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.

December Night

‘…shadowed silvery moon…’

A long, narrow strip of pale yellow is left along the horizon where the sun has gone down behind the distant black mesh trees, but the garden is in darkness. The black evergreens toss restlessly fro and fro in the cold breeze, and the bare branches of the other trees look delicate and vulnerably silhouetted. Behind the trees, but visible at some angles, is a half-moon, with the thin grey clouds rushing coolly over it like liquid, as though it were a shiny pebble under a stream. At one moment, it is shining gently, with the dark cloud shapes hurrying over – at another, it is quite gone and extinguished behind the greyness, as if it had never been there at all – and then it begins to show again, a faint traced shape in the clouds – and they pass over, and it shines serenely, illuminating the sky around in soft whiteness – and then once more the dark shadows begin to flurry over it like waves.

The timeless, boundless branches of the huge beech are like dark trickling veins, behind and around the dark soft shape of the trunk.

The shadows stand still in strange shapes on the lawn, and everything seems to listen to the wind at it makes gentle noises in the tossing branches. Half-afraid of the shapes, she tiptoes down the garden path. The moon draws out of sight for a while behind the blackness of the trees – but as she reaches the lawn, she looks up again. And it shows itself, lonely in the sky, more glorious because isolated by a vastness of grey drifting cloud, wide and swallowing.

In the soft darkness the shape of the beech’s trunk seems huge – far larger than it seems in the daytime – a wide greatness of rising bark. And looking up, she is almost dizzied by the upward spiral of trunk and branches, starting in a faint dimness, but darkly silhouetted as they rise above the paler sky. The well-known turn of every branch is something unfamiliar, something great, something strange, something very old. The moon hangs trembling behind the rushing cloud, and the closer drooping twigs, every little detail of them outlined in black against her gentle white light.

Knowing she would soon be away, she took another glance at the great and grotesquely twisting trunk, and let her fears loose, speeding up the garden path as fast as she could go with every seed-head stirring in the motion.

And reached the house-door, from which the warm light flowed out onto the shining cobbles, that moon and those twigs forever imprinted in her memory.

(I have started a shop on easy; Ourtangledgarden, please check it out.)

Preserving Leaves

Preserving Leaves was my first post ever on this blog!
Now the season is right for preserving leaves, I thought I’d re-blog it to fill up a terrible gap in my posting which I’m aware I’ve created with my negligence. I have a post almost finished, though, and I will try to put it up soon.

Copper Beech School

Many times in Autumn I have strolled out along the wet grass and found blown into the hedge a single perfect leaf, in which a sensational mixture of beautiful reds, golds, and browns, flow into each other. It makes you sad to think that in few days, that gorgeous leaf may be tattered, sodden and ragged, rotting away into the mud. But there is a way of saving such perfect specimens of autumn leaves from this melancholy fate.

Leaf preserving is great fun; you can gather the beautiful red and gold leaves while the sun shines and the garden is radiant with gold, and then when one of those cold and windy autumn days was playing outside is out of question comes along, you can do the preserving part.

We tried two ways of preserving leaves but the only really successful one involved glycerine, which is thick liquid that comes…

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Magic Times Page/My Birthday Morning

I just wanted to say that I added a new part of writing to my ‘magic times I will never forget’ page – which I just recently added to the blog. If none of you have noticed it there, I would love it if you would have a look – though most of it is taken from other posts so you may have read what is in it already. I have copied in the new writing I added – about my birthday morning last year – or the year before that? – below.

Path Through The Snowy Trees

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She turned the door handle slowly – glancing with eyes full of exited expectation at the smiling face of her mother, who stood beside her – and peeked in with a beating heart. She could see nothing from where she then stood – she tiptoed in, shuddering with excitement, seeming almost afraid of the happiness she was sure was coming. She then glanced toward the corner – her hands, clenched into fists, flew to her face – a motion that seemed to suggest the attempted containment of unbearable excitement – and she gasped joyously.

Smoothed onto the wall were static sheets depicting a snowy path, edged with the black trunks of trees, fading into the distance. She felt as she looked at it that she was really there, walking down that forest path. But placed in from of it was the wonder – a small, elegant little table she had seen often about the house – but it was loaded with a high pile of prettily wrapped presents, and draped with different sorts of strings of fairy lights, some decorated with dragonflies, others with roses and others with leaf skeletons. And as well as the lights, strings of fresh greenery trailed over the presents. Both lights and leaves were hanging down from another string of lights, fastened in some way from above – and the whole pile glowed in the dim room as her heart glowed with grateful joy. All together it formed a magical, otherworldly spectacle – and she felt as if, in the middle of that cold snow wood, she had suddenly stumbled upon it.

