Saturday, August 16, 2008

Always start with the second stanza, he said

At one time, one of the poetry books most likely to be found on - or sometimes under - my coffee table was Ian McMillan's marvellous Dad, the Donkey's on Fire. A highly recommended poetry collection, not least because much of it is side-splittingly hilarious. My husband and I still quote 'The Continuity Girl is Dead' to each other when spotting editing mistakes in films. And the short-short story about the commuter absentmindedly putting his unlidded takeaway coffee into his briefcase before boarding the train ... well, I used to cry with laughter on reading that, even after I'd read it so many times I could practically recite it from memory.

Sadly, I can't quote from it more fully, for fear of making mistakes, as I no longer own Dad, the Donkey's On Fire (so if anyone wants to buy it for me for Christmas, I'd be very grateful). A friend who shall remain nameless 'borrowed' my copy a few years ago, and never returned it.

But, in case you were wondering, there is an excellent reason why I've mentioned it here today. And that is Ian McMillan's very funny and insightful poem 'Stone, I presume', where he discusses always starting poems with the second stanza.

You see, I'm off on my annual writing retreat at the end of next week, armed with a partial manuscript of my novel and an assortment of useful books. And today, trying desperately to muddle through the chaos I left my novel in after last time, I remembered, in a sudden flash, Ian McMillan's incisive line: 'always start with the second stanza'.

And I threw away the first chapter. Just like that.

So now chapter two is the new chapter one, and everything else moves up. And the whole book is so much tighter now, I could almost kiss Ian McMillan. Except he wouldn't understand and would probably write a poem about it later in which I figured as some sort of mad bag-lady, attacking him in the street after a poetry reading and attempting to plant a wet one on his cheek.

So what's good for donkeys is good for poets. Or rather, what's good for poems is good for novels too. And if anyone has 'Stone, I presume' to hand, please do quote the relevant lines in the Comments box below.


PJ Nolan said...

That's one of those key tests of a first draft isn't it. I've benefited from that on many occasions - either deleting that first stanza entirely or just finding a more appropriate knit for it elsewhere in the texture of the poem.

Cutting to the 2nd stanza often helps to 'start your poem at 10,00 feet' to quote Henri Cole. Although he was referring to using epigraphs in that context.

Ms Baroque said...

Actually, I've also found that you can reverse the stanzas - if there are two - to good effect. Or put the one you wrote first at the end.

Alas, don;t have the Donkey one but you are inspiring me - the one obout the continuity girl sounds great.

Women Rule Writer said...

Brave move, Jane, ditching Chap 1. I'm glad it paid off.

I find it easier to see in students' poems that they could start further down. Not always as easy to see in my own, though...

Rachel Fox said...

I think Ian McMillan is the kind of bloke who would accept the kiss in the right spirit. I think you should surprise him on 'Late Review' or something.

I'm looking for a word other than 'lovely' to describe this post but not finding one. It is lovely.