I wrote my first poem when I was forty-nine years old. Until then I mostly wrote nonfiction, and for several years worked on the staff of a union newspaper, writing both articles and essays at a time when United States Steel was putting tens of thousands of workers out on the streets, opting to focus on finance and real estate rather than steel. Writing as an advocate for myself and my fellow workers, I focused the five W’s of journalism into four or five column inches and honed sharp arguments with clearly delineated heroes versus the corporate villain. Concision.
In some ways, my present means of paying bills—chasing electrons (much easier when I was younger, quicker)—is similar. Someone calls me when half of a house or a restaurant is without power. I ask what happened and when, trace the circuits to find where the problem resides. I gather the facts, focus on a solution, make the repair, get paid, and move on. Again, concision.
Is poetry as concise and clear as nonfiction or solving troublesome electrical snafus? Yes and no. When I began studying poetry ten years ago, I was struck by the notion that among the poets I most admired, the obvious was not always so; good poems, the ones that most engaged me, often looked beneath the surface appearance of a face or event to discover contradictory impulses. Often a poem looks without any clear objective, without a goal or an issue to resolve. The charge in a poem, whether it be a longer meditative reflection or a short lyric, often resides in a rhetorical ambiguity. So where does concision come into play? Most of the great poets spend many more hours and ink revising than they spend on a first draft. This extra work is done with the goal of designing the verse so that what the poem wants to say is laid out concisely in an appropriate order, a notion captured in Stephen Dobyns’ book about the craft of poetry: Best Words, Best Order.
In electrical construction, the process is very different. Most often, one works from a blueprint. The owner or builder has met with an architect. The home or business has already been designed so that before any of the trades lift a single tool, one knows more or less how the final structure will present itself to the world. Although there may be minor alterations in the course of construction, all one is doing is bringing the plans to fruition, even if some creativity might be called for in solving problems that arise during construction.
One of my teachers told me early on that if I sat down to write a poem and I already knew what I was going to write, I would most likely write an awful poem. He believed, and convinced me as well, that poetry is a process of discovery for the poet. When I’m roughing in a poem (the first draft), if I’m lucky, something unexpected will occur; an image will pop, my pulse will quicken. I’ll shift slightly in my chair, mumble to myself. If I have the courage and energy to pursue this and probe the uncertainties that reside beneath the surface image or remark, a solid draft might emerge. The great poems that we come to love and commit to heart are ones in which both the poet and those others who encounter the poem come to discovery, looking beyond seen devices and fixtures we encounter in our lives to the unseen, the charged, the mysterious.
I’d have to find another way to pay the rent if I did that as an electrician. As I rough in a home, distribute power, size conductors, connect relays and switches to motors or to outlets and lights, I want to be sure that my clients will be able to light up a room, listen to music, heat or cool their dwelling, and clean dishes and their bodies with warm water. The goal is to ensure there will be no surprises—a breaker tripping or a light that fails to come on.
I Gotta Use Words When I Talk to You
By Mark Prudowsky
Once, when I owned all the losses and was a model of diligence,
a small room in a Chicago garden apartment was my office
and I did all the things one does with an in-box and out-box and phone.
I talked a lot with inspectors, other trades, my crew, new clients and old ones
who owed money, because nothing much ever stuck
despite all the talking. This was before communication via email—
abbreviated thoughts, even symbols that are typed and not spoken.
Back then, in a small room in the office, we talked
about everything: our wives or the women we saw or
wished we could see on the sly; our kids or our trucks;
the generator or winch we always needed but always figured out
how to do without; what moves the Packers or Bears would make over the summer
when memories were words and stuck better than money,
though I swear we were busy, even in winter. Once, four of us
installed a 3000 amp gear and the parallel risers of pipe
and copper cable fatter than your thumb while the wind chill was 30 below.
When the next day the temperature climbed 60 degrees higher
we worked outside in shirt sleeves. I’ve got pictures of both days.
I’ve got notebooks filled with the words we used those two days
and the following six months all the way through July
when eight of us roughed in over 64 units, working
alongside the families who came to own them and spoke to us
while all of us worked, about their kids or their bunged-up Buicks
and Fords, or whether the Chi-Lites would ever get together again.
The apartments and houses still stand and stand well
for we knew how to build while we talked. If I found
those notebooks again I swear I would wince. I talked okay
but could not write very well. I didn’t know how
to look, which is why it’s so hard to go back, why so often
it’s not really there and maybe never was—a small room,
twice as long as wide, with two windows facing east, looking
three feet away at the butt-ugly crumby foundation
of another two-flat, just as old and decrepit as the one
with the office. My neighbor who was fixing it up
didn’t truck much with talk. Maybe he was cheap or
nothing stuck worth repeating. I don’t know. But
he was not diligent and because he did such a terrible job,
I must have looked
so I guess I owe him like I owed others
back when memories stuck better than money, when I knew
how to work and talk but not
how to look at things when I owned all the losses.