How I Write Poetry – Step By Step

Today I have decided to go through the stages of writing a poem one by one – of course, I mean the way write a poem. I can’t speak for other people.

My poems tend to be centered on a particular object (usually a plant, actually) or view, which I can clearly see before me, either in my memory in or in real life. You might say I write from life as a artist might draw or paint from life. It’s one of these types of poems, written about a particular thing or moment, that I am going to talk about today.

I think there are, briefly, two stages to writing this kind of poem. To demonstrate how they generally unfold,  I’m going to take one I wrote recently – February Rain. 

Grey light – grey from a gray sky –

Cold as an empty hearth

Down the window crawl wet snakes

Joined by dashing drops.

Millions land in the blink of an eye – and

Have I thought for each?

Just the same as flitting fancies

Each insignificant speck

Joins five more, and grows into a

Drop. Through the pane

Febuary’s first pale crocuses lie flattened.

To write this poem, I first spent something like ten minutes carefully examining the rain on the window – how it fell, how it looked before it fell, how it progressed down the windowpane. This  is the first step in writing poetry (I think) – namely, observation. The second step is then to put observations into words. I believe poetry ought to be used like photography – when you read it, you ought to see the same image as the poet saw writing it. I had noticed the cold, grey light in the room – how was I to capture the look of it? After thinking a few moments, I came up with this – ‘Cold as an empty hearth‘. To me, this captured the lonely, unfamiliar yet familiar aspect of a rainy February day. The next thing I wanted to capture was the look of the drops crawling down the window. I thought hard about what they reminded me of (always a good way of coming up with similes) and I decided it was snakes – ‘Down the window crawl wet snakes’. Now I had got this far into the poem:

‘Grey light – grey from a gray sky –

Cold as an empty hearth

Down the window crawl wet snakes

Joined by dashing drops.

 

These two steps (observation, and putting observation into words which will clearly present the image before a reader) make up the first stage of my poem. After this usually follows a simile or metaphor that relates the object of the poem to some other, deeper idea – often something contained inside the mind. If the first stage of the poem described a tree in autumn, then the second might describe the transience of life or love. Or if it began with a description of  Spring, then it might finish with some musing on childhood and innocence.

Just the same as flitting fancies’ is the key line of this second stage in February Rain. But before we can have the key line, we have to introduce the idea with some lead-up lines: ‘Millions land in the blink of an eye – and/Have I thought for each?’ This introduces us to the idea of ‘thought’, leading up to the following – ‘Just the same as flitting fancies.’ The poem then goes on to show the similarities between raindrops and flitting fancies – basically proving the argument introduced in the earlier lines.

In Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, the second stage is about the eternalness of poetry. The lead-up lines are:

“Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines, 

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometimes declines

By change, or Nature’s changing course, untrimmed;”

 

And the key-line (or rather lines), are:

But they eternal summer shall not fade …

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’t.’

 

So, in the end, we have two stages making up up February Rain; observation and putting observation into words

‘Grey light – grey from a gray sky –

Cold as an empty hearth

Down the window crawl wet snakes

Joined by dashing drops.

Then the second stage, consisting of some connected idea, unfolding first in a lead-up line or lines, secondly in the key-line. Altogether:

“Millions land in the blink of an eye – and

Have I thought for each?

Just the same as flitting fancies

Each insignificant speck

Joins five more, and grows into a

Drop.’

Finally, I return to observation with:

‘Through the pane

Febuary’s first pale crocuses lie flattened.’ 

I hope that demonstrates what I mean by poems having ‘two stages’. Its a bit like the turn in a sonnet or a Horatian Ode – only less defined. I don’t know if other poets construct the two stages out of the same steps as I do. Probably they do it much more neatly than I did in February Rain. But often the stages themselves are there all the same.

I’m not saying they’re in all poems – or even nearly all poems – though I think almost all descriptive poems include the first stage of observation and putting into words. Some don’t  include the second stage of bringing in a separate but linked idea – or, rather, it is more subtle and mingled into the first stage, for all poems ought to have some kind of deeper meaning in them somewhere. A few clever forms, like the Villanelle, afford a structured form that lets you weave in the deeper meaning in refrains – like I did in The Sea. (Read it and other poems in Some Recent Poems). I used the refrains ‘Changing as the seconds fly/Steady as the years go by’  to express the idea of eternity made up of smaller moments, interspersing the idea with descriptions of the sea.

This is really a neater way of doing it than having two separated stages. Whatever a poem is like, it’s always a good idea to think about how it is constructed – both in the more practical terms of metre, and in other ways, too.

Once you find a way of writing poems that works, you can get stuck in your ways – does anyone have any suggestions of another way of setting about it? How do you do it?

On Writing Poetry

Catching Moments

Lean out the the window. Put your head and shoulders out. Smell the air – as deep as you can – try to get the smell into your soul. Now close your eyes, and think of what that smell reminds you of. Dwell on every memory, happy or sad, trivial or important. It might make you sad – but it is worth it, if you want to enjoy life to the full.

Everyone finds it sad to remember. Why? Because those times are past – and we cannot bring them back. Every sunshiny second of our lives is overhung by a shadow – we know that we cannot keep that second forever – even for an hour, even for a minute. It is gone now.

I believe poetry is about capturing those moments that go by so fast – and keeping them on paper. As Shakespeare said:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor loose possession of that fair thou ow’st

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade

While in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.

