Letter to a Young Poet
Dear Young Poet,
I’ve done you a personal alphabet on writing poems based on my own practice and teaching. It is mainly details of craft, muddled up with how you live while writing poems. Each aspect of craft is linked to others, and some ideas here crop up when I’m discussing another, so when I put a word in bold, that means this idea occurs in its own alphabetical place as well.
We never know how what we write will land in someone else, but I had fun setting things out this way, and hope you might enjoy chewing on some of them. We are all young, compared to poetry, and you probably know all this anyway. And more, that I’d like to learn, from you. We go on: reading, writing, learning from each other. Sharing poems, sharing ways of seeing, always hoping to see and hear and think new.
Good luck, and enjoy yourself along the way.
Writing Poems: A Personal ABC
Ask yourself questions about every draft, but start by interrogating abstract nouns. Writing a poem with them is like trying to construct a snow-globe out of suitcases. Your own luggage on the carousel is full of things you value, with personal associations. But to other people all suitcases look boringly the same and could well be empty. Use concrete details instead, an image or specific description. The more local, concrete and particular you are, the more universal (‘I made the Iliad from such / A local row,’ says Homer’s ghost in Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘Epic’ addressing a rural family feud) as well as more vivid. Avoid adverbs too. They are bossy (chief locus of telling not showing) and usually unnecessary. Most poems are healthier when they are removed, like tonsils. Check your first draft for adverbs and abstracts; ask yourself if you need each one and check adjectives too: adjectives are like salt, you can overdo them. Giving every noun an adjective debases the currency. A is also audience and aloud. Read your poems aloud. First to yourself: audiences are important, once you start to share a poem with an audience and hear how it reads, your relation to it changes. But audiences are not always reliable indicators. Poems that go down brilliantly with one audience may create instant emotional impact (or you may be so electric on stage that anything you say will do) but be inert on the page. Your best-made poems may not read that well, even with a very switched-on audience. But every poem needs to satisfy your ear, and the best way to hear that is aloud.
B is for burning away peripherals. As Plath says, ‘you have to go far in such a short space’. So less is more. Also be aware how many beats (see stress and x) there are in each line. You may not be aiming for consistency but they are your lines, you need to know what they are up to. When you say your poem aloud, see where the breath comes, try walking the poem changing direction on every breath, so you understand the poem’s architecture. Charles Olson said the main concern should be breath and syllable. To listen closely to the breath ‘is to engage speech where it is least careless, and least logical:’ the syllable ‘leads to’ the head through the ear; the breath leads through the line to the heart. Breath shapes your phrases: not only where you take a breath, but how you breathe through the words. Long syllables need more breath. That’s why it’s useful to read your poem aloud.
C is for craft. ‘Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a reed shaken in the wind,’ said Brahms. Compress, condense, cut as much as you dare. Every poet and every poem is different, but it sometimes helps to think of the two stages of writing a poem as two ways of making sculpture. At first you work in soft material, clay or wax, trawling for bits and pieces to collage. It’s a gathering, an exciting moment. Anything can come in, whatever you see, think or remember, and at this moment the way you use craft is mainly unconscious. But when you have a draft, a gelling or hardening sets in, the poem exists, and you are a different sort of sculptor – chipping away, freeing the image in the stone, as in Michelangelo’s ‘Captives.’ Print your draft, use a biro as a scalpel. Dvorak said, ‘The pencil is a marvelous invention, but the eraser is even greater.‘ You can still add things, the perfect new word, a great new thought, but the basic principle of revising is less is more. Something in the sounds, thoughts and images needs to cohere. Even in the exaggeration, hyperbole and vagabond ranginess of sprawl (that restless quality of thought and feeling celebrated by Les Murray and which all poems need a bit of) you need to make the words hang together.
