Tag Archives: how to write poetry

Calling the Poem: 6. ‘Of Sacrifice’

You learn to call, to pray, and to invoke
the gods with incense, roasting meat and smoke,
the smell drawing the gods like flies.
They like being honoured, they like gifts and sacrifice.
How do you gift a god of writing? Write!
Write when you have a thought, write day, write night.
How do you sacrifice? Accept this hardship:
you give up all activities
(regardless of your duties, your proclivities,
relationships) – for bardship,
because you don’t have time for them and writing.
Downgrade all love, work, striving, fighting –
for you must write.
You read, read, write, recite,
write and rewrite,
reread and rerecite.
(The modes you read impact the words you write,
impact the thoughts you have, and how they’re phrased.
Read novels, you’ll have thoughts in prose: straight, trite;
read verse, your thoughts will ramble, rhyme, be crazed.)
How bargain with the gods? Well, you can offer.
Can you demand? Well, no; you can’t.
Do they play fair? Take care with what they proffer;
you’re never sure if it’s a loan or grant.
How long will favours last? While you’re in favour;
a god or goddess owns you like a slaver.
And while for them you still produce,
still honour them… you still have use.
So keep on writing until you collapse,
and they’ll continue liking you. Perhaps.

*****

This is the sixth in the 15-poem sequence on Calling the Poem. The basic idea is that if you pay attention to the little scraps of poetry that come your way, in a random rhyme, a stray image; if you write them down and expand on them as you can; if you respect what comes to you, even if it isn’t what you want to hear; if you spend more time immersed in the medium that you want to develop… then you are encouraging the further communication from the mysterious force that provides the insights and images and words, the force that appears to be both inside and outside of you, the force that can be thought of as a muse or god. But the process is unreliable, because gods are unreliable, being inherently uncontrollable by us.

Matthew Arnold has a typically lugubrious and pessimistic overview of ‘The Progress of Poesy’:

Youth rambles on life’s arid mount,
And strikes the rock, and finds the vein,
And brings the water from the fount,
The fount which shall not flow again.

The man mature with labour chops
For the bright stream a channel grand,
And sees not that the sacred drops
Ran off and vanish’d out of hand.

And then the old man totters nigh
And feebly rakes among the stones.
The mount is mute, the channel-dry;
And down he lays his weary bones.

But that’s Matthew Arnold for you. He had a remarkably mournful muse. Perhaps he spent too much time as a responsible Victorian, a dedicated Inspector of Schools, and not enough time in the state T.S. Eliot called the “necessary receptivity and necessary laziness” of the poet. Eliot again: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” You are striving to be at the mercy of forces outside your conscious control – there can be no guarantee that it will work out exactly the way you want.

Illustration: “Sacrifice” by Tamara Artis is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 5. ‘Of Muses’

When thoughts, fantastic dreams, bright images,
invade you from inside without relief –
thoughts that aren’t yours, nor come from the outside –
then, heedless of the real world’s scrimmages,
you can’t ignore, forget, refute, refuse.
Forces not you, that ride you and bestride,
when viewed with self-delusion, self-belief,
must therefore be some spirit, god, or muse.

*****

This is the fifth of the 15 poems in the ‘Calling the Poem’ series, published as a Snakeskin e-chapbook. From the awareness of the creative mood to the valuing of an idea, to the attempt at expression, to the crafting and polishing of the item, there are several stages in the creation of a piece of art. I am trying to lay out my sense of this process, and of how any individual can choose to develop it, and produce more and better art.

It’s my belief that many, many people could be the most amazing poets or other creators, but they don’t go down that path because they choose not to pay attention to the stray thoughts and images that come their way. For those of us who try to follow and develop the images, there is always the question of where they come from: from within us, or from the outside? I think humanity’s self-understanding is very primitive so far, and that there are layers under layers still to be peeled back. All our answers are best guesses, working hypotheses, delusions… but they are all we have, and valid and valuable when seen in that light.

