All writing is difficult. Words only rarely flow onto the page. Just because it is hard, it doesn’t mean you stop doing it. It’s a way of telling the writers and the non-writers apart. Writers keep writing. Non-writers stop writing.
Poetry has a way of taking the BIG ISSUES in life and writing them in smaller, more accessible ways. The human brain baulks at big numbers. A nuclear explosion somewhere in Europe is written in pressure cooker terms.Poems might be intensely personal, the poet’s own experience, but they make a universal connection.
Very often a poem describes a physical object or something tangible or concrete, but often speaks about something abstract or spiritual. Shrek pointed out that onions have layers and so do people – but so do poems. They resonate on a multitude of layers.
Task 1 – Opening and closing lines are important in poems. (My first encounter with Dick Francis novels involved first lines. He used to do a brilliant job hooking me in as a reader. The first line was always compelling.) The first line does most of the work in a poem. It has to engage the reader. The last line of a poem is also important. It concludes the story, ties up all the knots and leads us back to the beginning.
Given a poem, minus the first line, we were tasked with supplying it. We had a title and the rest of the poem and looked for clues.
“Love Poem” by Louise Gluck
Your mother knits.
She turns out scarves in every shade of red.
They were for Christmas, and they kept you warm
while she married over and over, taking you
along. How could it work,
when all those years she stored her widowed heart
as though the dead come back.
No wonder you are the way you are,
afraid of blood, your women
like one brick wall after another.
I come from a household of knitters. I am not sure if my mum ever knitted scarves in endless shades of red. Many of the writers in the class picked up on a winter theme and cold weather and equated it with the mother’s apparent coldness. The knitting seemed to represent the mother’s non-participation in real life.
“There was always wool on the needle” was my opening line. Some people don’t like to be on their own. They want someone around regardless of how deep or shallow the relationship.
Someone else had come up with “Like Madam Defarge…” She pictured the women knitting while the guillotine did its messy business. I liked the image. I shall leave you, dear reader, to make your own stab at a first line before googling it to find the right answer.
John talked about the misconception people have about any kind of writing. Where you are the reader, you begin at the beginning and work your way through the middle to the end. The writer is like the parachutist dropping into the middle of something and working their way to a beginning and an end. You write, not according to intention, but according to the few words you start with. You begin with the words and, as you write, you discover what the poem is about. It’s possibly not the only way to write a poem – it’s not my way, but then is there ever a right way?
Andrew Motion, a past Poet Laureate was asked about how he deals with writer’s block. He didn’t really admit to having writer’s block but said he simply wrote. Much of it might be rubbish, but in the process of writing something would emerge.
Task 2 - Listen to a poem being read. Write down 10-15 words that strike a chord. Use some of these words in your own poem.
The poem was something to do with cartography and how to draw maps.
I found this to be hard. To be given the words that had to be included was a challenge. I probably wouldn’t have written the poem I wrote. I am choosing not to share it as, having listened to all the other poems sparked by a similar list, mine is definitely on a different planet. They used images and deep stuff and mine was silly in comparison. It was one of the many times in the evening I felt really out of my depth and in the wrong class – a foundation pupil in a Higher English class.
You can have my words though and see what you make with them:- choose, blue, remember, elect, recommend, symbol, paths, questions, shoes, deciding, lost, submerged and utterly. The poets among you have probably located the poem they came from in your mind.
John ended the class by reminding us that sometimes writing anything is not about the end product. It is the process we use to get there – the doing of it. He freed us to revise the poem, or not. As we revisit and revise the poem changes as we lose things and we find other things. Pick up any poetry book, indeed any book at all, and what you have is not a draft copy. You never get to see the first draft. By the time we read the poem in the book it is the finished product. We only ever see our own first drafts. It’s almost foolish to tell ourselves we will never be able to write good poetry like Carol Ann Duffy or Wilfred Owen. Their first drafts probably look just like ours and nothing like the end result.
I enjoyed the class. Although I might have felt out of my depth, no one made me feel that way. John’s responses to every shared line and whole poem, no matter how rough the draft, was encouraging. He took delight in everything and was impressed at how we all jumped into unfamiliar waters so enthusiastically.