Smaller than the wavelength of light
like a drunk walking
a length of pipe, myosin staggers battered
by jet-fast random atoms
each raised leg
flung into all
in chaos-driven steps
until one fits and locks;
work gets done;
heat-maddened water spins CANDUs;
I stumble into poetry;
house finches sing
delirious with lust without a plan
feathered heads are turned and hearts
are lifted and again it’s spring.
Questions and Answers
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful?
Resources I have found very useful and continue to reread are first of all the classic pocket anthologies: Louis Untermeyer’s Treasury of Great Poems, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and Oscar Williams’ Immortal Poems of the English Language (even though Williams had the infernal gall to include his own poems, along with those of Eliot and Shakespeare). These introduced me to the best shorter poems in English. You need to know what company you are keeping when you become a poet, the tradition you are working in. For more recent poetry I recommend the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Other useful sources are the website of the Poetry Foundation, and Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.
As a published writer, what are your tips or words of motivation for the aspiring poet?
Poetry is a lonely and unrewarding business and you must be careful of groups who give you nothing but praise. You need to revise and revise until your poem is the best it can be. You have an internal critic, who tells you what is wrong with your poem, and an internal editor, who tells you how to fix it. They learned their trade from reading the best poetry. They need to be kept in balance, or the critic will stop you from writing. Try to write every day, and writing includes rereading your work as well as revising: just stay in touch with it. As Flaubert advised, “Be regular and ordinary in your life, so you may be violent and original in your work.”
What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?
About “The Muscle Motor Molecule Myosin”: I pay attention to form and metre, and the quatrain is for me a useful structure to work in. I like the regularity of it, in contrast to the formless dimension where poetry comes from. I usually make short, sonnet-length poems. The musicality and cadence of the words carry at least half of the poem’s meaning. I write and revise line by line, that is, I usually work on a line until it’s good enough, then make the next. The rhythm of the line determines what the rhythm of the next will be, so I often have the “dumta dumta” figured out before I choose the words. I use a lot of tricks that should remain invisible without close reading; internal rhyme, half-rhyme, assonance, roughly similar four- or five-stress line length. After you’ve been writing a while these tactics become instinctive, so you don’t have to say to yourself, ” I need some long a sounds here”; often you’ll find out what you’ve done after the poem’s finished: look, I see I’ve put three short i sounds in one line.
What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?
The challenge in this poem was making molecular biology poetic; that is, true, beautiful, and pleasurable. You can’t go wrong with metaphor, or birds. Any McKay will tell you they’re just poems on the wing.