Monday, 9 December 2019

Curate's egg poetry

A poem's rarely full of "good" lines. For a start, few lines are good or bad in isolation - their value is affected by context, and their purpose may be to increase the value of other lines rather than be important in themselves. They may provide continuity or background information. A poem needs pacing. It needs lines that act as sounding boards (material for the effect of the good lines to permeate into, in preference to white space).

However, while developing or critiquing a poem we often underscore "bad" lines. If these lines form most or all of a stanza, the stanza's vulnerable. A recognisable unit is easier to delete than part of a whole. This is why short-stanza'd poems are risky - they offer easy targets. Even more so list poems - each item can be individually ticked or crossed.

Readers might gloss over lines they don't like/understand, especially if they adopt a holistic top-down approach. Alternatively, bottom-up readers might assign penalty points or be distracted by lines they perceive as weak. Authors vary too in their attitude to their less good lines. Sometimes their policy is "if in doubt leave it out", taking no risks. Others assume the reader (each according to their own tastes) will do the editing. Avoiding the use of stanzas (or writing a long poem) is a way to stop the weak lines being isolated and picked on.

"Safety first", reader-centric poetry doesn't suit all readers. Nor does daring (aka hit-and-miss?) poetry. I vary in my preferences when reading - though I don't ignore duff lines, I'm prepared to turn a blind eye if there are adequate compensations elsewhere. When writing I'm more of an "if in doubt" person.


  1. “Poetry: the best words in the best order.” It’s one definition (and there’re hundreds) but the only lines of poetry by Samuel Taylor Coleridge I can remember come from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: “Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink.” To be fair they’re a great couple of lines but are they the best words since no one ever gets the quote right?

    I’ve been working on old poems over the last few months, poems and scraps I abandoned as long as ten years ago and there was some good material there none of which I’ve altered much. Most of my time’s been spent swapping synonyms around trying to find the best way to say what I had to say. (To that end if you haven’t discovered it yet I would recommend How much difference it’s made God alone knows. I used to fret about this a lot more but there came a point where I realised that good enough was good enough. You have to think who’s going to be reading your stuff and how much effort they’re willing to put into it and the simple fact is poems I’ve spent ten or twelve hours on get read just as fast as the ones I spent ten minutes on.

    My general rule of thumb used to be: Say what you have to say and get off the page. Not used that for a while but I still stand by it. It really doesn’t matter that much if you say, “Wait a second,” “Wait a minute,” or “Wait a moment.” Your reader gets the idea. And the idea is what’s important because that’s what they’ll remember, not the words.

  2. I wrote 11 poems this year. I'd like to say that I wrote so few because I'm a perfectionist. The truth is more that my self-criticism levels sometimes lapse, and the odd poem slips out. I have to depend on another lapse of inhibition to send the things off. Consequently I've published none of the poems I've written this year.
    I too assemble scraps I abandoned years ago (a task I traditionally do at this time of year). I get more publishable poems from doing that than waiting for inspiration. I think I've become a better editor.