Metre, rhyme, metaphor, simile – where to start? Well, poetic inspiration can be found anywhere, from a spider in the sink to stubbing your toe
“I can’t believe you write poetry – it’s impossible.” This is what a very successful screenwriter recently said to me. “None of my screenwriting friends ever even try. It’s too difficult.”
This is a common perception. I know poetry is often seen as arduous or intimidating, but when I heard someone who has made a successful career out of creative writing say that, I started wondering how everyone else (in particular, teachers and students) must feel.
Many teachers see poetry as important, but research (Dymoke, 2001) has shown it’s not an area in which they feel confident. As a result, as Anthony Wilson theorised in his 2005 paper ‘Signs of progress’, they often focus on the more-measurable aspects of poetry, such as rhyme, metre, shape etc, instead of its creative qualities.
I understand that. I spent my first few years of studying poetry feeling stupid and intimidated (and developing an obsession with metre). I am still intimidated by some poems. They can be so perfectly polished and smooth, like pebbles, that it’s hard to know how they were made.
One of my ‘breakthrough’ moments happened when I saw 17 different drafts of the same poem, ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop. In understanding how she started writing, I felt that crafting a good poem was actually something I might be able to achieve. So, in the hope that it will benefit you in the same way, I thought I’d share the process behind two of my own poems.
Years ago, I did a painting course at the Slade and, on the first day, the tutor asked me where my source material was. I didn’t have any. She made me leave the class and go and collect images that would help me visualise what I was trying to paint.
It can be the same with poetry. Working from ‘source material’ (such as artwork, objects, music or poetry) often helps me generate ideas, break out of using predictable language, come up with original images and experience emotions that I can, hopefully, channel into a poem.
One example is my poem ‘The Land of Blue’. I remember sitting in front of a painting at The National Gallery and wondering why there was a blue valley between two very green hills. It really didn’t fit with the rest of the painting and it’s all I could think about.
Staring at this valley, I found myself, quite unintentionally, writing about sadness – imagining The Land of Blue as a place we go to when we feel low. Here’s an excerpt:
Across the valley, it waits for you,
a place they call The Land of Blue.
It’s far and near, it’s strange yet known –
and in this land, you’ll feel alone,
you might feel tears roll down your cheek,
you might feel wobbly, weary, weak.
Poems seem to provide me with a safe and structured place to explore and process things that are a bit harder to be honest and open about in real life (like sadness) – I suspect that’s the same for younger people too.
In the classroom, you could play emotive music or bring examples of artwork (by students or well-known artists) and ask the children to write down words, questions, images or phrases that come to mind when they listen to or look at it, focusing on feelings, thoughts, shapes, colour, texture, and sounds. Collect these notes together (either individually or as a class) to be revisited and edited at a later point.
If you are collecting words as a class, students should be encouraged not to use the words they came up with themselves, so as to get them to use terms and phrases that perhaps don’t come to them quite as readily.
A friend of mine writes about trees. He’s obsessed. For his birthday, I was copied in on countless messages making tree puns – ‘I can’t beleaf how old you are’, ‘Wood never have guessed you’re so old’ – and I decided this could make an interesting non-rhyming poem.
A quick note here: I tend to write in strict metre and rhyme, and delight in the structure this provides, but it’s important to recognise that poems don’t have to rhyme. You might ask, then – if it doesn’t rhyme, what makes it a poem? It’s a tricky question, and poets have differing answers. Yeats, for example, defined poetry as “truth seen with passion” and Coleridge described it as “the best words in the best order”. But in short: rhyme is not a requisite.
I started listing all the tree puns I could think of (spruce up, knot, treemendous) before looking up a comprehensive list of trees. I then wrote down the names of trees that I thought were similar to words that might be useful in a poem, such as: ‘kapok’ (kaput), ‘wonderboom’ (wonderful); ‘karri’ and ‘wye’.
I then sat down with my list of words, and wrote a story. I tend to overwrite, then cut – and, like many, I often need time and space between the creative phase of writing a poem and editing. (Which, incidentally, is a great practice to introduce to the classroom – students could write in one class, then a week later, edit; or write sitting in one chair, then swap seats with another student before editing.)
I was left with a poem called ‘Ash’s Birchday’. Here’s an excerpt:
“Wawona!” Said Ash, “Coolabah!
I did knot realise I was so poplar!”
Everyone had such a larch. Beech made
acorn-y speech before Ash said a few words.
“I wood just like to say thank yew!…
I can’t beleaf yew threw me a surprise party!
I really hadn’t twigged!” he said.
“I walnut say any more… Except… let’s dance!”
Artistic inspiration can strike at any time, so teach children to pay constant attention to the world around them
Poems can come from anywhere. For me, they’ve emerged from seeing a spider in the sink (‘Spider’), stubbing my toe and being left with a purple toenail (‘My Talented Talking Toe’), cutting my finger (‘Knives are Sharp’), thinking about phrases that we use all the time (‘Eat Your Greens’), and savouring the taste of broccoli (‘Sweetest Thing’).
Whatever the starting point, poems always begin with paying attention – whether that’s to emotions, words, questions, ideas, moments, sounds, tastes, or smells. But paying attention isn’t enough – students have to get into the habit of recording their ideas. If they don’t, they might forget them – and lose the poem they could have written.
Ask students to carry a notebook around to capture words, sounds, images, lines, questions – this will help get them into the habit of recognising, and recording the potential poems floating around every day, just waiting to be written.
Laura Mucha is a writer, poet and artist. You can find ‘Ash’s Birchday’ and read and listen to more of her work at lauramucha.com.