What has been helpful to me in my practice of writing poetry? The approaches to poetry are as varied as the people writing it, so it’s difficult – and probably unwise – to set hard and fast rules. What follows are issues that have come up for me, and some of the ideas I’ve gleaned from reading other poets.
‘Anything is fit purpose for poetry’ (William Carlos Williams) – there are no limits, so try not to censor yourself. If there is to be censorship, avoid the obviously poetic subjects, as they can be difficult to write about in a way that is fresh. Most writers do think twice about hurting people through their writing, though.
Writing endlessly about yourself and your life can become tedious, both to yourself and to your readers! A good way to escape from yourself is to invent personas, or to inhabit other skins for the duration of the poem. Check out Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (1999) for some breath-taking examples of this (‘Frau Freud’, ‘Elvis’s Twin Sister’, ‘Queen Kong’) or Vicki Feaver’s brilliant poem ‘Judith’ (‘Wondering how a good woman can murder/I enter the tent of Holofernes’). But you don’t even have to go as far as writing in the persona of a historical or imaginary character. Either using the first person when not drawing on your own immediate experience, or writing in the second or third person if you are using autobiographical details, can be liberating.
‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant.’. So said the incomparable Emily Dickinson. You don’t have to be true to the ‘facts’. Be open to the strangeness of the world, and of yourself in it. Try making the familiar strange. Robert Frost famously said that poetry invites ‘a fresh look and a fresh listen.’ Check out the excellent Padraic Fallon, his poem ‘A Flask of Brandy’, for example. Or look at the work of the late, great Irish poet, Dorothy Molloy, or the wonderfully enigmatic British poet, Rosemary Tonks. Oh, and a brilliant anthology of strangeness (and one of the best anthologies ever published, for my money) – Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times, edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney.
Form is important. You don’t have to be a mistress or master of form from the outset, but it helps if you are open to learning about rhyme, rhythm, metre and the different patterns that can be achieved through repetition, sequencing and variation. The only way to learn about forms such as the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina, is by reading poems written in these forms, and practising them yourself. Picasso could draw in a conventional, figurative manner (look at his early work), he just chose not to. You may choose not to adopt any of the traditional poetic forms, but familiarity with them will always make your free verse stronger. I’m sure you know Elizabeth Bishop’s wonderful villanelle, ‘One Art’, but if you don’t, check it out.
Home-made forms are good too, though. Once you understand some of the rules, you can, from time to time, throw them out the window, and make up your own. You can build a poem that has its own rules e.g. ‘the poem will be in couplets because it is mimicking the forward and backward motion of the sea’ or ‘the poem will have no end-of-line punctuation because I want to convey a sense of urgency or panic’ or ‘the poem will feature a different colour in each stanza’ or ‘ the opening and closing line will be identical’. The possibilities, of course, are endless. What matters is that your are consistent with yourself – that a sense of pattern – or indeed, the breaking of a pattern – is apparent to the reader.
Do you always have to be clear in poetry? T.S. Eliot said ‘Poetry communicates before it is understood.’ I like that! I think it means that good poetry does not always have to be narrative, that is, it does not always have to follow a linear story-line from beginning to end. You can invite the reader into a strange world where things may not immediately make sense. However – the reader cannot be left utterly mystified by the poem, as this would deter her/him from coming back for a second read! The poem should have its own internal logic, it should work on its own terms, according to its own rules. In other words, there should be complete consistency within the world of the poem. Eiléan Ni Chuilleneáin (Selected Poems, Gallery Press, 2008) is a good example of a poet whose poems are mysterious, but not mystifiying. Take a look at poems such as ‘Celibates’ (‘In August a bee, strayed overboard/ Down the high cliff, hummed along the strand./Three hermits saw him on that long coast./One spring the high tides stifled them all.’), for example, or ‘The Swineherd’ (‘I want to lie awake at night/Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug/And the water lying soft in the cistern.’)
Words. ‘Words have been my only loves, not many’ (Samuel Beckett). For my taste, one of the satisfactions of poetry is the work on language itself. The poet doesn’t need to use ornate, elaborate or particularly complicated language. But, to go back to Coleridge, it’s always thrilling to find ‘the best words in the best order’ – the right word in the right place can be a real detonator, exploding the accepted order of things and shaking poet and reader out of their complacency. Take time to choose the right word.