 

 

 

Quote of the Day – Day 3

“I am compliance itself—when I am not thwarted;—no one more easily led—when I have my own way.”

Sir Anthony Absolute – The Rivals

 

Very much like me – even closer in resemblance to my little brother – and very funny – I thought this quote was interestingly different from my romantic first two.

 

Tagging

Megan

Samantha

Alyssa

Quote of the Day – Day 2

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From Maud, by Alfred Tennyson, one of my favourite poets. There are other bits of that poem just lovely too, especially one part mentioning ‘a daffodil sky’.

This would have been much better if I had figured out how to put a misty square in the middle to make the words show up – but I don’t know how to do that yet. In case it is not legible, I have included the quote again below.

“From the meadow your walks have left so sweet,

That whenever a March wind sighs,

He sets the jewelled print of your feet,

In violets blue as your eyes,

To the woody hollows in which we meet,

And the valleys of Paradise.”

 

Aria

Emma

Cinderzena

Quote of the day – day 1

I was tagged by Janie of Daily Delights for this – I don’t really know fully what this tagging thing is, but apparently the rules for this one are that I have to post a quote a day for three days, and each time choose three people to do this after me (nominating).

Here is my first quote

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I am quite proud of the way I designed it. It is from Tess of the d’Urbervilles – a great book but very sad. Read my essay on it Here. I had a vague idea when I designed it that the picture was supposed to be the Vale of Blackmoore, (which she is looking at when the quote comes in) or somewhere else around their – but it probably looks nothing like Hardy country. (It is actually taken from the moor around Lud’s Church – a post about which I am at present working on.) Also I was sort of thinking she might be looking at it through tears – hence the blurriness – but mostly it is all just random.

Oops – I spelled ‘beauty’ wrong.

Here’s another – the typo is corrected – also I made a few other alterations and left out the rounded corners. Which one do you like better?

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Oh, and I nominate

Misty

Clara

Simi 

Two-hundredth Anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s Birthday

Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birthday!

She was an incredible author – her book Jane Eyre impresses itself upon a reader’s heart and remains there – it excites powerful,  unexplainable, and in some cases unidentifiable emotions – it fills heart and soul with feeling – and the author who created it must have possessed an incredible gift – so honour her today, and think on the wonder of what she created.

I have written an article – or rather, as I have no real argument, but rather a few little ones, a piece of writing containing my thoughts – on Jane Eyre in honour of the occasion. It is very long, however – too long for anybody to read in one sitting – and for me to finish today. So I will publish it in parts from this day onwards – starting with her childhood.

Note: (in the following parts of this the plot will be given away – so do not read unless you have read the book. Besides, if you have not, you ought to be reading it right now straight away, and not wasting time reading anything else!)

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Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking.

I cannot tell what sentiment haunted the quite solitary churchyard, with its inscribed headstone; its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a broken wall, and its newly-risen crescent, attesting the hour of eventide.

The two ships becalmed on a torpid sea, I believed to be marine phantoms.

The fiend pinning down the thief’s pack behind him, I passed over quickly: it was an object of terror.

So was the black horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows.

How very strongly is the coldness, the emptiness, the loneliness of her feelings conveyed in the manner with which she finds sympathy with the broken and the lonely objects in the pictures, ‘the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking’. She feels like the ‘broken boat, stranded on a desolate coast’ and like the rock, ‘standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray’. ‘Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own’. The ‘ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud’ is intresting. The metephor ‘bars of cloud’ makes one think of prison bars – could the moon be in some way a personification of Mrs Reed – watching Jane’s wreck sink, behind, perhaps, the bars of a cruel nature? Or it might be the other half of Jane herself, behind the bars of timidity, of fear. For there is a feeling always that she needs to brake out of something. This might explain the feeling of most incredible relief, like the lifting of a heavy weight, when, a little later in the book, Jane expresses her hatred for Mrs Reed.

“…I had been trodden on severely, and must turn: but how?…I gathered my energies and launched them in this blunt sentence –

“I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you…”

Mrs. Reed’s hands still lay on her work inactive: her eye of ice continued to dwell freezingly on mine.

