Monday, August 6, 2018

"Digging Deep" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Digging Deep
Lowell Jaeger

"System" Watercolor & Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
If you patrolled alleys when you were a kid
and dumped enough trashcans, sooner or later
you’d find something to carry home, something worth
tearing apart. Clocks were best —double-bell
alarms.  Maybe the glass was smashed
and the hands on the face twisted or missing,
but the works inside still swiveled and clicked

and kept time. You could watch for hours, the tines
of one gear exactly meshed with the teeth of another,
the next gear snapping a featherweight rocker arm
precisely, the rocker’s hair-thin wire tension spring
bending and relaxing, tick-tocking all afternoon.

But . . . you couldn’t resist, couldn’t stop yourself
from digging deeper, unscrewing the little screws
to separate the housing, then pinching and lifting
the miniature motion-makers free, arranging them
on the table like a surgeon dissecting someone’s brain.

Till you’ve gone beyond reassembling what’s undone.  A panic
you’ve repeated over the years, peering quizzically in the mirror
this very morning after quarreling last night with a loved one,
regretting the curious and persistent habit
of wrecking things because you won’t leave well-enough alone.

Poet’s Notes:  I’m often coaching students to let their poems go where the poems want to go; don’t force a poem to comply with the poet’s original intention. “As long as you insist on being in control of your poem, the poem will be no smarter than you are,” I say.  But letting go of control is not an easy trick to learn. We are schooled to plan a project in advance and to draw a clear map to our goal.  We want to know where we are going before we set out.

The best writers find surprising things to say, but I’d hazard a guess that they didn’t know what they were going to say before they discovered themselves saying it. Writing teachers talk about “writing as an act of discovery.”  The journey of writing should take you to places you never knew you’d go. 

It’s terrifically pleasing to me to start out on a poem with a vague notion of a topic and an uncertain sense of direction, to set down a first line and let come what may. Montana essayist William Kittredge calls this “the generative and associative powers of language.” Words want to associate with other words, sometimes words we might not have consciously chosen.  In this way, real surprises happen if we let them.  As words go about mingling with other words like a crowd on the dancefloor, they are also capable of generating direction and content we would have never guessed had we not given the words freedom to move about in the first place.

“Digging Deep” was a big surprise to me.  I didn’t have a clue where I was going, just an amorphous memory of roaming the alleyways of my childhood town, looking for small treasures. What sort of treasures?  Well . . . then came to mind (and pen) the alarm clock.  As a kid, I loved to take things apart to see what made them tick.  And then came the realization that this long habit of dissection at times goes too far, especially in relationships where one gear doesn’t always predictably move the next.  

“Wisdom,” said William James, “is learning what not to say.” Lord help me learn that wisdom!  This is how the poem surprised me.  This is what I learned from the poem.

Editor's Note:  "Diggin Deep" was first published in Earth-blood & Star-shine.

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