There was a great piece on All Things Considered last night about the relationship between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop based on the letters published in Words in Air edited by Thomas Travisano. It is definitely worth listening to, which you can do here.
At one point in the broadcast, talking about Bishop's approach to writing, Jacki Lyden points out, "It wasn't unusual for her poems to take decades to write." I can relate to that.
The poem "Getting On" took close to 20 years to write. I started it before my divorce from my first wife. It was a way for me to explore what was happening between us. I guess I just kept exploring until the poem made sense to me.
Over those 20 years, the poem did not go through any major changes. The metaphor of a migratory journey and the disconnect between the two migrants was obvious from the beginning, as was the general direction of the move from east to west. The images in the poem had sort of all come together over a period of a couple of days that were more or less spent journaling about the history of a failed relationship.
So why did it take 20 years? For one thing I never really had an end to the poem. I thought I did multiple times, but I would let it sit and then go back to it and pick it up and find the ending flat. So I'd rework the images and the lines in the entire poem. I'd take out what I thought was deadwood. I'd rethink this word and then that word. I'd change the cadence, the line breaks. I'd rethink the allusions. And it was all an effort to understand where the poem was going.
During those 20 odd years, my enthusiasm for writing, my energy for making it work, my success, and even my desire to write fluctuated wildly. The one thing that stayed constant was the poem. Then, shortly after I completed the manuscript for my book, I sat down and wrote the end of the poem. It was effortless. It was as if the words were in the air all the time.
the Grandpa's note: I don't really know how to tell the story of my writing career, other than to talk about the things I write. To be honest it helps me when I think about what I do. So thank you, Lilly. And thank you, Braja. I know this probably isn't what you were asking for, but it helps me to put it down. I have one poem (I consider it my best poem) that actually took forty years to write. But I also have some other poems that people have said are pretty good that I basically wrote in an afternoon, or less. I'll talk about them, too.