The rhythms when I write - poems, fiction, other sorts of prose - are fed by what I've read and been read since childhood. Of this I'm sure. A certain beat in a poem feels familiar, right, and I wonder what, where...? And then it comes to me, often some time later - Dr Seuss! Rupert Brooke!
The same is true of prose. A word often needs to be changed because it makes me uncomfortable for some reason, it might be the wrong word - too strong for the sentence or paragraph, not necessary, inappropriate, sentimental ... Or it could be that it doesn't have quite the right rhythm. The sentence or paragraph is a body and this word is the dicky hip. I keep coming back to it, I can't leave it alone, I know it needs changing. I try another one - and it fits. Ahh.
I know that my sense of the rightness or wrongness of a particular word is informed by my own interior sense of rhythm, and I often wonder what it is about a particular rhythm that feels familiar. It rarely comes immediately. I sometimes think I've stolen the whole thing (words and rhythm) without realising, and wake in a cold sweat.
Nervous - I focus on some of the likely writers I might have raided e.g. my prose favourites - Janet Frame, Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Paul Auster ... It may not come immediately, if at all. When it does, it can be the oddest thing sometimes, not what I expected, not always literary: an advertising jingle, for example ... but there is no doubting that the phrase has lodged in me and been revived.
This happened this week with a poem I spent a few days on. When I got to the end of it, there was a penultimate line missing. It finished too quickly. Reading it aloud, the line came: whole, intact, absolutely right. I wrote it in, and then worried. Where had it come from? It felt too easy, and somehow familiar. I fretted over it (and about the ultimate line, which was also the first line ... had it come from somewhere? It seemed a double concern now the new line was bouncing up and down declaring itself from somewhere else unknown.)
I googled the ulimate line, nothing popped up. I tried variations of it - nothing.
I walked around with the poem for days worrying at it. I tried relaxing my mind (like I do when I'm trying to remember people's names) and flipped through some possible poet's names. Nothing came that sat easily with what I'd written. Perhaps I was imagining it. Then again, I read so many poems these days, it could come from anywhere.
Then after four days, the penultimate line clicked into place without fanfare. I realised its rhythm and its sense came from a poem written and read by a character in a not-so-recent Hollywood movie, that my daughter and I enjoy and have watched a few times together. Who would credit it!
With that revelation, the genesis of the final line (also the first line) announced itself. I realised it had come from a well-known scene in a play of Shakespeare's, one I've known since I appeared in it at the age of 17. Not the actual words, but the sense of them, the urgency, the rhythm.