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.

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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.

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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.

Spring Behind the Hedge

It may be some mistake of mine –

For people call it winter still

And Christmas is but lately passed away

With all the rest of the old year, to where

The bygone days all go – and yesterday

I looked out on the garden, and

It darkly glowered back, with a wet

Face under a furious sky. Though t’were

Midday, the light was cold and dim.

And yet I still believe that on

A day in January, not long ago

When some thin golden sunlight had made

Its quiet way out of the prison of

The clouds, I thought I heard the voice of spring

A-whispering in the sodden grass, and saw

Her face, as it peeped shyly through

The bare and dripping silvery hedge.

Let Me Have It

A short essay on yearning

‘Bring me the sunset in a cup,
Reckon the morning’s flagons up
And say how many Dew,
Tell me how far the morning leaps—
Tell me what time the weaver sleeps
Who spun the breadth of blue!
… Who built this little Alban House
And shut the windows down so close
My spirit cannot see?
Who’ll let me out some gala day
With implements to fly away,
Passing Pomposity?’
Problems, Emily Dickinson.

 

There are many things in life that it seems we can never quite reach – that excite an unexplained yearning for something – and we cannot quite decide what it is that we want. Usually, it is small things that make us feel this way – at least, things that are small in our life, but outside our life, immensely large. Dawns, limestone rivers, very tall trees, moss, huge leaves, summer skies, Christmas lights, frozen lakes,  Monet’s waterlilies, the sea. All these things give me a feeling of something I want – like an urge to be in them – not just looking at them, but in them, part of them. The feeling is perfectly captured in the first line of the poem above – ‘Bring me the sunset in a cup!’. It is a major part of our lives, this subtle feeling – above all, a major part of beauty. Whatever is really beautiful, really great and powerful, is like subtle torture to a human mind. We cannot get enough of it, we cannot grasp it properly and hold it forever. We are used to things, objects we can hold and keep – pretty plates, clothes, money – we cannot bear the elusiveness, the powerful vagueness, of nature.

But it is when one of these yearnings is unexpectedly fulfilled that a magical moment of our lives is created – a moment we will always remember. Like the time I went moonlight bathing – the time I climbed a young beech to the very top and swayed with it in the wind –  and the time I wrote this poem about:

My Memory

2017

I saw the river, waiting for me,

And every mossed-rock with a smiling face,

And all and everything under a spell

The golden spell of the sun’s last rays,

Like the yellow resin from out of a tree

That catches the bugs that into it fly

And keeps them safe for all the years

Thus it catches my soul as my soul flies by

With its airy wings newly sprouted from joy

And holds that joy in its memory

And mine.

The river it holds the memory also,

Let it flow with that memory, on forever,

With a rush and a sparkle over the pebbles,

And the silken weeds like mermaids hair,

And the moss-cushioned rocks, and mingle,

Its sound with the sound of the wind passing by

High over the mountains from whence it came

And on to the sea, that endless sea;

And there let it crash with the waves on the beach

And foam on the rocks as the tide draws out –

My memory.IMG_8963.jpg

And finally, here’s another poem, about the same concept as my essay:

Let me have it

Let me have it, that something I never can reach –

Let me dance in those poppies that scatter the sky!

Let me drift on those wisps of velvety peach!

Let me slide down those beams of dusty sunshine!

Let me sit on that pale arching curve of a moon!

Let me gather those stars, behind prickling pine –

And wear them on a necklace that forever I’ll keep.

And, for a pendant, what most I should like,

Is one of those bright embers, when the fire falls asleep.

 

Why always so high, so far out of reach –

You taunting great velvety dome of a sky?

If closer you came, I might crawl through that breach,

That fiery crack in the pearly enamel

When the hot sun sinks over a silvery sea.

And what should I find, pass’d through that red channel?

Might I slip out of the atmosphere, and down

The cold milky-way go soaring at ease?

Let me go with the wind to rustle the tree’s green gown.

 

Why, Nature, so allusive, so flitting and shy,

Like the soft butterfly, who flees as I near?

On some big water-lily pad let me lie

And down the quiet stream go a-floating far.

Make the clouds my kingdom, hedge, tree and all,

With a palace, all shimmering with light from the stars.

On the crest of a wave let me ride away!

Forever let me lie on a bed of rich moss,

Let me dress in the sky at the dawn of the day,

And at Nature’s bosom I ever will stay.

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Breakfasting in the company of Spring

While I am working on the present posts, I thought I would publish this one, written a while ago, which I forgot about.  

Here is another entry with raptures on the garden in it!

When I drew up the blinds yesterday morning, I looked out upon a garden bright with Spring and bathed in sunshine. It made the garden look glowing and green, and it shone upon the rough bare trunk of my friend the Copper Beech.

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Mum suggested that Tassy and I take some snacks out into the garden and breakfast outside. She made us some toast spread with peppery tasting cheese, some little packs of nuts, fruit, seeds and sweets, and a large jar of hot rooibos. To celebrate the warm wether, I wore one of two summer dresses made out of a thin, silky materiel covered with a flowery print, and very pretty, which I had got for christmas.

The morning air was cool and fresh. It smelt of deep, rich, damp soil, of fresh green things, of shade and sunlight, of the early morning – and of something else, too, something more difficult to describe – it smelt, almost, of memory. At least, it brought back memories; memories of a hundred other days, other springs. My dress fluttered in the wind as I ran down the path to the lawn, and sudden splash of golden sunlight would fall sometimes upon me, for the path was in dappled shade. There was a light and joyous feeling in me as I stepped off the half-shaded path into the bright light that shone upon the happy lawn – I feel I will remember that moment for ever after. Tassy came skipping along behind like a mischievous little pixie.

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I chose our picnic spot carefully, settling at last upon a dry, springy patch of moss in one corner of the lawn, in full view of some beautiful golden daffodils nodding their heads in the soft breeze, and backed by a rhododendron bush. There is a certain trick of the light that happens sometimes when you stand in the right place looking at a patch of moss in bright sun – it seems almost to glow. This had happened with the patch I chose, and I took it as a sign from Spring that is was there we should eat our breakfast. Tass thoroughly approved, though he did say he would rather it a little nearer the daffodils. I persuaded him we could see them very well from here, and we sat down and began the feast.

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We then scoured the garden for herbs, and laid out on the cheese a selection of hawthorn, salad burnet, garlic, sweet cicely, lovage, and sorrel.

When we were about half-way through, I suggested that we lay on our backs and just listened and dreamed, and enjoyed ourselves. So we lay down side-by-side and did just that, though Tassy was too restless to do it for long, and after a moment he was after some more dried fruit from the packs.

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As I lay upon the warm moss, I could hear the wind as it rustled in the branches of the great beech above me, and the songs of the birds about me. The sunlight flowed in through my half closed lids, giving the impression of a waterfall of shining light. It made me think of the lines from Margaret ‘What lit your eyes with tearful power, like moonlight on a falling shower?……. A tearful grace, as though you stood between the rainbow and the sun.’ And of another Tennyson line too,’The maiden spring upon the plain, came in a sunlit fall of rain’. The feeling of the sunlight rushing down onto my face, and the gentle wind sweeping past me, gave me such a feeling of unutterable delight, that I felt as if I might have been lying in the Elysian Fields. I could almost imagine the sweet singing of the birds turned to the playing of a harp – and I felt, at that moment, that this was the happiest moment of my life, for it was then, I felt, that I felt the touch of nature in all her loveliness. And I pity all those, who, sitting in a darkened room watching their televisions, while Spring calls to them in vain outside, may never feel that joy. And in this world of computers and cities, there are too many who will not.