How I Write Poetry, (sent to some of my students during October 2014).

Dear Poets,

I realise I’ve been remiss in speaking about exactly how I approach a poem, and the trajectory of my own poetic writing experience since I began trying to finish poems when I was in my mid-twenties. I could quote indefinitely from various other writers about how this is done, from Mary Oliver to Ted Hughes, to Czeslaw Milosz etc., but it’s time I laid my cards on the table and spoke to you about how I proceed. It may – or may not – be helpful.

I began when I was very young, by which the discovery and realisation struck me when I was 9, that hooray – this was something I could try for myself. And so I wrote a rhyming verse of four lines, which my mother insisted I send to a British publisher (Paul Hamlyn of Octopus Books [that publisher no longer exists I think]). As it happened, I struck gold, not because he published my four-liner which had rhymes like ‘mouse’ and ‘house’, but because he wrote back and said how much he enjoyed my poem. He was kind enough to tell me he did not have a niche right then for my work (I had to look up ‘niche’ in a dictionary), but that I should continue to write my poetry. So, two good experiences while young – a validating Mama and a validating Brit publisher, both of them making me feel this was something I should be doing. At least, that’s now I interpreted it, which says something about my disposition as much as it does about them.

The Psychology:
A poet’s disposition may be relevant. There is certainly, in my mind, a disposition that’s needed if you are intent on being a published poet. Apart from all the usual things such as a brass neck, tenacity, drive, ambition and so on, there is something more important and subtle, and I believe that it’s called, simply, feeling. You may argue that most people experience feeling, but how they experience it varies from the hyper-sensitive to the psychotic, and indeed to the remorseless kind of inverted feeling particular to the socio/psychopath. A poet is, in my mind, a few layers of skin short, right from the outset. A poet is, somewhere in their being, very raw and sensitive and tender. Of course as adults we expend quite a lot of energy in concealing this absence of thick-skinnedness, and conduct ourselves as if we were entirely au fait and at ease with the regular, jocular, ‘positive’, dynamic, ‘pro-active’ ways of the world.

Not so.  What you are called on to do in your vocation as poet (yes, it IS vocational), is to pretend in your daily life that the world of utilitarian affairs and pragmatic business and rational thinking – all of which is entirely necessary to our evolution and survival – may be equally important, or even more important than what you are trying to do as writers. This is the central mendacity of the social experiment as it has developed. As poets, you have, fortunately, the choice of turning away from the traffic-light system of thinking that permits only the cerebral and rational free flow in daily discourse. As poets, you discover that through your practice there is another dimension of being in which the dammed-up imagination is waiting to be waited through by the secret policewoman. Call her your Muse, your spirit guide, your relaxed mind, your ‘mindful’ self – whatever. That force lies within you and is only too ready to be waved through the traffic-lights so that the imagination gets to run on green.

You know already the enemies of poetic and artistic promise (See Cyril Connolly’s excellent work “Enemies of Promise” if you want to really get into this): they include:

a) too much talk (about poetry and writing without actually doing it), and includes too much energetic talk about anything, from politics to family issues;

b) ‘the pram in the hall’ – probably not too relevant to most of you, but nonetheless it does encompass family commitments, and very selfish writers, as you know, have  historically just walked away from the commitments. Whereas I don’t recommend this I do think it’s worth being aware of, which you probably are.

c) And the third enemy of promise is, of all things, journalism. For your purposes this probably means spending too much time explaining things on Facebook, or to friends, or writing things which have nothing to do with poetry. For example, the essays you are required to write this semester can be just the very thing that breaks up poetic concentration!

The Practice (1):
How you write your poetry depends on many things including your day-jobs and your family committments, your love affairs, should you be having those, your time schedule, your health and a multitude of nuanced aspects of your life. As all of these have impinged on my life at some point, I have had to write around them. This, I believe, would be a particularly female approach. In my experience in Irish traditional culture – although things have changed now – when I was an apprentice poet, the guys went to the pub (that included the poets) and did their talking and networking there, sometimes ignored their family life and then went home and just got on with the writing. This is not my impression of how it works now, as the men in Ireland have definitely evolved in terms of sharing their time and space with a women. However, when I was younger, it was quite clear that, although my practice was to work in my study and write poems, the social dimension was very important. As long as I did not bear fruit and bring forth a child(!) this worked very well. It was a different matter when I had my daughter, and although I was well supported in every way and manner, it was simply different.

