I believe that a good poem needs to surprise its writer and also to risk something aesthetically or emotionally, preferably both. “Shadowbox” is a poem with origins in a writing prompt that my friend, the poet Elizabeth Austen, introduced me to one Friday morning. Once a month we meet, drink coffee, share what we’re reading and then write together. When life becomes overwhelming our meetings ensure that we will still have some poetry drafts started. Now as we begin our fourth year of meeting together, we have seen several of our Friday morning poems grow-up to be revised, polished, and eventually published. For this poem, I began with a random set of words that would become the end-words for each line of the poem (horses, something, decisions, coming, dark, aftermath…).
Why is this my favorite? Because it doesn’t sound like anything I have written before. Because I surprised myself with the varied swerves that the poem takes and at the same time, the poem recalls an event I experienced, many years ago. In the Top Ten list of the worst nights of my life, this river walk easily ranks in the top three. And yet here is the evening examined from the distance of decades. I survived. And of course, the poem is not a photograph or a news article of what “really” happened but a piece of art. I admire this poem for the energy that emerges as each line ends with a random word not of my choosing. It is this “structured randomness” that pushed me to say things about life that I would not have otherwise articulated.
How surprised I was when the Academy of American Poets chose this poem as a Halloween poem — a reading of the poem I had not considered. Of course “horror film” and “vampires” are there in clear sight.
Finally, I like the multiple meaning and references to the title, “Shadowbox” including to spar with an imaginary opponent (often the self) and a glass-faced wooden box used for displaying small objects (as in the artwork of Joseph Cornell). My takeaway from this is that it’s useful to allow prompts to push you into emotionally dangerous territory; it’s useful to write in a way that makes you uncomfortable; it’s useful to use the surreal to examine the real.