D is for drafting, draft, revising. A piece I wrote for students on one process of drafting and revising shows many drafts of the same poem and me not listening, at first, to what that poem wants: taking it to bits, trying to serve it better. Poetry aims to delight. Heaney spoke of its self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being ‘a process of language, as well as a representation of things in the world.’ The content, of course, may be painful (see Terrance Hayes’ poem, under N). ‘Who carved on the butter print’s round open face / A cross-hatched head of rye, all jags and bristles?’ asks Heaney’s poem ‘The Butter-Print,’ which focusses on swallowing something sharp: ‘I felt the edge slide and the point stick deep.’ But you can delight in its made-ness: ‘When I coughed and coughed and coughed it up, / My breathing came dawn-cold, so clear and sudden / I might have been inhaling airs from heaven.’ Writing a poem is also discovery: a series of moves in which anything can happen. If you know what you are going to say, a poem is not what you need to write.
E is for ear. Develop yours, read your poems aloud, learn other people’s poems by heart as well as your own and listen, critically and generously, to all their music. E is economy, too. Poetry is the art of saying as little as possible: hence the knife. Be aware of the emotional journey of your poem, cut anything that doesn’t belong. E is also for enjambement and end-stopped, two kinds of line-break, and expression. Poetry is a form of expression but that doesn’t mean setting out to express yourself, Ideally, you’ll have no idea what is going to come out (see discovery): the poem will reveal what you feel. When MacNeice finished ‘Eclogue for Christmas’, he wondered (so he says in his autobiography), ‘Did I really feel like that about the decline of the west? Apparently I did. Part of me must have been feeling like that for years.’
Form is what we’ve got. As Emily said, ‘I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose – / More numerous of Windows – / Superior – for Doors.’ How do you decide on a form for the poem you are about to write? How do you let the poem choose it? (See draft.) And when it has finally settled into it, what does that form say? ‘Songs build little rooms in time, sang David Berman, And housed within the song’s design / Is the ghost the host has left behind / To greet and sweep the guest inside / Stoke the fire and sing his lines.’ You are, or seem to be, free to choose. But the ‘design’ you choose limits your freedom in interesting ways, which somehow release new forces. Form is a communication too: every form prompts the reader to read in a particular way. ‘Whenever I sit down to write,’ says Alice Oswald, ‘I have to think through certain questions about form – am I going to write a sonnet? If I don’t count syllables, how do I communicate a tune? If I rhyme, whose voice am I putting on?’ F is also for frisking your draft: interrogate ever word at knife-point and ask if your poem wouldn’t be stronger without it? F is also for what J.D. Salinger called the fire between the words. Not something you can will into being: it rises from your unconscious associations, but you can help it out by choosing fresh, precise, specific words.
G is for the germ (seed, not bacillus) from which the poem grows: an image, or a hunch that something interesting might happen if you put particular words together. As the poem comes into being, what it’s trying to do gradually becomes clear. It may only be when you finish that you realise what it is. G is also generosity in your reading: the way you approach work which is unlike yours. Alice Oswald talks of trying to push against her own principles. Poetry is a spectrum: try to find good in what someone else is doing, what you can learn from it.
H is for harmony and hanging together (see cohere). This comes mostly from the relations of the vowels: not only in the heard music of cadences and rhythms, but also for unheard harmonics, which every syllable brings with it, and which dance around each word as raindrops bounce on a road, resonating with the harmonics of other syllables suggesting new sounds, thoughts and feelings. H is also the habit of noticing. Not necessarily visual (Homer was blind) – wherever you are, practise noticing what’s going on around you, seeing where you can take it, what you can do with it. ‘Art is the habit of the artist,’ said Flannery O’Connor. ‘And habits have to be rooted deep in the personality, have to be cultivated.’
Implications create the richness of a poem. Poems that don’t have any are boring and a boring poem is not really a poem. Implications create, in David Harsent’s phrase, the ‘art of hint.’ Many bubble up from associations generated in your unconscious. You may put them in unawares, but eventually you need to be at least partly aware of them. I is also for iceberg theory. Ernest Hemingway said most of the meaning should not be apparent on the surface: ninth-tenths of an iceberg is under the water. I is also for the controversial notion of the integrity of a line. Some people find this a conservative idea, some kinds of poem prefer the fragment or the flow, but it’s useful to keeping asking (whatever you are doing with spacing and line-breaks), if each line is OK in itself. Your imagination is where your individuality, and what you will give to the world, will come from: you can develop it through habits of noticing. The image is the beginning of imagination. Pound’s ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ says an image presents an intellectual and emotional complex in a single instant, so frisk your images to make sure they are not just ornament but have an organic role in the poem: that they move both thought and feeing forward.
