Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 17 December 2009

A poem is not a puddle


I'm unsure how helpful this will be to anyone out there; in fact I suspect some of you might find it quite boring. But I've been meaning to try and cover this topic for a while and I'm hoping it might be helpful in some way. I'm going to talk about two poems which were both written under much the same circumstances. In the first case I was lying in bed unable to sleep. In the second I'd literally just got into bed when the idea came. In both cases I got up, went through to my office, took an A4 sheet of paper, drafted the piece and then went back to bed. In both cases this process will have taken maybe five minutes. What you see on the page is literally a dump and this is how I work with every poem I write, I get the words out of my head and onto the page. Once they're on the page I can't forget them. If anyone could be bothered writing down my Laws of Poetry, Rule #1 would likely be Never be without a means to record your poetry and Rule #2 would be Never keep an idea for a poem in your head longer than you absolutely have to.

I've been asked before: Where do your ideas for poems come from? and the simple fact is they're how the thoughts in my head resolve themselves. Some people dream, others write poetry, some (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) even write poetry in their dreams. That sounds like a rather romantic notion but I'm being quite serious. So many people talk about how they often dream about the last thing that was on their mind as they slept so why is it so unreasonable that a poet end up writing a poem about same? I don't think it is.

This is not a How to Write Poetry Guide. This is simply a record of what I have done to end up with a poem. In both cases the poems appeared in my head as a clump of words, what usually ends up in the final piece as a whole stanza, maybe two. Let's look at the first poem:


This is how the poem 'Background Silence' began life. If I can transcribe it for you it reads:

Background Silence

The silence was always there
behind the noise of everyday life
               cars and mobile phones
Just as
The emptiness was always there
behind the façades of faces and houses
               smiles and frowns
Just as
the blankness was always there
behind the words on the page

There is always something in our road
keeping us from the truth.

The text in black was written first, then the red, then the blue.

And this is what the final poem looks like. The text in blue is what remains of the original draft:


The silence was always there
behind the

sounds of monitors and pumps

just as

emptiness was always there
behind the

well wishes and smiles and lies

just as

the blankness was always there
behind the
on every card you read


there is always something
block our view
of the nothingness that is


Tuesday, 04 August 2009

The poem has now been shaped into alternating stanzas of 7-3-7 and 2 syllables. The structure came quite naturally the lines wrapping around the 2 and 3 syllable lines that give the poem a rocking motion. A syllabic structure has its weaknesses, that I concede, because, just as in music, sometimes we have, for example, 3 beats in the space of two or words where we skip over syllables. I mean who says ev-er-y these days? In olden days if poets wanted to drop that middle syllable they'd make sure we knew by writing ev'ry but that would distract today's readers.

Acciaccatura_notation If I read the piece and find that it doesn't scan then I'll look for alternative words. You'll see that I've dropped the definite article before 'emptiness was always there' because it adds an unnecessary syllable. The poem wouldn't fall to pieces if I left it – most people wouldn't even notice (they'd flick over it like a grace note) – but I would.

The first draft is generalised, the final version, contextualised. You can see the lines that jumped out at me:

the blankness was always there
behind the words on the page

Blank cards! As soon as I had cards in my head I thought about where we use cards. The phrase 'façades of faces' made me think of hospitals where everyone does that, patients, doctors and visitors; the rest was easy and obvious.

Here's the second poem:


Transcribed this becomes:


My father used to mark us out of ten
The dishes
Nine out of ten
The gardening
Eight out of ten

Anything less than 5 out of ten
came with a belting.

I'd give my childhood maybe a four
4 out of ten
Marks is another word for scars
I have these too (both literal and figurative)
the ones you can see and the ones you can't

but there's no one left to punish
so I punish myself
Is that what you wanted to hear, doctor?
Is that worth a 10?

And once edited and formatted we have:


dad used to give me marks out of ten:
homework – seven out of ten,
the disheseight out of ten.

Anything less than a five
came with a
clip on the ear.

Marks is merely another word for scars.
I have those too, the ones you
can see and the ones you can't

I'd give my childhood a three.
That's me being generous.

Dad's no longer here and so I have to
mark myself. Is that what you
were waiting to hear, doctor?

What do you think this poem
might be worth? Maybe an eight?

