Mole Valley Poets, 26th March 2012
Rosemary Wagner: 10 Ways to improve our poetry

A General points

1 Motivation

Question: why do you write poetry in the first place? Getting to know your real motivation. Authenticity. Truth to self. Means getting to know your real self. Your spiritual not material self. cf Maitreyabandhu's article in Magma*

2 Take your time

Becoming a poet is a vocation. Take it seriously. Give it time, it is a full-time vocation, even if you are doing other work for money etc. Watch, listen and learn. Don't tell other people what you are doing until you are very confident that you are a poet. Then spread the word about the value of poetry.

3 Live in present

Awakening the five senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching. Do the raisin meditation. Allow yourself to day-dream. Make time for meditation, day-dreaming. Five mins here or there. Don't let the practical take over your life.

4 Read more poetry and widely

To enjoy and learn from others. Make time for this. It is hard work. Make time for it and make it a priority in your life if you are serious about writing poetry. Don't attempt when tired. Don't expect to read as you read a popular novel. A poem a day?

Read once, twice, as many times as you need to get all the layers of meaning and musicality of language out of a good poem. Read your favourites aloud to yourself (or even your spouse!)

Read books of poetry, rather than just magazines, so you get to know a poet better. Read poetry because you enjoy it and feel richer for it, not because you think you ought to. Join Poetry Book Society for a constant supply of excellent books by our best contemporary poets. Cf Carol Ann Duffy poem below.

Get to know the best contemporary poets but don't neglect the classics. Regularly re-read them. Make a compilation of your favourite poems, and if you can learn by heart. One a week?

Read writers on writing poetry for inspiration, and biographies of writers. cf Michael Hollis on Edward Thomas

5 Write something every day

Keep a notebook and use it. Keep a small one in your bag or pocket. Another by your bedside. (Morning waking hours can offer a rich source from the unconscious). Collect words, phrases, overheard speech that has meaning or fascination for you.

6 Broaden your subject matter

To include everything that catches your attention. Reflect your life as it is in the 21st century. But be aware of 'poetry mafia political correctness' - only write about things that move you in some way.

B Technical matters

7 Improve your vocabulary and work on it.

Make the effort to look up words you don't know when reading anything, if possible in a good dictionary which gives context and etymology. One word can lead to another - just reading a dictionary can be fascinating.

8 Improve your sense of rhythm

Listen to the music in poetry. Know and understand the traditional metres, but listen to the rhythms of your own speech: cf Robert Frost and Edward Thomas **'the sound of sense'. Cf 'Adlestrop' below.

Experiment with rhyme - ½ rhyme /full etc. Decide how much you want to use it. Many modern poets do, but carefully. Rhyme is good in light verse and performance poetry, needs to be more subtle in other work.

Experiment with assonance/consonance/alliteration cf Anglo-Saxon poets, but see also Simon Armitage 'The Death of King Arthur' for modern usage.

Work on metaphor and simile: in daily life practise by looking at objects and finding comparisons.

9 Edit, edit, edit!

The first draft is rarely perfect. Come back to it in a day or two, and revise it. Draft and redraft over a period of weeks until you are satisfied. But NB save all drafts on your computer. Sometimes you will prefer early phrases, after trying others.

Keep all your past unpublished poems, but don't show them to anyone. Return after a year or two : take one and cut ruthlessly: excess adjectives, adverbs, even the phrase you liked best - then see if it works. If so keep, if not throw.

C And finally

10 Share your work and accept criticism.

Challenge yourself: competitions, new themes. If you are getting stale, read a good poet, get re-inspired and push yourself beyond your habitual boundaries.


Quotations and Poems:

*Maitreyabandhu :

'Poetry and spiritual life overlap - if they are genuine, neither are undertaken for any kind of worldly advantage, prestige or use. Much of our life is spent in the acquisitive mode, ....but the value of poetry is in its antithesis: the appreciative mode. Yes, we need to buy things and earn money, but poets need to stake their claim in uselessness - in non-utilitarian appreciation. Our primary being should be one of appreciation. We should just stand back and enjoy it all - relate to life not for what it can give us but for its own sake. Within this larger uselessness, we'll need to work to pay the bills and feed the cat, but our real work is appreciation. This implies an element of asceticism. We need to live simply with as few distractions as possible so that we can get on with the real business of poetry.' .......
'Poetry is the expression of the poet's sensibility - the sum total of his or her life. Deep poems, achieved poems, are written by deep people. If you want to write well you need to live deeply, you need to develop yourself. A poem is the crystallization of the best of the poet: how they live and spend their time, how they treat others, what they read, how fully they engage with the world and how energetically they apply themselves to the act of writing. For a poem to communicate profound thought, the poet needs to think deeply; for a poem to express deep emotion, the poet needs to feel deeply; for a poem to be beautiful, the poet needs to experience beauty. The poet needs to live in such a way that needs to be expressed in poetry, which cannot be expressed in any other way. Poetry expresses our deepest reflections and intuitions, our subtlest feelings and our highest ideals. A poet therefore needs to observe vividly, feel strongly, reflect deeply and think rigorously. They need to cultivate robust sympathy for others, while at the same time developing a genuine independence of mind - without which there is no poetry.

** 'The sound of sense'

'Frost's belief was this: cadence is a natural part of human speech - it gives the speaking voice its intonation, its modulation and its rhythm. We use cadence to indicate and understand meaning in a way that goes deeper than the content of individual words into the arena of moods and atmospheres. So when, in Frost's favourite example, we hear voices behind a closed door we can broadly make out sense even if the words themselves are not clear.' Hollis p. 73

'Frost believed that it was the rhythms of speech - as opposed to music or traditional metre - that should guide our ear when employing the sound of sense.' Hollis p75

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To see his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Beside the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost (1874 -1963)


Yes. I remember Adlestrop -
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop - only the name.

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917)

Carol Ann Duffy: Water

Your last word was water,
which I poured in a hospice plastic cup, held
to your lips - your small sip, half-smile, sigh -
then, in the chair beside you,
fell asleep.

Fell asleep for three lost hours,
only to waken, thirsty, hear then see
a magpie warn in a bush outside -
dawn so soon - and swallow from your still-full cup.

Water. The times I'd call as a child
for a drink, till you'd come, sit on the edge
of the bed in the dark, holding my hand,
just as we held hands now and you died.

A good last word.
Nights since I've cried, but gone
to my own child's side with a drink, watched
her gulp it down then sleep. Water.
What a mother brings
through darkness still
to her parched daughter.