Sometimes it takes years to understand a poem or a process. Decades ago, I encountered Gary Snyder’s poem, “After weeks of watching the roof leak/I fixed it tonight/by moving a single board.” I didn’t know what it meant or if it meant anything at all. Sure, I was a procrastinator too, but why would someone take so long to make such a simple and valuable change? And where was the rest of the poem? How could this be the whole thing? The moment intrigued me, but I felt either I was missing something or the poem was.
Although I read, teach, and admire Snyder’s work, I didn’t consciously think about these lines again until recently as I listened to the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil talk about her writing process. Nezhukumatathil mentioned how that as she revises poems sometimes she will tape them on her walls and walk by them again and again as she goes about her day. I know other poets who do this or something similar, and suddenly Snyder’s poem came into my head. I was surprised, in part, because I hadn’t realized that I had memorized it. But there it was. Whole. And, I found that I had an understanding of it (an not the).
We look and look and look at a problem and then, after days or months or years of living with it, sometimes giving it concentrated attention, we make a small adjustment, move a single board or paragraph, change a line or delete a word, and we have improved it.
It seems so simple and can take so long.