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The Storm: Creation of a Poem

In Wuhan, China, summer of 2008, one stormy evening after my poetry workshop, Richard, a young scientist majoring in Physics, offered to walk me back to the hotel sharing his umbrella in the pouring rain as we made it up the steps built into the ascending mountain near the dormitories and the Philosophy Department where a statue of Confucius is visible through the window panes.

Richard wanted to talk about William Blake as the thunder thundered and the windy rain soaked us wet. In the workshop, I’d talked about a sonnet of Blake’s that doesn’t rhyme:


THOU fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And then the lion glares thro’ the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.

Richard liked the idea that Blake didn’t always follow the rules. I told him that I really appreciated the poem because the sound of the words are simple but beautiful. I didn’t know how he did it; I found it magical, and loved the second line ending with the enjambment light. Of course light can be a noun or a verb, and for me when I come across it in the poem, it always feels like a noun but it is a verb here lighting its bright torch of love. That excites me; it is a sexy poem and for the 18th Century an anarchic one as well, the fifth line ending with the. The what? The blue curtains of the sky drawn by the star as Blake and his love lie down in their evening bed to make love. And I am very happy with the oxymoron in the middle: speak silence. The sonnet opens its mouth and out of it the silence comes meaningfully wonderfully heard.

“Blake was a revolutionary,” I tell him. “Though he was English living in England at the time of the American Revolution, he supported the Americans. Imagine someone who was Hun Chinese in China supporting the revolt in Tibet.”

As Richard’s eyes grew wide thinking about that, a bolt of lightning exploded near us making us jump. I smelled the smoke, eyes starry with the flash, ears reverberating with the crack as another bolt not as close but close enough on the other side of a roof startled us and made us jump. “I’m going to die talking about William Blake,” I thought and then it really began to rain without any wind at all now just coming down hard. We ran as fast as we could, abandoning talk, probably luckier as moving targets should the lightning choose to strike.

The next day before class, Richard admitted that he too had thought we were going to die. Then he sat down and began to write. In a few minutes he got up and handed me a poem:

Suddenly something stabs my heart
A blinding lightning, loud thunders
Suddenly I felt myself collapse
A gust of wind, shuddering grass
But when all the shower passed away
Insects singing, everything in peace

His previous poems had been calculated and depressing; this, I was happy to see, had some honest feelings in it and atmosphere. Richard had been such an attentive student, I wanted him to join others in the workshop who were going to read at the closing ceremony, but Richard had done nothing suitable. Now I told him, “I’d like you to read this tomorrow, but I would change loud to loudly and add were to insects singing.”

In the workshop I had talked about meter because I think with English language learners thinking of words in their syllables is a skill that helps. Although we English speakers rely on stress and accent, the Chinese rely only on the syllable, and in class I let them go with that, the syllables to begin with, hoping that the audible rhythms written into the line will gradually come to them too if they continue studying. At the end of the day anyway meter is in the ear of the listener. Just as what I see isn’t exactly what you see, what I hear isn’t exactly what you hear either although of course it is similar.

I knew that meter interested Richard and suggested, “If I were you, I would focus on lines of tetrameter and pentameter, which your poem is written in:

Suddenly something stabs my heart

is a tetrameter line of four feet, two syllables to a foot:

Sudden / ly some / thing stabs / my heart.”

Richard said, “I think I should change stabs to stabbed because the rest is in the past.”

“Sounds good,” I said continuing: “The next line would be tetrameter too if you took out A at the beginning, A blinding lightning loudly thunders. Taking out the A is easy because the article A is understood in the word something in the first line. And you Chinese don’t use articles anyway.

Blinding lightning loudly thunders

The next line also has one extra syllable, but here that one extra syllable actually works because you collapse, and so does the line, if we break it into syllables:

Suddenly I felt myself collapse

Sudden / ly I / felt my / self col / lapse

We might include the first three syllables in the first foot. Suddenly is a word that’s quickly said; it fits and that would make the line tetrameter:

Suddenly /I felt /myself/ collapse

The next line is tetrameter

A gust of wind shuddering grass

A gust / of wind / shudder / ing grass

And the next line could be tetrameter too if you took out the one word that isn’t necessary, the unnecessary all.

If you changed

But when all the shower passed away


But when / the show / er passed / away

the line would be tetrameter, and the following, the last line would be pentameter if we pronounce everything with three syllables instead of four:

Insects / were sing / ing ev / ry thing / in peace

But when the shower passed away
Insects were singing, everything in peace.

“I want to keep all,” Richard insisted. “If I change it to But when the shower passed away something will be lost because the original all shows the length of the scary rain, all extends it; if that all isn’t there when we get to passed away at the end, we won’t feel relief or release. Without the all the line will lose its strength. All is more important than the meter.”

I had to agree; it’s best to agree with the poet. Richard sat down and class started.

Suddenly something stabbed my heart
Blinding lightning loudly thunders
Suddenly I felt myself collapse
A gust of wind, shuddering grass
But when all the shower passed away
Insects were singing, everything in peace

Richard is still attending Wuhan University. Last summer I was teaching there again and asked him if he would let me film him reciting the poem on the roof of my hotel. It took us over an hour to capture the six lines. Richard, who is a perfectionist, kept mispronouncing and forgetting or thinking he could do it better (his female companion was watching), trucks were rumbling, cellphones were ringing, and the cicadas were loudly singing, but finally Richard got from one end to the other without too much distracting noise. Wheew! Think of that car beeping at the end of Richard’s perfect performance, not as an annoyance, but the cosmos applauding.

To the Evening Star by William Blake

The Whirlwind of Lovers, Paolo and Francesca

The painting at the beginning of this post is Amor by William Blake.


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