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Coveting Thy Neighbor's Poem

Spring 2004. I’m sitting on the sunporch of my former house reading the latest issue of The Kenyon Review and in it, Eamon Grennan’s poem “Start of March, Connemara.” From his poem:

        …Two white gulls, wing-tilted,
        are surfing the sou’wester. How do they do it, finding the right
        angle in the gale and—angels of the shiverblast—adapting to it,
        letting it take them the way they were going?

I suppose this was the image that struck me first, and on a philosophical level I was considering the opposite: what if that’s not the way they were going? What if they just pretended that’s what they’d wanted all along? Of course, I was thinking more about human beings than gulls. I have a high school friend who’d always planned to go to graduate school in English. Instead, nearing forty, she’s a real estate agent because she was “so happy helping people find their dream homes.” I hope this is true. But I can’t help but think of it as justification for having sacrificed her own dream.

Back to 2004. The whole gull/destiny thing was on my mind, but so, too, was the fact that I found myself envious of the knack many poets have for the meticulously-crafted image. How was it that other poets could mold tightly-woven gems of poems while mine always sounded like stream-of-conscious conversations you’d overhear in a Greyhound station? Others’ poems were honed and controlled; mine felt like they “need[ed] a girdle,” as I wrote in my poem “Does This Poem Make My Butt Look Big?”

The idea had been rattling around in me for some time, perhaps for as long as I’d been writing. And since the Bible says nothing of coveting your neighbor’s poem, I seized the opportunity to dwell on the idea after reading Grennan’s poem. Perhaps I was emboldened by the fact that Grennan himself was writing in response to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The End of March.” It was like the old Breck shampoo commercial: they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on…

Here’s my original draft:

And here is the final draft:


        After Eamon Grennan’s "Start of March, Connemara"

        You ask how the gulls find the right angle in the gale,
        how they adapt to the current and let it take them

        the way they were going. I could ask the same of you:
        how do you find thumbed and wind-scumbled,

        thrusting them together like lost lovers,
        letting them glance off each other, polished stones

        on our tongues? Or glitterwings making their mark,
        a dance linguists call the fricative,

        a word I love because it is what it means,
        unlike palindrome, which resists mirroring itself

        and sends me, instead, to a girl I knew in college,
        the one from Glenelg – g-l-e-n-e-l-g, the same

        forward and back. She had hips that looked good
        in boy jeans and a way of making the professor

        believe she’d done the reading when she hadn’t
        even bought the book. Do you see what just happened,

        how I started in your lyrical world of shorelines
        and wave-peaks and wound up recording

        slumber party giggles through a thin wall? Your gulls:
        maybe they don’t harness the wind after all.

        Maybe they give in to each gust and forsake their plans,
        having learned long ago to want what they have.

Some notes on the changes:

“You ask how the gulls do it…”: This was the opening line until a friend pointed out that it sounded like the poem was going to be about birds copulating, ala Whitman’s “The Dalliance of Eagles.”

“She had hair that never needed combing and once asked permission to sleep with my ex.”: I was trying to characterize this enviable and self-assured girl, but these weren’t the right images. The boy jeans and book were. I also toyed with “looked sexy in boy jeans,” but ultimately preferred assonance of looked/good/book.

“I’m up here, chest-high in the stuff of Cosmo, not poetry.”: Cosmo sounded at once too old for the speaker’s mindset and too dated for the poem, so I settled for the slumber party image.

“…unlike palindrome, which should spell itself forward and back.” This was way too telling. And too dull and clunky. I decided “which resists mirroring itself” worked better metaphorically and aurally. Plus, I ended up using the “forward and back” line later with the actual palindrome.

“Maybe the wind determines their fate” (and variations). I had an idea early on for the final line (the wanting what they have, as opposed to having what they want), and this was one of many unsuccessful attempts at working up to the ending.

I was satisfied with the final revisions, and it seems at least two other readers were, too: the judge of America’s 2006 Foley Poetry Award, who chose it for the prize, and Eamon Grennan, who loved the poem and said it ran “a good mile beyond its inspiration.” High praise from a poet whose work I greatly admire.

In writing this, I find myself making the same kinds of revisions I make in writing a poem. It occurs to me that there could be “The Cutting Room Floor” for “The Cutting Room Floor,” and so on and so on, like the Breck commercial. Or perhaps like the deleted Cosmo reference in my poem, that allusion is too dated, in which case, I’ll cut it…

* “Covetous” originally appeared in the June 5-12, 2006 issue of America and is reprinted here with permission of the poet.

Erin Murphy is the author of Science of Desire (Word Press, 2004), a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. Her second poetry collection, Too Much of This World, won the Anthony Piccione Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Mammoth Books. Her poems have appeared in dozens of journals and in several anthologies. She is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State Altoona.