Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems
Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems
Jeanne Murray Walker
WordFarm, 2014
285 pp., 28.0

Buy Now

Thom Satterlee

When Is a Poem Finished?

On Jeanne Murray Walker.

I used to play racquetball with a colleague who liked to tease me about poets who spend half their work day deciding to put a comma into a poem, then the other half deciding to take it out. Part exaggeration, part cliché, but also part truth: poetry is an art of precision—as well as an exercise in second- and third-guessing oneself. Many of us who believe in inspired writing also believe in its corollary, inspired re-writing. The heavenly muse sometimes sends corrections years after a poem has been marked as "final" and published in a journal or book or both.

These notions were with me as I read a recently published collection by one of my favorite poets, Jeanne Murray Walker. Since the book includes work from seven of her previous collections, many of which I have on my bookshelf, I naturally wanted to compare earlier and later versions of some of the poems. Several year ago, either at a Faith & Writing festival at Calvin or during one of her campus visits to Taylor, I heard Walker say that she often found things she'd like to change in her published poems. "What things?" I wondered then. Now, with Helping the Morning, I can see for myself how an accomplished poet pores over her poems, some of them as many as four decades old, and makes inspired changes.

I'll reserve the second half of this review for a few select comparisons. But first, for readers not already familiar with Jeanne Murray Walker, a little general biography and an introduction to her work. Walker was born in 1944 in Parkers Prairie, Minnesota (a frequent setting for her poems) and moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, when she was still a young girl. She graduated from Wheaton College, where she met fellow poets Robert Siegel and John Leax, who became lifelong friends of hers. In 1965, she won both the poetry and fiction categories for a contest sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly and was selected as an Atlantic Monthly Fellow at the Bread Loaf School of English. She completed an MA at Loyola University and a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught English and creative writing at the University of Delaware for over forty years, and has also served as a Mentor in the Seattle Pacific University MFA program.

As readers of Helping the Morning will quickly discover, Walker's work represents the best qualities of what is often called "accessible poetry." You never have to ask yourself, "What is she talking about here?" when you read a Jeanne Murray Walker poem. Often the title gives you all the information you need to understand the poem's dramatic situation: "After the Funeral They Bring Food," "Praying for Father on All Saints' Day," "Pythagoras Understands His Theorem and Sacrifices to the Muses in Thanks," "Portrait of the Virgin Who Said No to Gabriel," or "Looking for Ruby Earrings on Portobello Road." Usually, her poems offer a narrative, whether it's the story of Aunt Joe falling in love or taking a trip to the dump; a brief scene of negotiating terms with a child who's intent on destroying a philodendron plant; or the sight of a wedding party setting up their festivities on a beach being swept by hurricane-force winds.

At the same time, however, Walker always avoids the worst qualities of accessible poetry: over-simplification and quaintness. If I were to choose one phrase from all the poems in this new collection, the signature that to my mind best captures her motto as a poet, it would be this one from "The Last Migration: Amherst, Massachusetts, 1981": "Truth is the thing you pull around your shoulders / like a shawl against the human chill." With this commitment to the truth of her experience, Walker can write poems that express such complex emotions as, for instance, celebrating a daughter's 21st birthday while at the same time aching at the loss of the former child: "Like a woman whose hand has just been severed at the wrist, / but who can still feel pain winking in the lost fingers, / I felt my stomach turn when she moved in her crib of seaweeds."

The same honesty holds in her poems centered on spiritual questing; if anything, her refusal to simplify matters when it comes to faith is even stronger than elsewhere. The poem "Staying Power" does, I believe, all a poet of lifelong faith can be asked to do in doubting her own religion:

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside and question the metal sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can't go on like this, and finally I say,
"All right, it is improbable; all right, there
is no God."

That a poem can start here and lead to an image of God as a phone that "You smash … with a hammer / till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbered up bits," but still end with answering that phone and hearing "a voice you love" on the other end is testimony to Walker's brilliance as a poet and depth as a believer.

But it takes precision for a poem as evenly balanced as that to convince a reader of its authenticity, to give a true feeling of spiritual questing. Word choice, line and stanza breaks, punctuation, even such small typographical matters as italicizing make a difference. The poem on the page is like a musical score, whether you read it out loud to a friend or to yourself in your head. An italicized "is" carries a different tone, one of resignation here, than the same word, unemphasized, would convey. The effect created by a semicolon is similar to, but subtly different from, that of a comma followed by the word "and"—and very different from a dash or colon.

In the case of "Staying Power," since she was re-re-publishing the poem (it first appeared in Poetry, then in her collection New Tracks, Night Falling), Walker had an opportunity to reconsider her choices. As it turns out, instead of a semicolon she had previously favored a dash between "improbable" and "all right." Rather than setting the dialogue in quotation marks, she'd used italics—which meant that the "is" of "is improbable" had to appear in a regular typeface and lost some of its effect. On the other hand, there are places in the earlier version where italics stand out less than quotation marks and even seem to represent an intermediate ground between spoken and unspoken words. Compare

I whisper, God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out

with the later version:

I whisper, "God.
God," I say as my heart turns inside out.

Is it only poets who find these matters both fascinating and consequential? For me at least, studying Walker's choices was part of the enjoyment of reading her new collection. I carefully compared all of the poems selected from three of her previous collections (I would have gone on to a fourth, but discovered that my copy of A Deed to the Light was missing from my bookshelf, probably loaned out to a student and never returned). This gave me an opportunity to, in a sense, watch her argue with herself—possibly argue with herself and her editor, Marci Rae Johnson, whom Walker credits with re-sequencing many of the poems, and who may also have influenced some of their re-writing, too. I sometimes agreed, sometimes disagreed with the decisions. I'm sure several productive hours could be spent in a Poetry Writing class discussing whether the poem "While the Men Are Gone" works better with four five-line stanzas and one of four lines, as it appears in Coming Into History, or as one single stanza, as it appears in Helping the Morning; if the end of that poem is better off broken up into two lines as "on City Hall, & one foot on the Wissahickon / & one foot on Baring Street" or left as a single long line—not to mention the debate that would likely arise over using ampersands so liberally in a poem. Almost every selected poem that I compared had at least a few small changes, most commonly with line breaks and punctuation, very rarely a change of wording (an interesting study of this kind would be "Paddington Station at Midnight," the most heavily revised of any of the poems I studied). But any change, every change, in a poem makes a difference.

It is understandable for a poet to want to reconsider her previous choices, and interesting to see what she decides. It is also important for a poet as gifted as Jeanne Murray Walker to be given the opportunity to provide, down to the minutest detail, her preferred versions of her poems. She is, as Daniel Hoffman said some 25 years ago, "among the best poets of her generation." When I read her poems, I want them to sing in my head just the way she intends for them to. Thank goodness WordFarm has made this new work—of new and old and revised work—available to us.

Thom Satterlee taught creative writing at Taylor University from 2000 to 2011, and is now a full-time writer. He is the author of Burning Wyclif: Poems (Texas Tech University Press) and The Stages: A Novel (Crooked Lane Books).

Most ReadMost Shared