Poetry: rules and reasons

So, what is poetry and why do some of us feel the urge to write it? The first part of that question can be answered easily and succinctly by a simple definition along the lines of

poetry 

ˈpəʊɪtri/

noun

  1. literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature.

    “he felt a desire to investigate through poetry the subjects of pain and death”

synonyms:

poems, verse, verses, versification, metrical composition, rhythmical composition,rhymes, rhyming, balladry

If I were asked to create a set of rules for poetry, it’d be something like this

Poetry,

written or spoken,

must contain words

that hit hard.

Like a rock to the cheek

when you weren’t looking –

your eyes on the sky

and the heavens passing.

Metre should be applied

to augment mood,

sextameter, pentameter,

uttered or transcribed

in iambic  -or even,

every once in a while –

prosaic manner.

Metaphor should be powerful –

a Tyrannosaurus Rex of meaning

with widening jaws that threaten to engulf you

but similes, weak as the tea at your local Tesco caff,

work when heart-rending or touching,

like an abandoned baby blanket

forgotten on the kerbside.

Sounds are important;

the soothing siblance of s,

the amplification of rhyme, alliteration,

the assurance of assonance

and repetition,

not to mention setting up a rhythm

to get the whole show going.

Poetry shouldn’t try to be too clever –

its themes

should be universal and accessible to all –

but it should still be clever enough

to layer words to effect

that each and every one of their meanings

cannot fail to be understood.

Poetry should be a thing of beauty,

a work of art,

a song from the heart

to the heart of another.

Everybody has poetry

inside themselves

somewhere.

Okay, so that’s not a set of rules by the conventional list method, but I have to admit that, apart from the one I do for the shopping, lists are not something I’m very good at. I’ve tried throughout my life but I either become distracted by something much more interesting (i.e. anything),  or I fall into a kind of witless stupor where about 15 0r 20 minutes pass and I find  myself no further on with my list. And while I’m fairly gutted about my inability to make lists, I’ve learned over the years to compensate for this shortcoming with diagrams and spidergrams (Instagram could also be a pretty useful tool), mind maps, and post-it notes inside my handbag to remind me of what I’m supposed to be doing, when, and why I’m doing it. Keeping a journal also helps as do any large-scale visual planning aids like wall charts and even a humble calendar.  But I digress, what I’m pointing out is that I’m quite heavily visual and I find poetry very visual in both its construction and its effects.

I write poetry. I used to admit this rarely and – even then – only within the safe confines of writers’ – or the even safer, poetry writers’ groups where I felt I would be less likely to be judged for my predilection.  I say less likely because even poetry writers treat other poetry writers as something to be viewed with suspicion. Why wouldn’t they?  They know exactly the kind of things that go on in the minds of people like them. The endless, obsessive, and overstimulated types of observation and evaluation that go on, topped-up with caffeine and creative urges slooshing around, determined to be released in a frantic splash across the page that results in some kind of snapshot, merging sensory memory with imagination. Which brings us to the second part of the question: why?

I haven’t yet come across anybody who writes poetry because it makes them any money. Most of us do it for the love of its creation, and/or re-creation on page, stage or podcast. For the likes of me who still takes fright at the sight of a microphone, the fact I can create some kind of structured narrative about something that has affected me feels good. I know it’s cliche but it really is a cathartic process –  a sense of release, even some kind of healing in letting the words fall out of your head and onto the page. For me, the initial process is probably akin to a jigsaw puzzle – except you’re moving words instead of pieces around the page. Sensory events are a big stimulus – be it an image or  activity, a song or piece of music, or just something somebody says. It’s the emotion that accompanies the stimuli  – whether it’s the smell of bread on warm air wafting from a street vent, a finger pricked by a thorn or the taste of a forgotten childhood sweet – that provides the trigger.

Publication is a goal for most writers, as is the recognition and respect of others, but these aren’t the driving forces for those I’ve met. It’s back to that idea of the jigsaw puzzle. For most writers, especially the poets, the reward is in the problem solving activity that both defines the problem as it stands and creates the answer within the poem itself. It’s a bit magical or alchemical, but that’s my ‘why’. What’s yours?

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From Plagiarism to Paragon: keeping it fresh

So how did you come to be somebody who writes? Was there some key incident in childhood that sparked a love of capturing events on paper? Can you recall your first experience of the process that brought the words out of your head and onto the page?

Mine was probably Mrs Shields: a frosty nightmare in pale tweed and frightening horn-rims who hated any noise – including pencils dropping, and the voices of small children in her classroom. Surprisingly, it was the harsh and hostile Mrs Shields who awarded me my first ever silver star for managing to finish a piece of writing in class – a significant event given I had struggled with written classwork up to that point. Also, equally significant, Mrs Shields had smiled when she read my story out to class – a heady sensation for a child used to irritation and chastisement.

Mrs Shields wasn’t big on self-expression or the creative arts although she did sometimes let kids who finished their work quickly do stuff like that while the rest of us caught up or, worse, ploughed their way through an unending list of red-penned corrections on the pages of their jotter. For whatever reason (it may have been school inspectors who have often been the reason teachers who run like clockwork suddenly (and somewhat shockingly for their pupils) break the most rigidly dry and dull schedules with the kind of fun assignments, hitherto unimagined and wholly unexplored by the majority of their charges.

