As National Poetry Month begins, we’re delighted to feature thoughts on poetry today from our Poetry Editor Clive Collins today, and on Wednesday from our poetry reader Meg Freer. Each answered eight questions.
by Clive Collins
What makes a poem a poem? (as opposed to flash prose?)
It’s difficult to set out what makes a poem full stop, never mind as opposed to flash prose. There is no recipe that I know of for writing poetry, though we may now be living at the beginning of the age of AI chatbot verse. What tells me that I’m reading poetry is the density of the language. As Ezra Pound puts it, “Literature is language charged with meaning.” What I hope for in something professing to be poetry is some sort of discernable rhythm or beat or metre, together with some sort of rhyme scheme, some sort of logic to line length, some sort of narrative movement, and a subject that engages me as a reader in some way.
What makes a rhyming poem work?
What makes any poem work? I hope for rhymes that will provoke a response: approval, surprise, admiration, humour. I do think anyone who wants to create poetry needs to achieve a command of rhyme of all types. One of my favourite (fairly) contemporary poems that employs rhyme proper as end rhymes is “Sonnet for the Class of ‘58”. I also love to hear the rhymes, of all sorts, in the lyrics of Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, or Billy Strayhorn.
For emerging poets, what books are good to turn to?
Some of these are no longer in print but well worth searching for:
Metre, Rhyme and Free Verse by G. Fraser (in the series The Critical Idiom)
Understanding Poetry by James Reeves (Heinemann)
Forms of Verse – Sara deFord & Clarissa Harriss Lott (Appleton-Century-Crofts)
52 Ways of Looking at a Poem – Ruth Padel (Vintage)
Singing School – Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters – Robert Pinsky
The Sounds of Poetry – Robert Pinsky
Do you have favorite poems you like to reread?
There are too many to list in full here but these I particularly love: “To Daffodils” by Robert Herrick; “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” by John Milton; “The Solitary Reaper” by William Wordsworth; “To Autumn” by John Keats; “The Vagabond” by Robert Louis Stevenson; “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats; “Loveliest of Trees” by A.E. Houseman; “Gloire de Dijon” by D. H. Lawrence; “The Pool” by H.D.; “Still Falls the Rain” by Edith Sitwell; “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens; “Skunk Hour” by Robert Lowell; “Not Waving But Drowning” by Stevie Smith; “At Lunchtime: A Story of Love” by Roger McGough; “Dear Mr Lee” by U.A. Fanthorpe.
What are the most common mistakes poets make?
Thinking you have a poem when you don’t. I think anyone who aspires to writing verse would do well to consider these words of the British poet Philip Larkin:
“You can’t write a poem out of emotion only. If that’s all you’ve got then, you know, you’d be better off drinking or ringing somebody up about it. There’s got to be a second more important element. I once said, you know, every poem has a fork side which is a kind of lump of experience that you’re holding down, and then a knife side which is the side that’s cutting it up and rendering it manageable.”
How does a poet tackle revision?
That’s very difficult to answer. To begin I would suggest the individual ask themself whether the poem is really necessary. After that, I would suggest putting the piece away for some time. Looking at something after six months or so is a good discipline. The ability to cut is important and cutting is easier to do after the initial energy and enthusiasm that produced the piece in question has dissipated. I would add that dissatisfaction is a wonderful editorial aid.
How does one know a poem is done?
I doubt that a piece of creative writing is ever ‘done.’ Most writers I’ve known have been tinkerers, re-writers, re-drafters. I think that to be a writer is to be an editor — a very picky, eternally dissatisfied editor — as well. Each time I received the first print copy of one of my own books I put off opening the thing because I knew I would read the first page of the text and blush immediately aware I could have done better.
How do poets find mentors to work with them through the process?
This too is difficult to answer. Enroll in a creative writing degree course of some kind, or join a local creative writing class or circle perhaps. In the United Kingdom, an organization called the Arvon Foundation offers various kinds of creative writing classes including one-to-one online masterclasses in poetry that take place online via Zoom. Here is the full link: https://www.arvon.org/about/arvon-home-of-creative-writing/
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr