PART I – A brief look at poetic forms, styles, sound patterns, and language.
I would suggest learning forms and styles – even if you don’t think you are going to use them in the end. That adage of learning the backbone of things (the rules that others have used) and then discarding them (or breaking them) tends to apply. You tend to become good enough to work without them by growing from and through them and then going beyond, rather than just by ignoring them from the very start. Most babies still learn to crawl before they can walk, and apparently the movement involved in crawling helps to develop certain parts of the brain properly. It’s often only by first trying out various styles (mimicking other voices) that we can then find our own unique and thus truly authentic voice. Again, the growing child gives us a good analogy – children learn to talk first by copying others, before they can begin to develop their own conversational characteristics.
Even so, when it comes to rhyme and language, it is best to try to avoid using obvious clichéd chiming rhymes and archaic language as soon as possible – unless you are trying to be funny, or writing purely for the entertainment of your granny. If you want to get published anywhere that matters then you need to acknowledge that that has been done to death centuries ago, and try to find something that sounds a bit more modern and unique. Twisting your syntax unnaturally to try to force a rhyme has a doubly displeasing effect. You can choose to use rhymes internally instead of at the ends of lines, or even not at all.There is a huge variety of beautiful words available to us, and although there is a deep history of writers, we can still easily find soft rhyming patterns, cadences, and words that sing to us in a special way when we take the time to use them skilfully. It is always better to take the time to seek out the exact words for what you mean to express rather than to make do with second best. Even in prose writing, getting the syntax and individual words just right is very important.
In Part 2 I will look at some other things that help in developing good writing skills and avoiding some of the pitfalls. Including a mention of how some other forms of writing differ from poetry.
Taking a look at some other things that help in developing good writing skills and avoiding some of the pitfalls. (Including a swift mention of how some other forms of writing differ from poetry.)
Read widely to discover how others have succeeded before you. Try to ensure that you include material from poets of both past and present ages, and from as many countries as possible, as just focusing on one or two areas is very limiting. I am eternally grateful to several wonderful translators (particularly Robert Bly) who have dedicated huge amounts of time and effort to bringing us the works of some of these in English. (I have also had the privilege of listening to Robert’s readings of some of these on tape, where he so exquisitely enthuses about the details, and am very sorry to have missed the opportunity of interviewing him for my magazine “Rustic Rub” which I was then editing.)
Some of my favourite poets are : as a child – RL Stevenson, TS Elliot, Ezra Pound, Roy Campbell, Guy Butler, GK Chesterton, Alfred Noyes, GM Hopkins, DH Lawrence, Robinson Jeffers, Blake, Shelley, Kipling, John Masefield, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Tennyson, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Rex Warner, Judith Wright, and Ogden Nash, [plus other diverse influences such as Classical music, Irish folk music, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Moody Blues, Santana, Pink Floyd.]
And later on – Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Rumi (and many of the other Sufi writers), Robert Bly, Octavio Paz, Vasco Popa, Rabindranath Tagore, Miroslav Holub, Tomas Transtromer, Arthur Rimbaud, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Frank O’ Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, William Carlos Williams, Albert Huffstickler, ee cummings, Charles Madge, Roland Penrose, Dylan Thomas, Kenneth White, Jay Ramsay, Norman Jope, Ian Robinson, Lee Harwood, Bert Meyers, Rene Char, Jean Tardieu, Henri Michauz, and many many others from Europe, further East, and from the Americas as well as other places.
Many of my early ones were from a school collection in South Africa called “Two Roads” edited by KM Durham, and many of the later ones were from a collection called “The Rattle Bag” edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney (both of whom I heard reading their own work), or from collections from various countries, or of certain types of poetry. Others were from publishers, editors, or translators, all of whom made a particular effort to bring us work from further afield, for which I am most grateful. Some of these writers I have been lucky enough to meet and call friends. I have many other much loved books, but can’t mention them all! [A huge amount of music and art also played its part in my later growth, including the surrealist painters.]
I am also indebted to my friend Gary Boswell for his community publishing efforts and inspiration, and for his huge act of confidence in introducing me to working as a poet in schools, and even prisons. I would also like to thank Thom the World Poet for his huge energy and diversity and acts of kindness in many countries in the name of poetry and other art. He invited me to participate in festivals in Texas, and it is he who inspired me to found and organise the Yorkshire Rainbow Festival.