Anyway, this particular day the entire class was asked to write a story about what we’d done over the weekend and, since my family didn’t do anything particularly exciting most weekends, I probably panicked initially until I recalled a trip taken shortly before, all the way up to Loch Ness with my dad’s elder brother; a man who tended to turn up every so often out of the blue with my aunt and their three boys -who were all fairly close in ages with me and my sister – in tow.

The four-hour drive northward from Glasgow with my uncle Tommy white-knuckling it along single track road most of the way, while the adults chattered and we kids carried on and sang songs in the back of the blue and white VW Camper became extremely vivid in my recall – how could this scenario, I wondered, fail to reek of excitement and possibility, even to Mrs Shields? And somewhere in my attempt to recount the sheer enjoyability of it all, something almost equally exciting happened and I started to enjoy myself again even while I was struggling for the words to describe where we went and what we did. It wasn’t just the recollection of events, or their subsequent embellishment that seemed tantalisingly close to lying, it was the sheer joy of committing it from memory to the page me got into the flow zone. True, I also got the unexpected smile and the silver star for my efforts (she only gave out two of these per day) which forged an early connection in my mind between writing and some level of reward. I’m not saying this equation has always held up, but it’s done so enough to keep me ploughing on and stay interested in the creative process that lies behind the writing.

The Creative Process Defined

J.P Guilford,(March 7, 1897 – November 26, 1987) an American psychologist, is one of the earliest to attempt to define the creative process and one of the leading exponents of factor analysis in the assessment of personality. He is well remembered for his psychometric studies of human intelligence and creativity. Guilford was an early proponent of the idea that intelligence is not a unitary concept and developed a strong interest in what he termed ‘divergent thinking’. He also designed numerous tests to measure creative thinking. Lubert states that Guilford’s (1950) address to the American Psychological Association and his subsequent work, refers to this creative process as the sequence of thoughts and actions that leads to novel, adaptive productions.

Lubert T. I., 2001. Models of the Creative Process: Past, Present and Future. Creativity Research Journal (volume 13 issue 3-4), (p295-308).

Mednick (1962) attributes the process to association of ideas and states his intentions to explore this terrain thus –

(a) First, we will define creative thinking in associative terms and indicate three ways in which creative solutions may be achieved—serendipity, similarity, and mediation, (b) This definition will allow us to deduce those individual difference variables which will facilitate creative performance, (c) Consideration of the definition of the creative process has suggested an operational statement of the definition in the form of a test. The test will be briefly described along with some preliminary research results. (d) The paper will conclude with a discussion of predictions regarding the influence of certain experimentally manipulable variables upon the creative process

Mednick S.A.,1962. The Associative Basis of the of the Creative Process. Psychological review, (Volume 69 number 3), (p230-232).

So what does being ‘creative’ involve? Am I now able to access the creative process more readily through understanding how it can come about? What is helpful about seeing the 8 steps of  this process mapped out before me? Can I turn my thoughts and actions into novel, adaptive productions? Um, sometimes. Can I predict future results based on current performance – well… What definitely does help is developing a set of habits that promote this process naturally or organically.

Getting out into nature for the intake (step1) – what I’d term activation – stage is one I’d recommend. There’s something extremely energising about the sights and sounds of the natural world as a kick starter most days. Even if you only take the dog for a walk across the green, take a notepad or voice recorder with you and find a place where you can sit for a few minutes in order to listen, and observe, and experience the environment around you, and then just cogitate (step 2) a bit before recording some of your thoughts .

On returning or resting from your sojourn you’ll no doubt want to brew or buy yourself a cup of coffee. I find this bit fairly crucial to my own creative process most of the time. A bar of chocolate can help too, or a bacon roll with brown sauce, but always the coffee. Once you have your preferred beverage in hand, it’s time to generate (step 3). Take out your notepad, dictaphone, camera or sketchbook and study whatever you captured during those moments where you paused. Did you note down anything about what you were thinking or feeling at that point? If so, how does that information tally with whatever else you have recorded? Think about this for ten or fifteen minutes; stare into space, do some boring and repetitive ask you’ve been putting off then go back to your notes or sketches and write down every idea that comes into your head. Don’t think about or censor them just get them down on paper and then start thinking who you can discuss these further with (hint – it’s quite often not your family or friends).

Discuss/debate (step 4) your ideas with those you see fit on and off line – writers’ groups are good for more the outlandish ones, chat forums for expertise in particular areas, random people on the bus for correlations between the weather and mood in general. Don’t think too deeply or specifically about any of these ideas yet, just keep batting them around for reactions and make some note of your own. At some particular point one or two particular ideas will come to the fore, fertilised by the group input and perhaps given some new twist – what the mathematician, Poincare, described as an evening when “ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked so to speak, making a stable combination.” This is where you can begin to incubate (step 5).

Once you have slept and dreamt and chewed on your ‘stable combination’ of ideas you can start to create – yahay! – (step 6) and then consolidate (step 7 – Activate) your work around your ideas, using the earlier steps in repetition as a means of continually building on your current set of ideas. Keep notes on how this works for you and where and when you need to do something that disrupts the process and starts another cycle such as celebrate! (stage 8).

But what about those times you’re stuck in the house or the office all day and require a different creative kick start? More about those next time – for now, good luck with keeping it flowing and keeping it fresh.