The force that through the green fuse drives the poem . . . doesn’t.
Real, true poems have a surge of energy from start to finish, don’t they? It’s hard to be absolute about such things. But I think it’s true.
Sometimes it’s dead obvious from line one. Here’s W H Davies in ‘The Power of Silence’:
And will she never hold her tongue,
About that feather in her hat
Suddenly you’re right in there, and it’s a situation, and the fuse is lit. And after that the syntax is important and the rhythm and the meaning – the whole thing is driven and the reader is compelled onwards. That feeling of compulsion is something I need and look for. I know I must be looking for it because I know when I haven’t found it.
Because here’s my situation. I’ve just finished week two of the submissions month: 43 brown envelopes (ok, some were white) so far, which is at least 516 poems. Twenty-six women, 17 men. Twenty-four of the 43 were HappenStance subscribers, which is heart-warming. (Nearly all the packets falling through the letterbox were by women to start with, but now most are male.)
I’ve read a handful of remarkable pieces, quite a number of good ones, and lots that were good of their kind. These are the ones I feel most guilty about because I end up being so mean to the author. But how do you identify that sense that the poem is well-made – even laudable – but doesn’t quite lift off? Nobody wants to be damned with faint praise. But still there is a point at which a good poet needs a nudge. Like playing a computer game, it’s the business of pushing on to the next level.
I am aware I am talking in metaphors. It’s so hard to talk any other way about the process of writing.
I have also come across loads of poems that have poems in them.
Meaning . . . precisely what?
It’s that feeling you get when you come to a fabulous stanza or set of lines and yet – most of the poem is . . . just lines, or groups of well-meaning words. Though perhaps there’s another wonderful bit at the end, or just before the end.
It’s easier to say what doesn’t work than to explain what does. Except sometimes making it work is simpler than people think, and it is complexity and literariness that gets in the way.
Often I find myseIf penciling a little arrow and saying, ‘I think the poem starts here.’ By which I mean, this is the point from which I feel compelled. It’s the point where, for me, the fuse is lit, and that means, almost certainly, it wasn’t ignited in line one.
Tom Duddy, whose second (posthumous) collection HappenStance will publish later this year, once told me a poem had to capture his attention in the first four lines.
Or perhaps it wasn’t four. Perhaps it was within the first twenty words. Or perhaps I can’t remember precisely what he said and am wilfully recreating the memory. But I am sure he spoke about our shared expectation that poetry (Poetry), that finest form of writing, should do something dynamic early on.
I don’t think high drama is required. Sometimes it’s just an easy route in, a subtle way of involving the reader in a situation or a mood. The syntax (by which I mean the grammatical structure of the opening statement or sentence) is usually crucial. If it’s slightly confusing, or the line break is fiendish, the fuse splutters.
Often the old journalistic trick of cutting the first paragraph (in poetry, it’s the first stanza or two) accomplishes wonders. Or ending before people expect you to.