The Making of a Poem

Constructing—and deconstructing—a new poem for the late Joanne Kyger.

poet matthew zapruder

In summer 2018, I went to the North Shore of Oahu to teach at a writing conference. How quickly such a sentence has come to seem unreal in these pandemic days. The conference was at this former Boy Scout camp, right on the beach. Most of the people were there to work on memoirs, but I taught a little poetry class about how to start writing from nothing, and then how to use music and association and not mere logic to move forward in a poem.

In “The Mythologizing of Reality,” Bruno Schulz writes: “Poetry reaches the meaning of the world intuitively, deductively, with large daring shortcuts and approximations. Knowledge seeks the same meaning inductively, methodically, taking into account all the materials of experience. Fundamentally, one and the other are bound for the same goal.”

I want to agree. But I don’t know if I believe it. It may be that the same knowledge we discover through poetry can be reached otherwise, through prose or some other investigation (inductive reasoning? scientific experiments? numerology? storytelling? logical proofs? magic?). But I feel sure that whatever I figure out at the end of an exciting and often painful process of making a poem—full of mistaken, baroque enthusiasms that must eventually be amputated and trips down intriguing pathways that end in culs-de-sac of banality—could not have been discovered any other way. At least not by me.

After teaching, I went for a long walk. I was miserable in that way you can only be on “vacation.” Everything felt wrong and lonely there, and my life at home also seemed full of trouble and sorrow. Back in my dormitory room, I had been reading Joanne Kyger’s diaries of travel in Japan and India, Strange Big Moon: she moved to Japan to be with Gary Snyder, who was already famous and was practicing Zen, or maybe zazen; I don’t know the difference, if there is one. They got married right after they came to Japan, otherwise they couldn’t have lived together in the same house without violating strict social codes. The journals describe Kyger’s loneliness and her frustrations with often being left at home and expected as a wife to do all the domestic tasks of cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, etc. while Snyder sat and meditated for long stretches, or caroused with his Zen pals. Sometimes they went out together or had drunken parties, and Kyger had friends, but she often felt intensely miserable. A lot of the journal is about trying to write poems, her feelings of failure, her ambitions, her developing sense of what it is to be a poet (especially a female poet in a male-dominated literary culture), and what she thinks is central to her own poetic practice.

I am fascinated by Kyger’s work, its drifty dailiness, how its casualness can come to feel suddenly essential. I find her way of looking at the world foreign and alluring.

Morning is such a welcome time. It doesn’t demand
much from the pocket—Some coffee, a cigarette,
and the day starts, full of optimism & clarity of hope
While the Muse holds her head, and the crazy Elementals
hold down their wrath
lightly under the earth’s surface.

Oh, if I could only hold on to this sort of thinking in these days while I am stuck at home. Depending on the aperture, maybe the world could be just as big in quarantine, even bigger than usual.

A few years ago, I met Kyger at a party in Berkeley after a reading, and she gave me her email address on a blue index card. I taped it up over my desk but never used it or saw her again, as she died before I got the chance. After my long walk on Oahu, I came back to the dorm room in the late afternoon with a white piece of coral I had picked up and tried to write a poem for her. I handwrote the first version on a pad I found somewhere at the camp.

The first draft of "XO Is My Aloha" by Matthew Zapruder was written May 7, 2018.
The first draft of "XO Is My Aloha" by Matthew Zapruder was written May 7, 2018.

I didn’t think it was a great poem. I was happy to have it as a record of the time I had been there. I don’t keep a journal, so for me poems are often the way that I can not only preserve a certain time, but also get more deeply into my experience of that time itself. The noticing and thinking and reflecting I do in the poem not only is a reflection or a capturing, but deepens my experience.

I tinkered with it a bit more right after I got back to Oakland from Hawaii, just out of curiosity, to see if I was wrong in my initial impression. I kept feeling that somehow there was too much detail, too much emphasis on certain moments, as if they were deeply symbolic. The whole thing felt overdramatized and poeticized:

I placed a piece of white coral
I felt a little familiar guilt
removing from the final light
(oh that tiresome anger from afar)
knocked off some bits of sand
brought it inside
to the room with the sink
and my same old shirts since 2003
hung up over the chair
and placed it on her book

When I looked at it at home, it felt annoying and self-absorbed, in a way that is not interesting. Everything was equally overdetermined, creating a uniform and strained assertion of significance, as if the message of the poem is everything that is happening to me is significant.

This is most likely a problem of pacing. It’s nice when things move slowly in a poem, but too slow and it feels like the voice in the poem is lingering too much over its own attention. This is what Keats called (referring to his elder, the ponderous Wordsworth) “the egotistical sublime,” the way that Wordsworth’s poems can feel like machines mainly designed to produce a marveling, not at the natural world but at the perceptiveness of the poet himself.

I added and took out some things, then basically gave up and forgot about the poem. It went into the very large pile of writings that, in the end, were just my own private memories.

Later that year, I was asked to go back to Hawaii, to give a few talks with Lew Hyde and to see W.S. Merwin at his house in Haiku, on Maui, probably for the last time. The morning before I left, instead of doing all the necessary tedious predeparture tasks, I took another look at the poem. I opened the file, and suddenly it was easy to finish. Maybe this was because I was far enough away from it to start to see what mattered. Or because I was writing about Kyger’s journals, themselves written long ago, so some distance of my own from my experience became an obscure but essential parallel. So often a little time helps. As my friends and I say to one another whenever we are having trouble with a poem: just put it in the drawer, and come back later.

