POEM, POET, DETECTIVE, TRICKSTER
by John Presley
my name is John, and I’m addicted to writing poetry.
I’m addicted to writing and revision and discovering meaning
in my own life and memories, and to finding meaning in the lives and
memories and words of others. I
especially like the act of revision, when the sudden light of
recognition shines, and I find a meaning I didn’t know that I knew,
or even meant at first take.
love putting pieces together that at first glance seem not to mean
anything by themselves, but which seem to present a productive mystery
when they are considered together.
I revel in discovering cosmic irony or the like when I put one
piece of paper near some other scrap I’ve been hoarding for months
or years. For example, I
have a sheet of paper with words I overheard in the
airport, when an older woman in a wheelchair was pushed by.
When I heard her say, “Well, the first two were bipolar, and
the third had a tail…,” I knew I had to find my pencil and pad and
follow her. And I did, and
those fragments will one day work together with other fragments when
either my “Inner Detective” discovers a meaning or when Trickster
decides to trump or play that inner detective, to show me how and what
these mysteries mean.
that love of writing and revising and what I might learn from it that
keeps me writing poems—there’s no fame, no money in it, no longer
even a “merit” raise every year—it’s just me and my addiction.
Hey, some people are addicted to crossword puzzles.
And I’m willing to admit that the two activities have a
couple of aspects in common. (But
I gave up crossword puzzles when I learned that knowing too much was a
disadvantage in the competition. I
know the names of two “gods of war, 4 spaces, ends in s,”
for example). But while my
revisions may not give me the voice of a legislator of the world, I am
highly entertained by moving the pieces around until a mystery is
solved and something is built.
don’t misunderstand: some poems of mine have “fallen from the
sky” almost complete, and astonishingly, even sometimes in the form
of sonnets. Like Robert
Graves, I try always to have paper of some kind near me in case that
happens, and like most compulsive or addicted writers, I can exhibit a
bit of obsession with a particular kind of pen, a particular kind of
paper. (Sometimes, when
forgot his paper, he had to resort to scratching on the backs of dry
cleaning receipts. Once
when he was completely out of paper and a poem started to fall from
the sky, he was reduced to writing on the back of a flattened out ice
cream carton!) This year,
I like writing on the texture of expensive drawing paper.
But I am mainly addicted to the act of writing and revising,
not to the paraphernalia, so most of the time I’m happy to “get an
idea” and work at it, revising slowly and trying to solve the
mystery of the meaning of my memories, words, phrases, and to see how
they all change and adjust themselves to new contexts.
I write phrases and sentences down to hoard them, and it may be years
later when I discover that the image or the stanza about the peacocks
in the park in Vienna and the sentences about the old man stoically
putting up and then removing all the umbrellas from the guest tables,
will mean more than I thought if I also allude to, or plagiarize from,
e.e. cummings. And it will
be fun to put all this in one stanza.
I once worked for ten years or more on a poem about Doubting
Thomas, only to learn from the poem finally that it was not one, but
two poems about Doubting Thomas. Once
my inner detective finally solved the mystery, I realized that I had
been deluding myself for quite some time about what I knew and how
much I knew about Doubting Thomas.
No wonder it took ten years.
enjoy throwing form and structure into the mix, too.
That’s like really inviting Trickster to toss new meanings at
you. The restraints—and
possibilities—of form simply make my detective work just that much
more enjoyable, that much more surprising.
Take a poem that in first draft seems to slam together two
fragments I thought were unrelated to each other:
the image of a halogen lamp creating the illusion of a halo,
and the story told to me by a friend—honest, it was a friend, and
not me—about his long-ago visit to the free health clinic.
Who knew that the free clinic story, originally told to me as a
joke, and a good one, would work so well with the admittedly rather
strained halogen-halo figure? Or
that the banal complaint of “This just isn’t working for me”
used here to end a relationship would be ironically illuminated by the
threat of violence from the new boyfriend?
Or that the poem’s speaker would be as disinterested in the
outcome of any fight as the “she” with the halogen halo was
disinterested in the outcome of the relationship?
Well, I didn’t—not until I wrote them, and not finally
until I went through the revision process with all the lines in place.
the poet learns what all these pieces mean and to some degree, the
detection, and the unpredictable collaboration with Trickster, is made
just that much more enjoyable and surprising by the demands of form.
