Saturday, January 28, 2006

How (not) to Write a Poem: Part 2

I’ll start off from where the last post finished. The second draft wasn’t much good. Partly it’s these phrases “high on the scent of wildness”, “drunk on the sensation”, “But for the grace of God go I”; the first two are awful: vague and unconvincing, and the third is a cliché. I had the idea that I might redeem the cliché through the irony of his approaching death, but it doesn’t work.

As well as that, I didn’t tackle the problem of the ending. The first 3 strophes concerned a weird personality, but the surreal nature of the fourth strophe can’t work. The giant tangerine is too ridiculous. The idea that the tangerine should burst and drown the factory-floor workers has the virtue of being imaginative, but there are two problems with it.

First, the surrealism of that image isn’t really prefigured in the rest of the poem. The guy is odd, but there’s no sense of things being anything other than what they seem. The idea that he really is, or becomes in some way, a tangerine, with real juice, couldn’t work unless the poem had earlier hinted at such an unreal world.

Second, there’s no obvious motive for him to want to take out everyone in the factory. True, he hates his job and signifies this by spitting in the cans. But to kill himself and everyone else strains credibility. The earlier images don’t paint a picture of a tortured man about to kill himself and others, but of a colourful, flawed human being with an odd view of the world.

I shelved the poem for a while, maybe close to a year. I couldn’t find any way forward. Then one night I got a new idea, a new conclusion. I’d been reading about the death of Myra Hindley, who had helped to kill several children on the Manchester Moors in the 1960s with Ian Brady. She had been cremated, with almost no one in attendance, but the media frenzy ensured that her life and death would continue to attract great attention. The image of the smoke rising above the crematorium into the Manchester atmosphere provided me with the way to end this poem.

I also decided I’d have to make more of the fruit cocktail, so that everything the character does would revolve around this love/hate relationship with fruit.

And I lengthened the lines, thinking to speed up the narrative, make it more cinematic, and I added the third strophe detailing his movements up until the fatal jump. I gave him a one-line speech too, an attempt to make sense of his suicide. And I introduced a withered apple tree (in contrast to the apple cart of S1) and a wish to be buried in as weird a place as he occupied in life. But he doesn’t get his wish. That seemed fitting too.
So here’s the third draft:


He rode an apple cart to work though his onion-strung bicycle
would have done. He liked to lie out on the strawberry patch
by the landfill site to count pigeons in the haze and get high
on the scent of wildness. He filled cans in the fruit cocktail factory,
extracted each cherry before sealing. And when I think about it,
that night in the pub - when he aimed his white rum and lime
at the moose head with the bottle-cork eyes and plastic antlers
and swore he’d shot it clean through the nose
first time round – that night was typical of the man.

We stalked him for a fortnight. He sucked
a pear drop he’d stuck, half-eaten, to the dashboard,
twelve hours before; he picked up a tramp, dumped him
blindfolded under a date palm on a roundabout
island in a far-flung corner of the city; sent him into orbit.

Given to exaggerated gestures, he strutted along
the factory balcony, peach skin between his teeth
that glinted like carving knives caught in the spotlight.
He spat. Pomegranate pips peppered uncovered heads,
and seconds later, the scrubbed concrete of the shop floor
met his quickening silhouette sixty-eight feet down.

His last words –
a glorious death is bolder than life
, or some similar gripe. His last request –
a burial in the radiated strip by the power plant,
where the apple tree withers and neon-bright rodents
gnaw on roots grown soft as old carrots.
Instead, too mean to buy a stone, we cast his ashes
to the wind. Now, with every breath, a part of him slips in.

I workshopped this version at PFFA’s High Critique forum, and I got some excellent feedback from Jee Leong Koh and Paula Grenside – only two critiques, but two useful crits are much better than ten slapdash ones.

There are still problems with this version, but it’s significantly stronger than before. However, not all the details in the first couple of strophes seem necessary, and the carving knife simile in S3 has two problems. The introduction of carving knives doesn’t make any sense. Why carving knives? And it’s not true. Teeth don’t glint. Except in horror movies or toothpaste adverts / commercials.

