^ Suggestions for Writing

1 Topics. Poetry anthologies often list poems under separate headings. (For example, Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley, includes 'Roads and Journeys', 'Growing Up'.) Compile a list of poems under a heading of your choice, then write your own poems on this topic. If the heading were 'Home', for example, you might find the following instructions helpful:

Home could be a house, a city, a neighbourhood, a country or a continent. It could be home in the past or the present. Homes you have known. A house inhabited by somebody else but which you can enter into imaginatively. Start off by writing notes on the following, then develop your poem around the thoughts, scenes and details that interest you most. Focus on a place you call home now, or have called home before now. Picture the place you are writing about, from the outside—a building, a street. Describe this place in terms of an action—something happening to it. Or what it does to you or other people. Show a person you connect with this place: a parent, child, brother, sister, fellow student, tenant. The person is doing something, indoors or outside. What is he or she doing? Someone is speaking, saying something about this place.

Make a note of which of the examples above appeals to you (some, all, none, which).

Think of a place that is different from home. Write an impression of why this other place is better, or worse, than home.

When a visitor/friend enters, what do you hope he or she will notice, and will not notice?

Describe a very messy area of home—focus closely on the objects there (under the sink, down the settee, etc). Write down exactly what you find.

Write a poem about 'Home', using one of the notes above as your starting-point. Develop the poem making use of the other notes you have made, rejecting some, including some, building up a set of images of 'home'. You may have gathered ideas on this subject already from the previous chapter's suggestions for writing.

Deciding on your own topic will bring you into contact with the work of other writers, as you find examples of how the topic has been treated by others. In this way you will develop a sense of the variety of styles, forms, approaches and tones of voice within contemporary poetry. Don't worry if you can't find very much written on your topic; write about it anyway. Topics you might try: the sea, the weather, the city, living abroad, disability; death or loss, the body, work, voices, technologies, art (painting, sculpture) or music.

2 Personae. Write in the voice of another person living or dead, real or imagined. Another term for this form is dramatic monologue. (Examples are: Carol Ann Duffy, 'Warming Her Pearls'; U.A. Fanthorpe, 'Deus versus Adam and A.N.Other'; Robert Browning, 'My Last Duchess'.) You will find many other examples. Look around, read for ideas. The persona you choose may mean you need to do some research, about the character, his or her background, place in history (if appropriate), culture. The following instructions might help you to get started:

Write about what interests the persona you have chosen has. Enter his or her world, way of thinking and speaking. Listen to what he or she has to say, and write it down.

Who is he or she speaking to?

Your persona is remembering something—an event, long ago or recently, that had a great impact on him or her. He or she describes it, reflects on it, and remembers it in close detail, again with an attitude. What happened?

Now your persona is looking into the future. What does he or she fear, hope for, believe will happen?

Explore some or all of these directions in a poem that catches the rhythms of this person's voice.

Note: an exercise involving Browning's poem appears in Rob Pope's Textual Intervention, (Pope, 1995:15-30) as follows: 'Translate the whole poem into a conversational idiom with which you are familiar, presenting the results on a page or at a live reading.' You might also experiment by changing the circumstances, class, role, age and relationship of the speaker with his 'duchess'. For other suggested ideas about interventions see Chapter 4, Exercise 3 and Chapter 6, Exercise 9.

3 Narratives. You can tell a whole story, or you can just reveal important moments in someone's life and link them together. (Examples are: Sylvia Plath, 'The Rabbit Catcher', Elizabeth Bishop, 'The Burglar of Babylon, Tony Harrison, 'Long Distance'.)

If you wish, use some of the following ideas to get started:

Tell the story of a person who lived in the past and who may not be very well known. Research a turning-point in his or her life. Write a poem that goes into detail and aims to re-create and visualise the events and states of mind he or she is experiencing. Tell a story of a person (real or imaginary) who is known to your readers. Choose a moment in his or her life and show what happens; for example, when Little Red Riding Hood catches sight of the wolf. Angela Carter's 'The Company of Wolves', in her collection of stories The Bloody Chamber, gives her version of this encounter. See if you can catch a sense of the girl's attitude in poem form.

4 Transmitters. The idea of this exercise is by focus and concentration to bring to light new sensations and perceptions about the world, perceptions influenced by your unconscious fears, desires and dreams. (Examples are: Ted Hughes, 'Pike'; Sylvia Plath, 'Cut'; Thom Gunn, 'Hampstead, The Horse Chestnut Trees'.) The aim might be simply to describe something—an object or scene through the window or inside a room. Try various approaches—use a voice for the thing you describe, for example. It may be that your poem is about something else altogether—the object you chose has become a metaphor.

5 Portraits. (Examples are: U.A.Fanthorpe, 'Olive'; Philip Larkin, 'Mr Bleaney'; Jean 'Binta' Breeze, 'Grandfather's Dreams'.) Some of the following might be points for development:

Describe a real or imagined meeting between you and the person concerned.

Think of an object you associate with this person. Describe this object as if it were him or her.

Think of something he or she often says/used to say.

Imagine some of the things he or she doesn't talk to you (or anyone else) about.

What settings do you associate with this person?

Ask him or her a question important to you, (one you might actually ask, or one you would never ask). What is the question? How does he or she reply?

6 Experiments with form. Re-read the poem in the section syllabic poems (p. 97) above. In eight or ten stanzas of four lines each, write a poem where each line contains eight syllables. If you have written eight syllables, go on to the next line. Choose your subject first. It could be an event, a portrait of a person, a setting with an encounter involving one person, yourself, or a group. It could refer to something in the present or the past, and you could use either tense. Don't worry about rhyming or sound patterns. These can happen without your having to think about them, and even if they don't, it doesn't matter; you will have written a poem. Simply keep to the four-line stanza, eight-syllable rule.

Try writing poems in more elaborate forms, including rhyming poems. As an example look at Elizabeth Bishop's sestina, 'One Art' and also examples of the sonnet form by the contemporary poet Edwin Morgan in his New Selected Poems, (2000:130).

7 Surroundings and circumstances. Write a poem in response to the pressure of circumstances (real or invented). One of Peter Sansom's poems, for example, begins:

Come home, if you can. You don't need to explain anything to anyone. Come home alive.

(Sansom, 2000:12)

Write a poem beginning with the line: 'I'm writing this.' referring to your immediate surroundings: on a bus, in a street. You are standing among a crowd at a wedding. Write a poem to the bride or the groom.

Revision and Editing

When you read your poem aloud, does it have a strong rhythmical delivery that will hold people's attention all the way through?

Will listening to it be a memorable experience?

Check the lengths of the sentences in your poem. See if shortening or lengthening a sentence will strengthen its rhythmical delivery.

Are there any superfluous words—or even whole lines—that are causing interruptions to the flow of the poem? The ideas you want to convey may be complex and difficult to express, but the poem should still be as simple and clear as you can make it.

Good poems develop a strong sense of contact with real or imagined worlds. Have you put enough 'world' into your poem, enough physical detail, vividness and sense impressions?

Is your poem a monotone, lacking idioms, actual speech or references to speech, use of the voice? If so, can you find ways of introducing voice qualities?

Writing free verse can be a way to experiment with form. As well as sentence length, experiment with where to make linebreaks. A line-break is a type of punctuation; it alters the spoken delivery of a poem. See how line-breaks affect your experience of reading. Do this too with stanza forms; four-, five- and six-line stanzas all sound slightly different. Do you want regular stanza lengths? See how to control your poem's appearance as writing. By experimenting in this way you will find your intuitive preference and discover for yourself how the look and sound of a poem alters its impact.

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