In his essay on a too often unacknowledged source of poetry, David Kirby examines the serendipitous value of what he calls “bits,” or the disparate images and oneiric leaps Freud called “overdeterminations.” It’s precisely these “bits,” he argues, that comprise the inchoate poetic “gold” of sudden thoughts and afterthoughts that develop in the act of writing and revising into finished poems.
Overdetermination (It’s Not As Boring As It Sounds)
You want your poems to be like you: fully alive. You want them to be not just present but alert, with everything switched on and ready to go. Poems like that bring out the same feeling in readers. Music can work that way as well. A great dinner with someone we love does, too, especially if the right music is playing. And dreams can have the same effect. We forget most of our dreams, but we remember the ones we do because they’re electrifying. Often we wake from our dreams laughing or screaming because a dream can seem more real than life itself.
What music, love, poems, and dreams have in common is that they’re all made of more than one part: the lyrics and melody and rhythm of the song, for example, or the food and drink and guests at an ideal meal. Likewise with dreams. Freud says that dreams aren’t determined but overdetermined, that is, that they don’t have a single cause but many.
That’s why a typical dream will incorporate a childhood memory, an occurrence that took place the day before, the sudden appearance of someone you haven’t heard from in years, a loud sound from just outside your bedroom, and so on. Say you’re on an iron roof, fleeing a lion, but you’re dressed like a ballerina except that you’re wearing magnetic shoes. Now there are iron roofs in the world and lions and ballerinas and shoes and magnets, and you yourself are in the world as well. But these six ingredients have never come together anywhere except in your dream, and it’s this overdetermination that makes your dream something that frightens and delights you and that you tell others about the next day.
So how do you overdetermine rather than merely determine a poem? You keep a bits journal. A bits journal is just that; it’s a collection of random images, childhood memories, dreams, snatches of overheard conversations, quotes from books you’ve read or lectures you’ve heard, bathroom graffiti, mistranslations, thoughts that come out of left field, notes to yourself (“Start using longer lines”), and so on.
You can’t write poems every day, but you can write in your bits journals every day. This really takes the pressure off: you don’t have to write memorably in your bits journal, you just have to write.
For that reason, you should never censor yourself. If you’re trying to write a poem, you might say, “Oh, that’s not appropriate” or “No one could ever make a decent poem of that.” Kim Stafford says, “I call myself an eavesdropper on the world. Constantly taking note of the things that are coming in. Things that come from my mind. Things that come from the street. People around me. Reading. There’s a constant river into the spirit and the mind.” That’s how a bits journal works.
But when you’re writing bits, you throw in everything. Will a particular bit start moving toward poemhood? If so, fine. And if not, that’s fine, too. A bit might not be useful to you for a couple of years. Or it might never be useful, but that’s okay as well. It’s not as though you wasted any time on it. It’s not a poem, after all—it’s a bit.
If you don’t keep a bits journal, start today, and if you do, go back and have a look and see what you can use and what you might add. How you handle your bits journals is up to you, but I know I get antsy if my bits journal grows beyond twenty pages or so.
When that happens, it’s harvest time: I’ll look for bits that speak to each other, maybe three or four that might coalesce into a poem. I’ve heard that Walt Whitman had a box of a certain size that he filled with scraps of paper on which he’d written, and when the box filled, he’d pull out the scraps and look to see which ones would become a sequence and which he might use in another poem or return to the box.
If this method is good enough for Whitman, it’s good enough for us, right? The only difference is that, instead of a box, you’ll be using the bits file on your computer. I used to let students keep old-fashioned paper bits journals, but now I insist that they make them Word documents. That way, when one bit wants to cozy up to another, you just cut and paste. By the way, often I go to record a bit that might consist of three words, and when I look up, twenty minutes have passed, and I’ve written a stanza.
Occasionally, someone will say they have writer’s block, but that’s a fictitious disease. The phrase “writer’s block” suggests that there’s this immense warehouse of riches that you can’t get into, a huge barn full of gold and frankincense and myrrh and canned hams and I don’t know what-all. But the fact is that people who say they have writer’s block have an empty warehouse. The bits journal is your warehouse, and it’s easy to fill. If you add just three or four bits a week, in a month your journal will be five or six pages long, which is more than enough material to make several poems of.
Like some examples? Here are some bits students have shown me.
A tense memory
A student visits Costa Rica and ends up sharing a room with his group’s bus
driver, who only speaks Spanish. Each takes a bed; they turn on the TV and start
to watch a Spanish-language version of a movie the student has seen before, one
that features a scene in which one man rapes another. As the rape scene
approaches, the student pretends to fall asleep.
In the first Olympics, they played Wiffle Ball.
(Note: Can this be true? Doesn’t matter—it’s a great start for a poem.)
Overheard conversation 1
“You make a better door than you do a window.”
(Note: This bit works by itself or as a pattern along the lines of “you make a better
____ than you do a ______.”)
Overheard conversation 2
Little girl can’t get the lid off a pill bottle. When the mommy says it’s child-proof
and only an adult can open it, the wide-eyed child says, “How does it know it’s
Lady Jane Grey sees her husband before they are both executed.
