I just had one of those writing experiences that is both scary and encouraging. A poem that I’ve been working on for ages just shook me off, gave itself a flap and opened out into a completely new direction. Although ‘flap’ isn’t the right word. ‘Frap’ is closer to being technically correct, (but has unfortunate connotations in this household thanks to Stephan Gates’ Gastronaut). If you’ve ever seen a bird prepare to sun itself, you’ll know the movement I mean: a brisk shake of the wing to open it out fully. A bit like a fan being opened, or a cape being given a firm shake to unkink its folds. That sort of movement. That sort of intent. A horse deliberately shying at something, to dump its rider and gallop off into the distance.
This poem is one I’ve had simmering for way too long. I tried to force it along during NaPoWriMo last year, but it got stubborn and hunched itself against me. I’ve been going back to it and going back to it ever since. And for the last week or so I thought I had it just about there, just needing a bit of a tidy with an early transition and a chance to polish the ending properly. But essentially written.
But this afternoon, in desperation, I went back to the poem that triggered it in the first place and applied a very useful technique called ‘writing through’. (It’s yet another exercise from The Practice of Poetry; this time from J D McClatchy.) And all of a sudden the poem woke up, tossed me over its shoulder into the bushes and surged off in its own direction. It feels like it knows where it wants to go, so I’m going to give it its head and just see where it ends up. It feels … good. Scary, but good.
I know I have a tendency to stop writing too soon – I don’t always have the courage to keep going, to keep writing, to let the poem develop in its own way and go beyond the simple version. I see an ending, but don’t ask if it’s the ending, if that makes sense. To return to the equestrian metaphor, I keep Pegasus reined in under bridle and saddle, rather than trusting myself to his back and going where he takes me.
Maybe this will be different? I hope so.
Here’s the exercise. Now please excuse me – I have to go see a horse about a poem.
Writing Through to … ?
based on JD McClatchy’s exercise ‘Writing Between the Lines’,
from Behn and Twitchell’s The Practice of Poetry.
- Choose a model poem, maybe one that has the tone you’re after, or that moves through its subject the way you want, or just a poem that interests you somehow.
- Print the poem out, triple-spaced.
- Working your way through the whole poem, write a new version of each line in the space below it. It doesn’t have to be exact, or even close – use the poem, don’t be used by it. But you should be able to see the original behind your own version.
- Now strip the scaffolding away – take out the original poem, and do whatever editing you need to to make it cohere as a poem in its own right.
- Now consider what you’ve written as part one of a longer poem. Label it ‘Part 1’ or similar, and write a companion piece, a ‘Part 2’ that moves on from the themes and images of the first. [I rarely remember to do this stage, but it’s still a good idea.]