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Again, the blue bits are what remained of the original draft. The structure is a 10-7-7 stanza followed by a 7-7 stanza. It took very little adjustment to find this shape. Again it came quite naturally. This is why I'm no good at writing sestinas or sonnets or any other poem where structure comes first. I suppose Rule #3 would be: Form is dictated by content: do not force a poem into an unnatural shape.

This time there's not been so much change but the violence has been toned down from 'a belting' to 'a clip on the ear' and 'punish' has been cut. 'Gardening' became 'homework' purely because to lose a syllable but the fact is it could have been anything; the specifics aren't especially important and I didn't spend hours sweating over which chores to include, they’re simply examples. There was a time when I would have. I would have sat on that poem for six months till it was absolutely perfect but I don't think that perfection is so important: Rule #4Good enough is good enough. (These are not serious rules by the way, just what's jumping into my head as I write this.)

4 our of 10 A lot of people would look at a poem like this and assume I had a truly awful childhood. It certainly wasn't a perfect ten but then neither was it as bad as a three or even a four. My father didn't give me marks out of ten but he was the kind of dad who if you came home with a score of 98% he'd want to know where the other 2% was. The same goes for corporal punishment. Yes, I grew up at a time when that was in vogue but we were always smacked on our rears and my dad's hands were so solid no belt or slipper was ever needed I can tell you. And no one has ever clipped my ears. Rule #5Poems do not need to be biographical.

I can tell you what was on my mind when I thought of the poem. Firstly I had been asked to write a poem containing certain words which I'm still working on, 'mark' was one of them, secondly, I've been seeing a nice psychotherapist of late and, typical shrink, she started off by asking me about my mum so I told her about my dad because, I said, "You can't understand my relationship with my mother until you understand my father's relationship with his wife." So all that was swimming around in there and this poem is what resulted. Which is how it goes. Rule #6Everything is fodder. Rule #7Chew your food properly.

The same goes for the first poem, I'd been asked to write a set of poems about silence and that was pretty much all that was in my head when I went to bed. Did some Muse visit me? Was I inspired? Not in any magical way. Rule #8Inspiration is a good idea and that's it. When you have a good idea, go for it. If not, Rule #9If you don't have a good idea then any old idea will do.

This is how I have always worked. And much the same goes for prose too, get it out of your head as quickly as you can and then, over as long as it takes – and that can be minutes or years – work on it until it does the job for which it is intended. Rule #10A poem is a tool, not fine art. Make it look nice by all means but never forget it has a job to do.

I am desperately keen to do as much as possible to demystify poetry. When I was a teenager I believed that this aura came over me and I could only work while 'inspired' and so, once that initial rush of ideas was over, I thought that was me, I added a date, numbered it and stuck it in my big red folder. What a waste.

I don't believe in mysteries. There are things that are hard to explain and things we don’t know about yet. Writing is not a mystery. It can be analysed. There are clear techniques that can be applied. Rule #11A poem is not a poem just because you say it is. Think about how you write poetry. Do you have any rules? Or do you think that all rules are bad and that your words should be allowed to flow and pool as they see fit? If you do that's fine but as far as I'm concerned: Rule #12A poem is not a puddle – remember that.

Oh, one last thing, my normal handwriting is quite a bit neater than that. Just thought I'd mention.


BwcaBrownie said...

clever to compose a poem.
even more clever to be able to deconstruct the process (thank you, it was fascinating)
silly enough to worry that readers might be judgemental about hurried distracted cursive script.
for goodness sake Murdoch!

Conda V. Douglas said...

Jim, everything you said about poetry rules, I believe could be applied to most writing--excellent post!

Scattercat said...

I follow a lot of those same rules for my daily nanofiction. (Especially "good enough is good enough" and "everything is fodder.")

Interestingly, for longer stories I find that writing them down immediately, even just the skeleton, is like the death of an idea. I almost never come back to story notes that I jot down, and when I do, the fire has gone out of them. The short pieces need to get out quickly before they flicker away, but the longer ones seem to need to marinate. At least I need them to do that. I have to just pull them out at odd intervals and think about them for a little, then put them away in my subconscious again. Sometimes I have an insight and the next piece falls into place, sometimes I just rehearse what I know already about the story and let it drop back into the pot. I know when a story is done stewing because it pops up almost fully-formed into my forebrain, and then it won't go away until I write it down.

Tom Bailey said...

I really like the way that you think. I do not write but I do look to people that write in creative ways to get thinking ideas from them - I use traditional ways of thinking but when those are not working I look for more creative ways and the ideas that you shared were great.

