Tag Archives: inspiration

Using form for fun: “Old Sailors”

This poem was written purely for fun–and the use of form was essential.

Lantern Slide - Two Sailors Having a Cigarette

Two old tars

OLD SAILORS

Two tars talked of sealing and sailing; one said with a sigh
“Remember gulls wheeling and wailing, we wondering why,
“And noting bells pealing, sun paling — it vanished like pie!
“And then the boat heeling, sky hailing, the wind getting high,
“And that drunken Yank reeling to railing and retching his rye,
“John missing his Darjeeling jailing, and calling for chai?
“While we battened, all kneeling and nailing, the hurricane nigh,
“And me longing for Ealing, and ailing?” His mate said “Aye-aye;
“I could stand the odd stealing, food staling, not fit for a sty,
“And forget any feeling of failing, too vast to defy –
“Home-leaving your peeling-paint paling too far to espy –
“All because of the healing friend-hailing, the hello! and hi!
“And, with the gulls squealing, quick-scaling the mast to the sky.”

The poem started as an exploration of rhymes for both sealing and sailing, which seemed like interestingly paired words. Many of the rhymes (and the third one, “sigh”) fell easily into a nautical mood. The metre flowed on from “sealing and sailing”. Add in alliteration wherever possible, and look for a coherent story and resolution… and there is the poem.

It was originally published in George Simmers’ online poetry journal, Snakeskin–a highly eclectic journal–and it made for what one reader called a “good nautical rhythm”, and another comment was “finely composed wordy-whirlwind of images”. Both those strengths of the poem come from the use of form: the nautical rhythm from the choice of metre, the whirlwind of images from the requirement to compress everything into the rhyme scheme.

It isn’t a deep, meaningful poem; but form can be used purely for enjoyment.

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Encouraging the Muse to visit

You may not be able to decide to write a poem, but there are a variety of things that you can do to increase the chance of being in a poem-writing state of mind.

Erato, Muse of Poetry, by Edward Poynter Toile

Erato, Muse of Poetry, by Sir Edward John Poynter 1870

The first, of course, is to read poetry. We are all influenced by what we are seeing and hearing. Our voices and accents shift towards those we’re talking with, the tunes we hum or whistle are influenced by what we’ve been listening to, and how we write is influenced by what we’ve been reading. Read poetry, especially rhymed and metered, and you’ll be more likely to find your unstructured thoughts expressing themselves in verse.

And that word “unstructured” is also one of the keys. Poetry can come from a chance phrase in your head, from a random rhyme opportunity that you run across that intrigues you for whatever reason, or from an unexpected image or similarity that carries an idea or a metaphor into your thoughts.

So the second thing you can do is, whenever some tiny fragment like this occurs to you, write it down! It is a gift to your conscious poetry-writing mind from your unconscious poetry-dreaming mind.

If it happens in a restaurant, write it down on anything you can take out. If it happens just when you’re going to sleep, sit up, get up, write it down. If it is only a phrase or an idea, write it down. If anything else occurs to you while writing, write it down too. If what you have seems structured, but some other unstructured thoughts are hovering around, write them down too. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can always come back to it later. But if you don’t grab it when it appears, you are unlikely ever to find it again, or even to remember that there was ever anything there.

The third is to worship the Muse. Really? No, not really, but there’s no other simple way to describe it. There are forces in your subconscious of which you are unaware. They speak to you in dreams when something is really important. You have probably experienced the difference between what can be called “big dreams” and “little dreams”–messages from the unconscious mind, vs tidy-up-and-defrag dreams.

Somewhere inside your mind a creative engine is at work. You can ignore it, and then not only will you never write poetry, but you are likely to screw up your life. Or you can listen to it, let it sing to you, let it give you little gifts of wordplay or insight, and it will help you stay grounded in what is important. So writing down everything interesting that occurs to you out of the blue is a way of honouring that creative engine, that we can call your Muse. Be grateful to it. Accept that your unconscious may know things about you that you have no clue about, everything from how to keep your heart beating, to how to remember the name of someone from 20 years ago, to how to count time and wake you up at a certain time without an alarm clock. Poetry is the tiniest tip of the iceberg of all the unconscious mind can do. Honour it! And it will reward you.

You can find a guide to “Calling the Poem”–how to identify the poetic mood, how to encourage it, how to deal with it–in a chapbook of mine published by Snakeskin, and downloadable for free at http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/snake236.html

How to write the poem, when you’re in the right mood… More thoughts on that in the next post.

Can you *decide* to write a poem? 

Can you decide to write a poem?

Image result for write a poem

Hmmm…

In an odd but interesting book called “Poet’s Choice” that came out in 1962, editors Paul Engle and Joseph Langland asked 100 poets from Robert Frost to Leonard Cohen to name a favourite poem, and provide some insight into their choice. (Some wrote three lines, some three pages.) One of the most extensive answers came from John Wain. Here is an excerpt:

If I write a novel, or a story, or a critical essay, I soon make up my mind as to its merits; I can read it, more or less, as if it had been written by someone else. But I cannot do this with my poems because they are more instinctual; they arrive, from some deep place in my being where forces are at work which I cannot command, though I can thwart and deny them. After a poem has arrived, and been born, I look at it much as one looks at a natural object: I didn’t write it–it happened to me. As a professional writer, I can say, “Today I will write a story,” or some criticism, or a scene for a play, or whatever it may be: but I cannot say, and no one has ever been able to say, “Today I will write poetry.”

Poems, in this understanding, are the closest form of writing to dreams. We may have some control, but not a lot. As Wain points out, we can thwart or deny them when they are available or (if they are part of our will separate from our conscious mind) when they are trying to come. But we cannot consciously create them if they are not available. They are absolutely mood-dependent. In the right mood, Coleridge could knock out the 54 lines of “Kubla Khan” as fast as he could pen them. In the wrong mood, Oscar Wilde could say “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

So the difference is between deciding to write a poem, and knowing when you can write one. But how and when would you know you could? And can you enhance the chances of it happening? This will be the subject of the next post.