Friday, 6 January 2012

Writing Poetry... A Unique Perspective

So I commented on a mildly erotic poem and look where it got me!

This time last year, I would never have thought I'd be writing an article about writing poetry. But, you know, stranger things happened in Area 51! This post is my personal and unique perspective on writing, but particularly the business of writing poetry. It also happens, incidentally, to contain reference to literature that is just a little risque and which may offend some people; but, most important of all, I have tried to make an honest commentary out of what was originally a private communication that I had, before Christmas, with an author who had asked me to read and give my opinion on a poem she had just written. The email I ended up writing in response was, well, a bit long and much more broad sweeping than I expected (well, to be honest, and to her amazement, I went off on a bit of a gush!). This is an extension of that particular communication, which it seems warranted further airing, because of its relevance to me and hence its inclusion as a post, here in my blog.
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I wanted to share this with you, because I'm approaching the first anniversary of setting up my poetry blog, and it seemed an appropriate way to recap my experience, so far, on writing poetry and how I view the poetry of others. This post is based on the response I wrote after I'd been invited to read and comment on a poem. I had been enjoying a discussion about it with someone who describes herself merely as an aspiring poet, but who happens to be a pretty bright cookie and a published author. Over the past six months, I have also enjoyed much intellectual banter with her, on an array of subjects ranging from the London Riots to the economy, the state of the Euro and Greece, not to mention our more recent exchanges on poetry. 

She is Eden Baylee, who happens also, in my humble opinion, to be a poet; albeit one, who questions her poetic ability rather more than she needs to. This conversation, therefore, concerned a poem she had recently posted on her blog site, which she had invited me to read and comment on. You can read this poem for yourself (the link is in the next paragraph), but be aware that it is risque; so feel free to do so only provided you are happy with the nature of erotic literature. It is not central to what I am going to say, but I reference it not just because it turns out to be good poetry, on several levels, but because I wanted to credit her for persuading me to write this piece in the first place.

So, what happened?
It was one of those nights, recently, when I found myself awake between four and five o'clock (ok, I got a lie-in!). Anyway, I woke thinking - as I have so often done around that moment between sleep and waking - about the universe, about the human condition and sometimes how poetry springs forth from this transient state of mind. It is at these moments when I also do my deepest and most philosophical thinking; I’m sure that some of you may also be able to identify with this ‘twilight zone’. OK, I hear you ask, so what has this got to do with a sensual poem called "Sleep Eludes Me"?! Well, if you read the poem, I think you'll work that out for yourself. However, they are connected by that point in time, between sleep and waking, when the mind has access to both the semi-conscious and fully conscious states that seem to engage the creative centres of the right brain, from which the creative imagination can run riot, the effects of which can be creatively very productive... or very frustrating! 

On this particular night, however, I had woken and fell to thinking about humanity (again) and how it is inextricably linked to the enormity of the universe; how the creative vision of poets and philosophers spans its diversity, fathoms its depths, and sheds light on its darkness.
This creative imagination, the deepest thinking, of which homo sapiens is capable, is the root and source of all philosophical thought, which, in turn, is the root and source of fundamental science; the stuff that separates us from all other forms of life on earth. Who is to know what imagination apes and ants may have, what as yet undiscovered secrets, plants of the Amazon may hold about the cosmos? The answers to those questions are for another time and, probably, from another brain. My commentary will be confined to homo sapiens in general, but poets and poetry in particular. 

The fact is that you and I are children of the universe - and who was it first said that? Anyway, add to this one further deeply philosophical thought: that life's diversity, its complete series of spectra, the whole of the universe in its entirety is held in the cumulative creative imaginations of every human being, who ever lived, who live now and who will ever live in the future. If we were able to bring all of that creative imagination together into one stream of thought, into one quantum mechanical equation, in one great collaborative piece of work, we would understand the universe and everything that's in it. Of course, I know that this is unlikely to prove possible, but it tickles my intellect to consider it. It also seems to add some depth as well as perspective to my view of human multiplicity.
Why read and write poetry, then?
Because it will improve your mind and help you understand how to write it. I say this now, in the full knowledge that my poetry writing started, albeit in quite cathartic circumstances, before I'd really spent any time reading the poetry of others. So, apart from the fact that at least I got going writing poems, most of it was not very good at all, poetically speaking, because I didn't know what I was doing! I did feel an immediate passion for it, though. In fact, my first poem "Jessica Tenth of May", subsequently edited and reworked, had uneven rhythm, odd and changing numbers of lines in stanzas to say nothing of the use of archaic language (have to say that my eldest daughter still has the original framed on the wall of my granddaughter's bedroom!). So, when I did start to read the poetry of others, properly, I then found myself criticising it in my head, because I thought I knew what I was doing. Hah! Wake up call..! This truly began to dawn on me during the past year as I formed allegiances with a group of special people, poets, on Twitter, from whom I have learned so much.

So, what I learned from this, therefore, was that, when you read another author’s poetry, it’s important to remember that it is perfectly unique; its combination of rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, simile, alliteration and any number of other tools of poetic expression that may have been used, is unique to the poet and the poem and the circumstance in which they wrote it. It is the task of the reader to read it in the way it was intended; try to understand the poet's vision, which is sometimes obvious, sometimes very difficult. Either way, you need to try to understand and if, in the end, you can’t, then leave it and move on, but don’t try to alter it, even in your head, tempting though that may be; although I'd say a desire to alter it may be the starting point for understanding it. 
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Occasionally you will come across a poem or a lyric that takes on a life of its own and can be understood in more ways than one; these can be amongst the most special and memorable. When reading someone else’s poem, then, the key is to try and understand the subtleties of their expression, visually, intellectually, rhythmically, even harmonically. Ultimately, assuming they can read it out loud as effectively as they could in their head as they composed it, the poet's own reading of it is, I find so often very telling; but not exclusively. There are some poets who like their poems to be read by others for special reasons and there are those who are very good at reading poetry - who wouldn’t like Sean Connery or Sheila Hancock to read theirs! But be prepared to allow someone to read your poems out loud; you would find it revealing. Making the effort to understand a poem also has another benefit. It fosters in the mind of the reader not only a quest for understanding, but it also nurtures tolerance for alternative expression, perspectives and views on its subject matter; this is the same principle that applies to the reading of any literature. Surely, this can only be good for humanity and human development.
The quality that separates mere journeyman poets from the truly great poets is the knack they have to find a means of expression, the special use of language and combinations of poetic forms, tools and words that communicate and appeal to the widest audience; that hit the nerves, pull the heartstrings and stimulate the emotions of the greatest number of readers. They are, in some way, special; and this could equally be said of great song writers, who write songs with a 'hook'. Poets can do the same thing. How many of you know the following lines:
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare”
..and how many know the name of the author, William Henry Davies, or anything about his life and works? 
And how many know these lines:
“Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone”
..from the poem “Solitude” by the 19th/20th Century poet, Ella Wheeler-Wilcox?
I would argue that it is the inner quest of most poets (and lyricists for that matter) to achieve this; but few of us will. This is not due to a lack of skill or talent, but, I think, by virtue of our unique blend of attributes, the way we are wired by our genetic heritage and the environment into which we were borne; the unique way in which we are constructed from the atoms of the universe and, in a more down to earth sense, the faculty we have etched into our psyche to push ourselves forward... or not; our attitude. Sometimes we also need a bit of luck; to be in the right place at the right time. That said, I still think that a great many more poets and song-writers are capable of more universal recognition than are ever acknowledged as thus. Firstly, this is a function of how critics in the media tend to elevate the elite to God-like status (or crush them to obscurity), which thereby preoccupies our consciousness, in a way that is out of proportion with reality - is this yet another outcome of a celebrity obsessed culture?  Secondly, I believe it is also a function of how much we are prepared to accept the views of others, second hand opinions, without making the effort ourselves to formulate our own authentic opinions.
Anyway, back to poetic structure...
There are so many forms and structures of poetry it is mind boggling and probably disenchanting to a lot of would-be poets. Take Lewis Turco's 'Book of Forms', for example, which is a reference work for poets that was recommended to me by Kona Macphee a couple of years ago. I used this avidly for a time but now not so often! I think the reason for this is that, if you are true to yourself as a poet, you don't need that many rules. First and foremost you need a stream of creative ideas; to be inspired; and a determination to use your first language, or any other that you know well, to write; just write and see what comes of it. 

I really don’t want to become over academic about poetry, because, for me, being overly conscious of form has the potential to strangulate the creative process. I don’t deny, however, that it is important, for example in teaching, to have an understanding of poetic structure and a good reference source of poetic forms (e.g. Lewis Turco) as well as a good knowledge of poetry and literature in general. I do sometimes like structure. 

There are times when a poem does need to 'look' good. An odd number of stanzas and perhaps an odd number of lines in each stanza, can make for a better visual balance. However, when I write a poem, I rarely set out with a structure in mind; whatever evolves from my thought processes, is placed on the page as it flows from my head; it is what it is. So what comes out could be in any form from 'free verse' to the highly structured and stylised English sonnet; or it could be 'blank verse', which, although unrhymed, does use that well known Shakespearean metre, ‘iambic pentameter’ as its metrical anchor. There are, however, exceptions in my case, here are some examples. 

"Twenty Nine" is an elegy for a hero, which I wrote deliberately in exactly the same form that Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his epic "In Memoriam A.H.H.". 

The Lamb” is a Haiku triplet. 

I have also written a few limericks 

... and some English (aka Shakespearean) sonnets, like "Rose Petal" and "Christmas Gold".

I have written several poems in 'free verse' like "Perfection" and "The Poppy" as well as variations; free verse that had some structure e.g. the fifteen line stanzas of "Unreality". But I think some of my best work didn’t set out to have any prescriptive structure at all, for example "Grasslands".
The only thing I have found on my own poetic journey, is that, whilst I do from time to time write 'free verse', I am a sucker for good old fashioned uniform structure; 'visual' appeal is sometimes important. None of these forms is easier than the other, in my opinion; each has its merits and difficulties. An odd number of stanzas and an odd number of lines in the stanza is neat. I like odd numbers because it somehow gives a poem balance; some designer "je ne sais quoi".
Eden Baylee said: "It's good discipline for me to use words sparingly and still get my point across. Poetry for me is like music - more visceral than intellectual". This is very pithy and perceptive, in my view, and the mark of a writer who is never entirely satisfied with their work and wants to improve. I had already made the same observation elsewhere of my own personal poetic journey (in a micro-interview on Kona Macphee's excellent 'That Elusive Clarity' blog site, called "Six Things" - see the question: "one thing about myself that often obstructs me"), because, as you've seen, I do have an unerring ability for distraction and verbosity! Poetry is a discipline in itself that encourages concision in writing; it motivates a writer to be economical, but precise in written expression.
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So please, if, like me, you are an aspiring poet, never feel in any way at all that your poetry is anything other than good! It represents you and your particularly unique perspective on this world and it can be a fulfilling and joyful experience as well as being a place in which you can begin to resolve your thoughts on so many of the mysteries of life. To get it right, provided you work diligently, and ruthlessly if necessary, on your final editing, to ensure there is a story or a message, however subtle; that you chose words carefully and construct sentences properly; that it flows, joins up and is connected; that there is a rhythm, which also flows, joins up and is connected and pays attention, where necessary, to metric 'feet', whether iambic or trochaic, then you will have the potential, as will I, to be a great poet. All writers can and should strive to improve their writing; and all the good ones are never satisfied with their last work. 
As for poetry, right now, you and I, along with those, who make the effort to transcribe their thoughts, feelings and sometimes strong emotions, that arouse us between sleep and waking, or at any other time for that fact, are on the journey toward finding out if we can be great.

