When Alicia Ostriker sent me a poem called “All That Year,” I asked if I could record her reading it, and she said, “Yes.” After we’d finished, I noticed that one line had changed. In the fifth line of the poem she’d sent, the line read:
…..A swaggering man loosed lies from his lips like eels.
In the poem she read, the line had become:
…..Our swaggering leader spilled lies from his lips like eels
I always find it interesting when poets change their poems so I took a closer look. First, I saw man, a general word, had been replaced by leader, which is more specific, and begins with the letter L adding to the L alliteration in the line: lies, lips, eels. I’m not sure if man adds much of anything in the way of sound or harmony; I’m led to think that its replacement with leader was a good thing.
Second, I saw the verb spilled replaced the verb loosed. Spilled adds to the S sound in the line with the endings of lies, lips, and eels. And spilled has the L sound as well so none of the L and S alliteration are subtracted when loosed is replaced by spilled.
Third, and a little bit of a non sequitur here, when readers read a word like eels, one might see an ugly eel, even horrifying, while another might see a shimmering, iridescent one, and yet some hungry reader might see and smell an eel fixed for dinner on a plate, sautéed and delicious. Ah, the poem and its words that conjure many things from fright to ecstasy.
Horace said that it took him about eight years to finish a poem. Some have taken me twenty. One thing I like about having this blog is that I can change any word whenever I want. It isn’t set in stone like a poem on the page in a published book where nothing changes, typos and all. As long as the poet lives, so does the poem. After the poet’s death, the poem is finished; that’s when it’s set in stone.
In the Vimeo below, Alicia Ostriker, reads “All That Year.” The poem lives. Enjoy.
Alicia Ostriker. Photo by J.P. Ostriker