A lot of the inspiration for me in writing this very long poem comes from reading the works that inspired it — Pale Fire and the poems of R.A. Parsons — but also having encountered, as an English Literature student, a number of very lengthy epic poems: works like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and In Memoriam (a personal favourite). I don’t mean to compare my own writing to these works but simply to highlight that they are monumental undertakings. I think the idea of taking on a huge poetic project is exciting, and I don’t know how often it happens in the present day.
My poem rhymes, and though it seems to be the case that rhyme is much less common in poetry than it used to be, I don’t think I would be able to write it without rhyming. If I were to sit down and try to write the events of my book in a novel form, I don’t think it would work. I imagine I would find the process rather boring. Writing out a list of events is easy enough, and with enough attention to detail one can turn a list of events into an autobiography or a historical record. I don’t want to do that.
My poem, certainly, is autobiographical, but not in the typical sense. I can’t remember every last detail. Some of it will be fictionalized. Some things I plan to write about didn’t actually happen. Some happened long after I was a child, or while I was well into high school. While most of the content will be based on real events, some parts will be filled in with embellishments. This is because I’m not trying to write an autobiography. I’m trying to write a blatantly romanticized version of a fairly typical childhood.
Writing in rhyming verse, I think, will help me steer the work away from strictly factual autobiography. The sort of rhythmic, archaic rhyme scheme hints that the poem is not supposed to be modern, or realistic, or factual. It’s also a challenge that I’m presenting myself with. Writing out the events of my life would be fairly easy, but writing them out in heroic couplets is much trickier. I’m trying to ask myself: Can that be done? (Of course it can, but it will take some persistence.)
The idea of constrained writing interests me. In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright published the novel Gadsby, which in its over 50,000 words does not ever use the letter E. Mike Keith wrote the Cadaeic Cadenza, a 4,000-word short story in which each word contains a number of letters equal to the digit of pi that corresponds to that word (word 1 has 3 letters, word 2 has 1, word 3 has 4, etc). My constraint is heroic couplets. It is definitely not as strict a constraint as some others, but it is enough to give me a challenge, and makes writing this poem all the more enjoyable.
In fact, the rhymes will often help me figure out how to go about expressing a certain thought. I usually write whatever comes to mind and try to continue with that one thought, rhyming when necessary at the end of lines. If a sentence I write proves too difficult to rhyme, I change the wording, or the thought entirely, until I end up with something I am satisfied with. Often thinking about possible rhymes completes my thought for me, as helpful words will jump to the front of my brain to partner with what I have already written.
(Sometimes the rhythm forces me to use atypical wordings; note below how I had to write letter subsequent instead of subsequent letter to fit the iambic rhythm.)
A man, Brossard, from Montreal, composed
An eight-page letter to my Dad. Enclosed,
Some specimens for your collection, and
Another question — had you ever planned
To open a museum of your own?
And that was that. Brossard, a francophone
Possessed a certain certainty; he had
A way of setting fires in my Dad.
With every letter subsequent, the goal
Came ever nearer. Though it took a toll
On him from time to time (to say the least),
Father’s determination was a beast
That did not die. The temple (as they called
It in their letters) opened in the fall
Of ninety-eight. The thing had taken ten
Years of my father’s life. Now and again
I think about Brossard’s triumphant speech
The day they cut the ribbon.
If I reach
Straight up in our front yard, I can just touch
The lowest branch of birch. It wasn’t much:
A bungalow, first white-and-black, then -green,
Perched flatly on an avenue between
Pine hills behind, the rest of town out front.
When exiting the house, one would confront
A small decision: to turn right or left?
Both ways led to the same road, so, bereft,
Of any consequence, the choice became
Unconscious. I can, to this day, name
Most of our neighbours: Tiller, Rideout, Smith,
Richards, and Publicover, the house with
The two dalmatians (that name slips my mind),
McNeil, Wilcott, and Perry.
This is the extent of what I wrote today. Please note that anything I post here is a very early draft and will probably change. I won’t often post excerpts this long either, but I like the way this section turned out.