“What more have you to say?” she asked, rather in the tone in which a person might address an opponent of adult age than such as is ordinarily used to a child…Shaking from head to foot, thrilled with ungovernable excitement, I continued –

“I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty.”

“How dare you affirm that, Jane Eyre?”

“How dare I, Mrs. Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth. You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity. I shall remember how you thrust me back—roughly and violently thrust me back — into the red-room, and locked me up there, to my dying day; though I was in agony; though I cried out, while suffocating with distress, ‘Have mercy! Have mercy, Aunt Reed!’ And that punishment you made me suffer because your wicked boy struck me—knocked me down for nothing. I will tell anybody who asks me questions, this exact tale. People think you a good woman, but you are bad, hard- hearted. You are deceitful!”

Is there not, in these lines, a wild joy of relief and revenge? You want to cheer her on. She expresses herself the feeling of it –

“Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty”

With Jane in this state of relieved triumph I will leave this section of the book – say a few words on her eight years at Lowood school, and then pass on to Thornfield.

The part of about Lowood may be slightly – or more than slightly – autobiographical. As a child she endured the hardships of a school much like Lowood – and two of her sisters died there. This may have been what gave the scene of Helen Burn’s death such tragedy – Charlotte knew what it was like.

I must move on – though I could write a novel’s worth about each part of this wonderful book, I have only so much time. The rest, however, will be saved for tomorrow – or for in a few days.

 

 

 

Cloaked in Diamonds

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She woke early – as soon as the first rays of silvery morning light began peep through the curtains and fill the room. It was the morning of the first day of May – and Armida had resolved yesterday to wake early, and bathe her face in the dew, gaining beauty for the coming year. It was not so much because she was vain that Armida did this every May Morning – but because the idea that those beautiful, shimmering, glistening drops bring beauty appealed to her – and because she wanted an excuse to wake up early and enjoy the beauties of the young day alone.

She slid open the window – it creaked – but nobody woke up. She shut her eyes, and dropped herself down, onto cool, wet grass. A chill of cold ran through her – and as she slowly opened her eyes, another of wonder.

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Silvery in the cool half light of the morning, and cloaked in glistening dew as a fair lady might be cloaked in diamonds, the trees and bushes stood. Like a silver glaze when seen from a distance, and like tiny, shimmering, crystal clear orbs close up, the droplets of morning dew were fair beyond the most precious jewels.

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They hung, trapped, in the faint spiders webs – they settled, large and clear, in the petals of a few white crocuses which had lasted a little longer than usual, standing in clutches about the shimmering ground – they meshed in the long grasses that rose, waving, to one side.

Armida’s mouth, the only brightly coloured thing in this world of silver, was parted slightly in amazement as, half soaking her white nightgown with the diamond-like drops, she pushed her way through the clump of trees that shrouded the lake.

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Silver stood the water – and still – save for the occasional clear ripple breaking the glassy reflections for a moment or two.

‘It is – so lovely,’ breathed Armida, to the trees and water. ‘It is such a pity, though, that this moment with so soon fly by – for I may never experience it again. Certainly I shall not. Even if I did see another morning as beautiful as this – which I almost certainly shall not – I will be changed by then, and so it will be changed.’

‘I might take a photograph – but even should I manage to capture the beauty in it, I should never capture the feeling. And it will not be the same without the feeling! It is odd to think that some people in the world have minds like photographs. They might see this wonderful lake and trees – and view it only as a pretty picture – the wonder of the scene might not find its way into their emotions at all.’

‘But I think I will take a photo; anyhow, it is better than nothing. It will – hopefully – capture the outer beauty at least, and it will remind me of how I felt at the time.’ And she ran back to the window to fetch her silver camera.

‘I can almost see Odette – gliding, a snowy swan, or a silver swan even, over the waters. I think that I will dip my face in the lake water, as well as in the dew. I am sure that must make you beautiful too – or make something good happen. I am just sure of it.’

She dipped her face into the silver waters – and let out a little cry as she felt the iciness of it. But she was certain it had done her good – she felt the goodness spreading through already.

Later, Armida sat in her room with the warm light of mid-day flooding in, admiring her photographs. It was when she came to the last of them that she saw, gliding along the water, the faint, ghostly, silvery outline of a swan – with a silver crown that glinted like the dew upon its head.

‘Why, it must have been a special photograph. It did capture what I was thinking, for there, upon the lake, is one of my thoughts! I suppose the morning made them too strong to be put aside.’

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See what I wrote for the first challenge Here

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