Curiosity about most things is one of my driving forces – I love to look at details of how things work, or of how things look, smell, taste, sound, behave. This is a source of much of my writing. So I might write about the folly of the government one minute, and the beauty of a flower in the next moment. I tend to use all my senses to explore the details of the flower, or of a situation, including its relation to everything around it, even if it is just in my imagination. It is good to be sensually aware in life to fully appreciate the details of movement when you dance, or the tastes and textures of foods, for example.
Of course philosophically I know that my representation is just one view, and I am curious about your representation too. It is the huge variation of amazing things and circumstances in life, and of our experiences and interpretations of these, that informs our overall consciousness as human beings. It is part of a poet’s responsibility to try to get our expressions of our individual pictures as true and accurate as they can be. If all the tiny pieces of the jigsaw are cut carefully then we have more chance of creating a valid overall picture, and the responsibility of those in the arts is just as important as those in science in this respect. (Scientists of course have other responsibilities ideally, such as trying not to physically mess things up for us!)
It is often writers, musicians, and artists who lead the thought-field when it comes to a need for social change, because if they have done their job well, they have properly shown how things are, so that people can see if they are working okay or not. They have always considered both the details and the overall picture, and thought outside the boxes usually set up for us, not because they have dared to, but because they have to, that is what they are here for, it is inherent in their nature. Writers and other artists obtain courage and strength from the conviction of their own work, and that of others, so it is a perpetual cycle that propels them forwards, and this is often reflected in their use of language.
Surreal writing is a great way of intriguing our minds, and also one of the ways we can communicate things of great portent or meaningfulness without sounding didactic. By sort of hiding the message or meaning behind symbols that speak to our subconscious we can communicate things that would be rejected out of hand if they were approached too directly. Reading what other people have written in this style, will develop your sense of what is possible, and give you an ear for using language in this way. If you are able to tune in to, and go with the creative flow, trusting the things that get thrown up for inclusion, you will manage to write using this subconscious language. It can be surprising that you may only discover much later on just how well you have done – as more meaning continues to emerge from your own words layer by layer! It is one of the ways the so called ‘Duende’ can be invoked, but it can also come to life through vivid vitality in language.
Like tumbling horses backs as they gallop towards the beach, it is the sweat on their coats, the freedom of their movement, that counts more than who gets there first or what their names are.Our words are like raw stones and water in the pure stream of life. We say them and they leave us – yet we stay awash, like islands being perpetually eroded and built up. Our lives become sand as the water and rocks merge. Again, over time, the beaches pile up, and we lay down new rock, only to again be broken up – yet we remain, essentially an island – with those horses galloping across the land under a huge sky – with all of it, and the sea, permeating deep into our psyche – which ultimately blends with everything.Space and light always gets into the mix if you follow your real free mind’s eye, and allow it to express what is impressed upon and reflected meaningfully within you. Like a great artist, your portraits and landscapes glow like those sweating horses, reflecting the sky in their rolling eyes, leaping like the foam on the wave tops, frothing and seething with unmistakeable representations and interpretations of life.
It is part of being human that we can feel most whole when we accept the impermanence, the continual ebb and flow of life, the overall balance once we let go of trying to hold on to things.Let the drumming horses hooves, the earth, the wind, the singing white foam, make a place within your heart that you can always call home, no matter what else changes.May the spark of the Duende reveal colours glinting in the dark, so that you are never afraid, even if you are alone, to simply dance.May you never have issues with writers’ block – because writing gets inside your skin – the perpetual itch, the compulsion, to say what you mean, feel, dream, think, breathe.
I have a way of writing that I do naturally, but when asked to define it, gave it the term ‘Psychological Landscape’ poetry. This is rather like what I have been writing above, and I have found that I can successfully impart this ability to others when I do workshops, whether it be with adults or with children. There are many examples in my poetry collections – the two most obvious ones being still available are “Following Father” and “Terra Affirmative”. Following Father also contains some lighter work, about my travels, family, and other things, as well as some early political writings where I explore several forms and use humour to help get things across. Terra Affirmative is printed together in one cover with another collection called “Riding the Escalator” which is a bit whacky, and generally depicts the journey of becoming a more public poet.
There are other ways of avoiding or at least disguising didacticism – one of my friends, MC Jabber, is a performance poet who simply speaks so fast that you have to be intrigued enough to listen to his work several times to absorb what he is saying. Rappers can also use this tactic, and both effectively employ music and drama. He may show anger but this tends to be done in a cerebrally organic way, that again evades casual scrutiny. His delivery gives more of a sense of being musically informed rather than of using music to go along with the words. Every tiny sound or gap counts, so it is not just what he is saying that matters, but the pattern of it too, which gets into our heads in a different way to the way symbolism or surreality does, because of its intricacy.
