This year the UK’s biggest poetry award, the TS Eliot prize, has gone to David Harsent for his 11th collection, Fire Songs. He joins a sequence of prestigious poets such as Ted Hughes, Derek Walcott and Carol Ann Duffy. You may not feel you have much on the crème de la crème of the poetry world, but writing a poem is less daunting than it may appear. Here’s why you should try writing a poem – and how.
We must acknowledge that poetry is fundamentally useless at the start. But humans have written and recited verse without reason since ancient times. So despite the superficial instrumentality of our culture, despite what economists might have you believe, the old Biblical pronouncement needs reaffirming: “Man does not live by bread alone”.
So why write poetry? For me, writing a poem is a form of emotional excreta; it’s something that at times of intense feeling I can’t help doing – it spills out, unrestrained. The craft of poetry, of course, is going back to that pavement pizza of pain, love, heartbreak, fury, desire, and reworking it into shape. You alter each line, replace words, manipulate the rhythm until you get a perfect balance and maximum power to the poem; but rework it so as not to lose that intense emotional kernel. Without this, the words, no matter how well-crafted, would be an empty shell.
But getting started can be difficult. There have been some innovative ways of encouraging people to write poetry – a video game that gets you to fill in the blanks from poems by Wordsworth and Shelley while running round virtual worlds is an interesting example of this. But for those who are after a more straightforward induction, here are some tips on how to get those emotions on to the page – coherently.
The shit filter
The first challenge for the writer is to (temporarily) discard what is vulgarly known in the trade as the “shit filter” – that disabling self-critical anxiety that tells us what we write is utterly worthless. We should remember that the writer’s primary task is to annihilate the empty page. Only once the page is full should we use the critical, analytical, judgemental part of the brain (apply the shit filter if you like) and begin crafting the rough clay into something beautiful.
It’s perhaps best not to start on this endeavour alone. Where possible bounce your attempts off others and read and comment on their work. Beyond this face-to-face interaction, it is helpful to create an online blog where you can publish your work and get feedback from other writers.
It’s often thought that some people and poetry don’t mix. I, for example, have colleagues who have taught groups of men, including prisoners, who think it’s weak and effeminate to write poetry. When I encounter such resistance I bring Gil Scott-Heron to my aid:
When I was a teenager, man, we didn’t want to hear nothin’ about poetry…
Then Scott-Heron goes on to tell how he came to find a revolutionary voice through using his own words, those of the street and the ghetto.
By the time I’ve shown these surly, suspicious young men Hegley performing My Glasses, Zephaniah reciting No Problem, Linton Kwesi Johnson singing Sonny’s Lettah and John Cooper Clarke reading Twat, you can’t hold them back. These are tough, powerful, clever, revolutionary and funny role models: writing poetry quickly becomes more gratifying than watching football.
There are many ways of getting going. Some exercises we use in creative writing classes will give you a much easier start. My colleague Alyson Morris begins with “found poetry” – taking newspaper articles and having students turn them into poems by reworking the spacing and lines. I use a similar process, though this self-generated by students, in which they write prose rants and then forge them into “angry poems”. Why not try this yourself?
Reading poetry helps, of course, as does studying the lyrics of your favourite songwriters. Cross the boundaries of time and genre from Shakespeare to Shelley to Duffy, from Bashō to Byron to Brecht, from Keats to Yeats to Plath, Neruda, Dylan, Tony Harrison, Joe Strummer and Lemn Sissay.
Don’t give up on your first attempt. In the words of Beckett:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better
With each redrafting your poem will improve.
One thing I do as a teacher is involve students in the wider community. We have the Coventry Words magazine in which students publish their poems. Have a look around for local magazines and creative writing groups in your area, or start a zine yourself.
I’ll end these reflections with an extract from Byron’s satirical poem Don Juan, as a counterpoint to my initial assertion that poetry is useless:
But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think…