Composing “Cranes and Sheep”, Continued

Having made the major decisions for the “Cranes and Sheep” poem, I am refining the final draft.

This can involve something as small as choosing the best determiner in a line: are the cranes on “a hilltop” or “the hilltop”? The former is vague and wistful, the latter, specific and delimiting; which is most enhancing to the poetic theme?

Or something more significant, like choosing the most evocative verb from an array of possibilities: does the lamb “frisk”, “bound”, “bounce”, “pounce” or “romp” in the flock? The meanings are similar, but which one elevates the stanza?

As always, some combination of inclination, skill and flair will help me settle on this word or that.


An impasse ended

My recent “Cranes and Sheep” dilemma has been resolved in a triumph of clarity and symmetry. The compositional knots constraining me have been neatly untangled by a willingness to forego an idea to which I had clung, and I have achieved the aesthetic, structural and stylistic objectives I had originally envisaged for the poem, in a new way.

The conundrum centred around a set of lines of which I was particularly fond. They were integral to my conception of the poem, the focal points of the first two stanzas describing Blue Cranes against the heavens and Merino Sheep against the hills in two tableaux. The stanzas were to be static, contrasted with movement in the two that followed.

So established was this concept that everything was constructed about it, creating a compositional crossroads. It was only when I entertained the possibility that it might not be the best approach, that the solution became clear: introduce movement throughout the poem! It seems obvious now, but till that moment, such a change was inconceivable.

A final draft in sight

Once embraced, however, I could consider stanzas three and four from a new perspective. Yesterday, whilst mulling over their subject and style, suddenly—almost automatically—everything fell into place. Possessed by the Muse (or some other benevolent force), I encapsulated all the variations I had written for them previously into pithy stanzas!

I now have a draft that expresses the theme clearly, evocatively and concisely. I am thrilled with the outcome; it feels light, natural—“right”. Once I have descended from this ecstasy, I shall review it and see whether I have indeed such cause for celebration; but, I am confident. Thereafter, it will be a matter of refining the stanzas for the final work.

A lesson I learn repeatedly, but never fully grasp until I am at my wits’ end, is that a poem reaches a point where, like a stubborn youth, it refuses to be anything other than what it wishes to be—where it insists that you change, not it. It is then futile to attempt to bend it to your will, for it has taken on a life of its own. Success comes when you give in.

To accommodate a particular version of a set of lines in the “Cranes and Sheep” draft, I have, over the past few weeks, contorted its stanzas in every conceivable arrangement to no avail. This is one of the paradoxes of traditional poetry that one can write an excellent line that cannot be used (in the exact form one would like) within the poem for which it was conceived; either for reasons of context, clarity, structure or style, it must be foregone or significantly altered to achieve a coherent poem. The traditional poet’s notebooks are littered with word sequences that will never see the light of verse.