Saturday, 5 July 2008

Write this way?

This could well be the mother of all rambles.

Jim Murdoch was writing about line breaks in poetry this week and it turned into an exchange about rules in poetry and in turn into a discussion about each poet's own rules for him or herself. Jim came up with a list of rules for him and suggested some of us others have a go. I managed to sneak some thinking about this in amongst the summer vacation acitivities and, as Mike Yarwood used to say, this is me...

I started off trying to write a proper list of rules (and please remember 'trying' was in my 'life in seven words' last week...I'm always trying...). So - I tried to be neat and tidy and theoretical and sensible but it didn't last very long. There is a bit of a list in here somewhere but there's lots of other stuff too. It's no good me trying to be too organised when really I'm just a big lump of thoughts and feelings and experience and ideas and instincts and huge hormonal surges that almost knock me over sometimes. My head is messy and, like most poets, I am something of an extremist (aren't poets so often the most of something – the craziest, the most anal, the weirdest, the most obsessive, the cleverest, the funniest, the most serious, the most withdrawn, the biggest drinkers, the most eccentric, the most erratic, the most pedantic..? No wonder there's so much disagreement!). All I know is I can't keep down a day job (and night jobs were tricky too) and yet I want to try and live out there with the rest of the folks so writing rules are not exactly my priority I'm afraid. First I have to get my daughter to school (during termtime, obviously), feed my family, clean up a bit, get to places (my weak link), not cry too often in unsuitable situations, treat people well, try not to be a pain to everybody else...all these things are my first rules and poetry rules come quite a long way down after those. Writing is one of the things I personally do to get some freedom and to get away from constraints (I know for some this might sound vague or affected but it really is true for me). I find writing easy, reading poems out to an audience even easier. I am good at communicating – pretty much always have been (even when everything else went AWOL) and I love moving words about...hearing them do their work...getting them into rhythms and patterns. I write poems...quite naturally. Some are quite straightforward, some are not at all. I don't rewrite a lot or plan or come up with theories - I just write and it feels good (and on the whole people seem to like reading and hearing what I come up with - I get a lot of good reactions – even from poets sometimes). The whole business makes me feel so elated that the last thing I want is to spend too much time analysing it or weighing it down with rules and regulations. Some people find rules and principles reassuring (and I can see the need for them when you're performing heart surgery or building an aeroplane) but my brain just refuses to think about poetry in this way. I have tried to read more about feet and metre and so on but every time I do my brain just refuses to take it in (honestly!). It puts its fingers in its ears and chants 'la, la, la, la, can't hear you!' And I'm not stupid...I was, like most poets, extreme at school - the cleverest kid in the class (most of you reading probably were some way or other, even if the teachers didn't know it) but when it comes to poetry structures and so on my brain just says to the poet bit of me 'you don't need this, you're doing just fine as you are'. And, honestly, I think I am. All this will mean some poets think I am stupid...but that seems odd to me too. I don't write for them or live for them. Can poets only be odd in the way that suits other poets? All this instinctive behaviour is my personal kind of odd. I worry about pretty much everything, pretty much all of the time but, strangely, I don't worry about line breaks. I worry about violence and cruelty, about life and death, about moving and staying still, about sadness and happiness... but writing is something I just get on with. For me it is a job...a strange one with odd hours but a job all the same. '18,000 women and children trafficked into UK sex trade' they reported in 'The Independent' last week...and here am I pissing about on the computer and thinking about line breaks. I think about that and then I just can't get too worried about literary matters. I know some people might say 'just don't read the papers' (and sometimes I don't) but overall I think ignoring the rest of the world and concentrating on punctuation is not the way I personally can proceed. It's priorities again. I don't think being a writer has to mean getting into a cocoon away from those poor little common people who can't enjoy our finer lives. I am just as crap as the next person (one minute) and just as not crap (the next...if I'm lucky). We are just people, people!

