Journey of a Poem: The Bare Bones

Reading the article by Michael Mohammed Ahmad about the universality of bad writing and bad attitudes towards receiving feedback was an experience which had me laughing and wincing in recognition. It’s a harsh article, but perhaps a very necessary one. I’ve read (and written) an excess of lines which are too pretty, too laboured, trying just a little too hard to RAM the point down the readers’ throat, and I couldn’t agree more with his recommendation ‘to write something honest, specific, tangible, to use original metaphors and symbols that I could see in my mind’s eye, and to write something that was not a rehash of what they had been conditioned to believe a poem should be’.

My particular problem in poetry is that I go too unfiltered and raw, trying to fit in all the ideas and metaphors, all the images and juxtapositions which occur to me. It’s almost like I scribble down from dictation. Which is fine for a first draft, but a poem requires far, far more subtlety and editing!

editing

So I thought it might be fun to share with you the journey of a poem. Here is the ‘raw material’ for a poem which I jotted down following a pique of anger at the weekend. I will be working on it over the next few weeks and provide regular updates, the reasons behind the changes I make, links to poets who’ve done it better than myself etc. I hope it’s a fun way of approaching poetry for those of you who don’t read it so much for enjoyment or find it too ‘ivory tower.’ For the time being, since it’s just an info dump, I’ve not used any punctuation. It’s the way I always start a poem – making a note of certain ideas or feelings before I forget.

Outwit with passwords
you do me
fat on apps, accounts and Facebook foxiness
offshore squirrelling

Outrun in the gym
to keep yourself trim
belly suck and crow superior

Outcry me with your pulled muscles
nestle in your tea-based need
triumphant in your bedrest
you ignore panda-eyed flu ghosts around you

Outmother me, won’t you,
all laughter and scientific depth
masking the many hours of boredom
which you refused to partake
the allure of long-distance parenting
Swiss chocolate vs. squished pies
drowned in custard

Accidental Poet

Most of the spam is blatantly spammy and instantly forgettable.  But every now and then something appears which is so random, so illogical, so surreal, that it almost qualifies as poetry. Here is one I only mildly edited earlier:

‘Invest in your intention, dreams, enthusiasm, vision. Your zigzag enlivens you. Madness would activate dancing, sure enough, humanitarian would unite me with friends less fortunate. It’s first-class dance, then, and you advance, you dance. It’s approximately communal ventures. Though you’re up first, you shilly-shally awhile. Wind up your marvellous conversation, strike your aligned activity! Leap, you close by people, back in time! Find yourself, mettle your business, benefit theirs.  Today, from now on, more than ever, scrape stirs you go off at a tangent. And it soothes you and nurtures your essence.’

So, if a computer can write something approximating poetry, what should we make of automatic writing?  This is the unedited flow of pen on paper, when a writer connects with their subconscious and feels that their words are being ‘dictated’ to them by some external source. French historian and literary critic Taine and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa claim to have used this form of writing for some of their work.

Yes, there are some extreme examples of automatic writing – such as Martian alphabets and spiritualist messages from the Beyond.  But what I am referring to here are those words that seem to come out of nowhere  – in my case at four in the morning more often than not. I stumble out of the bedroom to a quiet corner, trying not to wake up the rest of the house, and scribble down something in haste, in fury, desperate not to miss the Muse.  In the early hours of the morning it seems brilliant, truly poetic, very profound…

In broad daylight, however… it’s about as good as the random string of words above, produced by robots. I save a phrase here, a word there, perhaps more the feel of the poem or story than the actual wording. What I do find is that it helps me to access a part of myself that usually lies dormant, a part that exists beyond the endless professional reports, shopping lists, laundry duties and trying to coordinate everybody’s schedule.  It gives me ideas.

No. That’s not true – I never experience a shortage of ideas. If anything, I suffer from the tendency of chasing after too many hares and ideas simultaneously.  So what it does give me is silence, recollection, a reminder that you need to make time to listen to yourself.

So, if you want to try automatic writing (nowadays better known as ‘free writing‘, as described by Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg), here is one way to get started:

1) Find a quiet time of day (or night), when you are not likely to be disturbed.  Find a quiet, comfortable place and get all your writing materials to hand, so that you do not need to interrupt yourself to search for a new pen or more paper.  Handwriting works better than laptops, but if you are so uncomfortable with notebook and pen that you would get distracted, then use your computer.

2) Most manuals say you should set a time limit.  I don’t actually do that myself. Or, rather I set myself a minimum of 10 minutes – but if the Muse grabs me by the throat and forces me to write for longer, who am I to argue with her?

3) Don’t worry about what you are going to say, or how you say it: grammar, spelling, punctuation, editing as you go along.  Again, I don’t quite stick to this rule: if I feel like crossing something out and rewriting, I will.  But if I am crossing out everything and rewriting the same phrase again and again – then that’s a definite No-no!

4) Once you’ve finished, set it aside for a few hours, maybe a day.  Then go back to it and see what you can keep, what new thoughts it has triggered.  Is there anything in what you have produced that you would like to explore further?

And if you have found a rare precious word, an accidental couple forged in beauty or distress, if you glimpsed some hidden treasure…  be happy, be realistic and keep on digging!

Or, to mix metaphors in a bout of automatism, it takes a lot of churning to make butter…