Friday, 27 March 2020

Frustrations of the writer


  • You're in the mood to write, and have the time, but you have nothing to write about. You read through a list of prompts without success.
  • You're bursting with ideas, but have no pen, pencil, paper, computer, phone
  • You're bursting with ideas, but you're at the wheel driving the family around the M25


  • You had a good draft, but each addition makes it worse. Somewhere along the line you've lost the scent. You know that eventually you'll have to start all over again
  • The original excitement has gone. You have to complete the piece mechanically


  • A piece of your rubbish is accepted on the same day that a piece you're proud of is rejected.
  • Someone asks what actually happens after the end of one of your stories
  • Just after you've sent a story off, submissions for a themed issue that would have suited your piece perfectly are requested
  • An editor writes "This is a great read -- it's extremely entertaining and very witty" and rejects you. An editor writes "I've read the poems many times now, with the greatest interest" and rejects you. An editor writes "in its own right it is very good work" and rejects you. An editor writes "I enjoyed reading it. It was interesting and engaging" and rejects you.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Promises to keep

In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads William Wordsworth wrote

I will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the promise which, by the act of writing in verse, an Author in the present day makes to his reader: but it will undoubtedly appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement ... they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.

When people describe their texts as poetry nowadays, what promise do they make? The traditional idea is that if a text foregrounds language more than usual, it's considered poetry. If it contains a poetic idea (Deep Image) or tries to be beautiful or moving, it's poetry. If it's short, and the culture doesn't support mini-prose, it's poetry.

"Pardoning the turkey", a poem in a Rattle issue, is by Caroline Barnes. It begins thus -

Like a priest about to bestow
a blessing, the President raised

his hand over the blue and crimson
head of the snow-white turkey,

flashed his winning smile at the cameras,
and said: By the power vested in me,

It has the layout of a poem, though the line-length is determined by a ruler more than syllable-count. The language isn't heightened, and if there's a Deep Image, it's a long time in coming. Had it been presented as prose, I wouldn't have suggested improving it by breaking it into little lines. So why was it sent to a poetry magazine and formatted as poetry?

Categorising a text as poetry is to suggest that it might have hidden depths. It's a suggestion that there might be more to the text than meets the eye, that the reader should spend a while re-reading it. Line-breaks are a way to indicate that the author wants the reader to process the text as poetry. But suppose the reader treats all short literary texts as if they need to be carefully read - what then is the point of the line-breaks? If they're given the same amount of attention as the words, can they offer any value back? Given the charitable status granted to poetry by readers, any text is likely to seem more significant when read as a poem, so I think that it's only fair to raise the bar for text with poetic pretensions.

Sometimes authors set up expectations then thwart them. For example a piece can start in one genre (comedy, say) and then surprise the reader by becoming tragedy. Or a strictly rhyming piece can slowly fall apart to match the mood. But I didn't think that's happening here.

There are two sides to promises. The author may have one notion of poetry/genre. Various audiences will have others. Especially if one's playing with expectations, it matters how you gauge your audience. Picasso said to a friend that one day an artist would display a blank canvas. He didn't do so himself, because he didn't think the public were ready. Art and writing aren't just about having ideas, they're about timing, and identifying your audience. The text is part of a conversation. Perhaps your audience exists only in the future.

"Pardoning the turkey" might be using couplets to break lines because that's a default way to present words in poems. The line-breaks aren't meant to be expressive, nor is the enclosing white space, just as prose line-breaks and the enclosing margins aren't emotive. Perhaps the reader is supposed to ignore the format rather than be puzzled by it, because experienced poetry readers have become used to ignoring formats. Perhaps this shared understanding is the basis of the promise.

My A Theory of Line-breaks post gives more examples and statistics.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Waxing poetical

many lines read like attempts to get as many “poetry words” as possible into a single sentence. “A sepia/ penumbra clears round a moon of blood” comes close but “Shadow-green patina, faint turquoise wash/ over wafer-thin kaolin” probably takes the biscuit. Such lines are interspersed with fridge-magnet wisdom: “The past is not lost/ but covered up by time."

That comes from a review by Paul Batchelor about Padel's poetry. Recently I read the following in a poem

       Awestruck, he obeys and dogtrots after her,
            language now lost, but one pudgy digit an arrow

on the cusp of pointing

It's about a child who sees a colourful mobile. He tells his mother about it but she just tells him to get a move on. It's a common enough episode, and could have been conveyed in a more mundane, minimalist way. Here it's poetized by livening the verb choice and saying things in a rather prolix, dramatic way - "cusp of pointing" is particularly figurative. Of course, the layout is part of the poetizing (indeed, the sole purpose of the layout might be to stop reading the piece as "mere" prose).

This souping-up of language is what can happen during re-writes. In some eras it was discouraged in both poetry and prose, in others it was ok in poetry but considered too flowery or distracting for prose. It can appear ornamental, the way forced rhymes do. Or it can be praised for its density and richness.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with these features. Fashion and personal taste influence choices. Some fads come and go so rapidly that you need to be a bulk reader of poetry to notice them. On his moves in contemporary poetry page from 2010, Mike Young lists some popular poetisms - e.g. "Exposed revision" ("I almost admire it. I almost wrote despise") and "Comparing something to itself".

Nell Nelson at the end of her yearly submission windows sometimes provided a snapshot of features that repeatedly cropped up in the thousands of poems she'd recently read - see thirty poem snags and are your modifiers dangling. Examples include "Certain kinds of 'trendy' titles, leading into list poems" and "References to Edward Hopper (and especially 'Nighthawks')"

I'm going through a phrase of flattening the language, of studiously avoiding melodrama. What this means in practice is that the outcome looks more like prose.