“Why’s this so good?” No. 38: Walt Harrington deconstructs Rita Dove
Writing about the writing process isn’t easy, for good reason. Turning words into sentences and sentences into scenes is at heart a craft, yet there’s still a certain amount of magic involved. Synapses fire. Muses play.
That magic, which manifests itself in unique ways for each of us, is what makes Walt Harrington’s Washington Post Magazine profile of Rita Dove, “The Shape of Her Dreaming,” one of those stories I reach for whenever I need inspiration. Harrington captures one poet’s creative process in such detail that it’s often hard to tell whose voice you’re hearing − his or hers.
Harrington initially set out to write something less ambitious. In 1995, the Post magazine was in the midst of a series of short front-of-the-book pieces about how to do various odd tasks. Harrington wanted to explain how to write a poem. Dove, then the U.S. poet laureate, promised to contact him the next time she had a finished work to share.
Three months later, Harrington reported to Dove’s backyard writing cabin in Charlottesville, Va. He discovered that, in addition to writing the poem “Sic Itur ad Astra,” she had taken meticulous notes for him − pages and pages detailing the changes she made with each version. Dove recently had begun using a computer, so each version carried a time stamp. She also handed over her journal of the six-week creative period, then spent six hours answering questions about every decision she’d made in her writing.
“She basically gave me a master class,” Harrington, now a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said recently when I called to talk about the story. “I don’t like to say a story writes itself, but she gave me a huge head start.”
Dove’s notes gave Harrington his structure: a chronological narrative starting at 5:35 p.m. on Feb. 5, when she printed out the first draft, and ending on March 26 at 1:43 a.m., when she finished the final version. That overarching simplicity − beginning, middle and end with a few quick digressions for background − allowed Harrington to get complicated elsewhere. That basic structure let him take his time talking about the meaning of poetry, the reason certain words and lines didn’t work and why something as seemingly concrete as written language can prove so tricky and abstract when put to creative use.
The lines make Rita shiver in the way she once shivered when she wrote, “He used to sleep like a glass of water/held up in the hand of a very young girl.” That feeling. So much of writing a poem is less like saying a prayer than it is putting together the weekly shopping list. Then comes a sacred moment … For Rita, these lines are a fish to keep − a rare poet’s epiphany in the muck of craft: “I don’t know where it came from. It just came.”
Harrington’s paragraphs are dense − skim, and you’ll miss something important. His prose is light on florid touches but does mimic a poet in the use of cadence. His tone is exactly right for the subject matter − conversational and slightly awed − yet he’s also ready to acknowledge that there’s something slightly wacky about the whole endeavor. He worked hard on that voice. He’d recently read Alan Lightman’s novel “Einstein’s Dreams,” an account of Einstein’s struggles to complete the theory of relativity. Harrington appreciated the novel’s light but reverent touch, and sought something similar:
It is 6:20 now, sundown out the cabin window. Rita takes up a new pen and writes: “Now we’ll see how this pen works. Sungown. Dundown. The light quenched. Oh, fennel bloom. Another ladybug − perennially cute, ladybug, body and name. Too many make a plague of luck. Ah shame on you, duckie: You’ve lost your quack. For an ounce of your prattle I’d hang up my traveling shoes.”
What does it mean? Who knows.
Narrative requires dialogue. But what happens when your major scenes consist of a woman sitting alone in a cabin, staring out the window or humming along to the classical music she plays as she works? Once again, Harrington turned elsewhere for inspiration. He’d recently read Madeleine Blais’ book “In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle,” an account of a high school basketball team that includes almost no “‘Blah, blah, blah,’ said so-and-so.” Newspaper-style attribution establishes an institutional voice and pulls readers away from the subject. Harrington wanted his audience as close to Dove as possible. So he stole Blais’ use of colons to mark off quotes, those that Dove gave directly and those he took from her journals. The result is internal dialogue that places the reader inside Dove’s cabin, and often all the way inside her head as she argues with and edits herself. This passage is like a miniature writing workshop:
“I’m a child again.” Too explanatory. The poem should have the feeling of childhood without needing to announce it.
“Catching my death of cold.” It goes on too long. This poem must be a collage of fleeting images, as in a dream. But Rita likes the line and would like to find a way to keep it.
“Moonlight cool as peaches.” She likes that line, too, may use it someday in another poem, but to mention food while in flight is too corporeal, too earthly. Still, she’ll leave it for now.
“In a nightshirt I’ve never seen before.” The image is too surreal, gives the sensation that the poem is a real dream rather than the sensation that it is like a dream.
“I won’t look below.” Not believable. Her poem’s character wouldn’t need to remind herself not to look below at the world. She’s yearning to leave it behind − for a ride to the stars.
“Come here bed, I need you!” Wait, the poem is talking to Rita again: Its traveler is ambivalent about her journey. She craves the stars but, like a child, also the comfort of her bed.
“I don’t know my way back.” The word “back” is too narrow, too referential to the world. This traveler isn’t worried about the way “back,” but the way to the stars, the future, immorality.
“Garden of dreams,” “purple petals,” “Happy landings.” “Yech!” “Awful!” “Disgusting!” But Rita doesn’t stop to change them. They are place holders for the poem’s cadence. New words will come.
Dove trusted that a combination of her own creativity and hard work − that line-by-line evisceration, performed again and again − would yield results, in this case 23 lines or 96 words of quiet beauty.
Harrington showed the same trust in his own process. He leaves Dove sitting in her cabin. She hears a dog bark, feels a breeze through the cabin window and enjoys another burst of inspiration, in this case the memory of a wisecrack her father once made to a gas station attendant.
Young Rita never forgot the baffled look on the attendant’s face.
Where are those few words she jotted? Ah, here they are:
Meek, this fallen leaf
reminds me of a word
my father used to say −
zephyr, tilting back to
gaze up under his brimmed fedora
as if to coax the air along
his brow: “What a lovely zephyr
today.” And the gas station
attendant scratched himself,
And once again, Rita steps out onto the lines …
You don’t have to love poetry to appreciate that.
Anna Griffin (@annargriff) is a columnist at The Oregonian and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.