So long as men can breathe and eyes can see

So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

You can perhaps capture a fraction of the moment in a photo, because the photo will remind you of the real time as it lives in your memory. But you can use poetry to give the moment a life of its own, a life that does not lean on your memory for support. To some extent you can use prose to do this, and painting too – but the perfect form is poetry. Poetry is a net for catching moments, carefully woven through history with threads of metre, rhyme and form.

I hate the notion that form somehow confines the mind and stops the poet from expressing their true and individual feelings. Quite the opposite – just as you cannot catch a butterfly in your bare hands, you cannot catch ideas without some sort of a net – if possible, a carefully designed net. I daresay that you could design a form for yourself, but it would be a long and laborious process, like weaving a butterfly net by hand. And why start from scratch, when poets from Ancient Greek times to today have been doing the work for you?

I believe it is not being cliched to use old forms. Because each captured moment is individual and different, your poems will be individual and different. Form only helps to bring out that individuality.

I an not yet well enough informed in the different modes of writing poetry myself to say any more here – so I will break off.

Only remember, form and metre – and poetry in general – are necessary tools in the larger and difficult process of catching moments.

Some Recent Poems

I have been reading The Ode Less Travelled, a book about writing poetry by Stephen Fry. It is really good. Some day, I might do a post about it, but today I am just publishing some of my recent poems.

I have been experimenting with some different forms. The poem below in written in a pastoral Italian form he talks about in the Ode Less Travelled – a ‘villanelle’.

The Sea 

Changing as the seconds fly

Ever dappling rippling light

Steady while the years go by

 

Ever the wave’s retreating sigh

And the fair-foam frothing white

Changing as the seconds fly

 

Ever the pale-sand blanching dry

And the pale-winged sea birds’ flight

Steady while the years go by

 

Ever the cawing sea-gulls’s cry

And the sunny wave-top bright

Changing as the seconds fly

 

Ever the silvery waters lie

At the dropping of the night

Steady while the years go by

 

Still they lie – close to the sky

In the softly fading light

Changing as the seconds fly

Steady while the years go by.

IMG_0411

Melted

Flakes and more flakes

Dropping – dropping

Softly – quickly

Carry on the air –

Dumb air of Winter

One little moment

Twirls them by – so

Large and soft

Indefinable

So many hundreds

Gathered in a sky!

How can it hold them?

Vast as it is!

Melted away now

Melted.

In this I tried to capture the endless, soft, unreal feeling of snow falling softly.

IMG_8287

The Woods in March

 The trees in silent sober beauty stood

Pale tree-trunks rising smooth from dead

And drying bracken – tawny gold – the wood

Half-bathed with moist sunshine. “See, tread

With softness lest the slightest stir you make

And all the golden sleeping woodland wake

Let not one fallen brown leaf rustle – break

No twig – be quiet and kick no stone.” Said she

So with most scrupulous care went we

And passed around a slender smooth-barked tree.

We saw two kinds of catkins lately out

The pussy willow, grey with her soft, soft touch

And hazel too before we turned about –

And they were cleanly yellow green. So much

Of beauty in that little wood

Wearing Springtime’s hood

Were she and I stood.

February Rain

Grey light – grey from a gray sky –

Cold as an empty hearth

Down the window crawl wet snakes

Joined by dashing drops.

Millions land in the blink of an eye – and

Have I thought for each?

Just the same as flitting fancies

Each insignificant speck

Joins five more, and grows into a

Drop. Through the pane

Febuary’s first pale crocuses lie flattened.

Full Moon

Smoother than a woman’s brow

With ghostly pearl perfection

Silvery was her gown of cloud – how

Silvery her complexion!

In the bleak and blasted sky

Of Winter – in that vast

Drifting waste of cloud – high

Over the blurred mountains – cast

In a perfect mould.

The lines in this fluctuate between four stressed beats (tetrameter) and only three. This is the way ballads are generally written.

The Eternal Yew 

The charms we wove about the trunk

Will stand the test of wearing time

They’re braded – mingled into the branches

And strung from leaf to leaf to leaf

The knots pulled tight the ends entwined

About the wandering shadows

 

The wavering trembling whispering shadows

That darkly dance about the trunk

Around the bow their ends entwined

Where they will linger through all time

Far longer than the words on the leaf

Of a book – or memory on the branches

 

Dark branches of your mind – dark branches

Of the tree last longer far. Where shadows

About the sagging dream-green leaf

So many leaves, so thin, and round the trunk

Lie dusky and timeless, their ends entwined.

While roll on time and time and time

 

And if it ever faltered, time –

Then live these darkly mighty branches

On through emptiness – their ends entwined –

Then live and endlessly live on through shadows.

Then live and endlessly live on that trunk

Hung round with ribbon-like green leaf

 

The torn green fragments of a secret – leaf

On leaf like deeply layered time

That dance around the ghostly trunk

Of memory, and the strong dark branches

Of the mind. The shadows are entwined.

The wavering trembling whispering shadows.

 

You mighty roots that grasp round shadows

Of earth – you mystic hanging leaf

You shadows, shadows – the ends entwined

Where you will linger through all time

You great time-wielding lasting branches

And you, the heart of all – the trunk!

 

Keep living, dream-green leaf and branches

Live all through time, your ends entwined

And live the spell about the trunk of shadows.

That was a Sentina – a really complicated form which repeats the ‘hero words’ (the words at the end of the lines) in a special pattern. My hero words (repeated all through the piece) are branches, shadows, leaf, trunk, entwined, time.