Tag Archives: how to write poetry

Calling the Poem: 15. ‘Coda’

Odin
Send me your ravens
I’ll feed them.

*****

It is only appropriate to end this chapbook on summoning poems with gratitude that anything at all is achieved. We generate thoughts and ideas so constantly and easily that we don’t even wonder how we do it – just as we don’t think how it is that our legs are able to carry us forward when we decide to walk, let alone how our stomachs know whether to digest or reject the things we swallow. Thoughts and ideas come from somewhere and something, an internal process that is being constantly fed from the outside… but quite what that process involves we rarely consider.

This work is an attempt at describing the various stages of writing a poem: being aware of a creative mood, telling your subconscious that you want more ideas by making an effort to record and use the ideas you get, focusing your creativity by reading within the genre you want to write, developing your technical skills in the craft that that genre offers, and building your piece from author to audience with all necessary components and as much elegance as possible… and then recognising that it won’t always be successful, but that it is all a miracle that anything is achieved at all, and you can (and should) be grateful for that.

The opinions and their expression are of course personal and idiosyncratic. YMMV.

This series of poems was written and strung together over a few months in late 2016. I sent it to George Simmers, hoping for comments on such matters as whether the pieces were too disparate in style, whether the rudest of them was too offensive and so on – but his only response was that he would publish it as an e-chapbook, and so it appeared in Snakeskin 236 in January 2017. I’ve toned down the first four lines of Poem 10: ‘Inspiration 1’ for these posts, and I’ve continued to tinker with issues such as English vs American spelling, and whether or not every line should begin with a capital letter. Hopefully the Snakeskin Archive will be restored, and the original chapbook will be available again.

Thank you for reading this far. I hope you found some value in it? I welcome any comments you have.

Calling the Poem: 14. ‘What About Failure?’

But what if the poem’s not there?
Is just an idea?
A vague vapor?
What if there were only a few words, heard freshly?
Then write them down even (or rather, especially)
if you must get out of bed, find pen and paper.

By getting up and writing out
the poem letter by blind letter
you are showing by your doing
your devotion to your gods.
Writing verse invokes the Muses,
turns up fresh thoughts, more and better…
not for certain, but just writing
will of course increase the odds.

The hidden gods now bidden,
gods willing, by gods you’ll be ridden.

*****

It’s not possible for everything to succeed every time. So what? As they say, Wisdom comes from learning; learning comes from experience; experience comes from mistakes. Failure is an inherent part of life and learning and achievement – but of course it is essential to learn from failures, not to simply repeat them. So even failures are a gift – be grateful!

Photo: “Failure – Try again” by Tatiana12, CC from OpenPress

Calling the Poem: 13. ‘Crafting the Verse’

We stand on two banks of the river that’s flowing between us.
I’ll bridge my new thoughts out to you with a verse.
First I form key ideas – they need clarity, cleanness –
The bridge forms an outline, takes shape in my head.
Now that bridge must be built,
Built regardless of canyons, or mud flats and silt.

The pillars are images placed first for more of the bridge to traverse,
With my strongest words buttressing them so they’re not washed away.
Their positions are set by the distance and shores,
While the force of the water, the shape of the bed,
And the landscape and soil on my side and yours,
The allowance for possible earthquake or storm,
The demands of the load that the bridge will convey…
These determine the structure, materials, form:
For the best bridge will meet site demands
With both strength and matched style.
So the poet needs meter and rhyme, every trick he commands,
Or the verses won’t carry their burden, will fail to beguile.

Though you see stone or steel in the bridge, for the most part it’s air,
Rhythmic arches of unspoken airy allusion, illusion,
Outlined in hard words and designed to be elegant, spare.
So this poem’s a book, that’s reduced to an essay, reduced more compactly
To two hundred lines, sacrificing precision
To memory’s need for concision, elision.
Two hundred exactly?
No, not exactly. (Exactly!)

From the sweep, pattern, length,
To its delicate strength,
Whether old Roman aqueduct, young Golden Gate,
Whether flowing with water or people and freight,
Its clean shape was constrained by the structural needs and efficiencies,
Driving its strength and position and duty.
All unstructured words in the river are wasted deficiencies.
Poems will last quite as long as an old Roman aqueduct,
Bridging the banks, bearing brightly in rhythms of beauty,
If all ostentation and ornamentation
Support the key functions in what you construct.
Raise your sights to the Space Elevator, that cable,
That modern-day Tower of Babel,
To not just bridge over
A strait or the Severn
But up! to bridge up! at the same time, to heaven.

