you can potentially start anywhere in the structure. As I don’t tend to write narrative, or story-telling, poems, this does not entirely apply to me, but the idea that a poem or a story need not start at what might be considered “the beginning,” is useful. Yes, sometimes you need to set a stage, or lead a reader in to a situation, or give a little back story, but often the most effective thing to do is to start in media res, the middle of things.
This is why I love the editing exercise of cutting the poem in half and starting with the middle section and see what happens. Maybe the top half goes on the bottom, or is best slid in somewhere after the middle, so a back and forth effect is created, or maybe the top half gets tossed, because it’s not pulling its weight.
McPhee has often created fairly elaborate diagrams to understand the basic structure of his story, and then decides what event markers can make good starts and ends. In fact, the essay itself rambles around a bit, and crosses back on itself, and occasionally tried my patience, as sometimes his work has done. But I appreciated the journey, as I almost always do.
He emphasizes, though, that the structure of the telling must come out of the story itself.
And isn’t that true of a poem, too, as I talked about in an earlier post about form. I experienced this myself recently, as I set out to write what I thought might be an essay. And I wrote, as I always do, in prose, stretching into the topic. Then I set to introduce possible line breaks and stanzas.
As I began to do this, I got a visceral reaction. No no no, something said. The line breaks almost made me sick to my stomach to look at. I took them out, let the lines roll out and breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever this thing was, and it might be that puzzling beast we call a “prose poem,” it wanted to stretch out, it wanted to wander and linger. And I also started to jumble what came first, in the end cutting out sections and shuffling them around like a card shark, in much that intuitive process in which I try to put together collections of poems.
As I’ve mentioned before (it’s lucky I have few regular readers, as I appear to be shamelessly repeating myself), Tony Hoagland usefully talked about how attention must be paid to how the reader is asked to enter the poem, through a door or thrown into the deep end?
McPhee described the process in one story of realizing that an encounter with a bear that happened, in chronological terms, about three-quarters of the way through the narrative, could serve to shape the entire piece. So, understanding that particular story as a circle, he started with the bear, and everything else led back to that moment.
It seems like a good idea to start with a bear. I find often people are committed to the chronological narrative of what they’re talking about in a poem, and can get visibly shaken when it’s suggested that they throw that chronology out the window.
I was thinking about this while reading Diane Seuss’s poem “Still Life with Turkey.” The center of the poem is her recollecting being asked, when she was a young child, if she wanted to view her father in his coffin. She said no, and the poem reflects on her role now as someone thirsty for seeing. So the poem starts with sight, not the father but a turkey in a still life: ” The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot…” The poem lingers on the turkey for a few lines, then wanders to the memory, reflects then, “…Now I can’t get enough of seeing…” and ends with the turkey: “…the glorious wings, archangelic, spread/as if it could take flight, but down,/downward into the earth.”
The journey of the poem, like the journey of a story, should start with — and take you to — the bear.