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How Poetry Gets Written

The pleasures and pains of composition

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

A lot has been made of the blank piece of paper, the sheet of foolscap lolling in the grip of the typewriter; the horror of it: the glass of whisky on a coaster, the stylus bobbing hypnotically at the dead end of the gramophone: click click click. The poet is gazing out of the window at the gathering clouds, waiting for inspiration to fill him, like magic; for the muse to slip seductively into the garden shed where he writes, and whisper a few words of inspiration to set him on his way.

Ted Hughes wrote about this mysterious process of creation in one of his early poems. In ‘The Thought-Fox’, the process is embodied in the imagined appearance, outside Hughes’ study window, of a fox slipping out of the dark woods and approaching the narrator through the snow. For snow, read: empty sheet of paper. For fox, read: the unconscious — for this is where it comes from, isn’t it? I certainly don’t believe it’s the muse, that old idea that creativity comes from the feminine. Such notions might have worked back in the day, when most poets were male, but it’s old hat now.

So how does a poem get started? Art has always utilised metaphor – it helps us to picture the way these mysterious processes shape our lives – and as it happens metaphor is also central to the language of poetry. So whether it’s a nocturnal animal, a mysterious lover, or the spirit of the drink that gets you going, I think it’s safe to say it’s usually a personification of the unconscious: un-biddable, mysterious and confounding. There are many ways of looking at this; Auden for instance said that writing a poem was like cleaning a piece of slate until the letters appear.

So: it’s past midnight, I’m half way through a bottle of wine, I have one line of poetry to go on, and nothing seems to click. I should call it a night, or maybe I could go out for a walk and see if that oils the cogs (another metaphor): but surprisingly this method is one that seems to work more often than not. I’m not sure what it is about walking that is so useful to the creative process. I guess it’s the repetitive nature of the act, the careful concentration of the conscious mind, that frees up access to the unconscious. A lot of writers also find they get inspiration from reading. And it’s nothing to do with mimicking what you read, or making ingenious connections between the images on the written page and those nebulous images floating about in your mind. I think it’s the same process you find at work when walking or shaving. While your consciousness is otherwise occupied, the unconscious has an opportunity to slip out and make its case.

Still, it’s a cold night, and the stove is warm. Maybe I’ll finish the wine after all. There’s always tomorrow.

So after a good or lucky week, hallelujah: I hold in my hands a piece of paper. It has printed upon it what could tenuously be called a poem: the fox has crept out of the woods. I take my poem to the pub with me on a Friday night, to study in the light of a different environment. I find it gives me the distance I need to view the poems with a cold, analytical eye. Alas, after a few pints, when I get them them out for a read, they seem ill-constructed and badly phrased. Something is surely wrong. Is it back to the drawing board already? Silly to think that a poem could arrive fully fledged. That very rarely happens. Mostly it comes through graft and more graft; spade work.

Too many young poets and creative writing students don’t seem to understand this part of the process. To them, what has been put down on paper, in a stream of consciousness, must be authentic. ‘This is what happened’, or ‘this is how it felt’, you hear them say. And: a poem isn’t a mathematical equation, or a table, they mumble — it should flow freely and unhindered from the pen. You have to disavow them of this notion because that’s exactly what it is; a poem is indeed like a piece of furniture. It has certain requirements which need to be met: like four legs of equal length. You need to earn the title of poet, in the same way as you earn the title of master carpenter. So it’s back to the study for a few more nights with these, I’m afraid.

There’s nothing mystical about this part of the process; it is all about hard work and experience, although it can be pretty tortuous, and you can easily get bogged down in it if you’re not determined. Some enjoy it, and some don’t. I like cutting and snipping, paring things back to the bone, or forcing the words into formal, measured lines. Sometimes the words fight back, or it feels that way; sometimes, very occasionally, they end up in the bin. Martin Amis in the Paris Review said that when he’s drafting a novel, hardly a page survives without being totally re-written: ‘You know that the very act of retyping will involve you in thirty or forty little improvements per page. If you don’t retype, you are denying that page those improvements.’

And then, off it goes, into the real world. Now we’ll see what it’s really made of. Oh, how you worry about it, languishing in the dusty offices of a modernist magazine in London somewhere, on a slush pile among many other, unworthy, amateur poems by wannabe poets, or lost among fifteen thousand other poems in the National Poetry Competition. An ignominious end awaits so many poems. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, your poem, conceived in a shed, in the dead of night, in difficult circumstances, while your loved ones slept soundly in their beds, will be lauded in the Sunday papers, and praised by the critics. Then it will all make sense.

But even after publication, which you’d hope would signify the end of the process, a poem can still come back to haunt you. Let’s not forget that William Wordsworth spent his entire life writing and rewriting his great, posthumously published, epic poem, The Prelude. When it finally appeared in print, the majority of scholars found his original version, written forty-five years previously, to be the best. D.H. Lawrence also rewrote poems later in his life, primarily his wonderful poem, ‘Ship of Death’. So perhaps you are never done with a poem, or maybe the poem is never done with you.

Neil Rollinson has published four collections of poetry. He is a past winner of the National Poetry Competition, and was recently awarded a Cholmondeley Award. His last collection Talking Dead was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Prize.

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