But the family dimension is a natural and necessary one, and it’s up to us as artists to just get on with it and not theorise too much on the injustices of the past. So – how do you write?

PLACE: I assume you all have found someplace in which it is comfortable for you to write. The ‘room of her own’ trope has been overdone. Some writers can write anywhere. There is no right or wrong place. You can take notes easily in any cafe and return to them whenever you can and see if there’s a poem in what you noted down. The notebook on the go is a good and valuable object to have to hand. There is a place in your head too which is always occupy-able, and what happens when you’re not actively writing – if you’re thinking of poetry and ideas – is very valuable once you become conscious of the fact that there is this continuous ‘creative newsfeed’.

My process goes something like this. The way a poem begins is akin to the start of a head cold (at times); or sometimes it’s like entering a deep and very peaceful passageway that I simply must enter; yet again, it can be that moment of sheer, fizzing excitement in which I can’t go to bed for fear I’ll lose the idea. Of course it’s not always an idea that sets me off. As I said at the beginning of this piece, the question of feeling is really the guiding principle behind all poetry. It is the guiding principle behind musical composition, or dance, or painting. The words, the musical notes, the steps or the paint are merely our tools, but without the feeling, nothing else happens. It’s a strange thing to live one of the most important aspects of your life dependant on feeling emerging, on being guided in a sometimes indistinct way towards language, just because you have the ‘feeling’. If we acknowledge that we are sentient, emotional creatures whose similarly emotional companions on this planet are dolphins, elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees, and if we hang on to this idea that it is the animal self that still lingers in the subconscious, sedated and tranquillised by the massive cerebrum with all its activities and important doings, and if we allow this self some space in our daily discourse, then I believe this can provide the necessary silence that makes poetry possible.
It’s not that you have to live a monastic life. Not in the least. Just because for me I experience poetry as a religious or spiritual experience (occasionally, I mean), doesn’t mean that it happens for me in an environment that is anything but ordinary and practical.

I may or may not perform a mindfulness meditation in the morning. But I don’t do this in order to write better. I do it in order to quieten my mind. If my mind is in a quiet state and I have dealt with the traffic of irritations, must-dos, anxieties, plans, my very real physical aches and pains, schedules etc., and acknowledged them for twenty minutes, then I can emerge in a better and quieter mental state. I think this provides some inner freedom of movement.

The Practice (2):

When I begin, I usually construct a draft that follows a certain vague outline. I write, in other words, taking my chances. Usually it’s in a block to start with. There might be a few key words that seem essential to the poem, but often the words around the key words may be revised, removed, or developed in later drafts. I am rarely certain of the shape of the poem, nor am I certain initially of whether or not it will be in blank verse or whether I’ll do something with a little traditional metre beyond iambic pentameter. Most of my work is probably in blank verse, with some exceptions, such as the poem ‘New York Days’ in the selected poems ‘The Place of Miracles’ (2005), and a sonnet or two or three. I recommend that you keep your drafts somewhere safe. I mean, print them out if they’re in the laptop, and keep them archived. It’s interesting to see the evolution of a poem from draft 1 through to draft 16 or whatever it takes. For the record, most of my drafts go to about 12, sometimes less, sometimes more. I believe more is better than less, but better drafts emerge when you allow sufficient time between them. A period of two weeks is good, for example. You will return more dispassionately to your text and see it for what it is.

You will already have discovered the techniques that give you pleasure to write. It’s important to feel pleasure and satisfaction with what you are doing, and this doesn’t mean you are being self-indulgent, but instead that you may be allowing the flow of the deeper, darker, labyrinthine self to gather pace. Your aim – our aim – as poets is to enter that labyrinth and be guided by your muse. I mentioned feeling as a key principle in art earlier in this piece. The other key is that you are going down very deep and retrieving the essences and truths of your experience and of the world’s experience. When this happens successfully, the effect may be a feeling of transcending the moment, of transcending time itself, of transcending all the multiple acts and duties that are hard-wired into our days. How wonderful that is if and when it happens! It’s like love, so my advice is: never turn away from transcendence because it usually means you are doing something right.

