Upon returning home after a weekend away, I found that my husband had emptied the bedroom closet of clothes and patched and primed holes and ridges from last year’s reconfiguring of shelves and rods. My first thought, I admit, was why? It’s a closet – once the clothes are in it, no one can see it anyway. But, on the other hand, now that it was patched and primed, it seemed silly not to finish it, make it uniform and new. So I decided to paint the closet. And, while I painted it, a first coat and then a second coat several hours later, I thought about how painting a closet is a lot like writing a poem.
The baseboards and fixtures taped, the floor covered, the tools ready, I opened the can of paint and started cutting in with the brushes. Cutting in is the most important part of painting. It establishes boundaries, gives the roller space to work without scraping the corners and making marks. But it is meticulous work: you must balance the beveled edge just so against the crease between ceiling and wall, make sure not to slip and drip on woodwork or fixtures, even if they are taped off. This is the equivalent of preparing for a first draft. When you take notes for a poem, sketch a first few lines or choose a form to conquer, you create a space on the page for the words to roll, build a box or a boundary to fill in with clean new colors.
Once the cutting in is finished, the first coat of paint gets rolled on. A first coat is never perfect, even if the can says “one coat, guaranteed.” Even the best painters leave a few shadow marks, small pebbles of the old color that aren’t quite covered by the roller. This step would be similar to completing a first draft. You have filled in the boundaries, but there are places that aren’t quite right, words that stand out as old or wrong, necessary ideas that are not yet covered.
Next comes drying time. This part of painting is crucial. If you try to paint a second coat too soon, the walls can end up tacky and uneven, and the good work that was done with the first coat can be pulled away. This comparison is easy. Every rough draft needs time and space to breathe, to cure and settle before a second look can be successful. If you try to revise too soon, you may end up omitting things that are worth keeping. Then the second coat polishes the finish, smoothes everything out, makes what was dingy and dinged a new and glimmering thing. Revision does this for your poems, making them the best they can be. Now, let’s remember that I was painting a closet in this essay. This is where the metaphor gets a little trickier.
Once the second coat was completed and the clothes all back on the rods, the shoes on the floor, the foldables on the shelves, the job was barely visible. Only small slices of the new eggshell color showed in strips between jackets and skirts. And, unless I told someone, no one would ever know that it was there. But this is how it is with most poems. All of the work it takes to get to the end of a poem, to finally feel that it is finished, is often invisible to the reader. Even if the poems make it out into the world, which so few of them ever do, their process remains a mystery (sometimes to the writer as well as the reader). But rest assured, poets – you can close the closet doors content in the knowledge that, behind them, your pristine and beautiful labor shines even in the dark.