My poetry habits have come from all kinds of influences and ideas. I suppose they must come partly from emulating poets I've read and heard and liked ( I did a post about that subject a while back) but I think they also come from doing the opposite to some poets who haven't switched the lights (or the music) on for me personally. Also I do write poems unashamedly for the widest reading public possible. I have always worked this way – it seems the obvious way to me. I've ALWAYS wanted to communicate with as many people as possible. I know some people don't like that idea...they prefer to concentrate on the art of writing (if you like) and let the readers come (if they do). That is one way to work and it is fine but it is not mine. I like communicating and always have done (sometimes crowd-pleasing, sometimes crowd-surprising, sometimes crowd-worrying...the full range). To me poetry is communicating - even with only one other person, even when you're only reading a poem through to yourself. I love it sometimes when one of my own poems helps me understand what I think. They're clever things, poems. Cleverer than us mere mortals.

Like many poets I get ideas from prose and art and music too. I am interested in all the artforms equally (though my visual sense is probably the least developed – see my poem 'Seeing isn't everything'...on website under 'Seeing and believing'). Music, as I've said here before a hundred times, is my biggest influence. The sounds, the lyrics, the broad range of possibilities...I was listening to Nina Simone as I was cooking earlier on...her voice just poured out of the speakers and into my odd little miles-away-from-her world. Boy, did she know how to deliver lyrics!

Anyway, let's try and get to some rules or guidelines or habits...

1. I start every line of every poem with a capital letter. It looks right to me that way – big and bold and proud like each line has something special to say (which it should do...for is connected to the other lines, obviously, but it is also a little unit of its own...a member of a team). When I look at magazines or books with all those lower case letters at the start of most of their lines it looks...wimpy, too shy and retiring, too neat, too 'correct by modern standards'. It's just personal taste really but capital letters are what I like at the start of a line and I don't see that changing. So far only one magazine has changed them to lower case and it bugs me every time I see them. It is their 'house style', they say. I have to say I think 'house styles' for poetry magazines are the strangest idea. So if E.E.Cummings were to rise from the grave and submit they would change his letters too? No, they wouldn't. So it's an imposed style until the poet is famous? That's just bollocks then. To be frank. Celebrity culture. Bollocks.

2. Line we go.... The honest truth is I don't fret about line breaks too much. When writing what you might call free verse I fear I really do put them in 'when it feels right' (Jim's least favourite option). All I can say is that I don't have any problem with 'when it just feels right'. Feelings have always been hugely important to me – maybe too important but, you know, I control it as much as I can – feelings are just my extremist subject. I do write from the heart/gut/instinct...all of those places and more. ..those places tell me where to break my line. Sounding right is a huge consideration too. I try various options (in my head and out loud) and one of them usually, in the end, does feel and sound right. I like each line to have some clarity of its own..even if it's only one word... and when a line is complete (for me) I do just know. I read poems out quite regularly to audiences so that helps me understand whether my breaks are making sense and working as I want them to. Obviously when I'm writing a more straightforward rhyming poem the line breaks are easy to call...that's one reason I like writing like that's a break from the break decisions! I like variety in writing – pretty much across all the boards.
I also use the line break to punctuate to a large extent. I have tried using proper, correct, prose-like punctuation in poems but I hate it (especially on line ends). When I look back at the poem with all those commas and full-stops I just hate it and I have to go back and take them all out again. I like my poems as mark-free as possible (though I do leave in the odd question mark here and there) and I can't really explain why this is – especially as the visual is not an expert area with me. Why does it bother me so much how it looks? I have no idea. Despite a good education in many ways I don't ever remember being taught much about punctuation. I certainly never learned about semi-colons in school (or at home) and they are not something I feel comfortable with, for example, even in prose. So I'm sure some of it is ignorance (if you like) but I'm 41 and I'm not going back to grammar school now. So I'm more 'rough and ready' than 'perfectly planned and presented' it means some people will never 'take me seriously'...I can live with that. You know, we all have our faults. Faults and weak spots are one of my big subjects - I love them. Some artists yearn for perfection...I dwell on the dirt, the bits that won't work...

3. For me every poem should be saying something new that I haven't quite said before in another poem (and hopefully no one else has said it either but I don't worry about that too much). It may be quite a clear message (I have nothing against a poem with a message – poems can do so many things, why limit their place in the world?) or it may be a fairly message-free little picture of something or somebody. Sometimes I may not really even know what it is doing...until quite some time later.

4. I like to try most poetic forms at some point. There are a few I haven't tried yet (the ubiquitous haiku, for example) but I may try one when it's completely out of fashion (just to be awkward). I can't tell you how much I am averse to the whole idea of fashion! I would rather sit through 'Love Actually' again than go to see 'Sex and over-hyped City' (Women love it! Full of shoes!). But back to poetic forms...mostly I know pretty quickly whether the form and the content are working well together or not. If it's not working I switch to a different form and try something else. Sometimes words come right and sometimes they don't but I have never, ever, ever had writer's block. How could you run out of ideas? I just don't get that. There is so much to write about! Being too miserable or confused or just messed-up to I can understand how that might happen... but it doesn't happen to me. I just keep on going...whether anyone's listening or reading or not.

5. I avoid at all costs the very idea of schools of writing. I don't like any of the labels used for writing really and I've never understood the need to put poets into groups and schools (I've certainly never wanted to be part of one). The poor old poet spends all that time busting a gut to say their piece and then we tidy them up into neat little groups with ridiculous names (often once they're dead). Neo this and post that. Women poets very often don't fit into any of the groups (Stevie Smith...where she?) and that is significant perhaps. Go sisters.

6. I write about pretty much any subject matter. If it is very personal (and easy to comprehend) I do consult my nearest and dearest at times to see how they feel about certain details going into the public domain. Only once has someone near to me said 'no, please, I don't want people to know that' and I tweaked the poem accordingly to make it less specific. My loved ones are very good to me and support me and put up with all this poetry nonsense. Their happiness is important. A person can be too selfish and self-obsessed.

7. Personally I have to feel happy with the finished poem – and my poems are finished, generally speaking. I have to feel each poem is as honest as it can be and is not posing or trying to be something it isn't. I must always feel that I haven't tried to paint myself as more intelligent or more honourable or, indeed, more honest than I really am. It can be tricky to work out what is what...I do my best.

8. I try to explore writing as much as I can...I am an experimental poet in my own mind even if I don't fit other people's ideas of what an experimental poet is (it seems to be that if they like it it is experimental and if they don't it is just rehashed crap). I try different things in every poem (different language, different references, different styles, different priorities, different intentions). One reason I fell so far into Raveworld in my twenties was the escape from uptight Britain that it provided – an escape from that place where you had to do things in a certain way, where you had to think in a certain way or you were just unacceptable. Raveworld merriness and freedom had a lot of illusion mixed in with it but it was still a fantastic time and place to be young and alive and not never, ever going to bed. Lots of the records used the refrain 'open your mind' and whilst this did often just mean 'fill yourself with drugs' the phrase still hangs around my head - especially whenever I hear or read someone telling other people how to be or think or write. I opened my mind... well, perhaps a little too much. In fact at one point pretty much everything nearly fell out onto the floor in a heap...but then...I stuffed some of it back in and here I am....doing what I do, doing what I can, doing what feels right. It's messy but effective. My kitchen cupboards aren't too bad – my head is allowed to be a mess. It is my head.

9. I try to shut out other people's ideas about poetry when I am writing. So other poets might sneer at something (I think to myself as I am writing...) but I just have to put that out of my head. It is the poem that matters and it will come out as it needs to – me and the poem will work it out. To me a lot of the stuff that gets talked about poetry is just fluff that spoils the sound on a record player. So pick off the fluff and let the record play for goodness sake! Ah, that's better...

10. I am always ready to change my ways of working if it seems the right thing to do at the time. I don't expect to be the same writer at 60...if I get that far. Changing, progressing, learning, I'm back where I came in.

This is probably as close to rules as I'm going to get. And it's not very close is it? I am pretty much always better at expressing my thoughts in poetry than in prose so here is all the above in four nice, short, easy lines:


All the games, all the talk
But this much is clear
The words keep on moving
They're freer than we are

RF 2008

See what I mean?


hope said...

