Teacher Tales: On Poetry and Sleep
Sleep, that elusive, fleet- footed rascal! We have all spent those sleepless nights staring at the screen with bloodshot eyes, our backs hurting from sitting slump-shouldered for hours on end. Why do we put ourselves through this torture? I like to think that it’s because we are passionately dedicated to our wordcraft. At least that is the explanation I’m sticking to. The truth, however, probably lies somewhere deep in our psyche. For some, there is the pursuit of fame and fortune. For others, perhaps it is the possibility of peer acceptance—validation of the hard work we put into transcribing our thoughts onto paper. Whatever driving force pushes us to lose sleep, forget to eat, avoid well-intentioned friends and family, we most often find that once we “discover” that one perfect word (or turn of a phrase) that will glue our thoughts together, we will finally allow ourselves to relax enough to sleep.
In his quote at the top of the page, Mr. Rushdie contends that, “A poet’s work is to… shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” I’d like to amend his quote, saying instead that, “A poet’s work is the never-ending pursuit of the perfectly sculpted poem; we will forego many things—even sleep—in our relentless search for that delicately delicious moment when everything ‘comes together‘.”
One problem I have faced in my pursuit of the “perfectly sculpted poem” is knowing when to quit. At what point do we stand back, critically read our work, and decide that further revisions are unnecessary? How can we keep some semblance of integrity in choosing the precious fruits of our creative loins? One knee-jerk reaction is, of course, to have someone else read and comment on our work. However, that only works if you have someone with the time and willingness to help. When my students bring their papers in for me to help them revise, I first ask them if they have read their own paper, out loud, to themselves. Sometimes, this simple question is met with a panicked expression—as they realize they hadn’t read their own work!
Poetry, in this respect, is no different from prose. We often have so much to say, so many images we want our readers to connect with, that we forget our readers can’t see inside our minds. I catch myself thinking so fast about the next word, and then the one after that, that I go back and read what I have written, only to find I have omitted typing some of them on the page. Before long, I come to the realization that I can’t find that one “perfect” word, and I hesitate. Mulling over the previous lines, I pour another cup of coffee, and settle in for (what many times turns into) a marathon session of mentally revising and experimentation.
In a previous life, it was necessary for me to wake up at 3:30 AM. Now, I find myself staying awake well past that 3:30 AM mark to put the “finishing touches” on a piece. Sure, sleep is a welcomed break from the bulldog-like tenacity we share as writers. We deeply, consistently feel the urge for “just five more minutes,” all in our creative quest for excellence. When we finally accept that our work is always “in progress,”it is then that we can allow ourselves to sleep- without fear of losing a valuable ending.
Allow yourself to accept your finished product. Understand that you can be satisfied with your efforts, without lulling yourself into complacency. Lastly, shut that light off… it’s nearly daybreak. Go to bed!