Most of the poems in this series are semi-formal – they have enough rhythm and rhyme to facilitate their recitation, but lack the formal structures, the appropriate patterns, that can be aspired to. To me the recitation is key, because poetry is auditory in nature, in its origin, at its heart. It is almost as old as singing, which is in turn almost as old as rhythmic babbling and drumming. The poem printed on the page is not the poem itself, it needs to be read (aloud, or in your mind’s voice) in order to become the poem.

So I don’t have strong opinions on whether to capitalise the first letter of each line of a poem: it doesn’t impact the sound. But if it can help with the reading and comprehension – by not capitalising and thereby showing the flow of the sentence, or by capitalising in order to differentiate from spillover part-lines and thereby retaining the metre or rhythm – then an appropriate choice should be made. The version of this work that I am using is all first-letter capitalised. I’ve modified that today because I felt the poem was more comprehensible when the individual sentences were more clearly marked; the issue isn’t otherwise important.

And, no, I’m not impressed with concrete poems or shape poems as verse, although they can be excellent as jokes and witticisms.

Photo of “Henri Matisse – Dance [1910]” by Gandalf’s Gallery is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 4. ‘Of Gods’

What are the gods? Are they true? Fake? Wild? Tame?
They are in you, and/or you are in them.
They are the joy that apes feel in the storm –
They are the hearth that keeps the caveman warm –
Societies the shaman’s dreams create –
They are Fertility, Love, Hunting, War,
And tools, pots, crops that clutch the god-robe hem,
And Trickster’s tales and lies, the Path, the Door…
Conflicting aspects flesh the human frame,
Demand obedience to some inner Law
To which no individual can conform.
Changing and arguing, they made Rome great
Before the MonoFossilizers came.

*****

It’s difficult for me to express the comfortable balance I have between belief and disbelief. On the one hand, something is the Creator and Sustainer of All the Worlds – in rough numbers, a billion galaxies of a billion stars each, and who knows how many planets with billions of life forms. On the other hand, all the stories of Heaven and Hell, of Odin and Hel, are such simplistic preliterate nonsense that I have to be an atheist. On the third hand, that preliterate sensibility is who we are, how we evolved, and is the key to a holistic understanding of oneself. Therefore I try to pay respectful attention to the simplistic preliterate nonsense that wanders into my consciousness. “Primitive” religion is more useful than “advanced” religion because it is inchoate, formless, shifting, full of alternatives, ambiguous – and that appears closer to the forces that underlie Material Reality than rigid “advanced” religion can manage… and it is also closer to the unconscious that communicates with you through dream and intuition.

But as for exactly what the gods are, and what their relationship to the underlying Creator of the Universe… who knows!

This semi-formal poem is the 4th of 15 in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook from Snakeskin.

Photo: “Greek Gods, take your pick” by dullhunk is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 3. ‘Self-Belief’

Can you handle the wild poem? Can you tame the thing, or kill?
The certainty, uncertainty, of writing as a skill,
The being told to “find your voice”, the crawling like an ant
Across the skin of Literature, that giant, to implant
Some token of your individuality, some pin
To jab into the giant’s vast and ant-infested skin,
To make your mark by scrawling words, tattoos, to claim a win…
You can’t succeed alone against such odds!
But there are gods…

*****

This is the third poem in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook sequence in Snakeskin. The question of self-belief can be difficult for any artist – given the thousands of years of recorded paintings, sculptures, poems, music, etc, how can you know that your tiny ant-like efforts will be enough to make a mark in the world? Can you hope to succeed? The choice might seem to be between the hubris of Yes and the defeatism of No – but you have a secret ally, if you pay attention: the Muse. If you are self-aware and mindful, if you stay alert for scraps from the unconscious, the dream-world including daydreams, if you are respectful enough to try to capture the little hints you are given, then the Muse (She, or He, or Them, Yourself, your unconscious, God or Gods or Angels, however you visualise this force and process) will provide you with insights and material you never knew you could access.

Your Muse is available to you… if you stop and listen, remain open and respectful of the unexpected. Again, the learning and the workloads imposed by others tend to act against this attitude. Take heart from T.S. Eliot: “a poet ought to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and necessary laziness.” That was not a flippant comment of his: it goes to the heart of learning to work with your Muse.

