As your publisher’s deadline approaches for the final version of a manuscript, decisions must be made. Is a poem too weak? And, if you pull it, do you have something stronger to replace it?
These sound like easy questions, but when you consider how unpredictable tastes in poetry can be and, more importantly, how difficult it is to judge your own work–especially when freshly written–they are anything but.
The story of the last poem in with my first book, The Indifferent World, is illustrative. I had been tinkering with a holiday-themed poem that suffered identity issues. Yes, the theme was post-holiday blues, but dark humor kept creeping in like the charred remains of a Yule log. I wrestled first with the poem, then with whether to pop it into the manuscript as a final switch. After sleeping on it, I opted to throw it in as a replacement.
That poem, titled “Black Dogs Redux,” was inserted deep into the book where it would be lost in the crush. But a funny thing happened. As reviews crept in, numerous readers alluded to “Black Dogs Redux” or quoted it. What was up with that, I wondered.
Like I said, illustrative. It seemed such an unassuming poem. A wallflower poem. A quirky-afterthought-to-some-of-its-more-noisy-neighbors poem. And yet, something about it invited comment, despite its dark secret as “last poem in” which, you might assume, would make it the “last poem worthy of comment.”
As the holiday is nigh once more, I figured I’d share it, warts and all:
Black Dogs Redux
by Ken Craft
The blue sad light is on again.
Maybe it’s the weather. Or the season.
Or the relentless grind of the quotidian.
Maybe it’s the “Is that all there is?” of the holidays,
where boxing ornaments, burning dried holly, and recycling
wrapping paper feels like picking up
after the dogs. The black dogs. Who heel all too well.
Orion has his astral-eyed pooch;
I have my black-furred dogs, loyal as shadow.
Walking backwards, man’s best friend is god, who has a hand
in this. That’s the sensation: the Great One’s hand applies
a slight pressure to my head, weighing me down.
The motivation to read? Nothing seems good anymore.
To write? I have nothing to say.
And damn Ecclesiastes anyway, it’s all been said.
Everything is vanity, all right, a striving after wind.
And like the Greek chorus, there’s this 33-degree rain
at 5 in the morning. Not the silent, deflected sound of snow
but that direct, cold ping running down the gutters of my spirit.
I adjust the sad light so the angle is better,
file rays in the blue facets of my eyes,
reshuffle them, come up with a deeper blue: slow, indigo
in scope. I can always sleep, but sleep leaves ash dreams.
I know exercise is an antidote, but I must first scale
the architecture of my own apathy. All those slivers under the fingernails!
It’s easier to eat ice cream that never judges.
Scoop of here in a cone of now.
Didn’t Ben Franklin say we should be well-rounded, after all?
He said a lot. And never once owned a dog.
Ben just donned beaver caps
and attracted lovely French ladies, who earlied-to-bed
when he was early to rise. Gay Parisian moths to a flame burning
with New World life, they were. Giggling in French. Obsessed
with their own dogged desires.
OK, so the thought of it gives a little lift. But just a little.
I’m too depressed for anything drastic.
Characteristic of last poems in, this one experienced the fewest revisions and perhaps it shows. Some readers admire the last lines of the second and third stanzas. But a few felt it should’ve ended after that third stanza, that Ben Franklin photo-bombed the poem much like Tom Sawyer photo-bombed the ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
So be it. Last poems in, flawed and honest, are what they are, much like the holidays. It’s the nature of the beast and, in any publishing process, there will always be final, rushed decisions. In retrospect, I still can’t say that it’s better or worse than the one it replaced (which I can no longer recall). Still, it’s fun to Monday morning quarterback.
What about Lost Sherpa of Happiness, you ask? What was the last poem in for that book? “Puddle Duck at Picking Time,” of course. On page 62, still quacking itself up.