Monthly Archives: February 2014

A poetry blog tour

Tim Love alerted me to a poetry blog tour project. We have to answer 4 standard questions about our work. If you have a blog and write poetry and you’d like to join in, let me know and I’ll link to you.

What am I working on?

A kind-of humorous poem about a visit to King Lear.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I write formalist poetry, so my work usually rhymes and has a strong identifiable rhythm. Within that genre, I’d say I rely more on dark humour and less on lyricism than most. Lots of my poems tell stories or express ideas more directly than usual. I haven’t yet decided whether this is a strength I should defend or something I should try to train myself out of. More exercise of my lyrical muscles certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Why do I write what I write?

I’ve always loved poetry and writing and making people laugh. I wrote my first book of poetry aged ten, for a county primary school competition. It was undoubtedly awful doggerel, but maybe it had some laughs – it made me laugh anyway, as I recollect. Since then I’ve tried writing comedy, plays, and novels, but I’m not much good at any of those, so a few years ago I came back to poetry again. Having a sister who is a successful poet was undoubtedly an influence too.

How does your writing process work?

I usually start in pencil or in Word with an exploration in prose of what I want to say. I then organize it into a loose structure: since my poems are often narrative, order comes naturally. At this point I’ll think about whether that structure fits any particular form (Are there natural pivot-points that would fit a sonnet? Would separate paragraphs fall into stanzas? Would a refrain add anything?).

Then I look for phrases I particularly like and see whether they fall into some sort of metrical rhythm, usually either iambic or anapaestic, and whether any sort of phrase length dominates – usually 4 or 5 beats – to try to assign a tentative meter.

I extract lines that fit that pattern and arrange them on the page. Next I look for end words of those phrases which either rhyme already, could easily rhyme with a slight substitution or rearrangement, or which have good rhyming options. Generally I start at the end and work backwards: if I’m trying to be witty, I need to ensure a strong finish.

I don’t write every poem this way. Often I will know something is a sonnet before I’ve written a word, or a large chunk of stanza will come to me practically at once. But when I follow a method, this is probably it. 

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Size Matters

I mentioned some time ago that Derek Mahon’s poem was the only one in a recent Forward collection that I liked; so now I’m reading his Selected Works from 2006. I’ve been dipping into it slowly over weeks, mostly on bus journeys in this foul weather. Looking back through the Table of Contents I can’t spot a single one that I remember. I’m not sure if that’s a criticism of him, an admission of being very sleepy on the 7:55 to Addenbrooke’s, or a bit of both. I admire his facility with verse, but I find his poems too cerebral and samey. There are poems about classical literature, Camus, Beckett, other modern figures I’ve never heard of…and poems that I don’t know what they were about. Usually if I hadn’t figured out by the end of the second page, I gave up and moved on.

So what should poetry be about? I accept there’s a place for poems about existentialist playwrights (I have in fact seen lots of existentialist plays, some of which I even liked). But if my manifesto is to write poetry that is accessible and entertaining, then it probably needs to be about something else. So far I’ve felt pleased with myself when I can manage to squeeze out one individual poem about a personal experience or something I’ve observed in the world. But if I want to write a book of poems one day, then it would help to have a theme to explore.

I’m worried it will come back to my difficulty with novels, that I can write scenes fairly well but not a satisfying plot. If you have a good plot, then you can think up scenes to drive it forward. If you have a good theme, then you can find different angles to explore it from. I tend to have small ideas, not big ones. Come to think of it, this is probably my problem as a scientist as well. No one wants to give a research grant to someone who wants to make small incremental advances in knowledge. It’s just not sexy. Size matters.

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Abstract nouns

I read more Dick Davis this week: Devices and Desires, a collected work covering 1967-87. I’m very kindly inclined toward Mr Davis at the moment, because I think he was the judge who not only recently awarded my sister the Donald Justice book award but also named her a finalist in the Howard Nemerov sonnet competition. So he’s clearly a man of taste.                       

I liked the book of his from 2002 I read previously (Belonging), but I had trouble getting into his early work. I found it a bit too full of abstract nouns – Beauty Truth God Love…there’s nothing wrong with addressing such topics in poetry, but they need to be approached obliquely. You don’t storm the gates, you sneak around the back and climb over the fence.

His poetry seemed to become less overambitious and more subtle as the collection went along. And then I came across this stanza in the poem Making a Meal of It, probably written when he was about the age I am now: “No point in calling up / vast, empty words like Fate – / the table’s set, sit down / and eat what’s on your plate.” I laughed to see him echoing my own thoughts on his work. I wonder if he was coming round to my point of view?

 From a similar era, I also read Molly Peacock’s And Live Apart, from 1980. She’s another leading light of New Formalism, although most of this collection was free verse as far as I could tell. It seemed rooted more firmly in personal experiences – less elegant but more engaging. I’d read more by both authors.

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