“Write freely and richly, notice the rhythm and the images that float around it, and walk with these first beginnings, since pace helps the poem to find itself and its own way.”
The start is a thought or image that flits by at absent-minded moments, like going downstairs or passing through a doorway, yet summons attention. First step to turn this over, savour it, probe its significance and associations, grow it in your mind. Write freely and richly, notice the rhythm and the images that float around it, and walk with these first beginnings, since pace helps the poem to find itself and its own way.
Read other poets on a daily basis and burrow in; I often stay with one for weeks — Thom Gunn and Auden this summer.
Think deeper, where certain words may lead, what’s hiding or difficult to draw into the light because it’s not quite graspable, or too damned terrifying to think about — by now you’re into something challenging and worth pursuing. Mark Doty’s The Art of Description is brilliant on this, and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
I find this next point hard. Mark Doty says ‘the poem’s body of sound is its specific and particular flesh’. So before you actually start a draft, think of the poem’s likely shape and length, its tone and musicality, its key argument and essence. And use a fountain pen and special paper!
Every syllable must count, and by extension, any word removed will bring collapse. I still feel far from the former, but working with different forms does train the eye and ear, as does translation. Rhyme obliges versatility of syntax and even frees the unconscious! So I’m persevering.
The puzzle always is how to balance ‘a poem must float on its own breath’ with highly-wrought crafting. It’s essential to read aloud, and to check for ambiguity of nouns and verbs, jumbled pronouns, tenses, unwanted adjectives and adverbs, an overload of feminine endings, a clutter of small words, and yet not leave the poem sounding overworked. Feedback in my writing group helps to take the reader’s view, and alerts to congested parts, non-sequiturs, and jolts, in register and in the emotional bearings of the poem.
It’s rare to find someone with whom one can explore together the mysteries of the coming-into- being of a poem and its hidden meanings and associations. But there’s nothing so thrilling!
In order to allow space between drafts I now work on five or six at a time, which leaves three weeks or so to return less invested and with fresh eyes and ears. For problematic sections I stir the pot again with free associative writing, set off again to the wilderness and the underworld, listen to birdsong.
Please don’t think I have arrived at all this by myself. There are wonderful traditions of mentoring and tutoring in the world of poetry which never cease to amaze me and to which I am immensely grateful.