Tuesday, 15 March 2016

How to Write Poetry

I’m currently the person in charge of running Wear Valley Writers. I’m not sure how this happened, and it may be simply because I’m the only person who is prepared to send out the mass emails necessary to inform members of who’s doing what when, and all that sort of stuff. Be that as it may, I’m not only in charge of the admin, I’ve come to be seen as some sort of poetry guru. This is mostly because I write the stuff, and even get it published, so fair enough – but I do sometimes feel a bit of a fraud. When I was at school, ‘creative writing’ as such didn’t really exist, but I do have an ‘O’ level in English Language, which was about as close as you could get, and because I did English Literature ‘A’ Level, I did get a thorough grounding in Milton (hated his stuff), as well as the Metaphysical Poets (loved them) and there must have been something more contemporary, but I’m damned if I can remember who it was, so it can’t have made much of an impression. This is the sum total of my ‘training’ in writing the poetry. However, many years later for various reasons I decided to have a go at versifying. Once you start, it’s hard to stop – or it was for me – so here I am, many flukish publications later, a bona fide expert in how to bluff your way as a poet. This is going to be useful, because the Wear Valley Writers have asked me to do a workshop on how to write poetry. This means I have roughly forty minutes to tell them absolutely everything about poetry, though at least they’ve narrowed it down a bit and have asked me to concentrate on how to handle metre. I suspect if you do creative writing at university level, you may well get a whole term on metre. I have forty minutes, and a group of people who are mostly hobby writers who prefer prose anyway. 


So how did this situation come about, because Bridport shortlistings and Pushcart Prize nominations, I still feel a bit of a fraud? I suppose I only have myself to blame. Some months ago I was browsing around, looking for possible markets, when I came across the Rattle ekphrastic challenge. This is a monthly competition run by the Rattle, an immensely important and respected literary journal – but they also know how to have fun, so they run this little contest, which is free to enter. They provide an image, and you use it as a prompt to write a poem. Simple enough. I tried several months running and got absolutely nowhere with it, but then they put out a call for submissions to provide the actual artwork. I had an ‘Aha!’ moment, and sent in some drawings and paintings, and they actually liked one of them – so my artwork will be the one that hopefully will inspire some super poems in a couple of months’ time. Not only do I get paid for having provided the picture, I also get to be one of the judges of the contest, because there are always two $25 prizes: one awarded by the magazine editor, and one by whoever did the artwork.

I told the writing group all about this, and they said, Ooh! We must enter! And I said, Yes! Do! And they said, So how do you write a poem? And I said. Oh. Hmm... And that was why they want me to do the workshop. I think I must have banged on about scansion and metre a fair bit in the past, and I’ve certainly suggested to those who attempt to write poetry in the group that if they’re dead set on doing end line rhymes, then they really HAVE to get to grips with metre, because without it you’ll end up with doggerel unless you’re very, very clever. 

As I say, it’s all my own fault. Working out how to teach metre in just forty minutes has been challenging, but I think I’ve done it. I’ve prepared handouts so that if I talk too quickly, as is my wont, at least they’ll have something to refer back to. I have given examples. I am going to concentrate on iambic pentameter and tetrameter because for a beginner I reckon they have to be the easiest to grasp. I’ve looked up examples. I’ve done all the stuff that my teachers should have done for me years ago, and maybe did, but I’ve forgotten. I don’t have a single poetry text book that tells you all this stuff, so thank God for Wikipedia.

Tomorrow is the day I deliver my amazing talk on how to write poetry. I know for a fact that some of the writers don’t know what a syllable is, and are pretty vague on parts of speech. They don’t know their alliteration from their assonance – and why should they? A few of them are decent novelists, so they consider they don’t actually need to know how to write poetry.

I think they’re wrong. I came to novels from poetry, and I think it’s made my prose much stronger as a result. Writing prose requires rhythm as much as writing poetry, though in a less formal manner – but surely it must be the case that if you know the poetic techniques, it will inform your prose? It has to make it better, whether you go for the deceptively simple rhythms of Hemingway, or the much more complex meter of someone like DH Lawrence. It should help us all, whatever we write. We do a lot of flash fiction in the group because there isn’t much time to do anything else, but a flash can be virtually a prose poem, and in fact if it’s going to be at all literary, then that is the direction it needs to go; it needs that concentrated rhythmic and sonic beauty that you expect as a matter of course in poetry; it needs that feel for the music.

I’m amazed I managed to get this far through this post without mentioning music, but of course that’s what underpins it all. Music!

I will now go back and dot some random pictures through this post, because blog posts always look better with pics, and perhaps anyone reading this would like to use one of my images to attempt an ekphrastic poem. I will absolutely NOT be posting the picture that the Rattle are going to use though – no head starts allowed. Have fun! And do pop along and look at the Rattle ekphrastic challenge. There are few enough free-to-enter poetry competitions these days that have that sort of prestige, so it’s well worth doing.

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