On Looking

“I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.”
– Sherlock Holmes, in Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

I’m trying to say something in this blog which is important to me, and I am confronted with two problems. I don’t quite know what it is I want to say, and I don’t quite know how to say it. I will only find out what I have to say by trying to say it – and I will only find out how to say it, by repeatedly getting it wrong. Frankly it’s a pain in the neck.

It’s also the central process of writing poetry. Practical advice is easy to give – how to deal with rejection, how to get the most benefit from reading poetry, and so on. We’ll get to that, and there is a very practical exercise at the end of this entry. But let’s not confuse technique or ambition with the real skills and pleasures of poetry; the endless wrangling with what we see, what we think, and how to say it so that others might see it too.

The best poetry is at once very private and very public. Here’s a poem, for instance, that describes a moment in Louis Macneice’s life. I didn’t share that moment with him, but I know what he means about the drunkenness of things being various. That sense of intoxicating variety hadn’t occurred to me before reading Snow, but ever since I did it’s been a part of my world view. I borrow Macneice’s insight, as you might borrow mine from another poem. It’s a conversation that carries on even after death.

‘Being a poet’ isn’t about knowing how many lines there are in a pantoum, or getting published in Poetry Review. It’s a way of seeing, and you can learn it. What all good poets have in common is an appetite for looking. They notice things, and communicate in a way that makes the reader notice them too. Poets (like many other artists) develop a habit of paying close attention. If you notice everything around you – how a particular person speaks, how light falls on the water, what your own reaction is to a news story, how people behave in a pub fight or a petrol station – then you have the raw material for poetry.

After that, everything is selection. This is a whole different can of worms, which we’ll address worm by worm in the next few weeks. Select the right words, and discard the wrong ones. Work out as you write exactly what it is you’re trying to say, and what the best way is to express it. What could be simpler? Almost anything. You’ll never master it completely but you can hope to do it better each time. In the old sense of the word, writing a poem is a meditation – what my dictionary explains as “the act of thinking about something carefully, calmly, seriously, and for some time, or an instance of such thinking”.

Here’s an exercise to develop that habit of looking; the hardest, simplest and best I’ve ever devised. Go outside and select one square metre of ground (one yard, if you’re feeling Imperial). It doesn’t have to be a particularly interesting metre of ground. Now: stand or sit in your metre of ground and write down everything you notice about it, without judgment. Simply describe. The fallen leaves are not ‘melancholy’, they are ‘wet’ or ‘brown’ or ‘one of them is split across the middle’. The paving stones may have a texture like fabric; there may be a cigarette butt or a snail shell in the middle of one. There may be a footprint. What can you hear, smell, taste? Are you feeling foolish and thinking this is a waste of time? It’s an exercise in noticing, and it’s a palate cleanser for the harder work of writing about things that matter to you; but if you are just paying attention, then you are learning the most important lesson about How to Be a Poet.

On Your Marks….

Let’s get this out of the way. Can we teach someone How to be a Poet? The answer is crystal clear.

No.

And yes. This project isn’t called How to Write a Poem, or How to Get Your Poetry Published, though we’ll talk at some length about both. It isn’t called Get Rich Writing Poetry because nobody knows how to do that. We called our project How to Be a Poet because it’s not just a writing manual. It’s an offering up of our own thoughts on the practice of poetry; a consideration of what poetry reading and writing can mean to a thoughtful person seeking to do both with pleasure and skill.

Certainly we can and will teach you useful things about technique. Certainly we can give shortcuts that will save you a lot of time in hitting your stride on the page, and help you to avoid the common pitfalls of writing – the traps of cliché, of being derivative, of sloppy editing. We’re well qualified. Between us we have helped hundreds of people to write like their best selves, and there is a stream of award-winning work from the poets we’ve worked with to prove it. We have also made (and continue to make) the mistakes we’re going to try and talk you out of. In poetry as in life, no-one stops learning.