It’s always a good idea to be as precise and specific as you can be. Poetry is a form in which every single element within the boundaries of the poem is working overtime – every space, comma, vowel and consonant is really earning its keep! I really hate to say it (it seems like such a truism at this stage) but ‘show, don’t tell’. Try not to tell the reader what to feel – make her/him feel it! Run a mile from big, abstract nouns (Love, Truth, Joy, Despair, Feeling, Death). Of course, one can find exceptions in some of the best poems ever written, but as a general rule, use precise, concrete (sometimes quite small) details to summon or convey the big feelings. This, for me, is one of poetry’s golden rules. Read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘At the Fishouses’ for some breath-takingly precise use of detail (read all her work!). The following poem by James Wright (if you don’t know him, check out this extraordinary poet) is another brilliant example of showing, through detail, and leading the reader to an apprehension of the poet’s emotional intentions for the poem. I’d like to quote this one in full:
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats overhead, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
(from The Branch Will Not Break, 1963, in Above the River: The Complete Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 199
The relationship with the potential reader of the poem is an interesting one. Most poets don’t write with a reader consciously in mind. And of course, poems can’t usually be summoned, at will. A poem has its own intentions, which are sometimes a mystery even to the poet. So, it’s probably a good idea not to have designs on the reader, and to avoid having a determined point or ‘message’ you want to hammer home in your poem. Try to let the poem be open, its meanings be multiple. Leave the reader free to take from it what s/he will. And don’t nail it down at the end with a ‘ta-dah’ , putting the lid on it for the reader, so to speak.
Lastly, a word about line breaks. This aspect of poetry may not bother you too much when you begin to write poetry. But gradually, you will begin to realise that the line-break is the locus of power in the poem – and it’s your power! How do I know where to cut the line and move on to the next? Line endings are as individual as the poet herself, and views differ greatly on them. Billy Collins, for example, advocates the line as the sense component in the poem – each line should be able to stand alone as a unit of sense. That’s one good way of going about it, but it may not suit everyone. Sharon Olds breaks her lines in very unexpected ways, and in a recent interview in the magazine The Dark Horse, she said, ‘I was doing something with not having the strong words at the ends of the lines, but at the beginnings, to make a backbone to the poem. And then the ends, the branches, could droop out at the right hand side and the nouns could form a firm trunk on the left hand side.’ She goes on to say she had no idea what she was doing, but she was doing it her way! As did great poet W.S. Graham (take a look at his poem, ‘Enter a Cloud’, for example: ‘Above the spires of the fox/Gloves and above the bracken/Tops with their young heads/Recognizing the wind,/The armies of the empty/Blue press me further/Into Zennor Hill.’). I once heard the poet Glyn Maxwell say that all the energy of the line is contained in the line break. That idea appealed greatly to me, and when I started to apply it, line breaks made a lot more sense. Think long and hard about where to break each of your lines – this will be one of the distinguishing marks of your poetry.
The book is called ‘The Fado House’ because I wrote a number of poems while spending some time in Lisbon, a city I loved and where I discovered the wonderful fado houses – cafés where you can hear women singing ‘fado’, the traditional Portuguese folk song. Fado songs are songs of longing and loss, usually sung by women. I love listening to music, especially song, and I hope my poems have some of that music in them.
My book contains quite a few poems I wrote while travelling – poems set in Paris, in Berlin, India, even in Muscat (Sultanate of Oman), where my sister lives. But I prefer not to call these ‘travel poems’ – they aren’t travelogues! I tend to write when travelling because that’s often the only time when my mind is ‘on holiday’ and my imagination can have free rein!
In a restaurant made from the thin arms
of a tree embracing white-washed walls,
I eat strips of duck and strands of almond
prepared by a stooped Belgian gentleman.
A wall of glass separates me from him,
and within this wall swim miniature
tropical fish, all black and red stripes,
mother-of-pearl and orange polka dots.
The fish and I go eyeball-to-eyeball,
the tip of my nose touching
the bumpy nodules atop each flat face
and the gauzy fins billowing
and flicking as they whirr past my ear,
up and down the watery wall.
I dive into a Douro red and the flashy fish
and the silver-haired Belgian and I swim
into and out of each other. He slices pink duck-
breast and flambés raspberries in vodka
and the thin brown arms of the tree squeeze
us closer and the chalky fringe
of the low ceiling blanches the top
of my head.
Mary Noonan, The Fado House (Dedalus Press, 2012) www.dedaluspress.com