There are ekphrastic poems, yes, where you write about another painter’s vision on canvas, but what about your own vision when you’re just hanging out in a favorite spot?
That’s the premise of what I call a “Sit and Write” poem—one that puts your description skills to the test. For example, I give you Charles Wright’s “Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night.” I love the nonchalant start he gives it in Line 1. Let’s join him for a look, shall we?
Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night
by Charles Wright
I’ve always liked the view from my mother-in-law’s house at night,
Oil rigs off Long Beach
Like floating lanterns out in the smog-dark Pacific,
Stars in the eucalyptus,
Lights of airplanes arriving from Asia, and town lights
Littered like broken glass around the bay and back up the hill.
In summer, dance music is borne up
On the sea winds from the hotel’s beach deck far below,
“Twist and Shout,” or “Begin the Beguine.”
It’s nice to think that somewhere someone is having a good time,
And pleasant to picture them down there
Turned out, tipsy and flushed, in their white shorts and their
Later, I like to sit and look up
At the mythic history of Western civilization,
Pinpricked and clued through the zodiac.
I’d like to be able to name them, say what’s what and how who got
Curry the physics of metamorphosis and its endgame,
But I’ve spent my life knowing nothing.
Oil rigs don’t sound very promising until they become floating lanterns in the Pacific. The “smog-dark” Pacific. I learned hyphenated adjectives from the master—Dylan Thomas. Read his poetic short story, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and you’ll be wowed, too.
The last line of stanza one offers another neat little simile, comparing town lights to “littered…broken glass around the bay and back up the hill.” Again, we get a negative association (broken glass) turned lovely by the imagery Wright employs.
In the second stanza, I wonder about Wright’s wistfulness. When he says, “It’s nice to think that somewhere someone is having a good time,” is he implying that he, himself, isn’t, or should we take it a face value? Either way, it’s a kindness—one enhanced by his gentle acceptance of their drunkenness and poor dressing decisions.
The turn comes in the third stanza. Notice how the zooming in suddenly pans out to the night sky. And Wright matches the image by thinking big, too, about Western civilization, no less, as he looks at the mythological figures traced out (poorly, I might add) by the stars.
One summer I memorized most of the constellations in the utter dark over Maine, but I’ve since lost a few. Thus, I can identify with Wright’s wrap-up: “But I’ve spent my life knowing nothing.”
Clearly he’s not as generous with himself as he is with others. The line, too, reminds me of James Wright’s (no relation) finish in “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (a second cousin to “Sit and Write” poems—namely “Lie and Write” poems). That one ends: “I have wasted my life.”
Man, these Wright boys. They’re tough on themselves, no?