Thanks for sharing

Tom Bailey

Dick said...

Always fascinating to follow the compositional process from art through craft to exposition. Great post.

Jim Murdoch said...

What can I say, BwcaBrownie, that’s me. I’m really very self-conscious, not so much shy but I’m not fond of being the focus of attention. I’m happy for my writing to go out there and be my spokesperson but that’s about it.

You’re right, Conda, of course. I really didn’t put a great deal of thought into these ‘rules’, they were just something that grew out of the text as I was writing it. On the whole I’m not fond of rules while at the same time looking for them in the most unlikeliest of places. I’m not fond of rules but I do like order and the two tend to go hand in fist.

You do have a point, Scattercat, and when it comes to some aspects of my longer writing I’m happy to allow the gestation period to go on for months without trying to get my thoughts onto paper. I think that’s why I don’t write draft after draft because what I start off with is already quite refined. Poems I write very quickly normally. The examples in the article are a case in point. I do do that with bits of prose, a paragraph or two here and there, which I’ll scribble down and then try and graft into a novel; sometimes it works, sometimes not.

Precisely, Tom, sometimes it’s good to change your approach to whatever it is you’re working on which is where the not liking rules comes in but really what I’m saying is that I don’t like those rules and so I make up some new ones. People do that all the time, like Debussy writing only in whole tones or Schoenberg deciding to use all twelve or Ives deciding he wanted to include quarter tones – it’s all music and each scale has its own set of rules. So it is with writing. You can ditch one rule but find you’ve had to invent two or three new ones to keep the thing balanced.

And, Dick, yes, I love to see the nuts and bolts myself. Too many writers seem unwilling (or unable) to open up and I think that’s a shame. New writers are looking for proof that what they’re doing is okay. I know I was. We want reassurance. It used to bother me that I didn’t sweat blood over my poems and so I started sweating blood and all that happened was I became anaemic. So I stopped. As I’ve written elsewhere it doesn’t matter most of the time if you write ‘wait a second’ or ‘wait a moment’ or ‘wait a minute’ – we get the idea – and so I don’t obsess nearly as much. Which is just as well because I have to watch my blood pressure.

Dave King said...

Well, I for one found that more than helpful. A fascinating insight into one creative process. Some of it closely corresponds to my own experience. For instance, I
often find my best work is done either as I prepare for bed or just after turning in. However, I don't think I have ever at that stage dumped a whole poem. Usually it is a key word or two, maybe a sentence or a few lines.

I wasn't sure about rule 11 - "A work of art is a work of art because I say it is" and all that jazz.

A really fine post. I shall read it again. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

Bear in mind, Dave, I write much shorter poems than you. I don’t think I’ve written a poem as long as your latest effort in over thirty years. I just don’t think that way. If I’d written your latest poem it would have been a short story.

As for rule #11, what I don’t like about the it’s-a-poem-because-I-say-it-is mentality is that it shouldn’t be up to one person to say what x or y means. There is a social element to language. It expands and contracts because of consensus. Now, of course, someone somewhere has to be the first person to recontextualise a word or to propose a broadening of a definition but then it is dependent on the rest of us to go: “Okay, mate, that seems reasonable enough, we’ll go with that,” which is why ‘cool’ one day started to mean something other than a temperature gradient; someone said it, someone else adopted it and soon it didn’t need to be explained any more. The same goes for what a poem is. There was a time when someone like E. E. Cummings would have been laughed out of court but not anymore.

Kass said...

Stole away to my son's computer in Nebraska and came upon this delightful post of yours. Even with this detailed description of your process, I think it would take YEARS for me to start producing good poems...should have started and been consistent YEARS ago. Thank goodness, you kept at it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thinking about rule #11, Kass, and my comment to Dave, I would worry more about saying what you have to say as effectively as you can say it and worry less about what form it takes. Form is inevitably restrictive. Thoughts flow. They do not always flow into something one would automatically recognise as a poem. That is not a bad thing. Poetry is not the be all and end all of writing. It’s just one kind of container for thoughts. If I was to add a thirteen rule to this collection then it would be one I’ve mentioned a few times before: Say what you have to say and get off the page. I think it’s a good rule to live by. And when you cut to the chase, when you’ve distilled your thoughts to their essence, the odds are what you will be left with will be poetry because you’ll have trimmed back your language to such a degree that all your words will have to work overtime and that could very well be a fourteenth: Make your words march in double time to the beat of your own drum.

