house of cards

The second image that I wanted to talk about from my conversation with the poet Joan Margarit dealt with the writing process. (See yesterday’s post for the first.)

Joan described how the poet often writes early drafts of a poem to include more than is needed. We cram stuff in just to see if it fits. Subsequent drafts entail removing bits carefully, like pulling out cards one by one from a card house.

When the structure comes tumbling down, you know you’ve found the point at which you should have stopped.

That idea came back to me the other day when I’d jotted these lines in my notebook:

In sunlight, after rain,
a flock of silver starlings
sequins the sky.

The image had been in my head for a day or two before I thought of using the verb “sequin” and felt I had something I could put onto paper. At that point, I reckoned I had two options: I could build up a whole poem to fit around this image, or I could snip at it until it became (something like) a haiku.

(I’m not going to go into the rules of haiku writing here, but will say that I don’t think it’s necessary to count syllables. When I talk of haiku, I don’t mean a three line, 5-7-5 syllable puzzle, but rather a short nature poem where juxtaposed imagery produces a new vision in the mind of the reader.)

The main problems with my notebook jotting is that it is wordy and far too sibilant. The first problem is easy to deal with. The second less so.

Changing the species of birds would help, but starlings are definitely the ones I want: rooks don’t have the metrical requirements (at least the way I read the piece), jackdaws, magpies and blackbirds don’t flock like starlings do, and nor do they have quite that metallic sheen.

Anyway, I started to cut some of the excess verbiage. Here’s the next version:

After rain
silver starlings
sequin the sky.

I think the sunlight is implied by the fact that the rain has stopped and the normally dark starlings are turned to silver sequins. This is probably not asking the reader to work too hard.

However, the sibilance has now become even worse, so I looked to see what else could be cut.

Well, what colour are sequins? Usually either gold or silver. So maybe that sibilant adjective should go – especially bearing in mind the advice that all adjectives and adverbs need to be questioned to see if they are pulling their weight in a poem:

After rain
sequin the sky.

I’m actually quite satisfied with this version. But I was discussing it with a friend who suggested it could be further distilled. So, the Peter J Ross version might be:


I think I understand what he means. After all, “starlings” is after “rain” on the page so the sequence is implicit. And “sequins” can probably be understood by a reader who’s prepared to put in a little bit of thought. It’s true that maybe nothing else is needed, particularly if careful punctuation were used to clarify things a bit.

However, for me, the house of cards has collapsed; the text has been pared down so far that it’s turned from a poem into a cryptic crossword clue. Which wasn’t my intention.

I’m afraid a reader will only understand this minimalist version if they share almost all my cultural and language references. And I’d like my readership to be a bit wider than that. I’m not trying to pander to readers who need things spelled out in the way I wrote the first draft in my notebook; some people would be happiest with that, but I think it’s flabby, and I expect a reader to be willing to make some effort.

So, unless someone convinces me otherwise, I’m going with version three:

After rain
sequin the sky.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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