ON THE ROAD TO THE NEXT POEM
For a long time it’s been first lines. I’m washing dishes and a first line pops into my head. I’m strolling down the beach and a first line pops into my head. I try not to keep the first line waiting too long. I try to write it down within twenty minutes of first hearing it. And it is somewhere between hearing it and thinking it. And it feels given more than it feels formulated.
In Hawaii I started writing down the first line in the Notes app of my phone. And often the rest of the poem just unfolded. I don’t really “work” poems much anymore. I don’t really write them anymore. They just come to me. The first line announces itself, and the rest of the poem soon follows.
Thirty-five years ago, when I was thirty-five, I did a lot of construction. It was a different way of writing, more craftsmanly. Now it’s more mystical. I follow the first line till the poem runs out of gas, or it completes itself. It sounds kooky, but that’s how it happens now.
The first line makes me listen to it. Then it’s all about listening. I don’t have to write the poem, I just have to hear it. The duration of the first line sets the structure. If it’s a long line I start writing in long lines. If it’s a short line I start writing in short lines. Lately, a number of poems have arrived as sonnets. I didn’t count the lines until after the poem was written. My short poems have always been haunted by the sonnet. Sometimes they are two lines less. Sometimes they are two lines more. But they tend to operate in sonnet territory.
When I was a young poet I worked with the kernel of an idea a lot. Many of my poems were idea driven. Now I have no idea what a poem is about until after it’s written. The poem tells me what it’s about. I don’t tell the poem what it’s about.
OTHER POETS, OTHER MEDIA
As a younger poet, I was prompted by the work of other poets all the time. That was probably my primary way of getting poems going. Reading to write. Hunks of newspaper stories wound up in the first book of Report On The Second Half Of The Twentieth Century. I’d quote something from a newspaper story and then offer poetic commentary.
I don’t write as much as I used to. It isn’t a daily thing anymore. During the pandemic, months have gone by between poems. That just didn’t happen when I was younger. But I’m seventy now. Most of what I’m going to write has already been written. So writing has become more fanciful. I don’t push at poems trying to get them to arrive. I don’t try to manufacture the poetic moment anymore.
I remember that Joe Rosenblatt used to write down good lines on index cards. That made no sense to me at all. But different writers write in different ways.
Years ago, I used to sit down and write maybe sixty or seventy lines. Then I would set about trying to find the poem in the poem. Maybe there was a poem in there somewhere; maybe there wasn’t. The chances were pretty good that the poem wasn’t those seventy lines. But maybe poetry happened in there somewhere along the line; or maybe it didn’t happen at all.
These days the first line announces that a poem is happening. Then I just have to follow it, I just have to hear it. I have to stay out of the way with any ideas I might have. It’s more like what Spicer called dictation.
I have been writing in notebooks since 1980. I find them extremely useful in sustaining the idea of a book. I’m writing a book in these notebooks. Most of my books occupy somewhere between four and seven notebooks.
For me, notebooks create an atmosphere. All these poems I’m writing are traveling together. They all have something to do with one another. They’re in the same notebook, so they’re in the same book. Notebooks tell me when a book starts and then tell me when it ends.
Early on, I was intrigued by Margaret Atwood’s line breaks. They didn’t make any sense to me. So I kept looking at them, studying them. After a while I started to understand how they were dramatizing things. Line breaks = world view. Or certainly they can function that way.
What I notice lately are lines running past the line break, with more to be said. That seems to be how I’m breaking lines lately. As I said, the first line tends to dictate line length, and often the first line doesn’t stop at the end of the first line—it continues into the second line. So then the poem becomes a network of lines that are running past their line lengths.
Bowering said something about how my lines ‘tilt” now, and I suspect that it is this that he was talking about.
OTHER WRITERS AT THE BACK OF YOUR HEAD
Maybe five years ago I started trying to do translations of Frank O’Hara poems. I would take a poem like “A Step Away From Them” and I would try to translate it into my own experience. The structure of the poem would come from O’Hara, but all the specifics of the poem would come from my life, not his.
So that’s not back of your head—that’s front of your head.
Everything I’ve ever read is in my head somewhere. Louis Dudek used to talk about the “word assembler.” Spicer talks about the Martians. Whatever is putting the poem together has access to whatever is in my head. Are there other writers in my head? Of course there are. Do bits and pieces of other writings make their way into Ken Norris poems? Yes, they do, and they always have done so.
A GOOD OR A BAD EXAMPLE
Here is “Early Morning Waves,” from Hawaiian Sunrise, written in Hawaii back in December.
EARLY MORNING WAVES
I took the Wallace Stevens franchise to another
Now I’m staring at the early morning waves.
They roll in, blue and unafraid, white-capped and peaceful.
This ocean and I go back a long way.
You can’t expect everyone to write at the Ontario
and come up with something different. I travel—
to places where the white birds swoop and soar.
There’s a tin roof waiting for me, there’s a tropic heart
waiting to be born.
sang beside the genius of the sea
he was there to hear it, and to take it further.
The waves are our brave counsellors,
breaking here, in the lush greenery, at our feet.
I read it this poem seems so logically put together. It’s almost a little
There’s almost a series of thesis statements.
But, for me, writing it, the poem just unfolded. I had no idea where it was going. I had no idea what it was going to say.
Depending upon how you want to count lines, it’s either twelve lines or thirteen lines. It kind of has the propositional formality of a sonnet, but it isn’t quite a sonnet. It’s an off-sonnet, an almost-in-the-ballpark sonnet. It gestures towards the sonnet, but it isn’t a sonnet, even though I have a rather broad sense of what a sonnet can be.
Line followed line. I didn’t build this poem at all. Or maybe, the building now takes place at such a rate of speed that it doesn’t look like building to me.. It looks and feels like improvisation or dictation. The poem was written in one sitting in ten minutes. How it looks on the page is how it looked on the notebook page.
Little things I notice. In the title, are we talking about the waves that are breaking or the early morning waving? In the last line, there is sort of a gesture to the surround with “the lush greenery.” That is the one bit in the poem that I later tried to change, and anything I tried just didn’t work. So I just have to trust the poem and the reader to get it right. Grammar takes you one way, sense takes you another..
The poem is haunted by the Wallace Stevens poem “The Idea Of Order At Key West.” Beside the sea is where the action is. In this case there’s no singer and no listener, except that the last stanza drags them in. The relationship seems to be more about the waves and the poet who is watching them and listening to them. Instead of an idea of order, then what? Perhaps the inhuman counselling the human?
THE NEXT POEM
I haven’t written any poems in about three months. That is an unusual state of affairs. In my youth I used to write six poems a day.
The last poem I wrote is called “On Spadina Road.” Maybe it will see the light of day. Maybe it won’t. I still throw out 80% of what I write. I wrote it in late March or early April. It is now late June.
Maybe poetry is in the process of abandoning me. It’s been known to happen.
It happens. I’ll sigh a huge sigh of relief when the next poem happens.
Ken Norris was born in New York City in 1951. He came to Canada in the early 1970s, to escape Nixon-era America and to pursue his graduate education. He completed an M.A. at Concordia University and a Ph.D. in Canadian Literature at McGill University. He became a Canadian citizen in 1985. For thirty-three years he taught Canadian Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Maine. In 2021, Guernica Editions published South China Sea, and above/ground press published HAWAIIAN SUNRISE. He currently resides in Toronto.