I very rarely start with any idea of the subject or the shape of a poem in mind. My method tends to have two stages. The first of these is to adopt an attitude of receptivity towards phrases – not ideas – that come to mind in remembering a dream, or a conversation, or a sentence jotted down from random reading of prose, fiction or non-fiction – never poetry – or an overheard remark. Buses and trains are useful for this. These phrases accumulate for as long as it takes for me to begin to feel that some of them – even individual words – separate themselves out as more resonant and potentially fruitful than others. At this point I start to make attempts to link them. If the links prove durable and interesting it is because some sense of a context is beginning to suggest itself which I can start to build on imaginatively. If I feel – as I often do – that the mixture is remaining inert, then I start to look for new phrases, sometimes abandoned ones from earlier drafts of poems, which I insert in a half-random way until at last something sparks.
Once something does spark and the imaginary context and content begin to fuse into cogency then the poem is emerging and the second stage can begin. This is when the fun starts, of poking, prodding, and refining and generally shaping up the material. This usually involves attempts to derail or overturn the poem by making it say the opposite of what it seems to want to say or be about. This can be done by adapting it to different speakers or altering settings.
Since I took to rhyming new considerations arrive at this second stage. Words at the end of lines need to be changed, calling for new work on the vocabulary of the poem. Since the vocabulary of a poem is the poem this process will affect what the poem is saying and doing. Rhyming may well send the poem in new directions. To look for a rhyme is to let down a hook, and who knows what fine fish are there to be caught.
I surprised myself last year by finishing quite a long poem about my early childhood which developed a child-like voice engaged in conversation with an older-sounding narrator. In general, however, I very much prefer to be absent from my poems. There’s no way round autobiography when we start to write, of course. The circumstances of our lives, particularly childhood and important relationships, push forward. I’m not discounting the value of this. Major writers are often able to write of their personal lives powerfully and honestly in their maturity, and we all benefit from that. Perhaps it’s that I regard all the arts, no matter how profound or majestic, as entertainment rather than confession. Above all, I think the poet should keep the reader’s busy life in mind, and aim to make the prescious time he or she spends with the poem worthwhile and, to use an old-fashioned word, diverting.
The poems in this issue of The Compass are from a sequence of fourteen ‘fourteeners’, or random-rhyme sonnets. I hope you enjoy them.