How to Write a Poem: One Stubborn Man’s Perspective

Billion Pencils 1 RESIZED_28 MAR 2020

I was born in the Year of the Ox, a zodiac sign characterized by persistence. It is my one virtue and the key, at least in my case, to trying to write poetry.

Anyone who wants to write poetry usually has no time for reading it, and I was too much like that when I started out. But after a while, I became less worried about protecting my fragile self-esteem from unfavourable comparisons, and started to discover poems by others that I could genuinely enjoy. Honestly, if you find no pleasure in poetry that is not yours, especially work by predecessors and forebears, it may turn out that you are not actually interested in poetry at all, having confused your obscure desires to do something else with this often (falsely) glamorous vocation.

There is more to it: if you come across something you really unselfconsciously adore, you will learn more about poetry from the experience than any exercises or analyses. This kind of passionate connection can take you right into the heart of the poetic wavelength, and can give you all sorts of insights without you necessarily being aware of it. I remember reading about an author (I think it was Joyce Carol Oates’ husband) who spent hours one Summer standing in a swimming pool reading over and over some novel by John Fowles to try and figure out the technique. Save yourself the bother and embark on the slow-sure search for work you can love: recite it, call it to mind frequently, memorize it and you will educate your poetic sensibility in a way nothing else can do. But it can only happen gradually, as gradually as the seasons.

To be frank, no one writes poetry: it sort of comes over you if you are fortunate. Sit down and see what happens, but don’t count on anything rushing fully formed to the tip of your pencil. I say “pencil” because, from a stubborn man’s point of view, this is the only writing implement that will do. Never write on computer directly: the result will congeal almost immediately into something rigidly fixed; if you try and adjust the result, in most cases it will only lead to tampering and fiddling that makes the whole thing even worse.

No, pencil gives just that right blend of permanence and mutability. The draft of a poem in pencil looks so fragile: it could be obliterated by a casual accident with a spilled cup of coffee. But it allows you to keep the writing process open to additions and fruitful modifications. Scope for growth, in other words. Writing becomes a process and not just a production house, obsessed with the creation of more and more “units”. I also enjoy the way the pencilled draft allows room for chance happenings and coincidences to work their way into the mix. Even just allowing a substantial amount of time to get into a poem’s creation is enriching. It’s a bit like exposing something to the elements and allowing it to weather: an unmistakeable lived-with quality is acquired this way, or a kind of “curing”, which generally can only benefit the final poem.

If I do manage one day to scribble something substantial with my very pointed Staedtler, I have two further allies I can then call on in my stubborn act of poetic creation: the bathroom and insomnia.

The bathroom is a great asset. I choose a time when no one is around, and set myself up with my poem, my pencil, and a glass of water. Then I read my poem to myself in the bathroom mirror, listening carefully to the words, to the sounds, to the rhythms. If I start to feel bored with all that, then I try and work out why: is there a weakness somewhere? After a while, I can recite the piece from memory and then the real work starts. I wander about. I whisper. I intone. I hang upside down. I lean with my forehead against a wall, listening to the sound vibrations travelling through my bones. I crouch in the shower recess. (If you saw any of this you’d be convinced I was gently out of my mind.) But for me it works: thanks to the special resonance of the bathroom, I can hear my words in a unique way, and get a better understanding of where things are failing and why.

Sometimes, too, I take a break from my ranting to recite a few of my favourite poems by others, both as Salutary Reminders and as Heart-felt Encouragement.

Sleeplessness may be a curse you have to suffer, and I don’t mean to make light of the fact. But whenever I wake and cannot get back to sleep, I rejoice because it gives me the chance to work on my latest effort. Twelve months ago, a puppy came into my life, and every night at midnight I get up to let him out for a spell. When I get back to bed (I should say “we” . . .), I often have trouble falling sleep again. It’s not so bad, though: I go through my new draft, seeing if I can remember it all, thinking about the phrasing or the rhythm or the logic of the lines and the way they flow. Every now and then, I get ideas for a new line or two, or at least some minor improvements in terms of word-choice or the way the lines break. And more often than not, after half an hour or so of this I magically manage to fall asleep.

Finally, one other thing I do is to try and write reviews of other’s work. This is not necessarily done for publication; the main thing is to open yourself as fully as possible to another person’s poetry and then attempt with all the precision you can muster to account for your responses. Why do you feel what you feel when you read this particular poem or that one? It’s a bit like standing in the pool and figuring out John Fowles, but it’s important here not to think about gaining anything from the experience. My sole concern in this effort, by and large, is with giving the poet the benefit of my impartial porous attention, without cruelty, and with kindness for all the positive qualities. This activity can also give something back to the whole endeavour of Poetry too: honest responsiveness as an antidote in a world saturated with spin, commercialism and flagrant self-interest.

Of course, you won’t be surprised to learn that, in poetry terms, I am a complete failure. Certainly, the stubborn man’s approach ⸺ like the ice-cream in Hell ⸺ stands absolutely no chance of success, in the conventional sense. But whenever I am overwhelmed by this realization, I call to mind the following words penned by Rilke to the hapless Herr Kappaus in the first of his letters to the young poet:

And if from this turning inwards, from this sinking into your private world, there come verses, you will not think to ask anyone whether they are good verses. You will not attempt, either, to interest journals in these works: for you will see in them your own dear possession, a portion and a voice of your life.

To be able to commune with your own existence, and with all life through it, across the “days of your life”, in this lonely, painstaking way, has an intrinsic value which no one can ever take away from you. It is, like all true solitary pursuits, the source of a priceless content and, in a minuscule way, can only gradually add to the Gross Domestic Sanity of the world.

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