I have this one poem that took me three whole years to write. I started it as a note on my phone, when I was waiting, drunk and maudlin, for the last train to take me back to Didcot. For the next few years, every time I felt especially low, I’d open up the file and peck at it – deleting a line here, writing a few more words there. Growing it, slowly, this little poem about being lonely and feeling a bit lost. And one day, I showed it to a friend. He read it through. “Yep, great,” he said. “You should finish that off today.”
And just like that, I did. My years of last-trains-home-alone were coming to an end – I drink less now, and also my friends have bigger flats. I didn’t need to keep writing it anymore.
When you’re performing (or publishing) poetry, I think it goes without saying that your responsibility is to your audience. I feel I get this message all the time – it’s not therapy, it’s art, and you’re there to entertain, to engage, to inform – not to emote, like a huge stupid poetry cliché.
The thing is though – poetry doesn’t have to be good. There is no moral imperative to write good poetry. If you’re performing it to people or sending it off somewhere, sure – make it the best it can be. But there is also a lot to be had from writing poetry that you never share with anyone at all. Poetry that is only for you – no one else. Poetry to help you through things.
Below is an exercise. Try it, but on the assumption that no one is EVER going to read it. Just have a go. I find that, at times when my head’s so full of stuff, all wriggling and splurging about, uncontrollable, the process of putting it down on paper and marshaling it into twelve neat lines can help make life seem a lot more manageable.
First up, pick a subject. Something that’s been bothering you – say, for example, food. Now, set the alarm on your phone for 15 minutes. For this 15 minutes you are ONLY allowed to write or stare into space, but absolutely nothing else. Open a word document and go. Write down absolutely everything you have to say about this subject, everything you feel about it. Remember that NO ONE is reading. Be as honest as you possibly can. Write fast and don’t try to make it good in any way – just fill the page with words.
Next, consider what you have written. Do you have a number of main points, or perhaps a progressive argument? These would both make great poetry forms. Perhaps you have one major point, and many examples of it. That one point would make a good refrain, perhaps. Have a think and try to order this soup of words into a form that makes sense. Move the words around to fit this new shape. This will look ridiculously messy but it doesn’t matter at all.
Now ruthlessly hack out anything you don’t like. Scythe through and take out anything that doesn’t fit with your argument. Anything that fits, but the expression is off, keep – we’ll rework in the next step. You’ll want to be deleting pretty much most of your work at this stage – between 70-90%.
Now you have the bones of the poem, it’s time to put the artistry back in. If you want rhyme, put it in. Write new lines to expand on your points. Rework lines if you can think of a better way of saying them. Chuck in any poetic device you think fits (my faves are internal rhyme, and saying things three times in slightly different ways). Make it something pretty.
Repeat this last step a few times. Read it again tomorrow. Next week. How does it hold up?
Or, never look at it again. Maybe you don’t have to have those thoughts again – perhaps you’ve chipped them away, just a little bit, but for good.
I still perform that poem I was talking about. It’s actually one of my favourites – and I think people like how vulnerable it makes me. There’s no point in writing without sharing yourself, after all. Sometimes it’s therapy and art.
If you liked your final poem, please put it in the comments. I’d absolutely love to read them!
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