Thursday, January 26, 2006

How (Not) to Write a Poem

This isn’t to be recommended. Write a poem my way and you’ll probably wonder why I bother.

I know poets who know their beginning, middle and end before they start writing. For them, it’s how they get it down that matters but they know exactly where they are going. That must be a great feeling.

I thought I’d examine the birth and generation of one of my poems, a piece I started a few years ago, known then as Given to Exaggerated Gestures. I don't know whether this will interest anyone other than me, but that's the nature of blogging - send out a post for anyone who wants to receive it.

When I start a poem, I hardly ever know where I’m going. I get an idea, an image, a thought, and I start writing at the first opportunity. Some times (usually) I only get a few lines. In the case of this poem, I got:

He drove a dump truck to work
though his onion-strung bicycle
would have done. He liked to lie out
by the landfill site to count pigeons
in the haze.

Once it begins to get difficult, I stop. I think about the poem when I’m not at my computer, and when/if an idea occurs to me, I start writing it again. I had a few lines about a clearly eccentric character, and I felt he was now dead, and I was reading Simon Armitage at the time, so it seemed natural to switch the action to a laddish pub. And so I did:

And thinking about it -
that night in the pub, when he slung
a dart at the moose head
with the eye-patch and plastic antlers
and swore he’d shot it through the nose
first time round
(despite being vegetarian),
was typical of the man.

At some point, I keep going to an end, even if the going gets difficult. I decided to introduce a mysterious “we” who follow the character around, a giant tangerine, and a factory workforce who appear to drown in the tangerine-juice. Where did that come from? Well, I don’t often know what the ending will be until I get there, but sometimes it comes to me in the process of writing. Here, I knew the ending the minute my imagination gave me the tangerine (the tangerine disappears in later drafts, as does the ending). So the first draft gets completed:

For the last fortnight we’ve dogged
his tracks, and today we clock
the suck on the half-eaten orange spangle
he stuck to the dashboard
twelve hours before,
and the quest for cones to flatten
or for a lost boy to boot out
at some far corner of the city,
and finding neither,
the parade through the factory
dressed as a giant tangerine on stilts,
only to topple fifty feet,
burst open on broken machinery,
and hail stones on uncovered heads
that strain like stalks above the juice level
rising fast from the shop floor.

At this point, if I think the poem is worth working further on, I might let other people see it, and take note of their comments. Or I might leave it for a few weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes. With this poem I workshopped it – not to rapturous applause. People hated the line in parenthesis about being vegetarian, and they hated most of S2, especially the cones, the lost boy, and the ridiculous tangerine. And they hated the ending.

I shelved it for a few weeks and decided that, with a reception like that, it had to be worth working on. I redrafted it but made it even worse. You want to see the second draft? I should warn you that six drafts of this poem that have survived, so this post has some time to go. I’ll finish off just now with the awful second draft that I didn’t let anyone see for reasons that will obvious. I didn’t need anyone else to tell me it wasn’t working:

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, spat in each one before sealing.

And when I think about it,
that night in the pub - when he slung
his gin and lemon at the moose head
with the eye-patch and plastic antlers
and swore he’d shot it through the nose
first time round -
was typical of the man.

We’ve stalked him for a fortnight.
Today he sucks a pear drop he’d stuck,
half-eaten, to the dashboard, twelve hours before;
drunk on the sensation,
he picks up a tramp and dumps him
blindfolded, under a date palm on a roundabout
island in a far-flung corner of the city.
But for the grace of God, go I,
he whispers, as the tramp begins his orbit.

And given to exaggerated gestures,
he polkas through the factory
dressed as a giant tangerine,
only to fling himself fifty feet down,
burst open on broken machinery,
and hail pips on uncovered heads
that strain like stalks above the juice level
rising fast from the shop floor.

Uuuurgh. Second drafts like this often seem to go backwards. More on this over the next few days. I promise you it does get better and I, at least, was happy by the time my sixth draft took shape, an almost unrecognisable poem that appears in The Clown of Natural Sorrow.


Greg said...

Fascinating stuff. I love to see how someone works at his/her poem. Someone should start meme on this idea. I really like that first stanza. Did you keep the spitting?

