Don Paterson: The messy, insane process of verse-making

From the T S Eliot lecture by the poet to Poetry International 2004, at London's South Bank Centre
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The Independent Online

I believe poetry is a science, and that poetic composition can be studied in much the same way as music composition. But I think the language of verse composition has been lost, or at least disfigured to the point of uselessness. Poets no longer feel confidently expert in their own subject. Expertise has been conceded to the academy, and our analytical language is ultimately that of academic versification studies: lit crit and "poetics' - how I loathe that word.

But it's only appropriate for something that describes the result, not the working practice; the noun, not the verb. This language always makes the error, then, of talking about the messy, insane process of verse-making as if it was a clean operation. Our business is not with rhyme, but with rhyming; not with metaphor but with metaphorising, the active transformation of the image; and there is as much difference between the two as there is between telling the time and building a watch.

Such description as exists of the real composing process is couched in the language of the beginner's workshop, with its talk of show-not-tell, and "good subject matter" - or the language of self help. The systematic interrogation of the unconscious, which is part of the serious practice of poetry, is the worst form of self help you could devise. There is a reason why poets enjoy the highest statistical incidence of mental illness among all the professions.

Only plumbers can plumb, roofers roof and drummers drum; only poets can write poetry. Restoring the science of verse-making would restore our sense of our own power, and naturally resurrect a guild that would soon find it had some secrets worth preserving.