The Poetry Place

How to Write...POETRY

The Guardian put out a little series on 'How to write...' and I made sure I got a copy of 'How to write...poetry' as I thought it was time I learnt.  The intro is by Wendy Cope and is full of good sense. Two things I'd pick out are: if you want to write poetry you need to read it too (whoever heard of a painter who didn't go to galleries?) and trying to be honest, which is harder than you think.  She quotes T S Eliot saying that the greatest difficulty for a poet is to distinguish between "what one really feels and what one would like to feel". 

The major part of the booklet is by tutor Lavinia Greenlaw, which I feel is less useful to teachers and students. It's really aimed at a different readership altogether... "Use your own mythology - your memories, associations, emblems and imagery - but treat all this as material with which to say something more fundamental and universal." And so on.

At one point she declares "a poem is not a description or a statement". I'm not sure where that leaves many a poem and many a poet. Edward Thomas, for example. Tall Nettles? Adlestrop? Or even John Clare's 'I Love to see the Summer Beaming forth' and many others you may be able to think of. In what way is Keats' 'To Autumn' anything other than a description?

She also remarks 'It's not a poem just because it looks or sounds like one'. I can agree with the first part of this - though there are many anthologies where you will find words arranged on the page in a way that convinced an editor that they were indeed poems. But - not a poem even though it sounds like one? I think I know what she's getting at but it's not helpful advice. Often you only know if you've got it right when you hear it. 

In fact the most useful part is where she reminds us of some of Ezra Pound's advice and these are my favourites:
 - go in fear of abstractions;
 - do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose;
 - use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.
Interesting that Pound was so influential in his time but so little read nowadays. Who might we think of who is influential now but will not be read in 50 years time?


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