The Practice (3):

There is so much drivel written about how to write, and so much phoney talk about it, and so much posturing too about the question of being an artist. But you all know that artists mostly wash dishes, have showers, sometimes like to be tidy, sometimes deal with skin problems, sometimes have little or large addictions, sometimes are not particularly nice. In other words they are just human. Do not listen to all the cant (Ulster-Irish word for nonsense and lack of authenticity) you will hear about poetic practice, because in general a lot of it teaches us little except how to be anxious about what we are writing and where we stand in the Position Game. Forget the Position and Awards Game. Yes, we all welcome acknowledgement but mostly the majority of us don’t get very much of this, so it’s not very nourishing to be hoping to win prizes and then disappointed if you don’t. I’m not saying you should not enter competitions – you should, obviously, and I’ve always felt great when I’ve won anything – but I’m saying that competition anxiety is just that. Anxiety. You can do without it. There are several competition winners and shortlists whose names I have seen come up again and again in British or Irish competitions. This doesn’t translate to their work being read more widely and the majority of people have no clue who they are.

It’s a question of perspective too. I remember once travelling on the train to Sligo and as it was very crowded, I stood between carriages and got talking to this younger man. We got into conversation. He was an electrician. When he asked me what I did I said I was a writer. It came out that I’d published (at the time) three collections of poetry and two novels or something like that. “Well,” he smiled, with a thoughtful nod of his head, “God loves a trier . . .” All this did was put the writing life in context for me. As the conversation rambled on, I mentioned the name Seamus Heaney. “Who’s Seamus Heaney?” he enquired innocently. Again, that was a salutary lesson.

As writers we live in very small worlds. Sometimes we imagine they are greater than other worlds. At least, I do! I mean I believe that art is more important than anything, I truly do, and that the pursuit of art cleanses the spirit, improves the mind, and helps us integrate ourselves in some way on this planet of ours as we pass through it. But that’s not why I pursue ‘art’. I’m not a ‘Messiah’ poet!  I do it because it gives me some satisfaction, and because in the small world of written art, it is highly satisfying to connect with others in the same avenue of thinking, and very very satisfying if people buy the books occasionally. But it’s an illusion to think that our world is greater than the other worlds in which people pass the time on planet earth. It seems so to us of course. But it is presumptuous also.

The only way to proceed as a poet, therefore, is to carry on redrafting, carry on reading, do stay in touch with other writers but definitely nourish friendship with non-writers. Be careful with whom you share work. Be prepared for a little envy: at your chutzpah, your ambition, your self-containment, your determination. Envy is tolerable in people you don’t know so well. If it rears its head intrusively in friendship, either clear the air or give the person a wide berth.

I feel as if I still haven’t told you how I write. It’s very hard to explain, but the thing about having this strange feeling in advance is the closest I can come to it. And the absolute certainty that I should pursue the feeing is the next thing of importance. Someone who doesn’t seriously want to write will not in the end, pursue the funny feeling, but will go off and catch up with “Breaking Bad” or “The Good Wife”, or tell themselves they’ll do it next week.

They won’t, you know. We have one life and one chance at this purification game, as we distil everything through our senses and intelligence and imagination. It’s not that we are impure to begin with, but that the physical self is always draining away – slowly but surely, imperceptibly – while the life of the mind and imagination is building, building, all the moreso as our experience and intellect deepen during the course of life. This is what you have to pursue and remember. This is what you have to capture in just the right word, just the right phrase/sentence/stanza, avoiding the chattering fashionable styles and lines, the smart-ass tokenism that sometimes passes for poetry. Keep reading the greats: Ginsberg (yes, in his way); Rich, Hecht, Olds and Oliver (as per your taste!), Frank O’Hara, Louis McNeice (someone I forgot to recommend – do look up his Autumn Journals for a thoroughly modern take on life in the 1930s, read his poem ‘Snow’ also), Derek Mahon, Auden, and the many American poets in the ‘canon’ and out of it.

I hope this helps as you keep writing on . . .


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