How Poets write Poems (perhaps) – and my own writing process

 

 for pinterest

“The poet, is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”

T.S. Elliot

 

Two modes of thinking

Perhaps there is no instruction book or check list to be followed. Perhaps poems grow in the dark earth beneath the day light of our alert, problem solving, beta wave consciousness. Perhaps, poems don’t even begin with words at all, but meanings.

The Nobel award winning writer and researcher Daniel Kahneman states in his best selling book Thinking Fast and Slow, that human beings operate with two distinct modes of thinking which he refers to as system 1 and system 2.

System 1 is our subconscious, intuition and gut instinct. It drives our impulses, fears, prejudices and  makes free associations between objects and feelings among other things. An example of this might be winter and snow or jelly and ice-cream.

System 2 is our executive functioning, our reason, skepticism and rationale. It analyzes whether the intuitions of system 1 are based on objective facts or bias and assumption.

The relative difficulty of applying system 2 thinking to problem solving means that it is often overridden by the quantitative ease of using system 1.

But perhaps, where poetry is concerned that is no bad thing. Perhaps the deep meanings that effect us in poetry actually emerge from such a place because that place taps into our collective hopes, fears and dreams, indeed, even our bias.

*

I never find words right away. Poems for me always begin with images and rhythms, shapes, feelings, forms and dances in the back of my mind…My imagination is pre-linguistic, preverbal.” Composing the words is a “further exercise.” “Language, comes after imagination.”- Gary Snyder

*

Elliot’s statement evokes something almost primeval. A place before language development let alone the written word. It is a place of archaic grunts that emerge from the animal body. Perhaps,  poetry, more than other language art starts with the body rather than the mind. Rhythm and meter are essential to any poem. The metronome of the human heartbeat resonates in the antiquated Villanelle, the repetition of a Persian Ghazal, and even contemporary, stream of consciousness Blank Verse alike.

The guttural cry is the first sound of the poem. It gives the poem it’s free associations, its rhythm, tone and theme. It is the beginning.

But the analysis  and editing of system 2 refines and turns the raw material of our human psyche into cloth like the spinning wheel of Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold thread. It questions our initial intuitions and the bias of our emotions. Its stark analytical questioning can become the axis on which the poem turns.

*

”Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics, which gives us equations, not for abstract figures, triangles, squares, and the like, but for the human emotions. If one has a mind which inclines to magic rather than science, one will prefer to speak of these equations as spells or incantations; it sounds more arcane, mysterious, recondite.” – Ezra Pound

*

System 2 can whittle a ramble of words down to their most precise meaning, discarding the extraneous and superfluous. It can clarify. It is a refining fire. It judges, compares and contemplates how and where to use literary mechanisms such as line breaks, metaphors and repetition. It judges how these devices work on the page and translate in the mind of the reader.

*

‘As a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole freshly-created universe. – Philip Larkin

*

One of the benefits of poetry is how it channels common human experience such as love, death, loss, grief, joy and hope through the lens of an individual’s perspective.

Poetry begins with the collective consciousness of system 1 and ends with the individual reasoning of system 2.

It the commonality of our human experience refracted through the reasoning of an individual mind. It belongs both to the poet and the reader alike.

*

‘Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.’ – Dylan Thomas

*

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My writing process

I have started to observe my own writing process and have found that I do indeed begin a poem with an emotion or meaning that I want to convey which usually starts out as quite biased in that I want the reader to arrive at a certain outcome.

A poem will also often begin with a sense of rhythm to sketch its structure. The rhythm might be terse, scant and stark if the general emotion is melancholic or reflective or if the theme of the poem is loneliness or detachment. If the poem is more passionate the rhythm might be more iambic in meter, full of galloping upstrokes and alliteration. If the poem is centered on an ordinary moment the rhythm may be more meandering, conversational and prose-like.

After a first draft I leave the poem to sit for a week or so. During that time I won’t think about it or look at it. When I come back to the poem my system 2 thinking takes over. I can see it far more more objectively. I begin to question why I wanted the poem to conclude a certain way. Have I considered an opposite point of view? How might I include a counter perspective to give the poem more depth?  I will read my poem aloud many times.

At this point I also experiment with line breaks as in my first draft line breaks will usually be inseparable from meter and rhyme scheme. Line breaks change the overall rhythm again, often magnifying the feeling of the initial draft. Line breaks can also alter the speed the reader travels through a poem and emphasizes different aspects of the poem by isolating them.

My poems can go through many different versions of themselves before they feel as if they are comfortable in their own skin.

 

An Example of one of my poems in stages.

