At Home With the Moirai
We got R. an Easter sewing set with twenty-odd colored spools and at dusk she portioned them out for me: “This [dark gray] is darkness—that’s a challenge for you—this [light gray] is dimness—you will have to go through dimness—this [light green] is the leaves of the tree and this [dark green] is the trunk...” Then I followed her through color-coded quests in the yard, clutching one spool at a time. “How old are you? Thirty-eight... you have to go around these bricks thirty times, or eight times.” She pulled herself up to the fence in her nightgown, left wrist still in a cast, and spied on the neighbors’ flowers. “The flower of love... no, the flower of the truth.”
I’ve been trying to nail down words for a few songs and came across Nadezhda Mandelstam’s extraordinary account of the process (in Hope Against Hope):
A poem begins with a musical phrase ringing insistently in the ears; at first inchoate, it later takes on a precise form, though still without words. I sometimes saw M. trying to get rid of this kind of “hum,” to brush off and escape from it. He would toss his head as though it could be shaken out like a drop of water that gets into your ear while bathing. But it was always louder than any noise, radio or conversation in the same room.
Akhmatova told me that when “Poem Without a Hero” came to her, she was ready to try anything just to get rid of it, even rushing to do her washing. But nothing helped. At some point words formed behind the musical phrase and then the lips began to move. The work of a poet has probably something in common with that of a composer, and the appearance of words is the crucial factor that distinguishes it from musical composition. The “hum” sometimes came to M. in his sleep, but he could never remember it on waking. I have a feeling that verse exists before it is composed (M. never talked of “writing” verse, only of “composing” it and then copying it out). The whole process of composition is one of straining to catch and record something compounded of harmony and sense as it is relayed from an unknown source and gradually forms itself into words. The last stage of the work consists in ridding the poem of all the words foreign to the harmonious whole which existed before the poem arose. Such words slip in by chance, being used to fill gaps during the emergence of the whole. They become lodged in the body of the poem, and removing them is hard work. This final stage is a painful process of listening in to oneself in a search for the objective and absolutely precise unity called a “poem.” In his poem “Save My Speech,” the last adjective to come was “painstaking” (in “the painstaking tar of hard work”). M. complained that he needed something more precise and spare here, in the manner of Akhmatova: “She knows how to do it.” He seemed to be waiting for her help.
I noticed that in his work on a poem there were two points at which he would sigh with relief—when the first words in a line or stanza came to him, and when the last of the foreign bodies was driven out by the right word. Only then is there an end to the process of listening in on oneself—the same process that can prepare the way for a disturbance of the inner hearing and loss of sanity. The poem now seems to fall away from the author and no longer torments him with its resonance. He is released from the thing that obsesses him. Io, the poor cow, escapes from the gadfly.
If the poem won’t “go away,” M. said, it means that there is something wrong with it, or something “still hidden in it”—a last fruitful bud from which a new shoot might sprout.