Photo: 8/17/09 Houston – Fire Ant Bite by stefan.klocek used under OpenVerse license

Calling the Poem: 2. ‘Awareness of the Mood’

The possibility before the poem, the mood,
Is premonition more than vision: loath
To admit, like the repressed and skewed
Response on seeing god-like demon, or young witch…
Not even genitals’ light twitch,
But mere awareness of that energy, potential thrust,
That tightness in the chest,
A heart-tight feeling of both loss and lust.
Then don’t ignore that feeling, for you’re blessed:
A poem is lurking in your undergrowth.

*****

This series of poems, ‘Calling the Poem’, is about the process of writing poetry – an art for which some people appear to have an affinity, an intangible ability. My sense is that such creativity is available to all humans, but requires a certain mindset, an openness to the unconscious, an interest in unplanned internal upwellings and dreams and fortuitous images; in other words, it is not available to those who plan and schedule their lives rigorously, who meticulously follow the teachings imposed from the outside by others.

The process starts before the poem begins to appear. I find it starts with a mood that feels like… like a mixture of curiosity (whether filled with hope or despair), and of awareness of the vastness of the world (whether manifested in a sunset or an ant), and of some small but significant personal power even in the presence of the forces of the universe, and of that formless twitch of yearning desire when glimpsing an unconnected but desirable object for the first time.

My sense is that when you find yourself in this mood – and I trust you’re aware of having experienced it – you are entering a state of receptivity to the messages that your unconscious wishes to share with the conscious you; and those messages will come as creative images, or dreams, or ideas, or words and phrases. But they will only come if you are receptive to them. So honour the mood: relax, listen, observe, and be prepared to express in rough draft whatever occurs to you. The mood is not the creativity; but if you accept the mood, the creative communication of the unconscious can occur.

Photo: “14. Premonition of Concusia 2009” by Anne Marie Grgich is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 1. ‘Invocation’

O Odin,
Living outside me or within,
Share your mead of poetry you earned in night’s delight,
Spare me from the mead you shitted out in flight and fright.
By Thought and Memory, I swear
A poem needs your care,
For poems… magic poems… are nothing,
and come from your nowhere…

A poem comes in flurries:
A phrase that catches, sticks,
A rhyme that matches
With some thought that dog-worries,
And a verse that clicks.

*****

Just to be clear, I’m no more a believer in the Norse gods than I am in Yoruba, Hindu or Christian deities. Also, I’m not a white nationalist. But mythology has a couple of uses for me: pure enjoyment of the tangled tales; a way of looking at historical mindsets; and a tool for trying to communicate with the unconscious, i.e. to let the creative unconscious funnel ideas and images to the conscious mind.

What I do believe is that invoking the Muse, or a god, is a way of telling your unconscious that you are receptive to its comments… it is a fishing expedition, and you never know what you’re going to get. But I believe it is a system that works (sometimes), and I don’t practise another. (Various drugs are alleged to get results, too.)

So a few years ago I set out to describe the process that I follow to try to bring poetry to me. The result was a series of 15 poems, published by Snakeskin as an e-chapbook in January 2017. It was available as a free download from Snakeskin No. 236, and it should be again, when the Snakeskin archives are again operational. I named it ‘Calling the Poem’.

‘Calling the Poem’ starts by invoking the Muse – male, female, human, animal, I think the Muse can be however you choose to imagine it. But the Muse should be a dream-image, for the Muse, the unconscious, is as likely to communicate through dream as anywhere. Odin is a good figure, with his ravens of Thought and Memory who give him the news of the world, his eight-legged horse Sleipnir who can carry him through all the worlds, his ability to shapeshift and prophesy, the sacrifices he made to obtain wisdom such as gouging out an eye to put in Mimir’s well, and of course the mead of poetry that he stole and disburses as he feels.

And so the first poem – somewhat rough-hewn, semi-formal – is the invocation addressed to Odin.

Photo: “Odin on Sleipnir” by Hornbeam Arts is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.