Game of forms

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What I admire in some poets is that they know what they want from their writing. They produce work to the same high standard, sure of the form the poems will take and precise in their vocabulary every time. They seem to be able to do this at will. And this means you can throw subject matter at them and they can respond. Ask them to write about a dry stone wall, or a birthday, or some news event, and it will be done, and their voice will ring true.

What I admire in some other poets is their adaptability when set a challenge. They are given an opportunity to write for a journal or competition and they seem to know innately what must be done. They produce work that, though it shape-shifts in form and style, also responds to any given brief with a clarity of purpose, and the poet’s efforts are regularly recognised with publication, commendations and prizes. Writing for prizes is a skill distinct from, say, writing for a collection, and some poets absolutely nail it.

But there are also other types of poet. There are, for example, some for whom purpose and signature voice seems much more about enquiry – the journey, perhaps – than having a certain idea as to the outcome. It’s not that their voice doesn’t make itself known, or that their work is distractingly inconsistent, it’s just that you’re never quite sure where they’re headed next.

I was thinking about these distinctions while selecting some poems for an upcoming reading. I written a lot over the past year – and since the publication of Scarecrow. And in that time I’ve encountered some real dead ends as well as making some decent steps forward with what I want from my own work.

What am I getting at?

At first, post-Scarecrow, my new poems were rather slight on the page. Looking back, it was as if I could barely commit to new words at all. White space was left to illuminate the page. One-word lines, two-line stanzas… new thoughts only hinted at, elemental, stripped back to the point where they were barely there. I wrote a poem about a piece of furniture; another about a potato. Somewhere in all this was a need to get back to the very building blocks of writing, and the creative process itself.

Within a few months, however, something changed. Rain poured on an old cottage in the Calder Valley, and words came, too. Suddenly, lines were flowing across the page and forming long, dense stanzas, and columns of poetry filled my notebook. There was too much to say and it was all coming in torrents.

Formally, the work I was attending to last summer is very different to the poems I’m trying to hone at the moment. Am I being inconsistent? Have I somehow lost my voice, or never gained it? I’m not so sure. I think it’s all part of the same process – part of the ‘digging’ – and part of working out what it is I want to say next. What’s clear is that I’m not allied to any singular form, but I am certain that whatever form a poem eventually takes it should inform the meaning of the piece.

I’m reminded too that I’m not keen on poetry that seems more concerned with adhering to arbitrary formal rules than actually ‘saying’ anything of interest. So you can write a tight Petrarchan sonnet; you’re always delighted to see a sestina, and love some oulipo action… but why? What for? I honestly believe that writing poetry should be more than a game of forms, and formal rules are only one part of a poet’s toolkit.

And I’m meandering, rather like my recent work. And it’s almost time for dinner. And tomorrow I need to hack away at some words that link snow and the night sky, a ‘joke’ in a symphony, an office bin, cherry blossom, and ageing. And the ways to do this are to apply the tools of symmetry, elision, repetition, and deletion (thanks L Bernstein). And then we’ll see what form the poem has taken.

(P.S. All of this is subject to change.)

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