The other night, a line popped into my head. Whenever this occurs I have to stop what I’m doing and write it down, or I’ll lose it (which has happened enough times that I finally know better than to try to just remember it). Normally, I would use my notebook, but I was at a show, so I did not have my bag with me. Given that it’s 2019, I was able to write it on my phone:
drop by drop
we quietly drown,
while our purchase is sold off
or melts down.
the rising tide —
they say —
lifts all boats;
we pawn tomorrow for steerage tickets
as the water reaches our coats.
scramble for the higher ground;
beg and steal for freight or flight.
horseman, pass by the sign that reads:
“last one on dry land,
please turn out the light”.
I figured it might be a bit interesting to look at some of the process of writing this poem; I don’t usually think about it too much. Earlier in the week, I had read an article entitled Icelandic memorial warns future: ‘Only you know if we saved glaciers’ in The Guardian about a plaque to be placed at the location of a now vanished glacier. The plaque included the amount of CO2 currently in the atmosphere (415 parts per million, which is what suggested the title).
I don’t tend to start anything with a set structure in mind; I let the work do that for me. In this case the first five words had a rhythm that I liked but it didn’t seem to work as one line so I broke it into two. Breaking those words into two lines set the format for the rest of the poem: five lines per stanza, with the second indented. The final line of the first stanza was “or melts away” originally, but changing it to “down” created a rhyming pattern which I repeated it in the second stanza (with “boats” and “coats”). I tweaked it for the final stanza because I couldn’t get it to fit without throwing off the rhythm entirely.
While form is important, it shouldn’t distract or get in the way of what the poem is supposed to be about. With this poem the form changes a bit for the final stanza because I couldn’t quite get the lines to fit the rhyming scheme without losing the directness of the images or ruining the rhythm. I tried changing the order of the lines, but it didn’t scan as well so I left it alone (writing seems to come down to “stop fucking with it” pretty often). Plus, having the lines lengthen and the scheme change helped place extra emphasis on the ending.
One last thing worth mentioning are the word choices and images I ended up going with. The entire piece is built around the issue of rising temperatures and ocean levels, which provided a few different ideas for images to go with. I wanted to emphasize that the people who will be most affected by climate issues will be the poorest. Originally, there was a line about caravans and moats for the rhyme, but it seemed too out of place; moats are a touch too middle-ages for what I was aiming for. Thinking about boats led to thinking about ticket classes, and the steerage line came from there. It seemed like a quick way to talk about it without being too contemporary, and also to point out disparities like this have been around forever. As an added bonus, reaching back 80 years with the imagery let me allude to (i.e. steal) a line from Yeats’s poem Under Ben Bulben which is also about things coming to their end, so it tied the piece together nicely. (It also let me show off how pretentious I am, which is another important thing to consider when writing poetry.)
So that’s how the piece came together. It took longer to write this article than it did the poem itself. The process is weird like that.
It’s why I don’t usually think about it too much.