J for the journey of thought and sound through a poem. Make sure you know where each is going.
K is for knowledge. In every poem, you face the problem of how to get across knowledge which a reader may not know. Both of facts, eg of science (scientia is Latin for ‘knowledge’) but also of your own personal life – without telling, or being didactic. Fine for 19th century poets to toss in an abstruse Greek myth and assume their readers knew the details, but today everybody knows different things, education is wider and more eclectic. Michael Donaghy loved knowledge, and used it in poems (eg ‘Machines’) in such a way that you understand the poem without knowing the detailed knowledge. As for knife: Richard Diebenkorn’s painting Knife in a Glass is my private image for the all-important cutting tool. Once you have a draft, keep that knife (or chisel, or scalpel) clean and ready beside you, waiting.
Less is more. A word often has a stronger presence when you remove it. The impulse that made you put it there in the first place has gone underground, and is more powerful in its absence. I don’t know why, that’s just how it works. L is also for line (see integrity) and line-break. The last word in a line is position of maximum stress. Do you really want to emphasise the, or your? You may, you could have good reason, but you need to be able to justify breaking on that word. You have to frisk and interrogate every line-break. Print the poem, use your biro as a scalpel: you want to vary the type of pause, type of relation to the next. Is the first line enjambed or end-stopped? L is also for listening to all vowel-sounds, tone and implications as you check your draft. Don’t let the poem out of your sight before you do that.
Memory is ‘mother’ of the Greek Muses. As the Chinese poet Lu Ji says: ‘Things move into shadows and vanish. They return in the shape of an echo. When the mind gets darker and you pull ideas like silk from a cocoon, you find words which seem to belong with each other.’ Most of the meaning of a poem (see iceberg theory) will remain unseen, unconscious. When I first walked in a forest with tigers in it, I felt the tiger was the meaning of the forest. You may only catch a glimpse of it but it is there like the deepest meaning of a poem, and everything else in the forest, from leaf to squirrel, just like every syllable in a poem, is related to it. As for message: don’t have one. With message, discovery goes out of the window. Metaphor is central to poetry: Adrienne Rich says poetry does not rest on ‘the given:’ it wants to move away from ‘the found place, the sanctuary.’ Metaphor helps, it is the restlessness of a poem: new metaphors, new ways of seeing, open ‘magic casements on the foam/ Of perilous seas.‘ Poetry is movement, measured in ‘feet’ because it is always moving forward, so ask yourself if any words are holding up the line.
N is for new ways of looking. At a blackbird, a wheelbarrow, plums in the fridge. A good poem won’t change the world, but might shift the reader’s way of seeing it a little by, making strange, swivelling the perspective. Hardy’s ‘Fallow Deer at The Lonely House,’ turns the speaker (and by implication the reader) into the object of something else’s gaze. Terrance Hayes’ ‘American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin’ puns on ‘Jim Crow’ to shift the white reader’s unconscious assumptions about race and poetic tradition. ‘I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame. / I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat / Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone. / .. I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow / You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night / In the shadows of the gym… I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.’
O is for staying open, letting a poem come to you. It may hit like a typhoon or creep up while you are almost asleep, but wherever you are, however inconvenient, be ready to receive it and write it down. Beethoven got up in the night to write a musical idea in his notebook. Drop everything to attend to it. Nurture your capacity to be open, see unexpected likenesses and relationships: another habit to add to the habit of noticing. The order of words is crucial: in a different order they generate different harmonies and implications. W S Graham is brilliant on this: ‘The meaning of a word in a poem is never more than its position.’ ‘A word is exciting because of its surroundings.’
