Subscribe to Christianity Today
Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems
Jeanne Murray Walker
285 pp., $28.00
When Is a Poem Finished?
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. ...