Monday, September 18, 2006

Survival of the Fittest

I was working on a poem yesterday evening. It seemed a poem with potential, one I had written more or less at one go, that had a kind of rough spontaneity, but which certainly needed more work.

Like most of my poems, it ended before reaching the end of an A4 page. But it was rather dense. I'm not too keen on dense poems that weigh each line on metrical feet. They're too classical, not light enough.

This poem was particularly dense. it had no line breaks and seemed rather too prosaic. I'd written the first drafts several months ago and now they had cooled to an objective distance.

Some of the lines were very long which gave the poem a sort of galluping impetus - but I wondered if I should try and realise the sentence structure more - try and break out the stanzas.

A particular problem occurred in the middle of the poem where I was obliged to actually explain something about which the plot of the poem revolved. And everyone knows that poems shouldn't explain.

Another problem was that I had inserted a first person narrator, and since the poem described a terrible accident, this narrator had come to seem too intrusive, too knowing, The narrator had to go.

All of these problems with the poem had to be solved. But part of the pleasure of writing poetry is in identifying and solving problems such as these.

If problems can be identified, the solutions will often hugely improve the poem. This is why sometimes remaking the poem, creating more problems, can have a positive outcome.

It is possible to expand or contract a poem, like a glassblower creating a vase, each additional puff, each deft twist, adding something new and exciting to the structure.

We might call this: exercising the poem. Ideally it should be done when the poem is fresh, but unlike glass, the poem can be reactivated, so if we come back to it cold, it will not do so much harm.

Eventually, puzzling over the 'explanation' I had to insert, I found a way of saying what I wanted to say that was not so much an explanation, but more a hint of what might have happened.

And so I felt all the happier with my solution. And in adding stanzas, I managed to weed out some of the duller lines, and somewhere along the way, the narrator also disappeared into the background.

Now I'm much happier with the poem, but I think I'll leave it for a month or two more before reading it through again. Then it will strike me afresh and I'll work with it some more, make it tougher, more likely to survive.


Patry Francis said...

I usually go through the same thing. In the new blush of finishing a poem, I can't see its flaws. A couple months in the draw works wonders.

Anonymous said...

Great to read about the mind of a poet in action. So analytical - good read in itself. I suppose I revisit prose in the same way too - even with my blog posts - as soon as it is up there I seem to see something that needs to be obvious all of a sudden - so why wasn't it before?

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks for your comments. While a poem can be reworked, it's also important to know when to stop reworking a poem. The point when, if you change it again, you will ruin it. I've written about this before in relation to Stephen Spender's poetry.