I pause here in my consideration of the poems of 1940 to leap up to the poems of 2012, for a little reflection on how poetry is intersecting with my life at present, and I hope an opportunity for you to think a little bit about how poems work (or don’t). The occasion is that I’ve finally completed an Ouroboros cycle, which I’ve been working on with a poet friend of mine, Shane Guthrie, since last fall, and I feel like talking about the experience a little.
“Ouroboros?” you say. “Er, what’s an Ouroboros when it’s at home?” Well, first of all, veteran readers of the blog will recall my exploration of the form last year in reference to an Ouroboros co-written by Shane and Graham Isaac, another poet friend. But to explain it to newer readers and refresh old memories, the Ouroboros is a cycle of short lyric poems—Shane invented the format, as far as we know, which is a cycle of 32 poems, in which each poem begins with the last few words of the poem previous. The 32nd poem, in fact, is written so that it ends with the first few words of the 1st poem, thus completing the circle, so that an Ouroboros can be read starting with any poem—it has no beginning or end. It’s named for the self-devouring serpent of ancient lore. As I said a year ago, I find the format of the Ouroboros interesting and creatively exciting, since there’s a tension involved in the whole process. In one sense, you’re co-creating a set of 32 poems that will have some kind of thematic consistency, and collaborating to make it strong. In another sense, you’re creating your own set of 16 poems for publication, and building themes that carry over from one poem to the next (made more challenging by the fact that you don’t always—in fact, you don’t often—get the opening line you’d have picked for yourself). And lastly, you really are just trying to write the best possible poem you can in the moment, at any given moment. I remarked so positively about it last year that Shane invited me to write one with him, and it really was a great experience. Certainly it got me writing much more often than I had been, and any creative writer will tell you that it’s hard to get back into the habit: I’m grateful to the project for this reason, although I’m also pleased with the work we did.
So today I’m going to take you inside the experience of writing an Ouroboros, using a little glimpse of the cycle we’ve just completed. Those of you in the Puget Sound area should know that the Ouroboros will premiere in its entirety in Seattle on the evening of September 5th (a Wednesday)—Shane and I will be reading it in an as-yet-undetermined location somewhere inside Discovery Park. More specific details can be had for the asking, either in the comments here or via email. So, if you live near Seattle and would like to hear the actual piece in full, there’s an opportunity—I think Shane is also having it bound (in spiral form, without a cover, of course, so you can spin it around and start with any poem you like), and copies may be available for purchase, both at the reading and in some other times and places. Again, if interested, ask.
So, the project began with me choosing a poem of Shane’s from a recent chapbook, and writing a poem that began with its last line. It continues from there under its own momentum. When possible, we both try to give the other fellow options, writing two or three poems (or more, if you’re Shane, that prolific son-of-a-gun) that all begin with the same opening words but which end differently—that way, the other poet can A) pick the opening line they want, and B) pick the poem they feel “suits” the cycle best. I won’t say too much about the cycle in its completed state, but it was clear from the outset that we both had a few images we kept returning to, all of them somewhat familiar poetic tropes. The uneven relationship, in which one person is not really understood by or responsive to the other. The terrible sources of personal violence, and their terrible consequences. The decadence of modern politics/society, and the just anger aimed at those in power. Shane and I never spoke openly about our aims, and I think his 16 poems and mine on their own each tell a distinctly different story, but it’s very interesting to see how they are affected by each other. Anyway, let’s fast-forward to a point early in the middle of the project.
I had fired Shane a sort of wry and satirical poem about modern democracy—very lighthearted. One of his options back to me shifted the tone and setting (while hanging on to the political angle) to a powerful figure threatened by overthrow and execution, and the poem speaks to that figure directly, advising him on how to get out of his predicament. The last lines of this particular poem were the following:
“You need to help them through this hard time
You have made:
It is your divine duty.”
I hope you’ll mull that over just a little, especially if you’re a writer. I’ve given you a few details about the overall arc of the project, and where we’d just been. What poem would you write, if you had to start with “it is your divine duty”? You can fudge a little—maybe start with only “Your divine duty”, or be bold and start with “This hard time you have made? It is your divine duty”, or any other combo, as long as you’re using the last words of Shane’s poem, in order, to start yours. What poems would you write if you had to write three of them? It’s an interesting challenge, especially when you consider that ideally your last line will be a nice opening line—at the least, it would be best to avoid using so specific a detail or image that it would be hard for the other poet to get out of your poem’s shadow. In this case, I did manage to make three poems, and I was reasonably happy with all of them as first drafts. The poem I ended up polishing and using for the published Ouroboros is still under wraps, but here’s an example of the first draft of a poem I liked, at least, and which Shane nearly chose to work from:
‘It is your divine duty to use your talents to the best of your abilities,’
when what they really mean is,
‘Achilles, be Death for us.
Sometimes I lie awake at night and curse the man
who first forged a blade in bronze,
who first strung a bow or gave the chariot its wheels.
Sometimes I whisper the names of the men I have slain,
all of them remembered, all of them,
their faces before me like sunlight,
hot and unbearable, surrounding me.
The Greek princes pace around my camp like lions,
‘It is injustice to deny what you can do,’
‘think of the men who will die
if you do not kill for them.’
In the mornings I sit on the shore and watch the rolling surf,
each new wave a mouth to swallow up my bitterness,
each glint of light on the swells a spear agleam
in a field of gore.
The war-horn bellows,
I can hear the voices begin to sing.
Without thinking, I find a spear in my hand,
and my feet are taking me to the vanguard.
A man may be able to escape his destiny,
but he cannot outrun his skill—
there is no place on earth to hide from that.
So, a few things: first of all, this is a first draft I’ve never gone back to edit or revise, so if you have comments about it that will either identify what would be better if changed, or what would be better if kept as it is, that would certainly be helpful. But more importantly, I wonder how different what I wrote is from the ideas you were exploring? And, furthermore, I wonder what you would do now in Shane’s place, faced with the need to open a poem with “There is no place on earth to hide from that” (of course you could begin it “There is no place on earth. To hide from that…” or any other re-punctuation you like, or extend or retract the number of words you’re taking to open your poem with, although opening with “That” would be a real cop-out). So I hope you’ll leave any reflections you have on the Ouroboros as a concept, and the specific scenario I’ve sketched out for you here—we read enough poetry, every single Friday, that I hope we’re learning things about what it does and how it does it. I’m thinking it will be interesting to see what we all have to say.