P is for printing. Print a draft of your poem, you will feel differently and more objectively about it than you did on screen, more able to cut, re-draft, revise, re-shape. P is also for pattern. We are programmed to look for meaning inpattern (another reason order is important) and metre is the regular pattern of strong and weak stress. Persona originally meant ‘mask’: the collection which opened up modern poetry, Pound’s Personae, 1909, engaging with traditional lyrical forms alongside radically new ones, introduced the idea we now take for granted: that the ‘I’ of the poem is not the voice of the author but a persona, a fictional speaker confected within and by the poem. Once you have a draft, ask yourself who is speaking, what are they up to, what is their relation to what the poem is saying?
Question every word. Is it pulling its weight? Wouldn’t your poem work better without it?
R is for reading. Read new, read old. Read carnivorously, read generously. Read to read better. Your own readers complete the poem. ‘The poem is not a handing-out of the same packet to everyone, not a thrown-down heap of words for us to choose the bonniest. The poem is the replying chord to the reader,’ says W S Graham. Readers bring their own thoughts and feelings to the poem, To paraphrase a poem of Graham’s, your words, in the order you chose, go out into a silence you know nothing about. R is also for rhythm. Be aware what yours is doing, vary it, pace it, listen to it. Is it too even, does it force a particular feeling? Rhyme (see vowel) is a musical mechanism for suggesting meaning in a relationship between two words, via their sounds. It is like white for a painter, always present and possible (even though not at the end of a line), so you have to control how you use and avoid it. You can build a poem from internal rhymes, or balance a rhyme over two lines like a see-saw. Register, though, is cultural rather than musical, and sends messages about who is talking, and why. It is part of social exchange: readers will react differently to different registers. In music, register refers to a rank of pipes on the organ and the pitch-range of an instrument or voice. In poetry, register helps to create a poem’s voice. Good poems manipulate registers – and through them readers’ feelings – as organists manipulate organ stops. Your words may be colloquial, intimate, formal, gentle, playful, all in the same poem: how you shift registeris a crucial aspect of your voice. Avoid rhetoric. (See message, and aloud). Rhetoric goes down well with some audiences, but on the page can look like tinsel in daylight, flaccid and willed. We make rhetoric out of our quarrels with others, said Yeats, but what you want to make is poetry. (Which we make, Yeats said, out of the quarrel with ourselves.) Good political poems don’t try to persuade: they hint or reveal, like C. K. Williams’ ‘Tar’. Revelation comes through the poem. You are not revealing, don’t think of yourself as a magician who already knows what’s behind the curtain: let the poem do it. If discovery is happening as you write, the poem will find its own way to reveal. Revise your poem, and keep revising: see draft. As for rules: they are all made to be broken, so whatever this alphabet says, there will be moments when there is good reason to ignore it.
Silence is the musical equivalent of white space on the page. A poem is a musical performance: playing music, you have to place carefully not only every note but every pause. Same in a poem. S is also for scalpel, your cutting instrument. (See knife, but I prefer the medical connotations of trying to make a poem better.) S is also for scrapping the scaffolding. The Egyptians made pyramids, apparently, by piling earth around the base, heaping up more steps as the pyramid rose, then hosing the earthy scaffolding away. Scrap the processes of thinking was, the research, associations, memories and details that helped you write the poem: leave just the thing itself. Writing a poem is the opposite of maths: don’t show your working. Charles Olsen’s essay on ‘Projective verse’ called the syllable ‘the king and pin of versification, which holds together the lines, the larger forms’. Count your syllables, know what they are doing. They are your poem’s smallest particles and their relationships make words feel good together. ‘The syllable, that fine creature,’ says Olsen, ‘leads the harmony on.’ Both in writing a poem, and reading it aloud, be aware of long and short syllables. Long ones slow a line, short ones make it choppy. These may be effects you want, but you have to be aware and in charge. Use the natural stress on particular syllables; the arrangement of stress is the foundation of rhythm. Finally, if you use stanzas, remember the word meant a ‘room’ in a house: respect the integrity, the scope and feel, of each room. If you spill the sentence over into another stanza, make sure you have a reason and have not simply failed to compress a thought into the stanza before.