I had no idea that “The long black rods well they mean
something else/And reaches behind for a clean syringe” would make
such very nice, sloppy and surprising lines of pentameter, and I
certainly didn’t know that all this now-discovered boredom with love
and its complications would make a
nice sonnet. Even if the
sestet is in the middle.
a teenager I once wrote a very puerile poem claiming “Poems/are
words with/noises happening between.”
Though the New Yorker,
American Poetry Review, and even Poetry are dominated by such “language poems,” I no longer want
to focus on the odd word, or the difficult and unusual syntax, the
how-clever-is-this techniques of such poetry.
In a later poem I used the image of leaves blown up in the air
by a passing car to represent the ideas and memories and facts that
would later be re-ordered into a poem.
But it is not a random, chaotic re-ordering that makes a
poem—it is the act of will, the detection, or the sudden appearance
of the unconscious, of Trickster, that re-orders those leaves into
verbal art that fascinates me now.
John Updike described the way art can “sidestep mortality
with feats of attention, of harmony, of illuminating connections.”
It is those feats of attention and those illuminating
connections that I want to detect and which keep me working at the
mystery of writing and revising. When
I began writing “Steps” I thought, after two decades of
remembering a British poet I once knew, that I might be able to
“detect” a meaning, a significance, simply in my memories of him.
I had been so impressed by his great talent as a poet that
I’d long wanted to write a poem in which he’d be Mozart to my
Salieri, and in which I’d be shown surprisingly, ironically correct
in my modest estimate of my talents compared to his.
But my poetic Mozart had a lot of other issues:
he may have been a thief, he was certainly a liar, and he was
so abusive in all his relationships with women that he was the only
modern, actual person I’d ever called a “cad.”
But the act of drafting, of pressing poetry from my pen,
reminded me that my poet-friend claimed to be descended from one of
the executioners of Joan of Arc, and he seemed to be proud of this
began to detect a possible truth.
As I struggled to find new words for “fire” and
“glowing” and ground away at making the 14 lines work, I was
struck not so much by his hostility toward women as by his distant and
unfeeling assumption of superiority to women that explained the two
behaviors, his and his ancestor’s.
what makes a “cad” is the sense that no relationship is important
enough to invest oneself in continuing it.
And what linked the image of the cad in my mind to the image of
his executioner-ancestor may be the “burning” complexion of the
betrayed lover back in
I didn’t know about the possible existence of any of these
connections—I didn’t even know that I knew things I might
connect—before I began to write and revise.
Writing poetry, I remind myself, is submitting one’s
preliminary, vague, partial or even incorrect ideas to the detective
work of composing, revising, matching form and idea.
the ambiguity in the last line? Just
what is the next sacrifice? Well,
sometimes the Detective Making Meaning may be surprised by Trickster.
Imagination meeting memory in the dark, as Annie Dillard has
said. Sometimes the
Detective decides to go with Trickster, especially when the result is
a productive ambiguity (think of the endings of The
Maltese Falcon and The Big
wrote “How My Interview Went” after losing out in an interview for
a college presidency. I
was angry, fixated, ranting about the unfairness of it all when my
wife Katherine told me to shut up and write a poem about it.
I began writing the poem in a fever of wounded ego.
slowly, the I found act of writing uncovering for me a meaning I’d
not suspected—and certainly not experienced—solving a mystery of
which I was barely aware. Flinging
the refrain “What the hell was I thinking?” in my face caused me
to begin to think that I might have dodged a bullet when the Trustees
decided they liked the Lutheran Air Force General better than they had
liked me. When I
discovered the figure “When they said X, I should have thought Y,”
I began to realize what a constant strain it might have been, this
posing as a college president. And
when working to clarify the synechdoche of the “chinless corduroy
jacket at the inevitable Faculty Forum,” and then finding that
figure followed, surprisingly and immediately, by the rather chagrined
bird dog “squatting in the field,” I knew that either Trickster or
my detective skills had uncovered for me the idiocy and the
humiliation of the usual beauty-pageant presidential interview, once
and for all. (In fact, I
believe so strongly in this “revealed truth” discovered during the
act of composing that I have gone on to lecture about the absurdity of
this sort of interview process many times).
