Dec 20 2023
THE PROCESS OF POETRY: Roger Caldwell browses an instructive selection of case studies in poetic composition compiled by Rosanna McGlone
The Process of Poetry Edited by Rosanna McGlone Fly on the Wall Press ISBN 9781915789143 162 pp £10.99
Poems do not write themselves – they need to be worked at before being allowed to see the light of day – and the path from first draft to finished poem may be a long and arduous one. But, even after re-working, on what basis is one entitled to consider a poem as finished? John McCullough, in Rosanna McGlone’s new book, quotes the French poet Paul Valéry: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”.
Some poets, one feels, abandon their poems a little too early before surrendering them to the reader. Others continue to work on them long after their initial publication. The late Anne Stevenson, continually trying to achieve a perfect match of music and sense, was one of this sort. W.H. Auden took this a stage further, recasting poems written in his youth to reflect what in his maturity he thought they should have said – and not always to the poem’s advantage.
In The Process of Poetry McGlone invites fifteen British poets to submit an initial or early draft of a poem along with the completed work in order to interrogate the process that led from the one to the other. Some of the motivation here is, or should be, obvious – one looks for arresting language, a sense of form, freedom from redundancies or clichés, an appropriate sense of rhythm, cogency, a sense that something of significance or surprising is being said. Beyond this, however, there is much disagreement amongst the poets, not least on the vexed question of the poet’s voice.
Who is speaking in the poem when it uses the first person? One might naively think that it is the poet himself or herself – and if so it is the poet’s duty, surely, to tell the truth. Thus Auden, for example, excised his earlier praise of “new styles of architecture” on the basis that he had never in fact admired new styles of architecture. Here Gillian Clarke is the fellow-literalist. She not only demands that “a poem must come out of your own experience” but that it must be true to that experience. “I don’t ever write fictions”, she sternly tells us. But although this might be a precept that accords well with Clarke’s own poetic practice, it is not one that can be generally applied. It would have banned Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, for example, given that at the time of writing Coleridge’s nearest approach to seafaring had been a crossing on the Chepstow ferry.
Most of the poets here feel the need to tamper with the empirical fcts in order to achieve a sense of poetic rightness – a rightness that life itself generally fails to deliver. (In the same way, an announcement that a film is “based on a true story” is no guarantee of cinematic excellence.) Or as Sean O’Brien puts is: “The fact that something is true doesn’t make it interesting”.
Thus when a poet speaks in the first person it is wiser to trust the poem rather than the speaker. Liz Lochhead tells us that “the ‘I’ in a poem of mine is quite unlikely to be autobiographical”. Similarly, John McCullough acknowledges that “there is always a slight difference between the speaker of the poem and the poet himself”. Rimbaud famously declared that in a poem “Je EST un autre”. Indeed, when starting to write a poem it may not be clear to the poet who the speaker is. In the poem presented here by Don Paterson (he discovered that he was writing “a dramatic monologue wrapped up in a sonnet”) Paterson found it necessary in the course of writing to “get the measure of the speaker” – and found in the event that he “didn’t really like him”.
This reminds us that a poem, initially at least, is not in the poet’s conscious control. As Caroline Bird puts it: “You never know where a poem is taking you. A poem about a paper-clip may take you to the death of your mother.” The process is an exploratory one. In the context of the visual arts Paul Klee talks of taking a line for a walk. You don’t know where you are going until you have got there – and sometimes not even then.
Some accounts of the writing of a poem here suggest a psychoanalytical model – one is often reminded of word association tests. For Don Paterson it is akin to “remembering something important that you’ve long forgotten”. For some poets it’s as if the poem, once begun, had a mind of its own. Jacob Sam-La Rose speaks of achieving a “balance between what I have to say and what the poem wants to say”. This is true, of course, of other sorts of writing – even, as I have found myself, of writing a philosophical essay. One writes to discover what one thinks, and sometimes, especially with poetry, you can’t quite believe or understand what you think even when it is written on the page.
The hard work comes in moving from inchoate beginnings to achieved poem: what Viriginia Woolf described as the “rapture” of inspiration is followed by the “torture” of editing. For this critical acumen is required – if the poet has never learned what in general distinguishes good poetry from bad he has no basis on which to assess his own poetry. Here the various poets give detailed reasons for the changes they have made in the interests, for example, of euphony, linguistic economy, or suggestive richness. Liz Lochhead, however, disarmingly admits that you can’t always say why you make a change – sometimes you just like it better one way rather than another!
How many drafts are needed before a poem is complete? Paterson tells us that for him it may take up to thirty drafts before the finished state is achieved. Pascale Petit eschews mere tinkering with texts in favour of something more radical: instead of re-editing you should start the poem afresh. (Indeed, in one case in this volume I could see no obvious connection between the first draft and the finished poem: it felt as if they belonged to completely different works.)
Hannah Lowe emphasizes the relation between poetry and music – to the extent of recommending time-signatures. She also admits to using a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus, and to agonizing over commas. John McCullough also writes in praise of punctuation, this time with an unfashionable predilection for the semi-colon. There is something refreshingly meticulous in this – a poem, after all, is something to be heard as well as read, and a precise notation is the best guide as to how it should be heard.
On the question of form, the poets are sharply divided. On the one side Pascale Petit likes free verse and is averse to anything “mathematical”. Liz Lochhead, by contrast, finds it harder to write in free verse than in a regular form, not least because the initial idea of the poem will often itself suggest a form, rhyme, or metre. George Szirtes finds that formal constraints paradoxically open up freedoms and possibilities – even constraints as seemingly confining as those offered by the villanelle.
A sense of form may emerge in the course of writing: a mere sequence of lines may, with a little nudging, evolve into a sonnet. (Similarly, the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, once recorded how, in the process of writing a piece of orchestral music, he found to his surprise, that it was turning into a symphony.) Form emerging from chaos is, of course, almost a definition of the creative process, and with the achievement of form comes a sense of discovery: if the poet is not surprised by his own poem its reader likewise is unlikely to be surprised.
McGlone’s selection of poets provides a range of (sometimes conflicting) accounts of the poetic process: a different selection would no doubt have resulted in different emphases and different recommendations. It is also worth remembering that the model is almost entirely that of the contemporary post-romantic lyric: for narrative poetry or comic verse or political satire, not to speak of such traditional poetic usages as spells and curses, other precepts may be required. Yet, if for the likes of a Milton there may be little here to learn, for the rest of us there is much to relish and ponder on. The advice offered to would-be poets is also surely valid enough: not only to develop a thick skin but to read widely – and to read not only in contemporary poetry or, indeed, only in poetry. And poets who are really serious about what they doing might benefit from adding a dash of literary criticism.