In “Going Elsewhere,” her contribution to The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry, Linda Gregerson discusses one of the central paradoxes of poetry: as she calls it, “moving-forward-by-going-elsewhere.” Gregerson writes:
“Often, when I have drafted, oh, three-quarters of a poem, something more than half in any case, I find myself at a peculiar sort of impasse. The trajectory has begun to assume some clarity; the poem has begun to turn toward home. And just-on-the-edge-of-fulfillment is exactly the problem: were the poem at this point simply to complete its own momentum, it would land in sorry predictability or, worse, the default didacticism that comes from ‘topping up’ one’s own emergent understanding. Time to go elswehere, Linda. And begin by discarding that last stanza and a half.
“Elsewhere can be recalcitrant. A dozen failed efforts to find it–three dozen–are nothing at all. It must be the right, the real elsewhere, the one that deepens and corrects what has come before.”
Gregerson then discusses engaging in this process with two of her poems (reprinted in The Rag-Picker’s Guide), “Prodigal” and “Her Argument for the Existence of God.”
Gregerson’s reflection on her process in The Rag-Picker’s Guide seems to grow out of some ideas that arose in a conversation with David Baker on The Kenyon Review Online. Of “Prodigal,” Baker asks, “How did this ending come about? Was it early or late in the process of composition when you determined how the poem should terminate?” And Gregerson responds, “It was very late. I was stuck for a long, long time. It’s always the hardest, and the truest, part of composition for me: reaching a point where the poem needs to go more deeply into itself by going elsewhere. Authentically elsewhere, somewhere I haven’t pre-plotted. I often find that point by writing slightly beyond it, into a fulfillment that’s too predictable. So I have to cut back to the precipice and be stranded there for a while. It’s a very uncomfortable place; it drives me crazy. And it’s where the thing either does or does not become a poem.”
This going elsewhere, this “hardest” and “truest” part of composition, this working at the point where a poem either does or does not emerge, of course, is the search for the right kind of turn for a poem, one that leaps away from the poem but also is deeply (and wildly) appropriate to it–a turn, that is, that has fitting surprise. Seeking out and deploying thrilling turns is not only a part of Gregerson’s process, but also is a part of the process of poets such as Billy Collins and Mark Doty. …And, I’m certain, many, many, many others. It’s just nice, and fitting, that poets have started to articulate how difficult and vital a poetic element the turn in fact is.