Sunday, 17 June 2012

Entry-level poetry and originality

I've been reading some newbie poetry recently and have been wondering what to say to the poets. Let's keep it simple and suppose that a good poem should (1) "have something to say", and (2) "say it well". But that's not enough (for the same reason that a science student deriving "E=mc squared" without help isn't enough). If it's already been done no one will be interested, though it may be an important, impressive developmental milestone for the writer. So for work that's going to be shared there's another requirement - (3) "it hasn't been said that way before". Novice poems often lack all three of these features. Such poems are easy to identify. Difficulties arise when some of the features are successfully implemented. In the table below I suggest what pieces that lack one or two of these features might be like.

The FeatureIf it's the only feature lacking?If it's the only feature?
Something to sayStylish, original but ultimately vacuousConfessional, documentary
A good way to say itThe poet has ideas but expresses them in a confusing or bland way, though the result's original enoughAn exercise in style
Not been said that way beforea "workshop" poem?Novelty for novelty's sake

The poems described in the 2nd column lack only one feature, and should be better than those in the 3rd column, and easier to fix. But sometimes the feature that the poems in the final column focus on is so good that it's worth many a poem in the 2nd column. Some life event or desire to be different is what might have inspired the poet to write in the first place.

Which faults are most easy to remedy? Which are the most egregious? Some poetry think that having "something to say" is crucial; the only reason for writing poetry. Auden liked young poets to have technical skill and an interest in wordplay, having "a good way to say it". Time and travel can provide subject matter later. The feature in the final row is often underestimated. Of course, new poets may have read so little poetry that they can't assess originality, or assess how the poetry community will view the work (they may have no notion of a living "poetry community"). Some people don't bother about this factor until they've completed the poem. And works in this category may be excellent in themselves, important milestones in the writer's development, so poets, for a while at least, shouldn't been discouraged from producing such work. People like Derek Walcott think that poets might well be derivative during their apprenticeship.

But avoidance of derivative writing is part of my writing process, not an afterthought. When I feel the urge to write about bruised light I think again. My approach can be stultifying, and it's probably not a good idea for first drafts. The anxiety of influence shouldn't affect each phrase I write. And who's to judge whether the work is too much like what's gone before? Development often proceeds by minor variations and incremental improvements.

So I think the "originality" factor is the one that poets are most likely to re-evaluate as they develop. I don't think new poets should do what I do. Initially they shouldn't worry too much about originality (besides, they're not equipped to assess it). They might benefit from being shown similar poems. Later they may incorporate avoidance of copying into their thought processes (or call it intertextuality)


  1. I think the other thing I would add here is: Uses too many words. I see it all the time online. I used to do the same, take two pages to say what I could have said in eight lines, in fact usually did say it in eight lines and then went on to explain and expand on those eight lines for two pages.

  2. I was trying to think of suggestions that new writers could understand and implement. There's no point suggesting that they be original if they think they're original already. But yes, one could identify surplus words and suggest alternative phrasings. And "show not tell" is ok.

    Some newer poets use repetition quite a lot (e.g. having each stanza beginning with "I miss his ..." and ending with "I wish that he ..."). Such pieces are heartfelt and use a rhetorical device employed in pieces that move them (hymns etc) but to me are too wordy. I suppose rather than suggest that the repetition's removed, I could point out which stanzas work better than others.