Cookala said...

Wow, this is great stuff, Rob! It fascinates me to be able to take a peek into another poet's mind to see how he goes about writing a poem. It surprises me to learn that you work this way - I thought it was just me!

The majority of my poems start as a few lines, then get put aside for awhile while I think about what I want the poem to say. It's like a fermentation period.

I don't think I've ever written a poem by first thinking about what form and what subject and what device I should use to carry it.
My initial response is to just get it out and down, similar to automatic writing, and then worry about the technical details and fine tuning after it's all down and ready for the first revision.

The only exception to this was when I was taking part in the Apprentice Challenge where I had an assignment to do in a certain time frame, and had rules to follow, or try to at least. That was extremely hard for me to do because I had to force myself to write in a way I was completely unacustomed to. That was tough work, and not at all fun. I dreaded every malicious challenge because I knew I'd be going through some major mind-sweat! And yet that experience made me grow as a poet in many different ways.

Anywho, to get back to the topic, when I'm ready and some time has passed (weeks ususally, but sometimes days) since I've looked at the poem, I go back and try to pickup where I left off and continue on until I either finish it or get stuck again. If I get stuck, I repeat the process of letting the poem lie, thinking on it, and then returning again with the hope to finish it.

But not always. Some poems do come to me entirely in the first sitting, as though the muse were whispering in my ear, but this happens much less frequently.

I don't always think about what I want to write before I write, either. Many times the poems just write themselves. Frequently, my poems start with just a few words or lines that keep repeating themselves in my head - usually while driving or walking in the arboretum, or at the beach.

If I can I'll write it down (or I'll forget) and then return to what I was doing and try to take the poem further in my head. If something comes, I stop and write it down again, and continue on. (I have had days when my usual 20 min drive to work took almost an hour because of all the stops I made. heh)

So, that's bascially how I write. I'm interested to see your next post, to see how the poem progressed. Thanks for starting this thread - it will be a good learning tool for me!


bobgirrl said...

Caught you on Jenee. Yep, you definitely need help.

bobgirrl said...

You're Scottish aren't you? I enjoy the brown liquors but I can't understand what you people are saying!

Rob Mackenzie said...

greg, cookie
Good to hear from you. Greg, the spitting disappeared, I think in the final draft. Interesting to read your approach, Cookie. I'll maybe post part 2 today or tomorrow.

I need help? Well, this morning I need an aspirin. I like Jenée's blog though.
And your tinned haggis is in the post.

Messalina said...

Hey Rob,

Sounds very familiar to my own process with any writing, which I liken to a large dog circling a too small basket many times before finding *just* the right spot to collapse.

Love "orange spangles". Enjoying the journey :o)

Bluesky_Liz said...

This is very interesting, Rob.

I often have an idea where I am going in the beginning, but often, after I finish the first draft, a different (and often clearer) objective appears on the page.

Recently, ('recently' because a year ago, prior to discovering a certain forum, I was the sort to post 'instant poems') for the poems that I've carefully worked on, none of them resemble their first or second drafts.

Paula said...

Hi Rob, how very interesting. Interesting to follow the writing process for you and realize how differen our approaches are. I usually have the whole poem ( as main idea) when I start writing. I mean I knwo what I'll start with and how it has to end roughly.

Sometimes the central body of the poem comes easily ( when I have the two extremes clear). While writing, though, a lot of things can happen, the poem can take an unexpected turn so that the end ( or the beginning) I had in mind no longer works. On such occasions a completely different poem can result. I can work on the poem for days and days afterward ( or weeks), but the first draft has to be written on the spot.

I have -first and last lines- that are still such because when I wrote down the lines I had not the complete poem vision.

I do like however how your poem in question resulted.

roxy said...

I like to write poetry more than reading or listening to it,but cool!!!!

Rob Mackenzie said...

Messalina, Liz, Paula - always good to hear from you, and a belated thanks for your comments here.

Roxy, thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed this post.

I hope you manage to find some good poetry to read. There is a lot of good stuff around, but finding it, especially if you’re not sure how to find it, isn’t so easy.
I’m interested to know what you don’t like about reading poetry, especially seeing as you enjoy writing it.