Books: Rhyme and reasons

Judith Palmer investigates poets' toenails and other mysteries

How Poets Work edited by Tony Curtis, Seren, pounds 6.95

In an East London bookshop last year, the African-American poet Ntozake Shange finished her reading and prepared to accept questions. Hand swiping the air excitedly, a woman in the front row clamoured to be first, so original and illuminating was her query: "Could you tell me a little about where and when you write?"

"Girl, I don't tell no-one that kinda information," Shange exploded with a toss of her golden locks "you tell someone where you sit, the next thing you know they practising voodoo on you!"

Yet every night, in every town, all over the country, the quest for authorial toe nail parings continues unabated. There must be a key to this sorcery, thinks the neophyte writer: rituals to follow, incantations to learn. Initiate me in the mysteries of the art: "Do you use a pen and paper?" "What size notebook do you have?", and yes, the big one, "Where do you get your ideas from?".

"You can always tell a fake shaman," warns the poet Don Paterson, "because they're too keen to divulge their trade secrets in order to impres you".

None of the nine poets in How Poets Work, however, pretend to be able to demystify the creative process by the mere stamping of iambs or the shaking of hemistichs.

"I'm not going to sit here telling you that for me poetry is like any other job, like carpentry or rug-making," says Paterson. "It isn't. There's the craft and the graft, but there's a lot more besides."

The general notion of the book, is for the writer to chart the history of one of his or her own poems, locating its starting point and mapping its progress through to final draft. Tony Curtis, the editor, has included, alongside his own work, an interesting, non-cliquey selection of poets (Dannie Abse, Simon Armitage, Gillian Clarke, Helen Dunmore, Vicki Feaver, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Longley, Don Paterson and Anne Stevenson) whose approach to the given task is as varied as their writing styles.

Let it be said, first, that despite the textbook-y look of the cover, the essays are all of a manageable length, well laid out, and easy to read, as is rarely the case with such endeavours. Three cheers.

But the illustrative pages reprinting facsimiles of the authors' scratchings, doodles and crossings out, are an unnecessarily scholarly (and often entirely illegible) inclusion. Leave cryptographic squinting to the chequebook- wielding librarians of American Universaties who search out and salvage every poetic laundry list.

I suppose it's because writing is such a solitary business, that poets relish the opportunity to sneak a peek over their neighbour's shoulder just to check they are on the right track.

Yes, it is OK to compose on a word processor, because Helen Dunmore does it. Sure, be fetishistic about Daler A5 sketchbooks and Pilot Hi-Tecpoint V5 extra-fine rollerballs, because Don Paterson is. Go to a writers' retreat: it works for Vicki Feaver. Wait for "the old-fashioned notion of inspiration": Michael Longley prefers to.

Can the poets get it down in one? Rarely. Draft on, draft on. Fifty times if necessary, over 50 years. Keats' assertion "unless poetry comes to the poet as naturally as leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all," is often alluded to. Just because something is natural however, doesn't mean its gestation might not be slow and painful.

Simon Armitage, it seems, has a few unique methods, rarely beginning a poem unless the title, first and last line are already in place, forming "a very sturdy curtain rail from which the rest of the poem could hang." Anne Stevenson repeats her lines aloud "until vowels and consonants flow naturally to the ear."

Although the processes outlined for shaping specific poems are instructive, the real pleasure of the book is the poets' pronouncements on what poetry is. Feaver's motive for example, is "to preserve things, as if stocking a larder."

Armitage wonders if "all writers are driven by the unbearable burden of nostalgia." If you know in advance what you are going to write, argues Longley "you are merely versifying opinion."

Plenty of food for thought, and plenty of fodder for examiners. Don Patterson has stated "Concision is a courtesy to the reader, who, you should remember, always has a thousand better things to do than read your poem."

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before