These blog entries will become a book, and our book is only one of many you could read. Stephen King’s On Writing, Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry, Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer, Ted Hughes’ Poetry in the Making, Robin Behn’s The Practice of Poetry* –there’s no need to rush at the reading list. You will never get to the end of it, because some blighter always writes a new one just as you tick off the last one. Above all, as Jane has said, read poetry. Jane, by the way, is a much nicer person than me. I’ll be the bad cop for much of this project, chivvying and poking you to push yourself further and confront unpleasant truths. She’ll be right along with soothing advice whenever I offend you.

We’ll help you approach your own writing in such a way that you aren’t bowled over by its little disappointments, nor by its little successes. We might also help you to redefine success, and to use poetry in a way that bleeds into every minute of your day. For us, poetry is a map to navigate by, a tool to use in tackling daily dilemmas. It’s a way of sharing the experiences that go beyond small talk, and exploring the places that hurt, or shine, or sing.

That’s why we called this project How to be a Poet. Come on in.

 

JB

[*As we publish these blog entries, we welcome input that will help us to make the eventual book better. Tell us what you’re reading, what books have been of most influence on you. In particular, help us to broaden our own field of reading.]

Reading poetry, and why it matters.

A Good Poet is a Well-read poet.

Let’s say that loud and clear and in large letters at the very start of proceedings. No good poetry can ever be written without also reading poetry widely first.

One thing far too often heard by creative writing tutors in workshops or mentoring sessions is the plaintive cry of ‘oh of course, I don’t read other people’s poetry in case it influences my own’. This is exactly why you should be reading poetry other than your own.

What results from this kind of monocultural and self-informed diet of poetry, where the only poetry being read by the poet is their own, is a thin gruel of a poem which an editor will always spot immediately. Like a wonky bicycle wheel, it is doomed forever to be out of kilter and lacking balance; it is fundamentally flawed. Without fail, these poems will display a lack of craft and a lack of awareness of how hard each line and every word must work to earn its place. It’s okay to write these kind of poems to get started, but a good poet is one who strives to move on and write better,  and seeks to take up an apprenticeship with the master craftspersons of their trade.

Can you imagine a great artist who never looks at other art, or the great musician who never listens to anyone else’s’ music, lest it influence their own ‘style’?

Far from it –  great artists and musicians will always first find and expose themselves to a wide palette of inspiration and influences, and in the early stages of discovering their own styles, will emulate, learn from and then ultimately grow up and beyond the various influences they absorb. The more influences (and the wider the sources of those influences) you take on board, the richer, more adventurous your own writing can be. Learn from the best. Reading poetry widely gives us a chance to ask what works, and how – and allows us to also take a poem apart, see the moving parts and the understand techniques, approaches, form and language at work, and get an idea of how it all adds up.

That is why our one of major pieces of advice, alongside writing the thing, and finishing the thing, is that you must read, and read widely and voraciously.

Read poems from your contemporaries and understand what the current poetry landscape looks like. Who is writing now, what do they write about and how? You don’t need to feel you have to copy or replicate the styles and approaches they have, but you should think about where your place is on this landscape, and which kind of approaches speak to you most directly.

Read also great and classic poems from across time and place, and from cultures and languages other than your own. Read Li Bai and Hafez and Sappho as well as Blake and Keats and Dickinson. Modern poetry in translation, and indeed the superb magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, can open doors to some incredible poetry and give you not just a local view of poetry, but a fully global one. The widest range of influences will ensure that no one single style or voice becomes a dominant inspiration in your work.

And in enjoying and discovering poetry, also allow yourself to like and dislike things. It is completely permissible to dislike a poem, or find that you don’t enjoy a particular poet’s style or approach. You should never feel that you  ‘have to’ like a poem,  or that you have failed if you don’t ‘get it’. So long as you always interrogate this reaction, work at it, find out perhaps if the poem does work, but is complex and rewards being poked and prodded and pondered over. Or perhaps, you will discover that for all its interesting and acute angles, you and the poem still don’t quite get along, but you know why and will come to understand something of yourself and how you want to write by this. These conscious moments of realisation of why something doesn’t quite work for you are just as valuable as the ones where a poem will come to you one day, make itself at home and worm its way into your thoughts and become a part of your daily living and being.

