Monday, 15 August 2011

Writing Poetry (Or Channelling & Chasing Butterflies)

It's one thing saying you're a writer, but a poet? Well, that's quite another. Or should it be a poetess? How in the heck to define it? Conjuror, magician, wordsmith, visionary, shaman?  Or just language-lover? As W.H. Auden defined it: "a poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language." And I am. Totally. Irrevocably. Swoon.

Poetry is language "raised to the Nth power" and so the ultimate in extreme language pursuits. I compare my love of poetry to my love for strong spirits over bland beer and the likes.  I like the strong stuff in life and poetry is surely a showcase for the strongest: love, death, hope, hopelessness, loss, happiness - all kinds of feelings. It's an electric humming arena of emotion.  'To be a poet is a condition, not a profession." Oh yes. It's a way of looking and responding to the world. And a condition that is continually satisfied when the right words come together and there's a clicking somewhere, an aha! moment of clarity and revelation and supreme harmony. The world fits, everything fits and clicks into place, all because of words.  There's nowhere better to witness the wizadry of words than in poetry. 

"A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness." - Robert Frost. A poem's first twinge comes as just that: an inkling, a half-whispered word, an image, an idea, a feeling that just has to be realized into words. Ever observe a butterfly fluttering around the garden? Notice how quick it moves, how it only flittingly comes near you before flying away. Well poems arrive just like metaphorical butterflies, floating and fluttering overhead before landing lightly, only for a millisecond in our imagination, enough to trigger an impression.  And off we go, we poets, nets in hand, chasing butterflies, trying to capture this experience before it evaporates. (Nimbleness, skill, feather-light footsteps, swift swiping and an ear like a recording studio all required.)

And we never know where the butterfly will take us. Like Alice and the white rabbit, it could be to Wonderland. Indeed every poem is written in such a surreal mode, some kind of Wonderland zoning-out and honing-in on the core matter of things.  The best poems write themselves (I've heard songwriters say this too.)  Derek Walcott says "if you know what you're going to write when you're writing a poem, then it's going to be average." And Robert Frost too: "writing a poem is discovering." We never know where the poem will take us. That's why it's so exhilarating and exciting. Like following a treasure map of lines and rhymes and metaphors and ending up with the riches of new wisdom at the end.

Surreal and sacred. Poets have often described the process of writing poetry as 'following dictation'. They don't write the poems, they merely listen to them being recited in their heads by some all-knowing clear-cut quartz voice from the vast well of creativity. I totally agree with this. Writing a poem does not involve hanging around at a blank computer screen for ages, editing and pasting and inventing lines. It only happens when I hear 'dictation,' hear the Muse's voice in my head. 

It could be when I'm dozing off to sleep or waking, sometimes during a moment of late-night waking, out walking, travelling, eating. ...Whenever a line or snatch of a line or word or image comes fluttering into my head, I grab it, write it down and let it develop from there. Sometimes it will take a few days or weeks to gestate into more, sometimes I get the full poem and work at re-arranging lines and words until it echoes pitch-perfect (and when it does, it feels like I've caught a scattering of stardust and smoothed it into language, or pinned a  rare specimen of  butterfly to the page for observation and analysis.)

Poetry is totally different to prose, where you show up at the computer and start typing and firing out rounds of words like extended gunfire. Prose is much more linear and logical than poetry. It can be planned and mapped and structured. Poetry can't. It just happens, just manifests out of the imagination like genie smoke. You can't force  or foresee a poem. You can only be aware, and listen out for it rising up through the subconscious like a timid butterfly. Prose comes from black and white straightforward thinking; poetry from that blue and green sparking starry space of emotion fusing with thought before being transformed through the alchemy of words into art.
And it's something I cherish, this ability to 'write' poems, just like some secret sixth sense. Something that will forever intrigue and mystify me. When I'm met with poetry-haters who scoff at my writing of it, I feel like I could stab them with their imagined feather quill!  It's not fluffy or frivolous or frumpy but real and profound and sacred and goddamn tough. It is all to do with truth and guts and mystery, not tedious or trivial or la-de-dah. As Allen Ginsberg of the Beats fame said: "Poetry is not an expression of the party line.  It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does." Another fitting definition of a poet.
I'll leave you with EE Cummings on the experience I've been trying to describe. Notice how the whole structure of his poem delightfully and accurately conjures up the itty-bitty delicate feel of putting a poem together. Enjoy.

Any comments from poets, poetesses  and loony language lovers especially welcome!

~ Siobhán.

one(Floatingly)arrive - ee cummings 


(silent)one by(alive)
from(into disappear

and perfectly)nowhere
vivid anonymous
mythical guests of Is

unslowly more who(and
here who there who)descend

deathful earth's any which
Weavingly now one by
wonder(on twilight)they

come until(over dull
all nouns)begins a whole
verbal adventure to

illimitably Grow

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