I think the most honest reply I can make to this post is, "I understand EXACTLY what you mean. I really do!"

For me writing is like breathing. It's not a boring exercise or a mandatory way to report facts. It's..dare I say it?! Sure there are times my brain and I do a tug-o-war over which word suits the mood. That's part of being creative, finding the word that best fits THAT MOMENT you are trying to share.

As for rules, you've precisely described why I was never drawn to writing my head I hear a snooty professor telling me I'm breaking all the rules and making a mess. ;) So I will write my way and cheer you on as you write yours. If it wasn't for people who write, what would critics do for a living?

There is a code at my house for when I want to slip into the world of words without company, be that living people or mechanical interruptions like the telephone, etc.. If hubby asks what I'm about to do, I say with a smile, "I'm off to hope world." And I am left blissfully alone until I want to come back and play in the world where you pay bills and grouse about taxes. :)

Write on girl, write on!

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Hope. I never want everyone to think like I do about writing (or anything else) but it's nice to know that at least some people do.

Jim Murdoch said...

Okay, I've extricated myself from the rambles and here's a go at a comment free list. I think this was a good exercise for you and I wish more poets would take a bit of time to consider why they do what they do. Of course poetry is about feelings. They cannot be discounted. I see feelings however as reactions, oftentimes long-delayed reactions. I have always hated the kids who say (and I was one of them), "I just don't liiiiiike it." There's a reason why we don't like things. There's a reason why we feel things. I don't see reasoning and feeling as separate things.

If one understands why then it helps one appreciate ones limitations and also see what one can mine and refine. We both agree that no topic is taboo but at the same time it's interesting to see where we shine. The finding what you're good at stage is fun but we live short lives. I don't perform well when it comes to nature poetry for example. There are those who do – let them get on with it. I consider myself as something of a specialist so I suppose one of my points might be, Find your niche and stick with it.

Anyway, see if this is a neat summary. I think it could do with some more work but this was just a bit of fun and I don't see you printing this out and pinning it over your desk.

1. A poem should say something new or provide a new perspective
2. Any subject matter is valid
3. All poetic forms are available
4. A poem's style is dictated by its content
5. Experimentation in poetry is encouraged
6. Writing requires distancing oneself from external ideas and opinions
7. Affiliation with any school of writing is detrimental
8. A poem should be as free from punctuation as possible
9. Every new line of a poem should begin with a capital letter
10. Line breaks are determined subjectively unless a rhyme scheme dictates otherwise
11. Line breaks may be used as an alternative to standard punctuation
12. References to close associates require ratification
13. A poem should be accessible to the widest audience possible
14. The author is the final judge as to the ultimate state of a poem

One last thought, and this was prompted by Hope's response, just in case you think I'm totally rule bound and fixated with structure, remember I'm the same guy who wrote this poem too:

The Art of Breathing

To find room for the new
you have to let go of
the old

so to learn how to write
I had to forget how
to breathe

and for a time I thought
I had to write to keep

which makes such perfect sense
but only if you're a

20 November 1997

p.s. That said, note the 6-6-2 structure of the poem

Rachel Fox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel Fox said...

Sorry I missed a word in all the excitement and had to repost.

Oh've read all that rambling and made sense of're a genius!

I love your comment and your version of my list - I may well print it out...hell, I may form a school of poets and we'll all follow it to the grave! Except I can't because of number 7. Phew. Perhaps we need to say it clearly for other visitors but this is my guidelines and/or rules (arranged by Jim). I know some people hate the whole 'accessible' thing. That is their business - this is mine.

Number 12 made me quite literally roar with laughter.

If I was going to be pedantic I might say numbers 4 and 6 could be looser as in 'a poem's style is often dictated by its content' and 'writing requires attempts at distancing oneself from external ideas and opinions' (because with the latter I'm not sure how much it can really be achieved).

Overall - a job well done. I appreciate the thought and time you put into it too. And that is the poem of yours that I have liked the most so far. Go have a look at my breathing poem if you have time (under 'distress and recovery' on website - title 'Problems with value')- I forgot how to breathe for a few years. My beloved used to yell at me 'Will you breathe for heaven's sake!' It was a death wish thing but I'm over it now. We have more in common than we might think! Maybe...

And Hope...I forgot to say that I suppose one of the main problems with talking about writing in the way I have here is that I leave myself open to being dismissed as a girlie dimwit (by some women as well as men!)...but really if someone is going to think that way then there's nothing much I can do about it. The poems will just have to fight their own battles and they're quite a butch and feisty bunch...even the little ones. In fact especially the little ones.

hope said...

Let's just say I think of us as being in the same club...not the Girls club but the Human one where we write with our own set of non-rules. ;) Maybe I should've pointed out I admire your spunk and fire...I'm more comfortable behind the scenes...reading in front of a crowd is my idea of hell. See, another reason I leave the poetry to you, Jim and Shug. By the way, I love the "little" poems. There's power in choosing just a few words.

Jim...nice work! Your poem made me smile for more than one reason... one of which was the day someone said to me,"I feel like I'm suffocating if I'm asked to write down my feelings. Writing's hard!"

Some days it is, most days it's just enjoyable. And I bet we'd find 100 different reasons between us that that is true.

Jim Murdoch said...

'Problems with value' is an excellent poem. My wife agreed - praise indeed.

For the record I posted 'The Art of Breathing' on a critique board some time back then and one guy wrote to me to say he'd printed out a copy and pinned it to the cork board that hung beside his desk so that he could read it daily. He said I'd managed to put into words what he'd felt for years but had been unable to express himself.

Writing is a responsibility. Not everyone has a facility with words so we have to share ours. That's how I see it. Yes, it's getting stuff out of our systems but we're not alone. There's a world full of people experiencing exactly what we're experiencing and don't have the words. For them, a poem is a breath of fresh air.

Rachel Fox said...

I did think of putting 'Problems with value' in the book but decided against it in the end. Maybe that was a mistake!


Ken Armstrong said...

I don't write poetry...

-Those of you who might have seen some of my poetry will know this- :)

... but I can still see that this is a little/medium sized treasure of a post/comment ensemble.

I love it when writers step back occasionally and interrogate what/why/how they are writing.

Well done Rachel - I'd say your kitchen cupboards are lovely - have you seen the ketchup?

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Ken...and happy holidays!

Sorlil said...

phew I made it to the end :) I like reading about how other poets write, in fact I'm a bit obsessed about it! My way of writing is very different from yours, and I enjoy reading about that, in fact I'm super jealous that you never have writers block! What we do share I'm sure is the total buzz (and kind of release) you get from writing a poem, why else would we do it!

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for reading Sorlil. It's an important point about liking and being interested in writers who think and work in a different way to yourself - that's a healthy and positive attitude...and something worth hanging onto!

deemikay said...

Interesting. :)

For your number 1 I'd have to say that capital letters at the beginiing of a line (where not necessary) look odd to me... but I can't say why.

The archaeologist in me would like to find out where the tradition comes from. Did monks and clerics in the middle ages handwrite a capital letter at a new line? Or did it start with the printing press and typesetters taking over from the poet? Hmmm... I shall have to check!

But I can't object to numbers 2 to 10!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, the capital causes me quite a lot of bother! So I have asked myself and asked myself...'why do I do it?', 'shall I change?', does it matter?'...and in the end I can only say 'they look right to me.' Every time I look at the poem in 'Pushing out the boat' with its lower case line starts it makes me feel uncomfortable.
I sometimes wonder if I'm just being contrary (and that is possible). I am very anti-fashion in lots of ways so I refuse to do something 'just because everyone else is doing it'. But it isn't just that. We all have our weird habits.

deemikay said...

Oh, I've no problem with capitals at the beginning of lines. Ionce got quite narky at someone for transcribing an old poem with lowercase first lines when the original had uppercase. Some people thought I was being a bit daft. :os

I don't necessarily see it as a fashion thing. Some do, some don't. And editors should respect the poet's choice.

PS... had I a better idea what you looked like, you'd have been in the last frame of Poets Cornered #12. But I replaced you with me. :/