T is for tradition, which means ‘handing on’. Alice Oswald speaks of ‘two poetries’ in the English language, and how the American one is determined to escape its tradition. But escaping tradition can be traditional too: breaking from tradition is a way of continuing it. T is also for true. Not to what exists, or what really happened, but to your own imagination. The poem won’t work if if you are faking; if you are not true to something in yourself. Tone, is a taut holding together of different elements, all in play together (Muses in their dance, letters in a syllable, sounds in a poem), and combines many things: the quality of your sound, a modulation of voice which expresses or hints at a feeling or social attitude. As for telling not showing, see reader: the mantra is over-done but as Keats said, no one likes a man who keeps trying to put his hand in your pocket. Readers back off from a poem that keeps telling them what to feel.
U is for universal (see abstract). Poetry is about big things but these are usually best approached through the small, particular and local. The unconscious is your engine-room. Keep feeding it, attend to it, give it interesting fuel to think about, open yourself to memory, keep up your habit of noticing and draw on all the unknowing in your depths.
V is for voice. Each poem has its own; your voice will grow poem by poem: don’t worry about it, just listen and make sure it is yours, true to you. Verbs are the energy of a poem (unless you put them in the passive): breaking the line on one gives it forward impetus, carries you into the next. The last word in a line is position of maximum stress. If you read She threw / the cat into the bushes as poetry, breaking on threw, you’d leave a tiny pause to mark the line-break. A momentary suspense: what did she throw? A cat? If you break after cat, all you want to hear is where she threw it. But you need to vary the way you use everything, from line-break to metaphor. Vowels are the nucleus of the syllable, the basis of rhyme, the movement and the emotion of your poem. Vowel comes from vocalis, Latin for ‘speaking’. You use breath to say a vowel. The vocal tract is open, no closure of throat or lips. Consonants block the air-flow: you can’t sing them (except l and r): they define syllables but don’t move them forward. Vowels are individual: they are your own breath, they shape your spoken accent and make your poem cohere.
W is for words: treat them carefully. ‘Love the words the single words that have a heart and a world in them which beats and changes to a new rhythm in every new position of context’, says Graham. Poetry can witness to pain and brutality: Haye’s ‘American Sonnet’ does it brilliantly. So does what the first holocaust poem, Milosz’s ‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,’ witnessing to the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto through images and a clever use of title. If you want to write about the suffering of others, pain you did not see or experience, you need to position the poem’s speaker carefully and honestly in a true, original way. In ‘For a Sister,’ Adrienne Rich is clear where she is and what she is doing: imagining the arrest of a dissident. ‘Little by little out of the blurred conjectures / your face clears, a sunken marble / slowly cranked up from underwater.’ In Story of a White Cup, the way Roger Mitchell positions the speaker (‘I am not sure why I want to tell it, / since the cup was not mine, and I was not there, / and it may not have been white, after all. / When I tell it, though, it is white’) opens a new way of looking at a well-known scene.
X is one way of notating an unstressed syllable (see stress). The stressed syllable is marked by a slash: in the first line here, that’s prin, pal, sun, gor, hold. The more you are aware of the stresses, number and lengths of your syllables (and therefore beats in a line) the more you know about how your words are behaving, and what you can do with them.
× / × / × / × / × / × / × /
The prince | ly pal | ace of the sun stood gor | geous to | behold.
× / × / × / × / × / × / × /
On stately pillars builded high of yellow burnished gold.
You are your line-breaks. Can’t be said too often. And better not to eat yoghurt before you read. Even milk in tea creates mucus; woodwind players avoid it before a concert, and it may fur your speaking voice.
Z is for that zooming in on specific detail (rather than abstracts), which makes a poem vivid and reminds us of the complex relationship between poetry and film. Also, finally, for zest. The first meaning of zest was citrus peel used as flavouring. Out of this grew the sense of zest as keen enjoyment. Lemon rind is also the essence of lemon flavour, and what seems like the outside of a poem, the form, is also its essence and zest: which give delight.
Ruth Padel has published twelve poetry collections. Her new one, Beethoven Variations, contains poems on the composer’s life and music which draw on her childhood playing viola, and more recently five years’ work with the Endellion String Quartet. The poems are followed by a prose Coda, a mini-bio which acts as echo chamber to the poems. She is Professor of Poetry at King’s College London and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; the first money she earned was £5 playing viola in Westminster Abbey.