Cloaked gods were invoked,
And the tiger broke cover,
Your poem connects river banks.
Now give thanks.

*****

When I moved to Denmark in my early 20s I was intrigued to hear that engineering students at a local university began their studies, not with lectures on a variety of key subjects, but by being placed in teams and told to design a bridge that would meet the demands for specific use at a specified site. Materials, geology, weather, load, cost, elegance and everything else that goes into bridge design all had to be researched and included in the project. When students had completed a whole series of projects, they had earned their degree. It was a very different approach from the lecture-based university courses that I had dropped out of in the UK.

How does this relate to writing poetry? Well, it brings to mind Heinlein’s ‘first law of writing’: “You must write.” Also the old story of the would-be concert-goer lost in New York City, asking a man with a violin case how to get to Carnegie Hall and being told “Practice, practice, practice.” There are a lot of factors involved in writing verse – some are common across all cultures and languages while others are language-specific. They all involve ideas (and their mysterious origin), images and their expression in words; but making those words so effective that they evoke an appropriate response in the reader or listener, so effective that they can be remembered and recited, requires the use of a whole range of language-specific factors that are mastered by doing.

By the way, the “two hundred lines” mentioned above refers to the length of the entire ‘Calling the Poem’ e-chapbook that this is part of. This chapbook is a single work, though constructed of various formal and semi-formal pieces.

Photo: “Roman Bridge, Merida” by Jocelyn777 Love Europe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 12. ‘Memorableness’

That* for an idea, for an idea’s transmission.
But that isn’t poetry. Poetry’s mission
is memory – every quick trick of the tongue
to give ear-to-mouth memory,
words sung and strung
from an ear to an ear,
bearing clear repetition,
not just the idea,
but the idea’s expression,
silk wrapping the emery –
rhythm and rhyme,
form, pattern, compression,
feet, movements, beat, time,
iter-, reiter- and alliteration,
sense, nonsense and assonance, insinuation,
barbs and allusions,
hooks, jokes and confusions,
directions, inflections, creating connections…
So memory favours your chanting, reciting,
enchanting beyond all mere reading and writing –
and magicking into the mind of forever.
You’ve taken control of poetic endeavour.

*****

*The first word, “That”, is referring back to the previous poem in the e-chapbook’s sequence, dealing with the process of obtaining the thoughts and ideas for a poem. This poem shifts the focus to the wordsmithing that makes a poem word-for-word memorable, memorisable, repeatable, recitable.

Consider the pieces of verse that are easiest for you, personally, to recite… nursery rhymes, passages of Shakespeare, bits of Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, quatrains from FitzGerald’s ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, an Emily Dickinson or Edward Lear poem?

Then consider how many prose passages of similar length you can recite – perhaps a Bible passage or part of Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address‘? There will be some, prose passages you have heard many, many times. But poetry is going to win out over prose by number of pieces, length of pieces, and accuracy, because poetry is deliberately uses a variety of tricks that make memorisation as easy as possible.

Poetry is not just the idea but also, essentially, the idea’s expression.

Photo: “Maori Chant” by pietroizzo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 11. ‘Inspiration 2’

The poem enters your head as a litter of kittens
brought in by a cat from somewhere hidden,
place of birth unknown.
A word, image, rhyme,
an idea, a tone,
they are brought one at a time
In no order, no preference, no ruling or schooling,
they just need to come in, like refugees at the border.
And they have no order,
they crawl over each other, blind and mewling,
and here comes another, and then here comes another.
So the thoughts enter your head like kittens. Give thanks to the Mother.

