Saturday, February 16, 2008

Write the Poem that's Impossible to Write

This is the advice given by Earl Braggs in my workshop. "Write the poem that is impossible to write." It's good advice, since it tells us to stretch beyond the boundaries we have imposed on ourselves, and discover just how good we can be. It's good advice also because it gives us permission to fall short without feeling like utter failures. I know I've felt that way when I've failed to capture what I was after, and wanted to exchange my pen and paper for a hammer and nails and do something else, because I was obviously never going to be a good writer.

I have taken this challenge on, in spades. There is a poem I have always wanted to write, and have shied from, because it's too massive a subject. I will undoubtedly get it wrong. But it burns in me, it keeps me awake, and it niggles at the edges of my mind when I should be concentrating on other things, like how much detergent to put in the washing machine. I want to write an epic poem that captures the voices of women across time, imparts the pride, pain, joy and suffering of women of all colors and backgrounds, and would make each of us proud to stand and recite it. I even have the title: Womansong. probably not terribly original, that, but it encompasses what I want to capture.

I've made a first pass at it, this week. I like parts of it very much, other parts I'm not certain about. It moves through history, but I'm feeling rather shamed for having the hubris to say I can speak for all women. Others have, so I don't know why I'm so reluctant to do so. Should I call out places by name? Should I set it all in the present even though some of the happenstances have passed? Moving back and forth between tenses was annoying me when I re-read it, and I want each of the women that the poem evokes to be alive, so present tense feels more natural for that. Do I have too many biblical references in it? Does the poem lose potency when it's as long as this (currently four pages)? Most of all, who have I left out? I think that's the one I'm most afraid of. I can cull pieces if I must, but I don't want to leave something out that's essential.

I have the feeling this one is going to be a work-in-progress for a very long time. As well it should be, I suppose, for such subject matter. And despite all of my misgivings, I'm pleased to be writing it - writing an Impossible Poem means that it's an important poem. Maybe there is no 'right' way to write such a thing, but acknowledging that it needs to be written - and that yours might be the hand to set it down - is an important step.


  1. Hi Colleen

    First of all, congratulations on your acceptances, that's great news!

    And congratulations on tackling the poem that you really needed to write - it sounds inspiring. And four pages isn't long at all! So much poetry these days is so short, and I'm not advocating filling our poems with unecessary words - economy and tautness is usually good. But I do feel that some poems need a bit more space to tell their story, to build up something a bit bigger and longer.

    I've been writing biographical poems quite a lot over the last few years, and they tend to be longer than my usual work. One of them ended up at about nine pages long! It is in sections though, and it does tell a long story.

    So I say that if your poem needs to be four pages, or even longer, then don't feel you have to cut it into something less.

  2. Where would civilization be if Keats, Shelley, Byron,, had not wrote long poems that rivaled most novels. Do not be deterred. Set a new standard, if that be what you must. Perhaps one day we will speak of Colleen Harris the epic poet of the 21st century! Until we face failure we can never savor success. Go for it young lady. Make your mark. I look forward to reading the finished ode!

  3. Helen & Layton,

    Thanks! I'm trying to get over the stigma of the long poem, and you're right - the length should fit the need of the story, and not the other way around.