One more thing - I was hanging onto some of the images - the tramp orbiting the roundabout, the moosehead in the pub - because I liked them as images and didn't want to give them up. I'd like to think I'd be more merciless with myself these days and would scratch them out immediately for the good of the poem. Whether I have become more merciless or not, I don't know. The images do eventually disappear, but not in the next draft.

End of part 2…


Anonymous said...

Well Rob at least I now recognise it for definite as “The Man Who Filled ...”. I was pretty sure after the second draft as I couldn’t see much else in “The Clown” that it could be.

This (and the previous post) is all fascinating stuff. I’ve often wondered how other people struggle through, and I’m glad to see I’m not alone with difficulty. Still, if this is representative of the rigmarole you usually go through with every “finished” poem then I’d say that you compose quite differently to me. In essence you seem to get a “completed” draft down on paper quite early in the process. It may be utterly crap and bear little, if any, resemblance to the final version, but it IS a poem. Furthermore new drafts follow the first and each has the potential it seems to be VERY different from the preceding ones. This indicates that you have the capability to ditch large chunks of a poem, clinging onto maybe only one or two ideas or images, and then effectively rewrite.

I, by contrast , don’t seem to be easily able to do this. In fact reading your analysis has made me really think about what I DO do, and I’m rapidly concluding that I am limited and rigid in my approach, and, more alarmingly, this may lead to limited and rigid poems. My poems tend to spring form a specific event or observation, generally with metaphoric potential, which event or observation often forms the basis of some kind of conclusion. Accordingly, more often than not I have an ending (and frequently the precise wording), long before I have any clue as to how I’m going to get there. Similarly, sometimes the event or observation will trigger an opening line or two, and more rarely still I’ll think of a line apparently from a vacuum, which I’ll then try and build on. If the latter happens I’ve found I very rarely complete anything worthwhile for some reason.

My most “successful” poems, I think anyway, are those where I have a driving passion almost to “use” an idea. For instance, I was walking part of an upland footpath with my sister over Christmas and she suddenly announced that the stone flags we were treading were in fact re-cycled gravestones turned face down into the peat. I can’t get the various ideas that sprung from that comment out of my head - and I know I won’t get much peace from them till I’ve finished a poem.

I hardly ever rewrite poems to any great degree. My writing tends to develop either as a related but “unsorted” collection of phrases (if I am distracted by “real life”or else as a fairly structured sequence of sentences (if I manage to get a few hours in a single run). In either case though the phrases or sentences change little once I have written them (which is fairly labourious; an hour per noun is not uncommon). I may significantly reorder them or cut some completely, but I would never finish a draft and then go back and change large parts of it. I think this is why I rarely workshop poems. I seem to have an inertia when I “finish” a poem, which is probably a grave weakness, but which suggests to me that I would be unlikely to go to the trouble of incorporating workshop suggestions, and I don’t like wasting people’s time. Sheer laziness probably.

As to the rigidity, I am wondering now whether all my poems don’t tend towards a rather formulaic: “premise, argument, conclusion” format. I shall have to think about that.

Anyway I seem to have rabbited on about me - I shall follow the next installment with more fascination, and envy!

L'autre Rob

Messalina said...

What a fascinating contrast the two Rob approaches make! But then, your poetry styles are very different as well, aren't they?

I'm not entirely sure though that you really use different methods - I suspect that L'autre Rob just does more re-writing in his head than he puts on paper. I've been taking a look at my measly experience so far and find that I seem to be a mixture of the two - some poems I revise again and again on paper and some I only have 2 or 3 versions of, but I recall spending as much time and effort on them as the ones that made it to double figures.

Anonymous said...


If by "re-writing in his head" you mean "thinking an awful lot before writing anything down" you are probably right. I've been looking back at my notebooks and worksheets and find that each poem develops out of a mess of scrawled fragments, crossings out of usually one or two words and lots of re-ordering arrows. However I practically never seem to have written an entire poem and then revised large chunks of it, which was the main difference I was highlighting between Rob's approach and mine.


Rob Mackenzie said...

'My most “successful” poems, I think anyway, are those where I have a driving passion almost to “use” an idea.' - the other Rob.

I'm with you there. These poems always seem to work out better for me too.

It's been interesting to hear how other people go about writing. It's probably unsurprising that there are as many different approaches as there are styles of writing.