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Wet and Dry

by Daniel Langton

I befriended a surgeon when I was just starting out. He showed an interest in poetry and liked to talk about surgery. One night he said, “You know, 80% of what I do is exactly what a butcher does. It’s the other 20% that counts.”

When young women or men realize they have a talent, it doesn’t matter for what, it is exhilarating. Being able to put into visual words something that resonates with others is heady business. Doing it a lot over a period of time can easily lift the gifted to a point where it isn’t that hard to write a good, serviceable poem. That is a dangerous place to be.

There is a drudgery in any worthy endeavor, but you can usually see why it is necessary. But with a good poem? Yes, because now comes

the 80%, the grinding work of the jeweler, to make it the memorable, important poem. Some good poems will even be ruined in the process. But there will be the new poems, and there is a real consequence besides that.

When Michaelangelo arrived at the Sistine Chapel each morning, he had to wet plaster that day’s section of the ceiling. Then he would paint next to the previous day’s work. But he could not match the colors because if he matched wet and dry areas, they could not match when both were dry. He had to match them in his mind.

When you work long and hard on a poem, even after it is passable, you will be working at different states of mind, different emotional levels, call them wet and dry. Yes you will have to match them in the poem, so that the poem is seamless. How much you will learn doing that!


Daniel J. Langton, author of Querencia, University of Missouri Press (Devins Award), 1975; The Inheritance, a play produced by the Julian Theatre, 1980; The Hogarth-Selkirk Letters, 1985; Life Forms, Cheltenham Press, 1995; Greatest Hits, 2000, The Sonnets, 2005, During Our Walks, 2012. Poems in Three Penny Review, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, The Nation, The American Scholar, The Iowa Review, and other magazines and journals. Winner of the Devins Award for Poetry, the Hart Crane Award, the London Prize, the Browning Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Memorial Award and the Roberts Prize.


Read Daniel Langton's poetry in Fourteen Hills 20.1
Other Essays

For the Girl from Manitoba

by Camille Dungy

Hacking and Packing

by Carissa Halston

Developing a Dramatic Experience

by Junse Kim


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