Saturday, May 12, 2007

How Are Verses Made?

Since NaPoWriMo ended, I haven’t written a single new line of poetry. That isn’t worrying though. Thirty in the previous month is way enough, probably too much.

But I have been revising the NaPoWriMo poems. Already, twenty-three of the poems have undergone some kind of revision process. In some cases, the revision has been a tweak here and there. In others, it’s been quite extensive. However, the tweaks are usually as important to the poem, if not more important, than the wide-ranging changes. The success, or failure, of a poem can hang on a single word or phrase.

Then yesterday evening, I was reading How are Verses Made? by early 20th century Russian poet, Vladimìr Mayakovsky (definitely not your average “how to” guide!). He describes how he composed poems while walking through the city, waving his arms and mumbling wordlessly in time with his steps, which would increase and decrease in speed. Eventually, he would have a rhythm for the poem, and then:

Gradually you ease individual words free of this dull roar.

Several words just jump away and never come back, others hold on, wriggle and squirm a dozen times over, until you can’t imagine
how any word will ever stay in its place (this sensation, developing with experience, is called talent). More often than not, the most important word emerges first: the word that most completely conveys the meaning of the poem, or the word that underpins the rhyme. The other words come forward and take up dependent positions in relation to the most important word.

When the fundamentals are already there, one has a sudden sensation that the rhythm is strained: there’s some little syllable or sound missing. You begin to shape all the words anew, and the work drives you to distraction. It’s like having a tooth crowned. A hundred times (or so it seems) the dentist tries a crown on the tooth, and it’s the wrong size; but at last, after a hundred attempts, he presses one down, and it fits. The analogy is all the more appropriate in my case, because when at last the crown fits, I (quite literally) have tears in my eyes, from pain and relief.

Well, I rarely have tears in my eyes from writing poetry. Perhaps my poetry would be better if I did, I don’t know. But two things are interesting to me here:

First, the walk: often when I’m stuck, I walk around, preferably outside, and very often a word or phrase or line that has eluded me for days will pop into my head. I don’t know how that happens.

Secondly, his insistence that “talent” is a sensation that develops with experience: I’m sure there’s something to that as well. He talks later of a “jolt” that’s needed to set the rhythm going – that’s his moment of “inspiration”, I suppose, but that’s where inspiration begins and ends, and then the hard work takes over.


James said...

Rob, I tried what you said, and got this:

Very interesting idea.

Rob said...

Yes, interesting to write using different methods from normal. I have a feeling that for Mayakovsky, his method was less a method and more a way of being. But maybe that's just how he makes it sound.

NJP said...

Have a look at my blog and read the piece: 'Beginnings'. The translator of 'How Are Verses Made?', George Hyde is also the translator of Pro Eto, which is an astonishing read.