I have also been rather successful with a series of my works termed ‘prose poetry’. I learnt about this from several of my fellow poets and editors, (including Ian Robinson and Albert Huffstickler), some of whom were exceedingly good at it, and yet it was still possible to develop a unique voice for this. Robert Bly wrote a brilliant article about prose poetry for an international journal funnily enough called “The Prose Poem”, and that was very helpful too. So, I write this style in prose paragraphs, but still using sound patterns and spacing and language in a musical and artistic way. This in itself makes it very definitely poetry rather than prose. The way I use it to express my deep reflections is also very different from most prose writing. I don’t discuss what’s, why’s, and wherefores, I simply show what I mean in a very unique way. It sometimes makes unusual connections or juxtapositions or shifts in topic matter, as you can also do in other styles of poetry, and it can sometimes also be surreal in the way it uses language. Yet I can achieve something different with it than I can in other forms of poetry – and that has to do with tone I think, which is enhanced by the kind of timing in my sound patterns that is only possible with the longer sentences. I can sound matter-of-fact, or detached, yet make revelations that perhaps seem more shocking or bizarre due to the tone used. Maybe the lack of drama makes them seem more real than if they were hyped up, or maybe it’s to do with showing how easily we accept unnatural things as supposed facts in our everyday lives, how easily they slide under our radar; but either way it is mostly the different tone that gives my prose poetry a different voice. So I conclude that I am able to handle a different sort of topic, as well as handle familiar subject matter differently – given the structure of paragraphs as my units instead of verses made up of lines. There are just a few of my prose poetry books left – COUNT, and SPAN.
Then of course you can get flowery prose, which is not poetry any more, but is prose written in a flowery or overly descriptive way. This can of course, still be very artistically appealing, and speaks to us in a different way to straight prose, which can become more and more formal as you go from story narrative to reporting narrative and from essays to articles and non-fiction books, and on to scientific papers and business reports.
Short stories can also be written in the sort of flat tone I use for my prose poetry, as sometimes the straight telling of the facts is more effective in itself than dressing them up, and maybe my prose poetry was influenced by some of the short story writers using this style (such as Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus – both introduced to me by a friend who is an excellent poet and short story writer himself – Daithidh MacEochaidh), yet my prose poetry is more definitely poetry due to the cadences and language used. (I was also impressed by the writing styles of Jane Smiley, particularly in her book “Ordinary Love”, and by the works of Paulo Coelho.) I think all these writers write in a straight but particularly tender way, that makes them stand out for me.
What I find quite interesting is that even in strictly formal writing you may very well encounter more fiction than truth – when we have subversively been led to believe that formal writing is more authoritative. In this day and age, with the internet, fortunately more people can see that this is certainly not necessarily true, and recognise that we have been misinformed and sometimes evenly deliberately misled about a lot of things. We are learning to do our own research, to include wider sources, and reach conclusions based on trusting our own innate wisdom, which is basically what poets, musicians, and artists have been doing all along
For a poet, even though he/she knows that his/her voice is only one voice amongst many different voices, it is imperative for his/her own integrity that he/she express his/her utmost personal truth. This does not mean that he/she can’t have fun and play around sometimes, which is essential for anyone to do in order to take a break from serious work and maintain one’s sanity, but people will know when he/she is playing and still recognise who he/she really is.
For story writing, whether long or short, I like to try to be authentic by getting inside the heads of my characters, and letting them speak as they feel, and do what they do – so I follow their actions rather than direct them, and the stories are told in their voices rather than mine. The setting, and even the plot develops as we go along, rather than me planning it out beforehand. Your characters have to remain very interesting otherwise you will get bored with the writing, but the same surely applies even if you have planned everything out beforehand as well. It can obviously work better for some people to plan things carefully, and there are graduations between the two sides of the coin, where you can plan partially perhaps, at least to help you avoid losing your sense of direction.
In stories of course you can still share important information about a topic and how you feel, with the storyline giving you yet another way of making this non-didactic. You can simply show your reader whatever you wish to show them by making the story an example, laid out with suitable settings, situations, and characters.
At the other end of the creative writing spectrum as far as length goes, Haiku are very tiny poems, but are very interesting examples to look at because of the hugeness of what is involved in writing good ones. They are also something I like to discuss, as they are often mis-taught, which I find a great pity. There are hordes of deformed things staggering about out there that people are calling haiku but very definitely are not Okay so what are they?
Well the one thing that people get right is that they only have 3 lines. Then they mostly say that the lines should be in syllables of 5, 7, and 5 again. This however, is only a maximum specification, so you can have less syllables if you like, although the balance should still be that the middle line has the most. One should use this minimalistic style to best effect by discarding any superfluous words such as ‘and’ and ‘the’ and conjunctions wherever possible, so they should not be normal sentences. They are often split into two phrases, maybe separated by a semi colon. Haiku should not be used to discuss mundane things or to tell us what you are doing or what your views are. They should be like tiny brush strokes depicting a natural scene – in fact they should contain what is called a ‘kareji’ word, which is a seasonal word, although it is much less obvious than just a word meaning a specific season, so it can be something like grass or water or a bird or the sun (all things that can change their characteristics with the seasons, or in fact even the time of day) – it doesn’t have to go so far as being brown or green or tall or short grass, or ice as opposed to a lake, as far as I can tell, although sometimes these distinctions might help with the next requirement. There is supposed to be a thoughtful juxtaposition between stillness and movement, so you could now use swaying grass against a still tree trunk, or a flying or hopping bird against the still ground or a tree, or ice on top of a slowly moving stream. This is where the use of that semi-colon comes in, to separate the two, and I observe that it is often the first two lines, separated from the third. There is supposed to be a kind of spiritual contemplation implied in, and thus obtained from, a good haiku.
Now I am going to take this a step further – because on reflection, I think there is even more to this. Putting our attention on Spiritual stillness can, just as in tantric sex, serve to both temporarily distract us from the urgency of movement, and at the same time intensify the senses when movement comes back into play. So haiku are like tiny meditations, where we get a sense of the steadfastness underneath all the activity, and can also appreciate that there is even moving energy within the still body, the hill, or the tree before we follow again the more obvious movement of the bird or the leaves blowing along in the wind. It kind of binds us to the earth and yet gives us a sense of freedom because we can actually choose when to be still and when to be busy. It also gives us a sense of the relationship between our chattering minds and the stillness and depths we could obtain through meditation, and maybe even asks us if all our rushing about really means anything much, and if so, what.
So you can see that a genuine haiku is a tiny glistening jewel that has been given much attention to polish it enough to reflect all that meaning for us!
In part 3 I will be taking contemplation further, showing that it, along with other lifestyle essentials, can help to maintain holistic health for even the most obsessed writers.
Taking contemplation further, showing that it, along with other lifestyle essentials, can help maintain holistic health for even the most obsessed writers.
Writers and artists tend to be prone to emotional roller-coaster rides due to the strength of their emotions and the compulsive, wide ranging interest in life’s nooks and crannies. They can be torn apart by despair or anger at some stupidity or injustice one moment, and then swelled with joy by the beauty of a bird song or the sight of the hills in the dawn light, or the smell of the sea. So it can be especially useful to use meditation to try to keep one’s self more grounded and balanced, to still the mind inbetween its flights and ravages. Meditation also helps to expand our consciousness, so that we can examine and express things even more deeply.
Writers and artists also tend to become so absorbed in their work that they lose all sense of time. They can easily forget to eat or sleep when they should, so after the galloping hours of being propped up by the adrenaline of their creative juices, they can suddenly become very tired. It is hard to try to discipline one’s self to live a less erratic lifestyle without losing something of that creative power. It goes rather hand-in-hand with the territory – you never want to stop in full flow! However, if you do try to focus, in some of your inbetween periods, on catching up on sleep, getting some exercise, and plenty of healthy food, then it obviously helps redress the balance. Even if our lifestyle is erratic, it can still be quite holistic – something I always advocate aiming for – good physical, mental, and spiritual health overall. If we can achieve this then we are as fit as we can be to face whatever tasks and purposes life hands us, or we choose to make for ourselves.
I always remember the remonstrations of one of my friends, David Caddy, who still edits “Tears in the Fence”, to “show rather than tell”, and this also brings to mind the advice of Ghandi to “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. So if you are a writer, always remember that you are taking on a responsibility with it, that grows as your writing spreads more widely. You are both being an example, and revealing the world to us through your perceptions. Although your voce is only one unique voice in a sea of many, yet you still have the power to influence more people through your words than you will personally meet. Taking care of yourself is part of that responsibility.
My books are available from my website http://www.radiance-solutions.co.uk/jwbooks.htm
I wrote a prose poem to honour Robert Bly for the influence of his work on me, and it’s in my book SPAN.