I hope you enjoy your journey; I hope we enjoy each others' journeys.


Ten days after this post, I had a dream and wrote "The Dream of A Poet", which relates to several aspects of this post.



  1. I have been following your blog and enjoyed reading your every post. But I think it's about time to break the silence by commenting especially on this article you wrote about "writing poetry...a unique perspective". I would like to thank you for the contents. Poets have always been regarded by society as borderline cases even if their poetry has been altering its perception of the world for ages now. Psychologists explicate the human components of his creativity, while the literary critics interprete his discourse to discover the machinery of his consciousness. His predilection for speaking in an uncommon language and seeing things from strange perspective doesn't makes sense in a prose environment where meanings and viewpoints must adhere to an accepted literariness to be believed. Since he uses language metaphorically, they suspect that there is something more in his work than meets the eye. At the very least, only a madman would keep on dealing with reality in such an oblique manner. But then, why write or read poetry? Because poetry, to quote from Aristotle, is finer and more philosophical than history; for it expresses the universal, and history only the particular. And, as what Shelly would have us all told about that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, a poem should not mean, as what Archibald MacLeish would like to point out, but be. I have been writing poetry and Shakepeare is one of my all time favorite of poets. Click on this link to read one of my sonnets patterned after his style:

  2. Napoleon, thanks very much for your comment; I'm very pleased you've 'broken your silence'. You were one of the first people to follow this blog earlier last year, if I recall, and I appreciate that.

    What you've said above is very valid and, yes, what the ancient and not so ancient poets and philosophers said then is as valid today as ever it was. Poets can have a very important and sometimes unique perspective on the world and the universe, which needs to be read with care.

  3. John,

    Ha! I was quite shocked to read your references to me in your post, but thank you for your kind words. I am thrilled you have written this for a wider audience. As I had said to you, your thoughts and expertise on this subject are too good for my eyes only.

    I don't disagree that each poet has a unique perspective and voice, and that perhaps we should all look on our work as "good," but I'm nonetheless happy to have learned some of the rules from you to help me improve my poetry.

    Maybe it is how my brain is wired, but I prefer to work within guidelines. Even when I compose free verse, I set out some pattern for myself to follow that usually involves balance of stanzas, number of lines, or number of words, etc. If I were to go completely "free" in my writing, my fear is that it would be nonsensical. Though poetry is visceral for me, I believe readers can only attain those feelings if they have some basic understanding of my words.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with me on this subject. It was highly beneficial, and I’m sure it will be to anyone who reads it.


  4. Hi John...I'm not a poet at all...although come to think of it, I have written quite a bit over the years (& am in the middle of trying to write one for my Dad's upcoming 75th birthday) So maybe a bit-part poet instead. But I love reading the poems of others..all types & rhythms. I just adore words...and find the way different people choose to put them together endlessly fascinating. I enjoyed reading this post very much, still have so much to learn! I also agree that, like art, there are no bad poems as's just what each reader finds & takes from them (or not!) I have discovered and enjoyed a new perspective through your work and look forward to continuing to do so. Rachel x

  5. John,

    You amaze me, not only are your thoughts profound, but your ability to convey the process is very stimulating.


  6. Eden, it was not only a pleasure but I was also flattered that you asked me to read your poem and comment in the first place. Above this I am impressed that you have the courage to take the critique on the chin, starting from an initial position that tells me you accept that your poetry needs to improve, and embrace it with open arms. There are a few things, in these respects, that you could teach a lot of people yourself.

    As the saying goes, it's good to do business with you.

  7. Rachel, thank you for your comment and so glad you still get something from my writing. Given that you are most likely far better equipped than I on the subject of writing in general, I take that as a compliment. I'd like to be a fly on the wall when you read your poem to your Dad on his Birthday :-)x

  8. Sammy, if I only ever got one comment on a my post, yours would cheer me up no end. Thank you. The last of the three 'Savage Chickens' cartoons in this blog post, I find the most amusing.

