How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Calculation”

a poem written for Harry Kotecki on the occasion of his 90th birthday
by his granddaughter, Lyn Wilder-Dean

We played chess.
Grandpa, I came to your house so many times when I was young.
Grandma was a vibrant personality and I always beamed her light back to her
so happily,
But you and me, we played chess.

The game of chess is known across the world
for the requirement of calculation.
Masters of the game have piece arrangements memorized
and are planning at least six moves deep from the moment they touch a pawn.
I may have the raw computing power in my brain to make chess work,
but when I let my emotions take the driver’s seat
I lose the knack for calculation
that I admire in you.

Let’s play chess again.
Show me your patience now that I can admire it with adult eyes.
Patience is a rare commodity
and without it very little can get done in life
that will stick around for more than the lifespan of a mayfly.
You have always been patient with me.
You have told me of travels around the globe – to Sri Lanka, to Cairo –
yet you live a quiet and peaceful life in the same townhome
where I bounded up and down the stairs as a child,
back when the pilot light in the laundry room was a blue beacon of wonder.
My life has been made more wonderful by the time you shared with me.
Your quiet love has always been
a more precious gift than I can describe
with these paltry words.

Commentary

Right now, I guess you could say I fit the “starving artist” stereotype. I mean, I’m not literally starving, but my husband and I can’t meet our monthly expenses (we’d be breaking even if I didn’t have a backlog of hospitalization bills from last year to pay off, don’t get me started on the topic of healthcare in this country, this is a poetry entry not a political essay). I’ve had some encouraging job interviews recently, but we’re definitely not in a position to be buying gifts for people. So I told my grandfather at his celebration yesterday, right now, my words are the best thing I have to offer people. He’d already read this poem, so he felt comfortable in saying those words are an “entirely satisfactory” offering. That’s my Grandpa. Coming from another person that might not seem like much of a compliment, but when you’ve spent a lot of time with someone who calculates everything carefully, including praise, you know that “entirely satisfactory” really does mean something. And he said he wouldn’t be able to read this poem to the celebrants without tearing up, so I know I touched his heart as well as his mind. And since this poem was written specifically for him, that means that if no one else who reads this blog entry thinks the poem is worth spit, it’s still done its job.

I chose the title “Calculation” before I wrote the poem, not afterwards. That’s the quality I most associate with my grandfather and I really wanted this poem to be about him. That actually turned out to be a bit of a problem and the poem as it stands has a lot of me in it, probably more than I am really comfortable with. I wanted to write about Grandpa and in the end I mostly ended up writing about my relationship to him. That probably has something to do with my starting point; when I talked with my father about wanting to write this poem, he suggested that Grandpa would enjoy reading about the memories I have of spending time with him in my childhood. I ran with Dad’s suggestion (the original version of this poem actually had another stanza, discussing the awe I felt as a child when I looked at a framed copy of my grandfather’s patent – I cut that stanza to make room for a chess piece graphic on the printed copy I would give to Grandpa at the celebration, I wanted to keep it to one page. This is one of the few times I’ve made a substantial alteration to a poem I originally thought complete, trying to re-bake the cake as it were, but it turns out I like the shorter version better, it’s more tight), because my grandfather is quite humble and I thought that a poem that was only a description of him or that consisted mostly of praise would embarrass him. But in doing so, I created some tension between my original intent and the finished product. It’s a good poem – though probably not my best, I worry that the ending lines come across as saccharine. But it’s not “what the doctor ordered.”

The structure of this poem is a bit different from my usual condensed 5 paragraph essay. This poem has more of a progression or climb; it ends in a fairly different place from where it began. The first line is very simple, plain, and a bland statement of a memory, not very much emotion… and the last line is a flowery outpouring of emotion, replete with adjectives. So I guess I fulfilled my personal objective stated in my last poetry post, to vary poetic structure. I didn’t do that intentionally, it just felt right for this piece. Possibly because my grandfather does a lot of linear progression and building from point to point when he talks. I don’t think he has much use for the emotion-building power of repetition.

Specific lines worth commenting on:

  • Grandma was a vibrant personality…
    I struggled for a few minutes on the extent to which I should talk about my grandmother in this poem (she died in 2009). In the end I decided it was appropriate to acknowledge the significant role she played in my grandfather’s life and how inseparable the two of them were in my mind when I was a child, but I wanted to emphasize that this poem was for Grandpa now as I see him, as an individual, not just about nostalgia.
  • But you and me, we played chess.
    I’m proud of the awkward grammatical construction of this line. I feel it gives the poem a colloquial element of casual tone. I wanted this poem to feel less like a poem and more like one side of a conversation I might have with my grandfather in private, one where we could really speak from our hearts. I thought he might appreciate that more than some of the exaggerated artistry I’ve produced in the past.
  • I may have the raw computing power in my brain to make chess work
    This is another line that I’m proud of because I think it’s a good example of the written word mimicking the spoken word. This is how I talk off the cuff with my friends and family, it’s not lyrically polished, and that was something I was striving for here.
  • Show me your patience now that I can admire it with adult eyes
    This line is rather grandiose. It’s got a beauty to it and an earnest truth, but it’s not something I would ever feel comfortable actually saying to my grandfather in conversation, so it clashes with the last two lines I just mentioned. I’m not happy with it but I wanted to express the sentiment anyway.
  • that will stick around for more than the lifespan of a mayfly
    This is the line I am least satisfied with in the poem, for two reasons. The first word, “that”, makes for an unclear clause construction. It is supposed to refer back to “very little” in the preceding line, but it wouldn’t be hard for a reader, especially someone reading the poem quickly, to assume that it refers back to the immediately preceding word, “life”. Sloppy writing on my part and I wish I’d taken the time to finesse it. Also, while the mayfly image is pretty and works well for me, I’ve always associated Grandpa more with civilization than with nature. I doubt the image of a short-lived insect holds much resonance for him, and he’s the audience, not myself.
  • back when the pilot light in the laundry room was a blue beacon of wonder
    I was always fascinated by the bright blue pilot light in my grandparents’ laundry room as a little girl. I thought it was the neatest thing. I knew better than to try to touch it (and it was behind a grate), but it was really fun to look at. I’ve never had a reason to share that information about myself with anyone before writing this poem. I’m grateful for the excuse.

2 thoughts on “How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Calculation”

  1. I think you are a little hard on yourself overall. But in one particular instance I will help ease that criticism of your beautiful work. Yes, your Grandpa worked indoors and I think it is accurate to put him more in “civilization than with nature” (as you so poetically put it!). Still, he spent time nearly every evening in the summer in the vegetable garden of the house we grew up in, and he tended to all the trees and shrubs and lawn (until your Dad and his brothers were old enough to start mowing), while your grandmother did the flowers and weeded the flower beds. But even more to the point, he loved trees and being able to identify them was to him, an important life-skill he tried to instill in his children. And he went camping with his sons in the boy scouts and I think he always enjoyed it. Sometimes he is so cerebral we can forget he was ever a child – but he was, and I bet he liked playing with bugs, too.

    I had to laugh when I read his “entirely satisfactory” response — yep, dear niece, you get him because that’s high praise.

    I enjoyed this poem and especially its focus on your perception of your grandpa. I know how I see him – being able to see how *you* see him is moving and a gift I’m happy you shared with us.
    Aunt Cheryl

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