The Sledgehammer and the Shoe Horn: Notes on Process

If we’re interested in doing as well as we possibly can at whatever it is we’ve decided to turn our hands to, whether that’s art, science, sailing a boat, or shooting pool, we need to be willing to use whatever we can find that will help make us better at the endeavour. We need to remain open to new ways, tools, processes, however minor they may appear.

“heavy hammer,” Old English slecg, from Proto-Germanic *slagj- (cf. Old Norse sleggja, Middle Swedish sleggia “sledgehammer”), related to slean “to strike” (see slay). Sledgehammer thus is pleonastic.

I love the tanka form. I love reading them, and I love writing them. And revising them. And while attempting to describe to a friend the process of writing and revising That Cold Well of Moon, which is a tanka, I realised I’d found a new revision aid while working on that one. (A great collection of tankas is The Ink Dark Moon).

1580s, from shoe (n.) + horn (n.); earlier shoeing-horn (mid-15c.). The verb in the figurative sense of “to put or thrust (something somewhere) by means of a ‘tool’ ” is recorded from 1859. Earlier it meant “to cuckold” (mid-17c.), with a play on horn.

A big part of the joy and difficulty of writing tankas (or working with any form) for me is taking the idea for the poem and making it adhere as closely as possible to the structure, whether that’s a traditional formal structure, or the structure peculiar to each new poem that begins to become apparent as it is written and is developed, refined, through revision. This forces me to look at many alternate versions each of lines, words, and the whole piece.

Anyways, while revising That Cold Well of Moon, and deciding that I wanted to put it here on the blog (which I have connected to Twitter and Facebook), I started wondering if I could get it to fit within the Twitter compose box. And of course I was forced to trim and shape because I was intending to place the whole poem there, along with a link to the post and hash tags (which I didn’t end up doing because I could only trim the poem so much and still have it work) . I now had constraints coming from two directions–the tension between the syllable count and marrying of subject matter and image (which is further constrained by a tradition of using the image chosen to link the inner world of the poem’s speaker to an object or objects in the outer, so-called natural world, in this case the moon), and the 140 character limit (including the spaces between words) imposed by the Twitter box. I had to shoehorn that mother in there.

Here’s the first draft:

That cold well of moon
up there, sunken deep into
February night–
I would dive into it, drink,
if it weren’t my heart.

And the version Twitter brought me to:

That cold well of moon
sunk deep in February
sky–I would fall in
and drink until my teeth ached,
if it weren’t my heart.

The sledgehammer is an old tool of mine, an old favourite. Its use is my natural bent in writing. Heavy handedness, overkill, is a constant danger for me. I get in there swinging, knocking together every damn thing I can.

Awareness of this is part of the impetus for revision. And it’s from this heavy handedness that the title of my first book came when someone commented that reading a poem of mine was like being hit over the head by a sledgehammer. Being heavy handed, I immediately said, “Hell, yeah–book title!” And of course–being heavy handed–I started trying to fit hammers into as many poems as I could. And, eventually, I decided that if I was going to title a collection “Sledgehammer*,” I should have in it a poem by that title. So I wrote one. Text is below. If you want to listen to it, click here.

*Sledgehammer as a collection owes as much, if not more, to the support and amazing editorial skill of Lynn Henry, then with Polestar, now publishing director of Doubleday Canada, as it does to me.


this is the work of the hammer: to break us open
with its ring & clang in the cracking earth
in the autumn ache of water spread between hills
in all these yellow trees, in the roots of them
in flesh grown dry

in leaves on water
in the black crow you dreamed pecking
in bones & dust
in love made out of bruises & threats of death
in belly-ripping want
in the tears of sex beneath leaning trees
in the white mist

in galleries of trees misted with the breath of gods
(the thick sky like muscles of underslung jaws)
in the awful crack of bones broken at their centres

this is the work of the hammer: to drive everything together
to join & connect hearts to each other
to shape vision & pound & crack & dismantle
to break everything apart
in search of the pure in flesh grown dry
in bones & dust

About John MacKenzie

I'll mumble for ya. Poetry, plus most things quantifiable: science, neuroscience, memory, epistemology, baseball. And so on.
This entry was posted in Art, Art is theft, Audio poetry, Creativity, Memory, New poems, Poetry, Process, Tanka and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Sledgehammer and the Shoe Horn: Notes on Process

  1. tankawanka says:

    Reblogged this on tankawanka and commented:
    For those who get off on talk about the writing process (And who doesn’t?), check out John Mackenzie’s blog on the poetics of shoehorns and sledgehammers.


  2. Pingback: Taking the Plunge with Li Bai: Tanka and Infinite Depth at the Surface | tankawanka

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