Restraint in Poetry

I fancy myself an amateur poet.  I appreciate the task of compressing words to maximize what’s understood whether it be emotion, place, a person, a movement, or something more grandiose.  I’ve always been drawn to the storytelling of singer songwriter poets – Paul Simon, Josh Ritter, Sufjan Stevens (can you tell how old I am?).  I love the minimalism in former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s writing.  Who doesn’t love the cadence in a Frost or Dickenson or Wordsworth or Silverstien?

Side note: Kooser’s poem “Splitting an Order” is bar none.  It’s found in his collection called Valentines.

This year I set about to submit a poem to our local Sue Boynton Poetry Contest and jotted down a couple of ideas in two or three journals and a scrap of paper while I was driving one day.  Like all initial creations they felt full and perfect when I was done.  How could I not win!  I’d used comparison to great effect!  I’d pulled a few spelling bee words out of thin air and wove them deftly between pronoun and adverb!  I’d held back!  It was not a Homeric epic!

As with all things, time wore away at the edges, and the next time I looked them over, ready to gloat, I found a mess of bad simile, unexplainable metaphor, and moral heavy-handedness.  It was downright sad.  I rewrote, changed lines, added and removed, pared down further, disliked the narrator, etc.  For the professional poet these things are natural, no less painful, but more an anticipated part of the whole.

In the end, I sat on the couch with my wife and asked if she’d listen for what may be wrong or right. The poems still had a parental finger shake at the end, reminding the reader that “life is good, stop pouting!”  A simple edit removed the offending sentences.  Finding more balance in restraint.

Reading on, it turned out that the one I was most fond of was actually two poems masquerading as one, like a stack of kids in a trench coat trying to get into the bar as one “man.”  It had been impossible to add my favorite line to the poem as it was because it had no place in two poems at once!  My wife stated the facts plainly, the poems were divided, and the word…. “Leviathan”… had it’s place again.  I was pleased.  That was the poem I submitted of the three that were written.  That poem, titled “From the Shallows” will remain unpublished until either I’m selected as a winner or not.  If it is not selected, I plan to put it up and brag a teensy bit.

Here, however, I’ll post one of the other two poems.  Not sure what I’d title it… yet.

A small boy ran along the dock
His mother close behind.
All smiles and eyebrows raised
At the barnacles clinging to a boat.
He poked at them with a pudgy finger
Lengthening his small frame
Like a rubber band
To reach out over the water
And touch the rough calcified whiteness.

I watched from where I sat sipping coffee.
How long had it been since I stretched
Across my own ocean between dock and boat?

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