(i)
Mid- life is a place of transition, it’s liminal, a halfway –
House where all that seemed coherent is broken down, remade
And cleared away to make space
For something more. Or less. Well defined lines are retraced
Erased to plumes of dust like leaves in the fall.
>
Layers peel, masks flake like plaster casts,
Hard edges erode, become soft as loam.
All is worn down to the jewel inside the stone.
New ideas stir like seeds under the earth, bare bones,
Whitened like driftwood weathered, wind blown,
>
Sea-washed and a little more brittle but still dancing
Our own dance now
Hearing the music with a keener ear
Like an owl moving through darkness, silent and clear
Now part of the music, part of the darkness.
 >
>
>
(ii)
I am in transition,
liminal, a halfway
-house broken
remade a way
cleared and cleared away,
making space
for something more
or less.
All defined lines erase
to a plume
of dust
a leaf
in the fall.
Old layers peel,
old masks flake
plaster casts break.
Hard edges erode,
become soft as loam.
All is worn down
to the jewel inside the stone.
bare bones,
driftwood,
sea-washed,
wind blown.
Un-blown,
un-staked,
up rooted,
alone.
I am an owl moving through darkness,
silent and clear
clear and true.
my own dance, dances now
like an Autumn seed, a howl
music not of the wilderness
nor the well ordered rooms
I walk between because I walk between
everything now
I dip my callused soles in cool
pavement cracks, avoiding slabs
other’s ideas of beauty or rightness.
Moments “burn with lifetimes.”
The spaces between all things grow green.

 image

(iii)
I am in transition,
liminal, a halfway
-house broken
remade a way
cleared and cleared away,
>
making space
for something more
                                         or less.
>
All defined lines erase
to a plume of dust
to a leaf
in the fall.
>
Old layers peel,
old masks flake
plaster casts break.
>
Hard edges erode,
become soft as loam.
>
All is worn down
to the jewel inside the stone.
>
bare bones,
  driftwood,
    sea-washed,
      wind blown.
         un-staked,
            up rooted,
                                           alone.
>
I am an owl moving
through currents of silence,
clear darkness.
>
My own dance, dances now
like an Autumn seed,
                                        a howl
>
a sound not of the wilderness
nor the well ordered rooms
>
I walk between
>
because I walk between
everything now.
>
I am a paper chain of people
a concertina,
an accordion,
>
 
                          a single chord.
>
Moments “burn with lifetimes.”
>
                             Days aflame.
>
>
The spaces between
all things grow green with rain,
>
and nothing remains
and nothing is lost
and nothing
is either
one thing
>    
                                  or another.
>

 Final Draft

Mid – Life

 

A liminal space,

 

A barefoot ground,

 

Luminal,

 

Burning a bark gold shroud.

 

Remaking a way, a clearing, a glade.

Clearing the raw, the un-hemmed, the frayed

leaf dreams, bare as winter sky

and full with weeping

sunlight.

 

Husk

caskets sway

low as chariots aflame.

 

Make space

for something more

 

or less.

 

Simple as a plain shift dress,

a clear dawn sky

and starlight.

Though starlight fades

come day.

 

All defined lines erase

to a plume of dust

to a breeze

in the fall.

 

Old layers peel,

old masks flake,

bark, calloused as shell fragments, breaks.

Lichen grows like fur in furrows,

Silent deer lap slow green streams,

Stems bend with currents.

 

Hard edges erode, become soft

as loam

and all is worn down

to the jewel inside the stone.

 

Bare bones,

driftwood,

sea-washed,

wind blown,

 

un-staked,

up rooted,

 

alone,

 

I am an owl moving

through sifting sands of silence.

Chaff abandons clay baked grain.

 

A womb of clear darkness quakes.

 

My own dance, dances now in the dapple

of Autumn

bough heavy with storm and ripe with fruit,

 

a howl,

 

a sound

not of the wilderness nor

the well ordered rooms

I walk between

because I walk between

everything now.

 

I am a paper chain of people

a concertina,

folded, unfolding,

 

a single note, strung into a chord.

 

“Moments “burn with lifetimes,”

 

days aflame,

the spaces between

all things grow green with rain,

 

and nothing is lost

and nothing

remains.

 

 

Quoted text inspired by  The Four Quartets by T.S Elliot.

“As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
[…] In my end is my beginning”

 

>

This poem went on quite a journey.

My initial feelings and associations melded together into dense, melancholic, prose like stanzas which I later fragmented and simplified to open up the space around each idea and bring more clarity and focus to the poem.
>
>
Certain words or phrases were drawn out as was the loose assonance and internal rhymes with the addition of further line breaks.
>
>
The first poem was centered around the idea that as we enter mid- life we become more a part of everything else. From the counter perspective it could be argued that we also become more individuated and fully ourselves as we age and that these two truths may not necessarily be in conflict.
>
>
To emphasize this concept I included the image of a paper chain of people folded up like a concertina. From the front the paper chain looks like one person but when opened out it is actually made up of a chain of others, these could be ancestors or roles we have played during our life.
>
>
Before writing this poem, I had  re-read Elliot’s The Four Quartets and chose to include some inspiration from one of my all time favourite lines of poetry: “a lifetime burning in every moment.”
>
>
This seemed to sum up the overall concept that during midlife we are paradoxically both more merged with the external world and separated from it.
>
>
The experience of decades  has afforded our consciousness to extend beyond our one dimensional ego to become “many” people. Yet at the same time the layers we built while taking on the different roles of our youth are stripped back to reveal more of our essential truth.
>
>
I’m still not sure if the poem is finished but then I never am sure whether a poem is ever really finished. Perhaps writing is just as much about the process as it is the end product.

3 thoughts on “How Poets write Poems (perhaps) – and my own writing process

  1. Thank you for sharing your take on the writing process. I too intend to share some thoughts about my writing process–when I have time to actually write about it–but in the meantime, I’d like to repost your article, particularly since it has helped me so much.

    Liked by 1 person

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