I love half-truths, too; they give the detective, and Trickster too,
room to play in, and space for discovery.
I frequently use the character of a not-very-well-assimilated
Indian, and over the years that character has uttered several
explanations of how tribal status is measured—that the Indian who
lies best to the most white people is the Indian most highly regarded
for his status, for example. Or
is it the Indian with the stinkiest shirt?
(I think I read that one in
And is it true that the Choctaws are the only native North
American headhunters? I
read that somewhere, too, I’m sure. But the truth of it doesn’t
matter to me: I like
throwing even imaginary pieces of one culture at another and watching
what happens. Like a
detective lying to a witness he’s interviewing.
example, in “Tell No One” the elaborate declension of the status
involved in counting coup is a mélange of the various things I’ve
read over the years about the practice.
There are indeed various ways of counting coup, and the
relative honor resulting from each method, I have been told, varies
from tribe to tribe. I
don’t know if the declension here is literally true or not.
I actually began writing the “rules” out, in fragments,
when a colleague told me that the reason I find academic arguments so
difficult is that I’m always expecting to count coup—and that’s
also when I began a course of reading about counting coup.
identity of the speaker in “Tell No One” shifts for the reader,
jolting the reader with a surprise:
stanzas one, two, and three seem spoken by some historical
character, perhaps a warrior who actually participated in the types of
raids he is carefully spelling out.
But at the second line of stanza 4, the reader is likely to
suddenly realize that he or she has been tricked or misled, and that
this is a modern speaker, mulling over the rules of coup-counting,
and, as the details add up, the reader may realize that this speaker,
even though modern , has a warrior character trait or two.
And I have to admit that I discovered this shift and its effect
very, very late in the writing of the poem.
It’s the work of Trickster.
With very little added detail about why the speaker is musing
on this subject, the reader can only infer what may have happened; so
now the reader is made a detective, too, discovering meaning and
trying to decide the mystery of what is real, what adds to the
the speaker in “Tell No One” counted coup on a colleague?
Did the speaker hate the colleague, but pretend to respect the
the speaker might have “trashed” the colleague—or whoever the “enemy”
is—in a conversation with a consultant.
And the speaker might
have even talked to the “enemy,” helping his victim try to
discover who had done the deed for which the speaker will claim honor.
But here, the reader is indeed acting as a detective, searching
for meaning, making up his or her own story, and the mystery may lie
in these inferred narratives.
the last line is simply a playful allusion to the scariest line in the
novel The Exorcist, the line
heard when the tape of the possessing demon’s voice is played
I plan all this before sitting down to write and revise?
No. I detected
these meanings, all these relationships, in the process of solving the
mystery of my fascination with the gradations of coup.
Or I had them handed to me by Trickster.
that’s my thesis. The
really interesting part of writing poetry is the detective work, the
act of will, the rational, conscious work of trying first this
alternative and then this one, and adjusting all the other ideas when
these two seem to click, and so on.
The poet feels in control; the poet is the Detective rationally
testing, tasting, all the possibilities that he or she can think of.
But, then there is the other even more entertaining side of the
work—intuition, serendipity, the ideas that seem to fall from the
sky, and the sudden thought that entirely reverses the meaning of the
piece. The detective, the
searching by the intellect may have started the process, but sometimes
suddenly Trickster intrudes. And
Trickster’s frequently ironic and playful intrusions are always
I’m working right now on a comic poem about a literary tour of
Boar’s Hill, the area south of
where so many British poets have lived.
I have another in draft about sleeping upstairs while a beach
house is torn apart by a storm. At
this point I don’t think they’re going to be very good at all.
I haven’t discovered a mystery in either draft yet.
Presley has been writing poetry for 45 years, having
published in journals ranging from Blue Unicorn and South Atlantic
Review to the North Dakota Quarterly to Troubador, and he has
published a chapbook, How Like a Life. At
the same time, he has published a
number of textbooks and written widely on modern literature,
especially on the work of Robert Graves.
Perhaps most ironically, he has served as Provost or Dean at
five institutions ranging from a private liberal arts college,
Having most recently served as Provost at
he is now a Professor of English in the ISU College of Education,
where he teaches in the doctoral programs in higher education