*****

Where do ideas come from? No idea. (An oxymoronic observation that is not so different from saying that all the Universe comes from nothing, or that there was no time before the beginning of time.) But simply having ideas is nothing in itself – you can have ideas and ignore them (and generally irritate the Muse that is offering you ideas), and so you will have nothing to show for them. Canadian poet Pino Coluccio recently pointed me at an old piece by British poet Philip Larkin, which begins:

“It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects or things normally regarded as complicated. Take, for instance, the writing of a poem. It consists of three stages: the first is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it. The stages are interdependent and all necessary. If there has been no preliminary feeling, the device has nothing to reproduce and the reader will experience nothing. If the second stage has not been well done, the device will not deliver the goods, or will deliver only a few goods to a few people, or will stop delivering them after an absurdly short while. And if there is no third stage, no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.”

So, 1) become obsessed; 2) construct a verbal device that captures the obsessiveness; 3) have it read by people who thereby experience your obsession.

This series of poems in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook focuses on how to be open to the internal wellspring of ideas, obsessions, emotions, words and images to reach Larkin’s first stage (these first 11 poems); and some thoughts about the construction of the “verbal device” of his second stage (the remaining four poems that are coming up). As for the third stage… well, if the poem is strong enough, it will resonate appropriately with those who read it; but how to get it read–that is a different problem entirely.

Photo: “Newborn kittens” by In dust we trust is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 10. ‘Inspiration 1’

When the god’s in you, you’re not blessed nor raped;
it’s not Zeus in whatever guise he wears,
nor Yahweh taking Mary unawares,
nor anything which could be fought, escaped;
nor is it there where your complete orgasm–
from curling toes to skull-top tingling hair–
meets voodoo god who rides you as nightmare,
meets “therapy” of ECG’s dead spasm.

But winkled from your shell by muse or god
you’re in unmoving time, in time that seems
to Rip Van Winkle ordinary, not odd,
there where True Thomas by fay queen is smitten…
and when you wake from momentary dreams
two hours have gone by, and the first draft’s written.

*****

Even if, as some artists relate, they have been taken over by a god, muse, or supernatural force of inspiration, the feeling is not one of fear or terror as you might expect from being possessed. The process of inspired creation typically gives a feeling of calm, concentration and controlled excitement. The aftereffects can be completely different: exhaustion, exuberance, depression… The connection has been broken, the mind returns to a different state.

This version of the sonnet has been cleaned up from what was originally published as an e-chapbook by Snakeskin in issue 236 (unfortunately Archives are still down at time of writing). I have removed the four-letter words from the first four lines and generally reduced the probable offensiveness to my Christian and Muslim friends. However I think there are two points to be made that are more important than sacrilegious language:

Why is it acceptable to portray the coarseness of other people’s gods to schoolchildren, while it is forbidden to discuss the immorality of one’s own group’s preferred deity, even among adults?

And more importantly, why is it considered acceptable for a god (Yahweh) to impregnate a young female (Mary) without her consent? Isn’t this a Handmaid’s Tale level of thinking about the rights of the male and the insignificance of the female? Isn’t this a dangerously inappropriate story to be telling our children?

Of course the “Immaculate Conception” is just an unscientific fairytale. It is far more likely that, as contemporary Jewish rumour had it, Mary got pregnant by a Roman soldier called Pantera, and that Joseph (through love or pity) took her away to have the child in his home town of Bethlehem rather than have her stoned to death as would have been likely for having sex before marriage, especially with one of the idolatrous, beard-shaving, pig-eating Western soldiers of the Occupation

Photo: Life size bronze of Rip Van Winkle sculpted by Richard Masloski, copyright 2000; Photograph by Daryl Samuel

Calling the Poem: 9. ‘The Poem Comes’

Do you see the tigerish poem, or is it seeing you?
Sensing you, sizing up your form…
(You know that lovely feeling, warm,
When you’re stared at by somebody you like…
How creepy though, if someone you dislike…)
Perhaps it will ring true,
Perhaps the lines
Will just ring hollow…
But having offered yourself up like some bonbon,
Prayed at the shrines
Of lares and penates, Mercury, Apollo,
Ganesh and Odin, Legbas Atibon,
Liminal gods of paths and gates,
And stories, lies, poetry and fates,
You have no right, nor no ability,
To choose between rough trade or some civility;
Stared at by god or demon, grand or scum,
You’ve whored yourself to gods. Take what may come.

