Getting It Right
Yesterday I had a tree removed from my garden. Actually, that’s not strictly correct, so let me revise it. The tree was, in fact, two trees that had somehow combined to form a dense cluster that was blocking the view of the rest of the garden. And, to be accurate, the trees were in the garden of my wife’s house in Germany, where we spend several months each year. So they were actually my wife’s trees, and it was she, not I, who had the two workmen with their chainsaws come to remove them.
We had been accustomed to those trees for a number of years, but somehow they were no longer right for their place. A wider view was needed. Something clearer, less cluttered, more to the point. No matter how much we had grown to like them, even to be proud of them, they had to go.
It can be much the same with poetry. In another article I wrote that for me at least, writing poetry is like following a line and seeing where it leads me. And let’s face it, many times it simply leads me up the garden path. I’ve published a lot of poems over the years, but I have written far more poems that haven’t been published. Why?
First, though, what about the poems that do get published?
Following that line of words is only the first step. It’s an absolutely necessary step, but it’s not the end of the process. After that comes the hard work. Revision, re-reading, re-working. When I haven’t been writing for a while – and every writer should take a break now and then (Wallace Stevens wrote ‘Thought tends to collect in pools’) – the first poem or so I write after that break can turn out to be something of a practice exercise, getting things working again. Often it’s discarded, but sometimes it can be made to work by working on it.
This often means cutting out the first five or six lines. They’re warm-up lines. And just as often it means cutting out the last few as well, lines that I’ve written even though the poem itself has already come to its conclusion and I just hadn’t noticed. I might have been proud of those lines when I first wrote them, but on reflection they’re unnecessary, they labour the point, or they’ve started to wander off into a dead end.
That’s the easy part. Now that I’ve found where the poem actually starts and stops, I have to make sure that each step along the way is the right one. By that, I mean that each step is actually necessary, that it’s on the right path, and doesn’t stumble or limp. And I find that the easiest way to do this is to read the poem aloud – actually out loud – to myself. If I can’t read it aloud in a way that comes naturally from my tongue, then there’s something wrong with it.
A poem for me, you see, is an act of speech. It is language speaking to me and, I hope, to others. This means that it has to sound right, the sound has to be as right as the sound of music has to be. People who don’t know much about poetry often say that poetry has to rhyme. Well, that cuts out almost all of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Whitman and most poetry in English written in the last century. But all good poetry has complex sound patterning, usually within lines, often spreading over a number of lines, and it’s this patterning of internal rhymes, half rhymes, and alliterations that a good poet has to attend to, and a good reader will pick up, often unconsciously. Otherwise, the poem sounds dull.
The other element is rhythm. Rhythm is as important in poetry as it is in music. And, in fact, as it is in walking. One can ‘wander lonely as a cloud’ as Wordsworth did, or come ‘galloping down like a wolf on the fold’ as Byron once did. And anything in between. But whatever it is, it has to be purposeful. Even if the movement, the rhythm, is tentative, it still has to be meaningfully so, exploratory rather than merely floundering.
Because rhythm is what determines the tone of voice, which is the emotional timbre of the poem. The tone can vary throughout a poem, from anger to tenderness, thoughtful revery or determined conviction. The only rule is that the poem as a whole has to be coherent, and it’s by the delicate control of tone that this is achieved. That’s why reading the poem aloud to oneself is so important. It’s the surest way to determine whether the tonal element of a poem has been successfully achieved. If so, it means that the poem has the emotional coherence that distinguishes good poetry from bad.
Having gone through all that, why then not publish all one’s poetry? Well, there are degrees of goodness, and one doesn’t do oneself a service by publishing the second best. Also, when putting together a book, some poems just don’t fit in to the overall pattern, or they repeat what’s achieved better in another poem. It’s often hard to discard a poem that one’s worked on long and hard, and grown to be fond of. But it has to be done. Though how one finds the best overall pattern of a collection of poems, even though I’ve done it a number of times, is still a mystery to me.