Roofs appear rather frequently in the poems I write, even though I am quite uninformed and even rather uninterested in the mechanics and terminology of roofing. Wondering about this, I got an oversized index card and wrote on it “roofs.” Then I went looking through my old poems, searching for other recurring themes and images, jotting them down on my card. I could find motifs and patterns, but as with roofs, I couldn’t imagine why these words had appealed to me on multiple occasions. So I recalled the mathematician George Pólya who famously said, “If there is a problem you can’t solve, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it.”
Since I couldn’t solve the problem of unconscious repetition, I decided an easier problem was to push the use of repeated images to the limit: conscious repetition. My plan was to write a series of poems experimenting with this idea, to see what would happen, what I might learn. I made rules to encourage redundancy. They included: forming the title of each poem from two words, the first being the second word of the title of the previous poem, and the second being the first word of the subsequent poem’s title; consciously repeating the words I had noted plus other potent words that appeared as I went along; and judiciously using poetic form.
Here is what I thought might happen: use of repetition would illustrate the impossibility, in the long term, of unselfing the self. It’s a banal problem, a small idea, but what better way to express its dullness and insistence than through repetition?
Here is what did happen: my poems ran away from me as they often do. In only the second poem of the series, a voice emerged that was not mine. I thought it an aberration, but the unmistakable voice showed up again in the third poem. This persona is hijacking my series, I thought, and indeed it did. Then a second voice showed up, in a relationship with the first one (a second marriage—I soothed myself with the knowledge that some repetition was going on here). Suddenly an entire unbidden narrative sprang up behind the poems, a suggested story not about self but about two selves.
This is the first time I’ve ever written something in which form was not merely the vehicle, but also the content. William Matthews wrote, “. . . form and content . . . want to be each other.” In that case, they probably didn’t need my help. Maybe through conscious repetition I bound form and content up so tightly that there wasn’t anywhere for the unconscious to spin its mystery. Maybe that’s why the voices appeared, to form two sloping planes of a roof from under which the unconscious could peek out while remaining concealed.
Maybe I need to find an easier problem.