*****

This is the ninth in the 15-poem series of the ‘Calling the Poem’ e-chapbook that Snakeskin published a couple of years ago. (Unfortunately the Snakeskin Archives are currently down.) It reflects my sense that you can evoke artistry by invoking those unconscious inner forces that can only communicate with your conscious self through dreams and images, hints and melodies, words that well up but are not quite random…

The invocation requires two things to be successful: alertness to your changing moods, and showing respect for whatever “inspiration” you receive by writing it down, sketching it out, formalising it as appropriate – and thereby encouraging further communication.

I’m aware that all this sounds pretentious. But I think that the unconscious mind knows different things, in some ways truer things, than the conscious mind, especially about physical health, mental balance and the process of changes in life. Finding a way to tap into this – through prayer, meditation or the arts – is life-affirming for most people… but perhaps dangerous for a few.

The next poems in this series deal with things going right, going wrong, needing work…

Photo: “Streetart at the state of art #art #streetart #dublin #graffiti #montana #street #woman #beautiful #poetic #inspiring #graffiti #artistic #gorgeous #wall #graff” by Romana Correale is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 8. ‘Sacrificing Yourself’

To bring that tiger you’re desiring, fearing,
You place your own self in the clearing,
Tied to a tree, chained at the throat,
A monk who hopes, hopeless and lowly,
A tethered goat,
You bleat your prayers, and wait.
Your offer (“offer” is an offering,
An animal, coin, weapon, ring…
Even yourself, for you are an oblate…
“Offer” is “sacrifice”, “sacrifice” is “make holy”)
Your offer, your self-sacrifice, is still
“Take me, and pay me what you will.”

Begging for the orgasmic lightning bolt
That gods blast blindly towards heath and holt,
You make yourself into a lightning rod
On some high tower to catch those blasts of god.

*****

American poet Randall Jarrell defined a poet as “a man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.” Indeed, to be known to posterity for five or six poems is a wonderful achievement – although hopefully you were also doing other worthwhile and fulfilling things with your life. Tennyson, Dickinson, Yeats, Cummings… they may have written hundreds of poems, but very few remain widely known – the average well-read citizen would have a hard time naming more than two or three poems by each.

The artistic sensibility (including the musical, poetic, etc) is very similar to the religious one. For most, the lightning strikes are strictly personal and the payoffs from devotion, openness and sacrifice are largely intangible; but they give a powerful charge, a feeling of the essential within yourself and an understanding of connection to the whole universe.

Photo: ‘Lightning in the Western Sahara’ by Hugo! is licensed under WordPress Openverse.

Calling the Poem: 7. ‘The Tiger’

That wild white wind that whips the world away –
The darkness deep and dread in dazzling day –
The light and dark that fuse with furious force –
The leaping tiger that gives no recourse –
Acknowledge, fear, that lurking tiger’s rage,
The terrifying sense of spring-taut powers,
Menacing, tail-tip twitching while it glowers,
Lethal both to ignore or to engage.
Acknowledge it, succumb: you’ve been rewarded.
And now produce – because the debt’s recorded.

*****

This is the 7th of the 15 poems of the Snakeskin e-chapbook ‘Calling the Poem’. ‘The Tiger’ and the next few poems deal with the difficulties of first begging your Muse for inspiration and then finding that the inspiration is uncomfortable – personally, socially, politically, whatever. Perhaps the inspiration isn’t what you were hoping for… but what are your obligations once you have in effect contracted to receive something unknown?

The Muse, the gods, the unconscious or however you like to think of your source of inspiration is not to be trifled with. It is to be respected if you want to stay on good terms with it and benefit from it.

The word ‘music’, by the way, means Muse-ish, ‘of the Muses’. The following is blended from passages in Wikipedia: According to Pausanias in the later 2nd century AD, there were three original Muses, three original Boeotian muses before the Nine Olympian Muses were founded: Aoidē (“song” or “voice”), Meletē (“thought” or “contemplation”), and Mnēmē (“memory”). Together, these three form the complete picture of the preconditions of poetic art in cult practice.

So song, contemplation and memory are the Muses that together drive poetry. Poetry is totally Muse-ish. Therefore poetry is inherently musical. Its music is essential.

(And it was only after writing this blog that I found that the current Oglaf comic features a tiger…)

Photo: ‘Tiger’ by Captain Chickenpants is licensed under WordPress Openverse.

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.