I’ve been writing poetry for about sixty years, and I’m just starting to get the hang of it. Why do it ? All sorts of reasons, really. First, it was more fun than football. I never liked football. Terminally short sighted and with two left feet, I was useless at it. On the other hand, I was good with words- I could kick them around the page and, from time to time, I achieved a goal.
Writing poetry was a way of fixing the present. Time moves on, you’re old before you realise it – and a poem can fix one moment, with all its complexity, like a fly in amber.I’ve still got poems I wrote forty years ago – they’re dreadful – but they’re honest.
I hate to say that poetry is a journey – a cliche about as fresh as that tub of last week’s yoghourt hiding at the back of the fridge – but sometimes cliches are true. When I start a poem I know exactly where I want to end up – and I never get there. I end up in a place I never dreamed of. Someone is leaning over my shoulder, whispering “ No, Ian…this way..can’t you see it..”
Poetry’s greatest virtue is that it’s short – unless you’re John Milton…or Byron…or Homer…ok…poetry is usually short. I like the idea of cramming ten gallons into a pint pot. It intrigues me. If a novel is a Venti Cappucino with cream, sprinkles and chocolate sauce, then a poem is a triple shot of bitter espresso.
I like the technical challenges of poetry writing. Anyone can write a novel. Even Morissey. Have you seen the reviews though…No – being a poet means heavy duty thinking, balancing meaning against structure, making one word do three jobs, agonising over a comma. It strains your brain.
It all takes time. Was it UA Fanthorpe, or Stevie Smith who said that a poem took 74 hours to finish. How did she get to such a precise number, I wonder. I know that most poems I write take about a fortnight. Around the half way mark I’m ready to quit – it’s so tempting to drop it into the “ Scrap” folder and melt it down later. But if I keep going, there’s a lovely moment when you know that it will work. The golden city is in view. All I have to do is walk through the gates. It’s a great moment.
And of course, poetry writing is therapy. It’s a chance to dig down, get the bad stuff out, look at it, and move on. Good poetry is an account of internal weather.
Talking of weather- it has stopped raining, and the dog is demanding his walk round the lake. Next time I shall be talking about the printed…and the spoken word.
Until then – goodbye
You can always listen to a spoken version of this piece here: