starting a poem 6Points Illustrated

1. Tortuous path by which a poem evolves if not planned properly.

2. Evaluating drafts.

3. Symbolist approach: condensation to the enigmatic but powerfully evocative.

4. Borrowing from poems in other styles.

Starting Point

On the Starting a Poem page we suggested recasting a stanza into something like: 

Epiphanies of the evening, and a slight
Thinning in the wind, which empties its hand
Over the headstones, mowed plots, the flowers
Dead as the rest are, and heaped about. . .

We started with a striking phrase, and aimed to develop its connotations, keep the rhythm unflurried, the emotion generalized, the language elevated in tone and diction — in short, write a piece in the early Modernist manner.

If epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the Magi, or the manifestation of some overwhelmingly significant event, what is meant by the evening's epiphanies? A phrase to clear the scene, move thoughts to the end of life? The tempo and setting portend the impersonal and habitual — epiphanies, not an epiphany — but we cannot say more at present. We need a larger setting, and therefore conjure up the universal rites of passage:

In obdurate splendour the sun sinks over the hill:
A last brilliance glitters on the laid out rows
That are tented and bridal; as the clouds mass thickly,   
There is coronal and permanence in the sumptuous dark.

Triumphal in passing? As though in the earth
Our lives were residual and always friendly, going
Back as from school but more elated and regal,
Large in an inheritance that is not our home?

Where do such words come from? No one knows. Writers find and develop their own attitudes and obsessions — surveying the sheer variety of work produced is one of the pleasures of attending or running a workshop — but two points are worth stressing. Future stanzas are created through the lines already written. The mood suggested by the imagery, tone and rhythm act as it were as godparents to the nascent thought — eliciting and guiding whatever has been accumulated by experience or outside reading. And for most poets, secondly, the process is indirect. Approaches vary with writer and genre, but most poets talk about "something in the back of the mind", pregnant but rather vaguely apprehended, which only finds expression — if it does — when the poem is finished. Poets are not exempt from the need to check facts and sources, but stringing together such facts will not create poetry. Facts feed some larger conception, and this conception creates the poetry.

Now we must pause. The lines are rather muddled. The sentiment is not Modernist, which is generally critical of convention. Ambiguities abound, but they are not very helpful — why obdurate ? and coronal is not a noun. The imagery is arbitrary, and the rhythm irregular — indeed practically a hexameter in places. Should we start correcting?

There are no hard and fast rules. Lines too loose will not spark new thoughts, nor easily create something manageable when polishing is undertaken. Corrections undertaken too early may close off opportunities, however, and stifle development. For the moment we will continue with lines unchanged, and ask if the sentiments expressed will generate interesting work. The present life, the poem is suggesting, is not the focus of existence, but only an interlude. To a consumerist society that is doubtless an odd notion, but it is a Christian one, and one still to be found in country communities with long traditions.  Let us say yes, therefore, and develop further the themes of rootedness and journey.

That always they had known this? The long rides to school,
The ink-stains, the torpor, even the double detentions,
Were something they returned from, their school-friends playing
As mothers were calling through the pent-up dusk.

However you may view it, it is the poppied land
Before Flanders, new highways, the Education Acts,
Beautiful at a distance and only at seasons
Which came, as the wind does, as unknown guests.

Again we have allusions to darkness, the wind and the past — none of them explicable yet.

Let's tidy up. We remove some of the ambiguities, introduce an unobtrusive abba pararhyme, make the imagery more relevant, and smooth out the rhythm:

Epiphanies of the evening, and a slight
Thinning in the wind, which assembles and gathers
In the wrappings of cellophane and the flowers
That lie as the dead do, strewn about.

In a ragged ebullience the sun batters the far hill,
And the long fields float into the level haze:
Trees thicken with shadow and the scattered rows
In the churchyard are bent into the earth's pull.

A leaf falls to brilliance. The warm rays stream
On into something familiar, even residual:
Life was a holiday, and now frugal or regal,
In spirit they troop back to their one-time home

Which was always there waiting. Bare schoolroom desk,
Double detentions, ink stains, the overseeing
Were something they passed from, with their schoolmates playing,
As mothers came scolding from the pent-up dusk.

A far land, red poppied, before the Education Acts
And the motor car reeled in the distant horizons.
One that was close, and enchanting, if only at seasons
Which burst on them laughing as perpetual guests.

Not bad of its type, but not a contemporary piece. Authors are surely allowed to borrow — indeed have to, since language is clearly inherited — but they're also expected to create something that shows commitment to beliefs that literary theory and criticism have identified as important, which means that deep struggle with contemporary ideas, demands and perplexities that every artist makes individual. Art students are not sent out to paint the world with learnt techniques, but to find their techniques through the integration of craft skills with visual questioning. Poetry grows out of a similar interaction between observing and understanding. Each style is the product of a particular quest, and needs therefore to be modified or abandoned as that quest alters.

Rewrite as a Modernist or Postmodernist piece, therefore? Yes if we were submitting to a poetry magazine. But since these styles are covered in other pages of the site, let's go back to the movement out of which Modernism grew: Symbolism.

We need to start afresh, using only the epiphanies phrase, which we change to epiphanies of the late afternoon to capture the lassitude usual with Symbolist verse. Let us also set the scene indoors, and imagine a coffin, decked with lilies and laid out in an adjoining room. In epiphanies we have a symbol expressing a state of mind initially unknown to their originator, and we shall project the poet's inner mood by slow, wavering rhythms and thick consonants that evoke an atmosphere closed and oppressive.

Epiphanies of the late afternoon. Under the long leaves
The white-clothed trumpets shake out their flagrant pollen.
A cloud of incense patters onto the small, closed room
The grey bones grin evilly in the churchyard plots.

Nothing is good about these lines. The imagery is overwrought, the rhythm defective, and patters and bones are saying nothing useful. But with Epiphanies serving as our rare word, we concentrate on syntactical intricacies, removing the sense links in the first two lines:

Epiphanies of the late afternoon. The quiet leaves clothe.
Refulgent, the trumpets shake out their flagrant pollen.

The third line we shall leave for the present, but recast the fourth as something like:

Beyond, in the churchyard, the small teeth pick
Into decencies of the embroidered stone.

What has happened? The lilies have taken over. More exactly, certain aspects of lilies have floated into consciousness — their lambent purity, their martial bearing, their associations with pageantry and death.  Indeed, rather too much. Since our poem is not about botany, let us put more detail into the setting:

Rain and rain on the window glass, and a cold
Sky settles on the eyelids. A maid fusses in
The late silence of doily and needlepoint, which
At length unravels in the costumed bodies.
She is one with the epiphanies of the quiet day:
The unbuttoned trumpets shake out their flagrant pollen.

She hears or does not hear. The powdered head
Looks upward and beyond the unchanging day
Tented and bridal in the candlelit chamber, they
Come to her, bow to her, these embarkations
Bright with the summer through tea-strewn lawns.
Tightlipped, her smile oozes from the velvet skin:
The gloves, long worn, are shaped on the empty fingers.

Now concentrate on the first line. We have rain, the cold sky outside, and the vacant eyes of the corpse. Try a few variations:

The rain is undone into the window glass and a cold
Sky settles on the eyelids.

Rain and rain on the window glass, and a cold
August settles on the eyelids.

The second is the more interesting, but we can do better. If we condense rain, sky and corpse, we get:

A cold August rains into the eyelids.

That is very much in the high Symbolist manner: enigmatic but striking. Note the method — explanation, amplification of detail, removal of everything but a few points of telling detail. The scene has first to be clearly visualized in evocative phrases, and then those phrases reduced to the barest hints.

Now what can we say about A cold August rains into the eyelids ? Clearly it is not a first line in any conceivable stanza, nor yet the last. We need beginnings and ends. Let us merge dress and lilies to give the poem a new direction:

Beyond the laid silence of doily and needlepoint,
A cold August rains into the eyelids.
She is at one with the epiphanies of the quiet day
As the impudent dresses shake out their flagrant pollen.

What is wrong with these? They're disjointed, reading like a none-too-good good translation of Symbolist poetry at its most cerebral. The images may be striking, and the content intriguing, but the lines lack emotion. We are presenting womanhood stifled by proprietary and unspoken disappointments, and Symbolist techniques allow us to suggest what cannot be fully voiced. But by whatever process, rational or irrational, the images have to move us, and that calls on a good deal of the poet's craft.

What's to be done? Try:

  1. Reading poetry by the celebrated masters of Symbolism, in their original French, German and Spanish originals and in translation.

  1. Reading aloud and continually rephrase the lines until something pleasing and arresting emerged.

  1. Searching our own poetry for some phrase or line to get us going again.

We take the line When put down / They were but cyphers of themselves, to create:

She was a cypher of herself, and seemed so still, when the following comes fairly quickly:

Alive, a cipher of herself, she seemed
So still as worked within the patterned silence.
The clock ticked busily, the doilies grew
Slatternly with importance. The gaslight flared
Into effacement of the silk-hung room.

The days that prick upon the conscience, the fought
Lasciviousness of linen, the tinctured nights
Are sewn within the eyelids. A cold light clothes
The litanies of temperance, forbearance: she
Is at one with the epiphanies of her laying out.

Is she? Tented and bridal in the unlit chamber,
The satined body waits. All that it had hoped
For in the sunlight and on croquet lawns
Is flushed with lilies and their brandished anthers.
Unworked, the legs shake out their flagrant pollen.

Some improvement is apparent. The poem now:

1. Makes sense. We are clearly dealing with an emptied room, a woman's foibles, and her frustrations.

2. Follows the rules of rhetoric. Lines 1-2 announce the theme. Lines 3-5 draw in the reader by setting the scene. Lines 6-10 are appeals to our good natures: understanding and tolerance. Lines 11-15 start developing the theme: was the life so commendable?

3. Preserves some the better nodal points — eyelids, epiphanies, flagrant pollen.

4. Adds pregnant phrases of its own — slatternly with importance, days that prick upon the conscience, fought licentiousness, brandished anthers.

5. Replaces the merely enigmatic by something meaningful. A laid silence of needlepoint becomes a patterned silence, not simply of the room but the woman's life. The days do not prick the conscience — which is banal — but upon the conscience, which suggests that the conscience is somehow insulated from life.

6. Develops the sense of a life held and cosseted with images from dressmaking:  patterned, silk-hung, (needle) prick, linen, sewn, clothes, satined (in coffin).

7. Uses metaphor to provide depth.

8. Has a varied but consistent metre.

On the debit side, however, the poem:

1. Is squandering the resources of Symbolism by not saying anything very new or important.

2. Employs a metre that is restrictive, perhaps over-fussy. Very much more fluid and open was the rhythm of the lines which began this poem three issues back: The epiphanies of the evening and a slight / Thinning of the wind, which empties its hand…

We therefore start by loosening the rhythm:

Perhaps, then, all her very hopes had been a portioning
Of self to what was wanted. The hemline and the corseting,
The flare of silk, and the body's crimped recalcitrance
In lobes and gender and appurtenances — all
The tirades of the days gone out were entered on this small, pinched face.

Then we go to the end of the poem and sketch something like:

Always there was visiting, and sunlight, though on autumn days
When the wind tore at the last few leaves, and the lifted heart
Yearned and turned over the fecklessness of things
Not done in time, aright, attempted not at all, there came
A cry from the world labouring, piteous and not to be suppressed.

As they stand, these lines are hopelessly banal and rambling. But if we now introduce a long, dropping rhythm, again from another poem, and redraft the last stanza we get:

And afterwards, what is there but the surge
Of wind through trees, of dust in melancholy rooms,
Old autumns that feed upon regret, the numberless
And unassailable infractions of the spirit? All
That is gone, is past, irretrievably dispersed…

These are Old Testament rhythms of lament, a little too strident in their raw state, but perhaps serving as a bass melody onto which to rewrite the opening stanzas of the last issue.

The days that prick upon the conscience, the very
Patterning of withholding, pained gossip and
The visiting, the Sievre and the treasured silk
Embroidering the cold breasts — matters as these
Are settled, and far away from the quiet face.

What of remonstrance, the web of influence,
Lasciviousness of linen, tinctured nights?
All sewn within the eyelids. A cold rain clothes
The litanies of temperance, forbearance: she
Is at one with the appurtenances of the quiet house.

Why house? Because we have now personified the woman through her surroundings, one way of building up the persona, as we certainly need to do. Poems are no different from novels: we have to shape and care for the characters we create.  Appurtenances replaces the grandiose epiphanies for a similar reason, and to suggest that material possessions have crowded out people. Now we can loosen this rhythm with more detail:

The clock ticks greedily. The maid has banked the fire up,
Smoothed the coverlet and by the bedside placed
A nightcap and the latest offerings by Corelli or Hall Caine.
She who was to read them is not far away,
Surely, though sleeping, boxed in the next room…

And so on. But what of Symbolist approaches? Most of the foregoing is simple narrative, and evokes very little of extra consciousness. We must return to the instructions above: visualize and condense. The first two stanzas, moreover, cover the same ground, and for them we can use the writer's most useful weapon: the blue pencil. For the rest, with the rhythm finally in our head, we gather up the previous phrases and set out something more kindly and understanding:

Going Home

The days that prick upon the conscience, smoothed
Patterns of withholding, the tinctured nights:
All sewn within the eyelids. A cold rain clothes
The litanies of temperance, forbearance: she
Is at one with the appurtenances of the quiet house.

The maid has banked the fire up. Still it flares
On walls and further, to long days beyond,
To lawns and meets and ballrooms, events as white
In recollection as these arum lilies:
Untouched, the stamens shake out flagrant pollen.

To her, though, sleeping, beyond the surge of wind,
High trees, the drift through melancholy rooms
Of voices tangled in regret, there comes
A sound of expectation, going home at hols
To teas and outings, and all her sisters' chatter.


So, to summarize: we used free association to conjure up images relevant to our theme, and these images were then whittled down to a few telling details. Everyday links were further removed until we were left with condensed but compelling phrases. The more interesting or beautiful of these phrases were finally picked out and set in lines of some common rhythm and/or syllable count.

That was a way of writing poetry common to the late nineteenth century. It avoided the trivial, and caused its readers to ponder what was said or not being said. Very beautiful work was turned out, which appealed to readers in the same way it appealed to its authors — if only because they were not getting some feeling off their chests or riding a particular hobbyhorse. The objectivity guaranteed some quality.

But the emotional distancing could be overdone. Poems need to be deeply-pondered things, which we write and rewrite until they become meaningful to us. Unless we have wrestled with all our powers and experiences, the lines will not become memorable to us — and what we cannot remember will not haunt the imaginations of others. No doubt a poem can be worked on until it starts to take fire, but poems that spring from the heart may carry with them their own potency and shaping power.

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