Some thoughts on poetry

[First published on 12 September 2019.]

How can you write a memorable poem? There are probably many ways. And since mastery of poetry can always improve further it would hardly be sensible even for a single person to follow a set of hard and fast methodological rules.

Nonetheless, to reach any level of mastery in a field you still need to organise your requirements in your mind. So I offer the following brief list of things you must have if you are to write a good poem:

● ideas
● feelings
● skill with lexical fields
● skill with tropes (in the traditional sense of that term), and
● an ear for music (sounds and structure).

The last three overlap and are craft skills.

But the first two? These are the most important, and they are not craft skills. Are you good with verbalising your ideas and feelings sufficiently strikingly and interestingly for your audience?

If not, and if you want to write poetry, then you must get good! Never mind the technical skills of handling lexical fields, echoes, metonymy, irony, assonance, repetition, and so on. Sure, you can learn these skills – but don’t you actually want to say something in your poetry, to put observations and emotions across that are worth conveying? Go and rustle yourself up some ideas and feelings first, ones that can in principle be conveyed in prose. Wanting to convey them not in prose but in poetry is great and you don’t have to justify or explain it, but you do need some ideas and feelings that are worth conveying in the first place.

If the answer is that you have already got loads of ideas and feelings that you’re quite good at verbalising, not in poems but in speech, or to yourself internally, perhaps as single observations that pack a lot of strength and depth, then go for it! What you must now do to convey them in poems is to master the three craft skills. That’s far easier than if you haven’t got many suitable ideas or feelings that are anywhere near verbalisation but you’re superb with these skills. If you’re satisfied being like that, then rather than writing poems you might consider concentrating on reviewing and criticising other people’s, which isn’t what this post is about.

David Cornwell, who writes as John Le Carré, writes a lot more words for a novel than he ends up using. He gets it all down, and then he sets about doing some large-scale pruning. I plan to use a similar but not identical approach to writing poems. Cornwell works out his plot first, as most novelists do. I won’t necessarily do that for a poem. Nor will I necessarily cut my first draft down by a quarter or a half. What I will do is get the ideas and feelings on to the page, without caring much about lexical fields or tropes or music, and once I’ve done that I will then improve the writing technically.

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