Sorlil said...

Great post, Jim, I always love to read about how writers work. I had the post read to me which was amusing but good - I may trawl through your back posts having them read to me!
I carry pen and paper with me everwhere and write nature observations so that when I'm inspired (sorry i know you don't like that) to write a poem I have a context to place it in.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m glad you found the speech widget of some use, Sorlil. I was quite taken when I first discovered it. For free software it’s quite good.

As regards our differing views of inspiration, the world’s a big enough place to accommodate all opinions. What I was aiming to do was propose an alternative perspective. We can easily go through life assuming that things that always were so will continue to be so and so whereas once creation was the prevalent opinion nowadays evolution is taught as fact. Once the Muses were mythical figures but no one believes in muses any more.

Elisabeth said...

It's uncanny Jim, you wrote this post while I was away.

I should have noticed it since my return but I didn't take the time needed to look a it.

Then, by chance - it's Christmas Day, the end of Christmas Day - and I'm almost too tired to think and definitely sick to death of tidying up after our Christmas day festivities here, that I decided to blog awhile. And there scrolling through Silliman's recent list of treats I saw the title 'a poem is not a puddle'.

Of the twenty plus titles on Silliman's blog, this title caught my eye and lo and behold it's yours.

What a wonderful post, full as ever of detail about the writing process. I'm all for process. It even makes me think that maybe if I could put my mind to it, I might once again be able to write poetry, but not for now, for now I'll,stick with prose.

I hope your Christmas day, which I imagine is just now beginning, turns out to be wonderful.

Jim Murdoch said...

Actually, Elisabeth, I probably wrote this post about a month and a half ago but whatever way you got to it I’m glad. I usually can count on a hundred plus hits from Ron’s site so I always drop him an e-mail when I have a poetry post up although he does occasionally plug a non-poetry item. We had Xmas a day early to help my daughter out (who has to fit in three Xmases this year, the poor thing) and so everything is now back to normal, the dishes done, the furniture rearranged and I’m just sitting here waiting for Dr Who to start.

As for the writing process I don’t think about it while I’m working. I like to work naturally. It’s interesting afterwards to look at what you’ve done and to realise that there was method in your madness.

prarthana said...

profound poetry...

Livia said...

Poetry may also express more through less... 'cause less is more... Poetry is like (our) truth; but we might also be wrong... Sometimes truth is clear from the moment we're wrong believing we're right...

Jim Murdoch said...

I found your recent post on the nature of poetry quite interesting, Livia. I agree that the subject of communication is a complex one, in fact it amazes me – poetry aside – how any one of us manages to get anyone else to understand a damn thing; there is so much scope for getting things wrong. The metaphorical nature of poetry only complicates matters further. As you can tell from the title of my blog I have an ambivalent relationship with truth. As an ideal I believe in her but I don’t have much use for her on a day-to-day basis. That said she’s always kicking around in the shadows and I’m perpetually tripping over her bastard children, the half-truths; they’re unavoidable.

Angie Doherty said...

Hello, I just wanted to say, I really enjoyed this poem. It's very original and refreshing. I'm actually just an artist who was looking for a puddle reference and am so glad I came across this. Thank you. I hope you always enjoy and continue writing.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you liked the poem, Angie. If you’re looking for references to puddles in literature what about the opening to Nabakov’s Bend Sinister?

“An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see the nether sky. Surrounded, I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun dead leaves have stuck. Drowned, I should say, before the puddle had shrunk to its present size.
        It lies in shadow but contains a sample of the brightness beyond, where there are trees and two houses. Look closer. Yes, it reflects a portion of pale blue sky — mild infantile shade of blue — taste of milk in my mouth because I had a mug of that colour thirty-five years ago. It also reflects a brief tangle of bare twigs and the brown sinus of a stouter limb cut off by its rim and a transverse bright cream-coloured band. You have dropped something, this is yours, creamy house in the sunshine beyond.
        When the November wind has its recurrent icy spasm, a rudimentary vortex of ripples creases the brightness of the puddle. Two leaves, two triskelions, like two shuddering three-legged bathers coming at a run for a swim, are borne by their impetus right into the middle where with a sudden slowdown they float quite flat. Twenty minutes past four. View from a hospital window.”

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