Quotes from books
From a biography of eccentric chess master Bobby Fischer: after Fischer visited a
brothel in Curaçao, he said, “Chess is better.”
Montaigne scholar Sarah Bakewell writes that, as he thought he was dying after a
terrible riding accident, “Montaigne and life, it seemed, were about to part
company with neither regret nor formal farewells, like two drunken guests leaving
a feast too dazed to say goodbye.”
Note that a bit doesn’t have to lead to its immediate topic. Many bits, perhaps most, and certainly the best bits lead to ideas beyond themselves, just as poems do. Take the little girl and the pill bottle one as an example. I can’t see myself making a poem about childhood or parenting or pharmaceutical packaging out of that story. But I can see myself writing about self-knowledge and identity. Who are we, and how do we know who we are?
Remember, the main thing is not to discount anything. If you start to write a bit down and tell yourself it’ll never be a poem, you’re cutting yourself off from your supply chain. Try to be as literal-minded as possible.
Once I was in Chicago and saw police officers shoving a guy into their squad car as a woman screamed “Liar! You’re a liar!” It’s a situation that would be easy to explain if I wanted to: probably the guy had grabbed the woman’s purse or something like that and then pled innocence when the police nabbed him. Instead, I said to myself “Wait—it’s a crime to tell lies in Chicago? What do you get for talking back to your teacher or tearing off a mattress tag?” Before I knew it, I was well into a poem that never would have been written if I’d used my rational mind.
An essayist named Joseph Mitchell wrote fascinating essays about people on the fringe: alcoholics, the homeless, and so on. Many of these are included in a book called Up in the Old Hotel. Mitchell said that he was a good interviewer because, over time, he lost the ability to detect insanity. He listened to everyone, even those who were crazy, as if they were sane. Joe Mitchell, you, too, are one of my Elvii.
Here’s how I use my bits journal to write poems—indeed, here’s how I operate when I’m composing in any fashion, whether I’m working on a poem, an essay, a book review, a letter to the editor, a grant proposal, a pitch to my wife to make a change to our house or yard or plan a trip.
First I identify six or eight like-minded bits and move them to a separate file so I can start sequencing them. I always know the one I want to use first and I’m fairly sure I know the one I want to end with, which leaves four or five bits floating around in the middle. But that’s what they should be doing; experience has taught me that if you start right and end right, the middle will take care of itself.
Then I get going. And as I go, the middle bits begin to fall into order. Or not: usually at least one turns out to be unusable, just as, sooner or later, a bit comes to me out of the blue that I hadn’t thought of before. And often, as I head toward the bit that will end my poem or whatever it is that I’m working on, sometimes I realize it needs to be the second-to-last bit. Or maybe that bit, too, should be discarded and something else put in its place.
In other words, I start with all due deliberation, but some happy accidents need to occur if the poem/newspaper article/book proposal is to end well.
Think of anything in your life that you’re pleased with and you’ll get an idea of how the bits journal works. It’s all a series of workable combinations, isn’t it? A series in which the whole is so much more than a sum of its parts. Your house isn’t one room but several, each with a different function and some with more than a single function. Your sweetheart has not a single excellent attribute but many. You’re happy with your education because it was varied, often contradictory; you took a class where one viewpoint was offered and then another in which it was contradicted, and out of that came your own ideas. You like your soup or the song you’re listening because of its different flavors and textures.
Here’s Emerson on Napoleon’s observations about one of his favorite commanders, André Masséna:
Napoleon said of Massena, that he was not himself until the battle began to go
against him; then, when the dead began to fall in ranks around him, awoke his
powers of combination, and he put on terror and victory as a robe. So it is in
rugged crises, in unweariable endurance, and in aims which put sympathy out of
question, that the angel is shown.
That’s from Emerson’s address to the Divinity School at Harvard in 1838. Now usually we don’t look to generals for artistic guidance. But Emerson’s message to the future ministers and theologians of young America still works today for artists and, for that matter, anyone who wants to have a full life:
- Collect stuff.
- Amass more than you can use
- Pick the bits you want for the task at hand.
- Start somewhere —anywhere—and keep going until you have something to work with.
- Revise, revise, revise. Then ignore your work for a while, return to it, and revise some more.
The New York Times writer David Brooks says, “Creativity rarely flows out of an act of complete originality. It is rarely a virgin birth. It is usually the clash of two value systems or traditions, which, in collision, create a transcendent third thing.” His example is “Help” by Lennon and McCartney, originally written by John, who was in the throes of depression, with a “slow, moaning sound” till Paul added the manic counter melody that makes it a pop masterpiece.
“Sometimes creativity happens in pairs,” continues Brooks, “duos like Lennon and McCartney who bring clashing worldviews but similar tastes. But sometimes it happens in one person, in someone who contains contradictions and who works furiously to resolve the tensions within.” That’s you.
And don’t worry if what you’re working on doesn’t seem promising. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” for the Animals and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” for the Righteous Brothers, a song identified during their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as the most frequently broadcast song of the twentieth century and one that’s still going strong today. Yet Mann and Weil would go through periods of writing what they called “slump songs” just so they were writing something.
Some of those slump songs became hits.
Now that you have some background, let’s look at look at some poems that are just chockful of yummy bits. Here’s one by Nick Holt that’s organized around food and the end of the world, two topics that have a lot in common, or at least they will by the time Nick finishes with them.
Half of a Pizza in the Nuclear Apocalypse
I begin the way I always do, after
a six o’ clock drive during daylight
savings time, slamming gas station
sodas in the backyard bunker, twisting
the knobs on the radio until I find
a station that sounds like linen being
crumpled in the large hands of a mountain
man. It sounds like the music that dust
mites listen to, a lullaby for the cans
of beans and apricots twiddling their fruit
thumbs on the steel shelves.
I have decided that when I hear the bombs
whistle I will save no one, except for
one very lucky pizza delivery person,
who will not be tipped in the traditional sense,
but with a forty-inch-thick bubble of steel
and half of a pizza in the nuclear apocalypse.
I wish I were joking, but there’s only one cot —
so twist that dial o’ angel of better ingredients,
kick off your no-slip sneakers and dance
to the music of the new world, our world,
and tell me how the old one was doomed
from the moment the Three Wise Guys brought
leftovers to Jesus’ rage-in-the-cage-and-danger-
Like a lot of poems that are busy on the surface, this one is pretty simple in its way. The idea is as old as the ancient Greek and Roman poets who encouraged us to have fun while we can and especially when things are going south. The world is ending. Oh, dear—what shall we do?! The only answer is that of course we’ll do the things we liked to do best when everything was ducky. We’ll scarf a pie, and we’ll dance. If the universe is going to implode anyway, there’s no point in wringing our hands and pounding our heads against the wall. Let’s go out in style.
Okay, let’s look at another poem by the same poet. “Half of a Pizza in the Nuclear Apocalypse” is a nice piece of work built around two big bits, the pizza and the fallout shelter. Now consider “My Cows,” which is composed of even more bits, although less attention is paid to each. And then we’ll talk about the differences between the two poems.
My whole life I’ve given credit to the wrong people —
thank you for this balloon, I said to the man at the zoo
selling twisted intestine animal balloons,
when I should have stuck my face in the dirt
and thanked the cave we stole the helium from.
My great-great-grandpa thanked the bootleggers —
the ones who wore cow hooves on their feet
when running their shine from distillery to table
so as not to catch the fifth grade theatre production
spotlight eye of the law, when he should have thanked
the cows, whose worst crime was burping so much
methane that the polar ice caps melt and unleash a long-
frozen virus that shakes the Earth like an Etch-
a-Sketch, and even that part’s our fault. On road trips,
my friends and I have this game called My Cows
where every time you see a field of cows you shout
My Cows! and those are your cows, and we worry
about the numbers but never about how much sleep
they’re getting. When I sleep I tend to dream,
and sometimes I’m in a pasture with the cows from
the planes before Chicago, a pasture near Tacoma, my
runs when I lived in Georgia, and I jog from cow-
to-cow giving each a kiss on the nose, like a very
polite bovine Halloween, and some nights, I look up
and in front of me is a man, and he says Thank you,
and I say For what? and a crescent-moon scythe
slips out of his sleeve and he says For the cows,
and whenever I’m afraid of being cut to ribbons,
I calm myself down by re-reading the first
law of thermodynamics: teaching myself
that I don’t own my body, it’s just something
I’m renting for a while.
It’s easy to see that the poet’s voice here is the same as the one in the earlier poem. It’s smart, funny, and fast-moving. But this poem incorporates so many more bits. Whereas “Half of a Pizza” was built around eating and dancing, this one features someone who makes balloon animals, bootleggers who wore fake cow hooves when transporting alcohol, and the First Law of Thermodynamics, not to mention friends, a car trip, the speaker’s great-great-grandfather, polar ice caps, an Etch-a-Sketch, more cows, a fifth-grade play, and so on.
Whew! What’s it all amount to? As with Nick’s earlier poem, in the end this one isn’t all that complicated. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that, since matter can’t be created or destroyed, then the matter that makes up your body isn’t really yours, so you may think you own your body, but in reality it’s just a rental. Let us be humble, then, but grateful, too, for the bounty that is ours. Mainly (and this is how you know it’s a Nick Holt poem), let’s have fun.
I love both these poems, but I love the second one more.
I bet by now you have guessed that Nick is my student. For that reason, there’s an insight into this poem that you wouldn’t know about if Nick hadn’t told me and which I am about to tell you. Here it is. In addition to the dozen or so bits that make up “My Cows,” Nick told me about a bit that he began with but then discarded. Apparently the tip on the end of the angler of a football fish glows because it is covered in luminous microorganisms, which they can spit on other fish to dazzle them. This is a bit “I riffed on to open the poem,” Nick told me, “but took out later because it was no longer needed. It was, however, crucial in helping me write my way into things.”
Sometimes you have to kill your darlings. Then again, Nick can restore this last bit to his bits file and use it later. And isn’t it better to have too much of a good thing than too little?