Genesis of a Poem

This is not my usual method of writing a poem, but I’m pleased with the way it turned out: A good friend wrote me the other day and asked if I would write a poem for his daughter’s 18th birthday. Since we know her very well, I was happy to do it, though I didn’t have a lot of time to get it done. (And to be honest, if I’d have had more time, I probably would have procrastinated!)

I’ve been thinking for awhile about writing an ‘occasional poem,’ especially in the wake of the recent inaugural poem. So I thought about what this might entail, and was glad the the occasion wasn’t quite so momentous or public. It was comforting to think of inaugural poems I have heard, which usually don’t reference the occasion directly. They have often been written to fit the president, but also incorporate themes and even experiences that come from the poet’s experience as well. They are often loosely organized, almost Whitmanesque, and though I didn’t want to vie with an inaugural poem in length, it was nice to realize that the poem’s unity can come from the occasion as much as from the poet.

With this in mind, I still was stumped about where to begin. So I looked at some recent photographs of a trip where we’d seen the family. Nothing immediately came to mind, but it did bring back good memories. Then I thought that a birthday poem might start by referencing the name of the person. I looked up “Tesse” in a few online baby guides, and wasn’t thrilled, though the meaning of ‘harvester’ did seem appropriate for someone turning 18 and reaching a kind of harvest. This image made it into the poem. ‘Hunter’ and ‘Woman from Therasia” weren’t very helpful, though vestiges of hunting may have survived in one image, and woman appears in the poem. I found a few places that listed the meaning of “fourth child,” though that didn’t help, since she’s the second. I decided that four might suggest square, and used that at one point. Some sites seemed to be influenced by the harvest meaning, and added ‘summer,’ which I thought was useful. Since her birthday is in February, this suggested contrasts, and helped me get to a first stanza.

Of course, a birthday poem might easily reference birth, so I began there, with a seed planted in winter. Other contrasts followed, some going back to the memories and associations I had from photographs and visits. Rather than get too literal, though, I wanted to keep the images a little on the surreal side. And as I was searching for an image and for a title, I thought of the word “tessellations,” intricate mosaic-like geometric patterns. This is something our son has been interested in from his art classes, and we had gone to the M. C. Escher museum this summer and seen his drawings of geese, frogs, and fish other interwoven shapes. This fit the theme of contrasts, and of course the play on words with her name worked for me. Combining that with the idea of the harvest as a rite of passage into adulthood and the paradox of leaving home and staying tied to it, I had my poem.

Of course, it took a few revisions before I was completely happy with it, or at least happy enough to send it off with birthday greetings! I was also glad that, unlike an inaugural poet, I only had one poem to write. I’ve heard for an inauguration the poet often writes three, and then the President picks the one he wants to have read. That would up the pressure just a bit! Though of course, you’d have two more poems that you could then take and revise on your own terms. We’ll see what happens to this poem after the big birthday (tomorrow). As I told my friend, it was an interesting assignment. It was a bit of a challenge, but turned out to be a rewarding experience. And if Tesse likes it, that will be the main thing.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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