4 minutes reading time (859 words)

Can you write a good poem FAST?

‘Your car is never parked,’ my loved-one is fond of saying. ‘It’s merely abandoned.’

Whether or not his observation is justified, he’s unaware that his words bring another matter to mind (apart from revenge).

What he reminds me of is this: ‘Un poème n'est jamais fini, seulement abandonné. A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ The words are Paul Valéry’s, though I first came across them elsewhere – quoted by Philip Larkin, I think.

Where parking is concerned, I don’t care much, though I want to make it clear I never cross the white line or make direct contact with another vehicle. With poetry, it’s another matter.

During the HappenStance submissions month, it’s not uncommon to receive a set of poems ‘all written in the last six months’. It is never a good idea to tell me this. I am more inclined to think good poetry was written ages ago. Gerry Cambridge, editor of The Dark Horse, once told me in no uncertain terms: ‘Do not send out fresh poems’. In my case, he was right. Time and time again, I am sure a poem is ‘finished’, only to find out three months (or three years) later I was horribly wrong.

Often, I find myself scribbling on someone else’s work: ‘I don’t think this is fully cooked.’ Isn’t a poem closer to a biscuit than a cake? – first baked, then dried out in a slow oven?

It depends. There are circumstances in which poems arrive fast and finished. Re-reading some of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s darkest sonnets, and in particular ‘ I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’, I see James Reeves’ note at the back of my edition: ‘This and the three following sonnets are probably among those referred to in a letter to Bridges in which Hopkins says, Four of these came like inspirations unbidden and against my will.’ That sounds fast to me, although the final sonnets may be some way from their original manifestations.

I am fond of quoting the late Anna Adams on this. Island Chapters (1991) records the experiences of the poet and her painter husband (the book is beautifully illustrated with colour plates of paintings) on the remote Hebridean island of Scarp. Here she is:

There is a game that one person can play with the sea. I invented it. There is really only one rule, and that is very simple. The water should be fairly rough, and the tide rising. The player sits down on the shore line like King Canute, using a boulder for a throne, and must not move until he does so without making any conscious decision about it. He (or she) may rise and run only when to do so is an inevitable and involuntary act.

Perhaps poems should be written in these conditions – only when they are inevitable. Much ink might be saved, and every poem would have the necessary ingredient of desperation in it. It would be something found, not something sought. True poems come into being at the top of an experience chain, as people and birds of prey are at the top of the food chain. But some links of the experience chain may be the writing of manufactured poems, or a poem hunt, and the dark night of the doggerel. Rubbish-writing and despair. It is necessary to work, providing one’s own waves of energy, until, suddenly, the poem is given. It may be a line or a word only, but it slots into place like a keystone, locking words together.

So there is a case for poems written fast, hurriedly, uncooked. They may be the necessary experiences in a chain.

James Reeves would not have agreed. He thought the hardest (but most important) thing for a poet was to know when not to write. In ‘What is it to be a poet?’ (in Commitment to Poetry, 1969), he says: ‘It is up to every poet to know his creative power, and not force it. I know mine to be small and I say this without complacency. I never cease to wish it were greater.’ And he goes on ‘One must accept the gift one has; one must accept the necessity for silence, for doing nothing; it is the hardest thing to be a poet and be unable to write poems.’

Perhaps one role of the editor or publisher is to help identify the work at the end of the chain: to suggest that not all the poems – which may at times seem inevitable – have fully ‘arrived’ – though the experience of writing them may prove invaluable. Sometimes writing nothing is an excellent idea. Sometimes reading is the richest road.

Fast or slow, it’s hard to see a poem properly when you’re close to it. They need a little time and emotional distance. Although fresh rolls are the only rolls worth eating, this analogy doesn’t work for la poésie. The incorrigible Cambridge was correct: do not send out fresh poems. Put them in a drawer. Read them again when you can read them like a reader, not a poet. Then see how the little bastards shape up.

IDOLATRY - OR BARDOLATRY?
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Comments 7

Guest - Antony Mair on Sunday, 05 May 2013 11:08

How totally refreshing to read this. I particularly like the James Reeves quote. In lean creative moments I start panicking, thinking I'll not write anything again - but then, sure enough, something floats up in its own time. I also like the metaphor about the biscuits. But there's the downside possibility of over-cooking, and removing the original impetus. The difficulty, it seems to me, is getting the biscuit just right, so that it's neither doughy nor burnt.

