Mission impossible: ‘how do I write a poem’? Every part of this question can be disaggregated and dissected, is already disintegrating. And I like it. Thought another way, poems themselves (often the best ones) do sometimes come like this, like the message about to self-destruct. If this isn’t the case, it might not be a poem. Robert Frost wrote it: ‘Like a piece of ice on a hot stove a poem must ride on its own melting.’ It has to feel like it’s at the teetering edge of itself, even if I have quite a lot of it already in mind. Then, contradictorily, it has to be grafted, transplanted to the page and a compatibility hoped for. Some poets (some of my favourites) can formulate and keep them entirely in mind like this, swimming in the cool anti-rejection medication of their own consciousness.
All I really know are the conditions of possibility, for the poem’s tentative and delicate beginning, through to a distanced, even brutal, pruning, the many hours of loving and loathing, the diligent avoidance or forgetting what the poem is possibly about it, until it tells me itself. There is no muse, but there is fertile mush. Everyone bar no one is at least a first stage poet, that is, someone who ‘hears’ things: other’s words; or their own, internally; a random memory; a mishearing; something left from the rhythm or pressure of a dream. The next stage is pure discipline, the ‘this is what I do, I write these things down’. And I do. Constantly. Now and then, they flower or grow tentacles almost instantly. It is astonishingly, overwhelmingly rewarding, then often a lot of hard work.
I suppose ‘writing’ a poem in its fullness is the oversight of a contraction, a closing in on a thing, to ensure and nurture the initial impulse, the material, the line or image that comes fresh and determined and sometimes unasked for. But then the rest, the apparently opposite operation, the editing and regular rereading, the sounding aloud, the purposeful consignment of the rescued parts to the incubator, for months, maybe years before retrieval– and possible inspection by trusted co-contractors.
The conditions are also a reflective life, not necessarily a personal Nouvelle Vague of intense relationships. Those can be prompts, but you realise that life throws enough at you anyway. Exhibit A: 2020. Also: reflecting and reading and listening to readings. And reading. Some more reading. Did I mention reading? I felt almost winded once, when a writer declared how little he felt he needed to read to write. These aren’t necessarily my current poets, but here are some of my (and others’) poetry ‘moments’: https://poetrykeeps.uk/rob-miles/
I might not read when I’m writing, that can be distracting, but reading (not just poetry) is a regular greasing of the machine. Interestingly for me, staring into hardcore near-impenetrable academic prose or reading in Spanish and (quite rusty) French often brings on a poem. So does distraction between tasks. I have a few ‘wet digit’ poems: a line comes just as I finish one activity and I’ve a toe in the shower or a bath, or my hands have just hit the washing up. Typical. But off I go to soak some note paper, or rain on my laptop keyboard. And I know this much: good editors and competition judges pick those poems, even when they’re smartened up and saluting from the page– they recognise itch as much as craft.
Or there is stillness, and a particular way of breathing, almost in meditation, but not necessarily emptying the mind; more a letting it stir– especially if the poem seems or is hoped to be about something (though I have to confess to misgivings when a poet declares a sequence or collection already conceptually prewrapped –it’s sometimes boneless and chlorinated for consumption). I have sequences, but they’re either by chance, or I’ve aimed to ensure everything is part of one (im)pulse. There is much to be said for getting ‘in the zone’ whether in the early stages or when editing and shaping. Certain music can help. Certain music can be catastrophic. I did write a poem about the moon almost in one go like this. I remember exactly the track on repeat as I mumbled lunar tributes at my kitchen window. I had it almost whole before I began to transcribe.
For some poets I think some dedicated activity (fishing, hiking, swimming…), including practising traditional poetic forms, can produce results. The latter is high risk/reward because it’s being in the language itself so totally, and potentially cart-upside-down-on-top-of-horse. For some, pre-formality is stultifying so the shape must suggest itself as it progresses (ok! Let’s all write a pantoum!). The grizzly ones produced this way are not only probably not poems, but excruciating parodies of what can be exquisite forms (I’ve written my share). It’s about knowing when to pause a little and ponder if these are steps toward free(r) verse or vice versa, that some shape that the language has repeatedly road tested (say, a sonnet) is how this poem should be most fully itself in the world. Force nothing.
Translation is another matter: received form may be almost prescribed or may prove open to freer versioning. There is also a ‘zone’ in translation that comes with total immersion. Continual metered and rhyming formalism can work for some, and I’m admiring of it, but it’s not the gold standard. Beautifully, Heaney rhymed imperfectly to extend ‘rhyme’ figuratively and synaesthetically ‘to set the darkness echoing’, sharing an adult’s fascination with sameness and change in reflection over time: ‘to see myself’. Still, a truly enduring poem seems to resonate in all its parts no matter the angle you tap it.
The poem I have in Poetry Wales, came as I packed my things to leave a café where I’d stared and stared into sameness and no poem. As soon as I stood up, thinking about another day and another café a tiny poem happened. (Looking at the proofs of the issue, I hoped people would hear it sound proud as a one-ping triangle in a glorious orchestra.) Good poems are always somehow, even charmingly, at odds, so it’s often useful to foster their habitat of contrariness. Good poems aren’t ‘written’ as such, they manifest –or at least some aspect of them does. Personally, I intuit that the deep processual dynamic of language itself is difference, forever sliding, frictive, trans, so the brightest lines are right at its colliding or grinding interfaces. Idiotic but indispensable, the stalwart poet must be the noble connoisseur and curator of sparks.