I am not a big fan of writing poems for certain occasions. I’d say I absorbed this disdain from my poetry professor at New College, but my dislike predates my college career, having instead been inspired by the greeting card industry and its rigid meter and forced rhymes. Nothing sounds so stilted as the rhyming congratulations expressed in a greeting card. Nothing sounds so forced as condolences inked on paperboard.
That’s why, when I sat down to try to write poems about the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year, I hemmed and hawed, but in the end I felt the urge to do better. To roll up my sleeves, to hunker down, and to break all the expectations. Only, it’s not so easy as that.
Limits can be freeing. A theme can be helpful. But one thing I’ve noted in writing poetry for an occasion is that it’s damned hard to make it good. Nigh impossible. I kept trying to capture summer, a spirit of place, comparing it to seasons down south on the other side of the equator, marry the theme of alienation from inhabited space due to the impetus of cultural notions and… well, that’s a big abstract concept. So I threw some concrete at it.
But you can’t just throw any concrete at it. It has to be the right concrete. Even eschewing Rhyme and Meter (caps, of course, and seriously, who do those guys think they are?), finding the right concrete is… well, I mean, think of it this way: you’re out looking for a book. A book about unicorns. It has to be fiction, it has to be a novel, and it has to be from after 1963. But that’s not all. It has to have a certain decorum, can’t include a wizard, and needs to contain the phrase, “but moonlight is the light for liars,” as well as a certain sad edge to the happy parts. It gets a bit ridiculous. That’s what writing an occasional poem is like.
As it turns out, I threw the wrong concrete.
When I write occasional poems, it’s a lot like putting the cart before the horse. I have an outcome in mind, when usually, the way I write a poem is to write until I have a shape, and then work at that shape. I find themes in the words, rather than choosing the words to fit a theme. Sometimes I don’t even know what a poem is about until after it’s done. Then I make a few passes with a plane to get it down to just that shape, the one I’d seen suggested. Only then will I even consider the thought that it might be nearing complete.
In the end, I finished three Pagan poems. Only three. Out of eight. So if ever I finally release that chapbook, you’ll know the real reason that section is titled “Pretending to Be Pagan: Poems for 3/8 of the Year.”