With every poem I write, I feel like there is a problem of orientation, both toward the subject/events of the poem and toward whoever I imagine will read it, that needs to be resolved. I don’t understand those problems when I start to write. The proportions are often off, as they are in life, when what is not significant seems enraging and what really matters is hidden behind emotional storms. Sometimes this problem of perspective resolves itself quickly; at other times there is a lot of trial and error, and more than occasionally the poem just falls apart because I am never, in a deep way, sure why I am writing it. There is a kind of falseness.

Only now was I able to easily remove the lines that were straining too hard and put something else there instead:

I remember when I was there
on the north side of the island
where all the surfers go
to try not to die
I went for a long difficult walk along the beach
I kept going feeling much fears and despair
all the thinking underneath the thinking
each step I took I knew I would have to return
the sand made it difficult
but I was glad to have something hard to do
that was different

I feel like I’m starting to get the rhythm here, but there is still too much commentary, and the pace is not yet right. Also, there is still too much temporal moving around, complexity, and therefore the need for me to continually intervene. In some ways, that’s in the nature of the poem itself, because there is the time being described in the poem, the time of the journals, the time I am in later working on the poem. But it’s still too complicated.

So much revision takes place in the micro decisions. In this poem, it was exciting to reverse some of the lines, cut a lot of them out so that there was both far less poeticizing and in some cases far more elusive relations from line to line. There was something static about the earlier draft, which I tried to compensate for with explanatory commentary in lines like “for which I felt abstract tenderness,” which just ring false, as well as by changing the form to something more compact and varied to attempt to create some movement:

somewhere out there in the dark
sea turtles were swimming
I had seen two earlier
smaller than I had imagined
and not green
more like floating brown stones
with tiny heads
like socks
for which I felt abstract tenderness

Despite the messing around with the form, it plods. There is something more than a little silly about the amount of time it takes to describe things in this poem and the elaboration of my own feelings in relation to what is happening. It’s a lack of confidence, a strain for significance. This strain might be not only a poetic problem but (far more important) a personal one. I don’t yet understand what is important about the experience, what makes me want to try to find the poem in it. This understanding is not, I don’t think, an intellectual one or something that could even be put into words, at least not by me, not without being false or reducing it. It’s more that there is something I need to grope toward, to feel and intuit about its importance, something that either is, or is not, there. Maybe it is always there and it just takes time to find it. Maybe sometimes there will never be enough time.

Coming back to the poem many months later, I was able to see the possibility of certain lines, if they were moved around, and given a new purpose. For instance, in an earlier draft, I wrote about how I had lit a candle when I was writing, and that it was blowing in the wind, thus bringing me perilously close to Elton John/Bernie Taupin territory. In the final version, this mere detail became metaphor describing my own limitations in memory, which is connected to why I write poems:

I have no journals
and the memory of a candle
so when I love something
I keep it here

To end the poem, it was necessary for me to live a little longer, to come back home from that place and reenter my life, then write back into that moment. To make little changes, reversals of the order of information, small expansions, not personal commentaries that describe my emotional experience but something else, things that open the experience up and, in an important way, move it away from me into the collective. At least that is my hope. Always the search for the way of saying something that will bring me outside of myself and closer to you. That is what I mean by the symbolic, or what Schulz calls the mythic. That is what I am searching for.

Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder at their home in Kyoto, Japan, 1963.
Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder at their home in Kyoto, Japan, 1963.


for Joanne Kyger

On the north side of the island
where all the surfers try not to die
I went for a long difficult walk
through thick sand
I was thinking the whole time
it will be hard to return
but kept moving forward
I stopped and picked up a white coral
knocked off some bits of sand
put it in my pocket and carried it
a long way back
to place it on her book
called Strange Big Moon
felt like a rhyme
she would not have liked
little moon stone
on the picture of the moon
ominous white stone
covering the moon
to make the dark darker
somewhere out there
sea turtles were swimming
I had seen two earlier
floating stones
with tiny heads like socks
I placed that little round coral
pitted and crumbling
on the cover of the paperback
it looked like a man
but would not stand up
I wanted to put it
next to two other black ones
but all my plans are vague
the world’s suggestion
was the strong wind coming
through the curtains
all the way from no one knows
so I used it to hold down
her journals from Kyōto
containing her past and others
almost all gone except Snyder
who made her do the dishes
what a jerk
she did it anyway
they whitewashed the walls
put up straw panels
into which they cut small holes
for Fudo and Rousseau
then left
for India to meet the famous
manic jackass Ginsberg
Kyōto means capital city
line above that o I can’t help thinking
is “like a cloud”
I have no journals
and the memory of a candle
so when I love something
I keep it here
I met her once and she gave me
a blue card with her email on it
I never used
now that she’s dead
I’ve placed a coral on top of the book
and then left the room
to come back here
to face my music
back there the curtains still blowing
and her thoughts won’t even remain

Matthew Zapruder is the author most recently of Father’s Day, and Why Poetry.
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