As a publisher, I should at this point declare that I have a professional interest in you reading (and buying) poetry. But I also recognise that not only is there a mind-boggling amount of poetry out there to choose from, but it can be expensive and that many of us don’t have the budget to buy as many books as we might like to. Libraries, where we remain fortunate enough to still have them, can be invaluable, and our borrowing helps them to stay open. Though not all will have extensive poetry collections, there are some notable exceptions and enthusiastic, poetry-loving librarians out there.  If you’re lucky enough to live near the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, it’s free to join and there is an embarrassment of poetry riches in its collections – many of which (non-Londoners, visting for the day, take note) can even be borrowed and posted back.

Other ways to read poetry on a shoestring or non-existent budget is to browse the wealth of resources at Poetry Foundation and the Poetry Archive. Both feature recordings, articles, interviews and more; the quality of the work you will encounter is guaranteed to be high, and their overview of poetry’s contemporary and modern landscapes is fairly comprehensive. And if you’re looking for an excellent introduction to contemporary and modern poetry, but are limited in funds and bedazzled by the plethora of possible books to buy, investing in a copy of the  Staying Alive anthology from Bloodaxe Books, with its myriad of poets, themes, forms and styles,  is  a really sound place to begin. And you can’t go far wrong with the subsequent anthologies Being Alive and Being Human either.

One last thing. Poetry needs Good Readers. Most of us are happy to go to the Tate without feeling a need to become a sculptor, and few members of any theatre’s audience are there because they are aspiring actors – yet each healthy-sized audience makes sure that theatres can continue to be viable, that galleries remain open and stage new exhibitions to throngs of appreciative visitors. If ever an art form needed more audience and appreciators rather than participants, it is certainly poetry. Be an active participant wherever you can, not just a passive contributor.

Jane.

 

Welcome to How to be a Poet

Hello there, fellow reader and writer. Allow us to introduce ourselves and explain what  How to be a Poet is all about….

 

In 2015, Jo Bell (poet, project-begetter and internaut, author of Kith and founder of the phenomenal 52 Project) and I (Jane Commane – poet, tutor and editor of Nine Arches Press)  got our heads together over a good cup of tea or three to discuss the idea of a project to follow on from 52.

We settled on the idea of How to be a Poet – a very useful handbook which would gather together our combined knowledge from our perspectives as poets and editors, a unique mix of ideas and advice from both sides of the writing and publishing process, as well as some choice essays on a variety of topics from selected poetry experts.

How to be a Poet is a manifesto of sorts. It is an exploration, both practically and creatively, of what it is to write poems, read poems, share poems and publish poetry. It is a guide to writing well, and aims to be bold and upfront about the realities of writing poetry and being a poet in the 21st century. It contains advice, but also a healthy dose of myth-busting, plenty of challenging ideas and some thought-provoking proposals that are designed to stretch both new and more experienced writers of poetry. It won’t pull any punches. It is a Poem-Writers Guide to the Galaxy.

What isn’t How to be a Poet about? It isn’t a step by step fail-safe plan for poetry success. It won’t write the poems for you. It doesn’t aim to make you an award-winning poet by the power of its pages of advice alone, and that’s not what poetry writing is about, anyway. It won’t guarantee it can get your first book of poems published, though that may come to pass as a happy offshoot of helping to making you a better poet more generally. And there will be plenty of thoughts on what exactly that means, and how we can strive to write, read and participate better as poets.

The book, How to be a Poet, will feature our complete essays, and those from our special guest contributors. It will be published in July 2017 by Nine Arches Press.

Hopefully, this first post whets your appetite. Check back in soon for our first mini-essay, in which I will look at why being a Good Reader of poetry matters.

Stay tuned!

Jane