My approach to writing poems

This sort of follows on from the post “What makes poetry?”, but looks at how I write rather than what the right circumstances are.

I’ve learnt that if I try to produce poetry to order on a specified subject, however much that subject means to me, the result is poor poetry unless, occasionally, it’s a poem of angry satire. It’s much better to let experiences and images sink below the surface, from where they may resurface changed and linked to other things. I did write a poem about Auschwitz after visiting the place – not one of my weakest poems but not in the top twelve, I think – but I wrote it about three months after I was there and was deeply moved.

Often an opening line comes to me. I consider it, maybe amend it, and see where it leads. Sometimes I have a more definite idea – for example, I wanted for some time to write a poem celebrating the courage and ingenuity of early humans and mourning some of the things that had come from it, but instead of setting aside time to do that, I waited till some ideas for the poem – Callanish – began to come together.

Some of my poems use a regular rhyming scheme and scansion (though I may switch from one rhyming plan in verse 1 to another in verse 2 before returning to the original in verse 3, for example) and some don’t. Quite often the poem starts without either rhymes or predictable scansion, as I feel around the subject, but becomes more rhythmic as it proceeds, with towards the end some rhymes appearing. To me, this conveys a coming together and a taking shape. A problem about this is that introducing rhymes to a previously unrhymed poem throws huge emphasis on to the second rhymed line, so it has to be strong enough to bear that. On the whole the poems I write in a relatively controlled, rational state of mind are rhymed and the ones that seem to come without thought ( I stress “seem”) and in a heightened state not unlike a trance are unrhymed.

I think that’s partly because working without an obvious pattern is much more demanding. Of course, you avoid the scrabbling around for a rhyme which I do experience when writing regular poems (“that one ended with ‘band’ so this one needs to end with – let’s see – hand, stand, understand, brand…”) but the poem is weak if it is not full of sinewy internal connections, rhymes within the lines, half-rhymes, alliteration. All these things for me are not planned but come naturally, and that for me requires the heightened state. I don’t like the term “free verse”. If the poem is full of such connections, holding it together, the fact that they don’t follow a completely predictable pattern does not make the poem “free verse”. If there is neither regular pattern nor such varied internal connections, you just have prose set out in short lines and with a “THIS IS IMPORTANT ART” sign on it.

I write a rough version and sometimes make generally small amendments immediately. When I come to write it up properly I may make other very small amendments, a typical one being cutting out “and” or “the” at the start of a line. Ocasionally, though, I’ve written what I thought was a complete poem but on re-reading it later that day or the next day, I feel it’s incomplete, perhaps because it seems to reach a conclusion, a position, that doesn’t really represent what I think or my real uncertainty. A few times this has led to me adding one more verse: in my poems posted here this happened with both “Spirit Mountain” and “The Roads to Rome”. Recently I wrote a poem, “Dark Lady“, which started as a fairly short one-section poem, but I felt I’d left a lot unsaid, and now it’s a poem in five sections! I would find it very hard to do a major recasting of a poem because I wouldn’t be in the right state of mind, but I did this once with “A Walk Around the Sea” because I increasingly felt that the old opening part was weak, so I wrote something new and much shorter.

There are some poems I find quite easy to explain and others where an image or phrase feels right but I can only suggest possible meanings!

I think the poems convey a sense of otherness which is characteristic of spirituality, and I’m happy if this detoxifies or begins to explain religion for strangers. However, there are lots of unanswered questions and many uses of the words “perhaps” and “maybe” in these poems.

I think you could tell from them that I like and am often in the outdoors: images of hills and the sea are frequent, but are usually smbols of something else. Similarly my knowledge of history and fascination with time and evolution show.

I’m aware that some well-known poets have influenced me, but they’re not necessarily the ones I like best (Hopkins, Yeats, MacNeice, Keats, Marvell, Donne). After reading a lot of Tennyson or Dylan Thomas I’ve writen lines I wouldn’t have written without them, but are still consistent with the rest of my stuff.

And as in this post, my biggest problem is the ending. Is it falsely upbeat? Is it too mundane to bear the weight of being the concluding line? The Monty Python writers solved that problem by those sudden unexpected switches to another sketch…






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