Editing “Church Going”

Today I’m going to draft the poem from a few updates ago, tentatively titled Church Going, after the Larkin poem. I thought it might interest somebody out there for me to talk through this editing process. There is a persistent lie we tell young writers, that poems are spontaneous and magical, and most of us I know were barely taught to write, and never learned anything about editing. So this is my own process, along with the second draft.

The first thing I’m going to do is read it over and see what jumps out at me. I’ve got 8 stanzas, and the sort of framing takes up 4 of them, so I need to decide if that’s a problem. At the back of my head is something that I’ve found is true in probably 80% of first drafts, that the entire first stanza is unnecessary to the poem. In this case, the first three and a half stanzas do not serve what is the essential metaphor of the poem, the comparison of a hospital to a church, and the pseudo-religious despair of living in a nation where poverty is in many ways equated with sin.

This is something I really struggle with. I respect the idea that a poem should cut everything that doesn’t serve its core message directly. Every word, even every space, that doesn’t contribute to a singular, momentary effect should be culled. At the same time I feel I’m often too curt, too focused on the message and not focused enough on images or lines – I have my focus almost entirely on the total poem and best communicating what I want to communicate, and forget that part of the fun, and the beauty of poetry is in the beautiful line, and finding the best, or most subtle, or most lyrical way to communicate something.

Part of that aesthetic, of a more leisurely poem, let’s say, is to let a poem wander away from its point. What the framing does is not just supply context for the core of the poem, but to make it less tight, and less demanding. This is something that I have been trying to do more and more, but despite that I haven’t decided whether or not it’s a good idea. I have great love and respect for the most demanding writing, and think it takes the most skill to produce. But it is so often overlooked in our day and age, it’s possible that for my generation, being demanding will mean being ignored.

Two things come to mind after that. The first is the stilted method of the language I use, there are a lot of word choices that hold a special significance in sort of inside jokes to myself in this poem, and I allow myself some of those when there’s no harm in it, but there are a few too many here and the language is a little too unnatural. Unnatural language is necessary in poetry, but it’s a pet peeve of mine and I sometimes try to remove it even to the detriment of a poem. Sometimes. Related to this is the problem of tone. This poem recklessly goes between reverence, alienation, playfulness and outright comedy. These can all work together in a poem, and as this is in some ways a tribute to Larkin, getting them all to jive together skillfully would make it possibly worthy of the comparison it invites. In the current state it simply doesn’t work.

Reading it again with these things in mind, I’m reminded of a conversation I had last night. A friend went through something of an ordeal trying to mitigate the costs of her son’s medical needs. It occurred to me that, with that idea as a reference point, an alternate framing of the poem could make it work a lot better towards its theme. That would bring in a problem I’m very bad at solving, the problem of having multiple people in a poem. My poetry tends to be very meditative and abstract, so I always have a problem weaving action into that, and both action and interaction require some measure of exposition, which completely kills the pace and lyricism of many poems. Sometimes this is hardly a problem at all, even in a poem with a dozen people acting independently, but sometimes it single-handedly kills an otherwise working poem.

The ideal from here would be to try multiple courses of action and see what works best, but it’s generally at this stage I discover that I’m going to be late for work, or I’m too hungover to do creative work, or I’ve had too much coffee and can no longer sit still. Today I’m going to read over it one more time and give it a long think while I take a fifteen or thirty minute walk.

One thing I did by accident: in the third line of stanza 1, 2, and 4: the triplicate ‘I no longer know, I no longer know, I have always known. – later “God only knows” ‘ – a great little piece of structure I could build upon.

It’s the next day now, and I’ve traveled halfway across the country. This piece has enough problems to warrant a full rewrite, so I’m not going to go into the problems of individual lines, instead I’m going to take an inventory of lines I really like for the poem and see if they can be incorporated into the new draft. There are certainly drafts that require a negative eye, but those tend to be closer to a final – fixing small, obvious problems is tempting but there’s a good chance those sections will be thrown out completely.

I’m also inserting a quote from Larkin’s Church Going, as a bit of a nod. Using the same title means the reference will be obvious, “Hospital Going” would also work as a title towards that end. There’s almost certainly a better title out there, but I’m not great at writing titles.

