Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Poet as Magpie

I haven't written any poems for some days - maybe as long as a week - so I trotted off for a quick coffee and poem-writing session today and left my husband with the kids. Unfortunately, nothing new came of it, but I did feel able to rewrite an old 'abandoned' poem that's been bugging me for ages. It's less a poem, actually, than a mish-mash of poorly connected rain-and-flood images and phrases out of which a more confident poem, 'Flood at Boscastle', published this year in Poetry Review, eventually grew.

That situation may need explaining. 'Flood at Boscastle' was a poem which just seemed to come loose from the rambling draft of a much longer poem. Having emerged in the centre of it, 'Flood' shrugged the rest of the lines away, leaving them on the floor of the page like shorn hair or wood shavings. So I've had these unfinished - or rather, abandoned - images lying about for some months, roughly in the form of a poem, waiting either for the bin or for the right moment to be rewritten.

I've talked about this tricky rescue process before on Raw Light, and in other places - in an essay recently sent to the magazine Mimesis, for instance - but it bears some repetition, I feel, being slightly different each time it happens.

With this particular draft, vaguely entitled 'Boscastle', I knew that I couldn't make a move on constructing its ruins into a poem until the right mood took me. By which I mean that I lacked the right approach or inspiration. Not in some nebulous 'Muse' sense but in the sense of having discovered the right tone or connector or structure which would draw all those loose threads and shavings back together into one coherent whole.

Today, skimming through John Burnside's 'Selected Poems' (Cape, 2006, and highly recommended), I found the right structure for that abandoned draft and shamelessly adapted it to my needs. It's not something people talk about at parties, but being a poet sometimes entails behaving like a magpie, lifting techniques and ideas from other poets, both dead and living. And that's precisely what I did today.



In John Burnside's 'Selected', I found a number of strong working models of how to manipulate disparate images and phrases - disparate but running along connected themes - into one coherent unit. I was especially interested in his way of shrugging off excessive punctuation. In some of his freest poems, you find the colon, the full stop, and the occasional long dash. Not much else to hold his lines together or apart - only the white spaces. It's a technique particularly favoured by avant-garde poets, but the majority of examples I've read appear to use white space in either an arbitrary way or to bolster and add surface value to a too weak linguistic structure. In Burnside's work, by contrast, the gaps between lines or words spring inevitably from the sense of the words, setting each image like a jewel in the rich cloth of the poem.

So I looked at this fragmentary draft of mine, this shoddy ruin of a disembowelled poem, and began to see - in the light of having just read John Burnside's 'Selected' - how these disparate images could be knit together without clashing or clotting, i.e. by using the white space of the page to create distance and clarity - a sort of spatial integrity - instead of falling back on standard punctuation and left-to-right margins, which can feel inadequate to the task in some poems.

The 'new' poem created from this process is still undergoing refurbishment, of course, and may take several more months before it's ready to send out anywhere, but I now have much stronger hope that it will one day be publishable. It would be easier in such cases, perhaps, just to let those abandoned drafts go. And I usually do. But a few of them refuse to be forgotten. And that stalwart refusal is what makes them interesting to me, and worth continuing to worry at. Sometimes for years.

4 comments:

Background Artist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Background Artist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Background Artist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jane Holland: Editor said...

Was it that bad?