Snail: The Story Behind the Poem

By Elizabeth Spires on 1.27.10

Elizabeth Bishop once described the writing of a poem as a “happy accident.” She knew that the image or event that triggers a poem is always unexpected. It can’t be planned or contrived, willed or wished for.

This has certainly been true for me. I remember how a long-ago trip to the town dump in Stonington, Maine—certainly not a beautiful or “poetic” place—inspired a poem of mine titled “The Woman on the Dump.” And, a few years later, how a visit to my daugher’s elementary school led to my writing “Snail.”

You need Flash to listen to this track.

Download audio (mp3)

It was Parents’ Day. Predictably, we moved from classroom to classroom, ending up in the science lab where the fifth-grade girls, notebooks in hand, were busily gathering data and performing experiments on snails. I had never really observed a snail before, and I was struck (really and truly struck, as if by a tiny lightning bolt) by the grace, mystery, and the utter strangeness of my daughter’s snail as it traversed the long green lab table in minute increments.

Photo by Dave & Karin on Flickr.

A poem in the process of being composed, advancing in to the world snail-like, word by careful word, is always a series of small, crucial decisions. Even if a poem is written in free verse, the choice of even one wrong word can mar the overall rhythm and sound pattern. “Snail” seemed to insist on its own distinct form and shape and ended up looking very different from most of my other poems (which use conventional lineation, punctuation, and capitalization). Why this should be so, how a unique “free” form rises up spontaneously in a series of drafts, is always a mystery. One proceeds by intuition. Only later, the poet may understand and approve (or despair) of these decisions, depending on how well the poem turned out.

Looking back at “Snail,” it seems now as if the subject had demanded a different style, speed, and shape. I certainly did not articulate these things to myself as I was writing, but, in retrospect, choices do have reasons. Certainly abandoning the forcefulness of capital letters in favor of more humble lowercase seemed intuitively “right,” as did dispensing with the too definite, inarguable quality of punctuation and enjambed, or end-stopped, lines. A snail’s slow, inexorable progress, or stillness, the sense if it being engaged in being rather than doing, is something I wanted to convey. White space replaced punctuation as a way to alternate between sound and silence, movement and stasis. Ampersands contributed (maybe) to the spare, minimal quality, moving the poem along. Poets hope to create certain effects but can never know if they succeed. That’s for the reader to decide.

I should say one more thing. Sometimes another poet’s poem will shadow a poem I write. Certainly, A. R. Ammons’s poem “Still” will always be for me the parent poem of “Snail.” Ammons’s poem begins,

                    I said I will find what is lowly

                                       and put down the roots of my identity

                                       down there:
                              each day I'll wake up
                              and find the lowly nearby,

                                        a handy focus and reminder,

                                        a ready measure of my significance,

                                        the voice by which I would be heard…

Ammons’s declaration, spoken passionately at poem’s end, that “there is nothing lowly in the universe” is where, poetically speaking, I am right now. Looking for the next lowly thing, something almost, but not quite, below the radar of my attention. Waiting for the next “happy accident.”

topics: Columnists / Behind the Poem

1 Comment

Jessie Carty said on 1.28.10 at 10:46am:

Love the idea of creating, crucial decision by crucial decision