The true church is a polished hulk, an ideological collossus
whose great legs straddle all the world, I know
despite my parents’ burying it before I was born.
I have never bothered rapping on the gaudy, over-wrought doors
of that ancient kingdom, even here, seeing
the charming centenary church on its proud little hill,
trying to become real. But it is no collossus; not anymore.
And you do not reclaim the respect of scholars
by piling bricks into a facsimile of man
glowering over man, like a sanctimonious boor.

Still, a walk demands a destination, just as any man
“at a loss like this, wondering what to look for”
and the hill looks so inviting in this weather, after a trip
through a valley of moss and puddles. Where else
would I go in this youthful city, where none have ever died
or felt compelled to cast a serious eye
on a world so rich with blessings
that even their disappearances feel kind.
But the doorstep of a church, in the dead of night
looks as lonely as an office stoop, a bland little room
which reveals God to be a business, and his Bible paperwork.

The hospital nearby is glowing, all aglow with light
and I surprise myself with a quixotic desire, remembering
with some fondness deliveries I used to make
to the pleasant-hearted nurses who govern men’s bleak hours.
Here the doors open for me, here they open automatically
to refugees who come from all directions, and inside
finding myself in a wide white hall. Truly, this is an honest place
harsh the way a home is harsh, and neighbor to salvation.

And maybe that’s why I’m feeling so unwelcome,
afraid if I’m spotted by the clergymen, they will see me
as a crook whose heart is so lowly, so vile,
that it believes the Angels make an easy mark
and heaven can be nicked like any trifle. Playing the part,
I duck into a hidden hall and sneak my way
into a bathroom stall. In my little cubicle I’m reminded
of the old art of confession; how nurses, therapists, and priests
require different samples to tell you the same things.
How we are not revealed in what makes us worthwhile,
but those odds and ends we failed to leave behind.

When I find myself in that great hall again, the lights are dim
and the low ceiling rattles, as if little devils ran along the rafters.
This is no house of worship. It’s hardly one of healing –
most of its congregation can afford to buy their blessings wholesale
and do not work themselves towards paradise, but take by force
a fifty milligram communion – while on another floor
the proud, the hopeless, and the poor
take a different kind of Eucharist. A last meal they must repeat
day after day in their black cells, until Death has decided
whether to coax them with Persephone’s lips
or let Hades beat them bloody when they go.

All the prayers I might have said dissolve
sugar on my tongue, now too numb to dribble words out
uselessly – those placebos which even sinners can afford
who deny or are denied the hard salvation of the act.
Who sleep or cannot sleep, whose punishment
for failing to see or to be seen by God M.D.
Will not end with needles, scalpels, or the rack.
Who, denied good health for the sake of a stranger’s dollar
would never hope to pass through heaven’s doors.

The hollow truth of my pilgrimage is calling me home.
I could never dare to hope for happiness
whether here or there, or where no living man may walk.
I can only pass like the ring of a broken bell
the perfectly sculpted lawns, the diamond cars,
the neon bazaars and million dollar homes,
the nuns discuss their latest dance – they laugh
while my feet drum the ground, stones on stones on stones
straddling the one and only path, wherever it may go.

It’s now over a week later, it turns out that moving can keep good work from getting done. I try not to look too hard at a draft the moment I’m finished writing it, but I know the “God M.D.” joke isn’t likely to make it to the final draft. The poem has become much more macabre, with a turn about halfway through. I’ve kept the framing but rewritten it completely – now it assists with theme and imagery instead of being mostly disconnected and expository, but still far from perfect.

The reference to Hades and Persephone is a consequence of stuff I’ve been reading, listening to, and playing lately. It may work after the turn as a heretical turn away from Christianity towards the pagan symbolism, but I’ll have to think about whether I want to change that or not in the next draft.

I’m not sure if I’ll do something similar for the next draft, or for drafting another poem. It’s pretty likely, though, as these little notes aren’t much extra effort on top of the actual writing, especially in this case, having to rewrite the whole poem beginning to end. Anyway I’ve picked up a collection of contemporary poets, so hopefully I’ll chance on something interesting to talk about.

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