    Blogoshere is a wonderful place and, above all, an integral and powerful part of the 'Social Media' revolution. Long may it last for us all.

  9. awesome

    Eden's work is thought provoking

  10. "Eden's work is thought provoking"... certainly is. Thanks for dropping in, Lance.

  11. John,
    I so appreciate your intellect and your abilities to analyse, synthesize and elucidate. You share perspectives that prompt thought and self-evaluation within any one of us who writes poetry, or prose, for that matter. Thank you!

  12. Kim, good to 'see' you again. Thanks for your comments. You might add to my abilities... my propensity to gush at length ;-). But in all seriousness, it is an attempt at a summary of my experience so far on the subject. It's a good feeling to be in the position where I believe I have actually learned something in the past year and can actually identify what that is!

  13. I found your blog off of a Twitter retweet... and I'm glad I came. Your blog post is informative and very well written. As a poet, I enjoyed it immensely. And the coup de grace was Eden's awesome poem that you referenced. I totally agree that understanding the rules helps you break them effectively. hehe I write for cathartic reasons, but also because I inhale ideas and exhale poetry - writing is as imperative for me as breath.

    This post has so many good points and is so well written ... I just have to come back and soak in it again :) Will be looking to follow you here and Twitter too, if you don't mind... (@bajanpoet) Great job!

  14. Thank you, bajanpoet, whoever and wherever you may be, I appreciate your saying that; I am most flattered.

  15. This was a very interesting essay, John, and so were the responses. But I'm going to cut straight through to how I experienced the poem, without analysing it technically, i.e. what thoughts and emotions it evoked. When I finished reading the poem, it brought me to Milan Kundera's novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to the character called Sabine and also aspects of Theresa. That the girl wants to be a mystery, the secrets being the weight that she needs. When her lover reveals all to his wife, she is upset, because there was no secret any more. No weight. And at the same time, the affair was all about her need for someone to be in love with her, so that she could love herself. Eden Baylee's poem gave me a sense of a woman that wants exactly that.

  16. How very interesting you should mention Kundera's book. I came across its title early last year on Kona Macphee's terrific blog, 'that elusive clarity', which I spent some months reading and regularly commenting on. She had written a post entitled "Unbearable Easiness" (, which I just remembered, and which, amongst several references was one to this book (she said the title was a mistranslation of the Czech and should be "The Unbearable Easiness of Being" - I'd be interested in your view of this, since I understand you are learning that language). It looks like I'm going to have to put this one on my lengthening reading list.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment, Q, I appreciate it very much.

  17. Well, here I am having read this post as I said I would, and you were quite correct in saying that I would enjoy it. There's a lot here to comment on and I won't go into a great deal of detail, because it's almost 2.30am and I ought to be asleep.

    One thing that struck me most though, aside from yours and Eden's talent for poetry, is the references you made to the transitional states between sleep and waking. This is something I'm very interested in, because some of my best ideas come from those states, particularly the hypnopompic state (from sleep to waking; hypnagogic is waking to sleep). Mostly this has been for plays - two of the plays I've written have been found in that state, or rather the seed of inspiration has. It's definitely preferable to lying awake unable to sleep, which I find myself doing more often than I'd care to.

    Anyway, I shan't go on any longer. Thanks for a great read.


    1. Thanks for your long comment Nick. And thanks for teaching me two new words for my vocab - hypnopompic and hypnagogic - marvellous! And yes that transition between sleep and waking (and vice versa) are clearly of much importance in the creative process.

  18. Haha, John! You know you've written a great post when you have spammers targeting it a year after you've written it!

    I consider this a humorous, intellectual, and sane analysis of poetry. It made perfect sense to me when we chatted about it, and your succinct way of voicing it here resonates with many.

    Must share,


Don't leave without letting me know what this article made you think, how it made you feel ... good or bad, I'll take either.