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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."