How totally refreshing to read this. I particularly like the James Reeves quote. In lean creative moments I start panicking, thinking I'll not write anything again - but then, sure enough, something floats up in its own time. I also like the metaphor about the biscuits. But there's the downside possibility of over-cooking, and removing the original impetus. The difficulty, it seems to me, is getting the biscuit just right, so that it's neither doughy nor burnt.
Guest - Nell Nelson on Sunday, 05 May 2013 12:43

Absolutely. Crisp, but not burnt to one...

Absolutely. Crisp, but not burnt to one... :)
Guest - Surazeus Simon Seamount on Sunday, 05 May 2013 17:22

So much poetry comes to me every day that I have to force myself to go back and edit what I wrote while new poems are jostling to exist.

So much poetry comes to me every day that I have to force myself to go back and edit what I wrote while new poems are jostling to exist.
Guest - James W Wood on Sunday, 05 May 2013 21:51

If you have a look at "Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life" by (I think) Bernard Jenkin, he has reproduced the MS of "The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord" which Hopkins wrote whilst invigilating the Greek Exam at University College Dublin - in other words, in under three hours. The MS of "Ode: To A Nightingale" is similarly instructive; Geoffrey Hill's analogy here is that our constant writing is much like practice for musicians, preparing us for when a poem comes to us; by the way and as always, Hopkins was very probably using a deliberate formulation when he said "came to me unbidden" since this is v like the Catholic concept of grace, which comes unbidden from God (as opposed to the Protestant concept of grace and salvation through good works).

If you have a look at "Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life" by (I think) Bernard Jenkin, he has reproduced the MS of "The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord" which Hopkins wrote whilst invigilating the Greek Exam at University College Dublin - in other words, in under three hours. The MS of "Ode: To A Nightingale" is similarly instructive; Geoffrey Hill's analogy here is that our constant writing is much like practice for musicians, preparing us for when a poem comes to us; by the way and as always, Hopkins was very probably using a deliberate formulation when he said "came to me unbidden" since this is v like the Catholic concept of grace, which comes unbidden from God (as opposed to the Protestant concept of grace and salvation through good works).
Guest - Mark Haworth-Booth on Monday, 06 May 2013 08:52

The painter Jack B. Yeats used to put the paintings he thought finished on one side for six months. The oil paint needed to dry out and he needed some critical distance. If he was content with them when the time had passed, he would put a little flying bird symbol in the notebook in which he recorded his works: the painting was ready to fly from the studio.

The painter Jack B. Yeats used to put the paintings he thought finished on one side for six months. The oil paint needed to dry out and he needed some critical distance. If he was content with them when the time had passed, he would put a little flying bird symbol in the notebook in which he recorded his works: the painting was ready to fly from the studio.
Guest - Jennifer Williams on Wednesday, 08 May 2013 14:07

"There are very many thoughts which have value for him who thinks them, but only a few of them possess the power of engaging the interest of a reader after they have been written down." Arthur Schopenhauer

"There are very many thoughts which have value for him who thinks them, but only a few of them possess the power of engaging the interest of a reader after they have been written down." Arthur Schopenhauer
Guest - Sheila Hamilton on Thursday, 06 March 2014 21:17

I agree with Schopenhauer. My advice (such as it is) to a newbie poet, an inexperienced poet, would be (almost above all): Don't write poems about things that you find only a bit interesting. If you are only vaguely interested, the poem is not going to live for the reader either. Write about what grabs you by the throat."

(Odd bit of synchronicity here: I dreamt about Schopenhauer last night. In the dream, I had rather rashly agreed to translate some philosophy from the original German for some rather desperate undergraduates.. When I got the documents home, I realised that some of them were not paper-documents but records, as in gramophone records, and that Schopenhauer was being interviewed on them!)

I agree with Schopenhauer. My advice (such as it is) to a newbie poet, an inexperienced poet, would be (almost above all): Don't write poems about things that you find only [i]a bit interesting[/i]. If you are only [i]vaguel[/i]y interested, the poem is not going to live for the reader either. Write about what grabs you by the throat." (Odd bit of synchronicity here: I dreamt about Schopenhauer last night. In the dream, I had rather rashly agreed to translate some philosophy from the original German for some rather desperate undergraduates.. When I got the documents home, I realised that some of them were not paper-documents but records, as in gramophone records, and that Schopenhauer was being interviewed on them!)
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