How to Be a Poet: A twenty-first century guide to writing well


04 May 2018
How-To-Be-a-Poet-Cover-37788.jpg How to Be a Poet
Read how to draft your work in a chapter of the new book by Jo Bell and Jane Commane
How to Be a Poet: A twenty-first century guide to writing well Images


Read how to draft your work in a chapter of the new book by Jo Bell and Jane Commane

On the First Draft

‘The last time I heard Seamus Heaney speak, he was asked to de ne poetry in 3 words. After a long pause he said: Exact. Truthful. Melodious.’
– Michael Bazze  @mikhailbazharov

Words are a blunt tool with which to tackle our lived experience, but they are what we have. Each of us approaches the blank page or screen with a different package of life stories, ttitudes and interests. Each of us has to start somewhere; with a memory, a mood, a global or personal incident.

As you begin to write, remain open to the possibility that the poem isn’t about what you thought it was about. Indeed, the thing that first struck you – the way a tree looks in the rain, a perfect goal scored by your favourite striker – is very unlikely to be the real subject of the poem. It probably interested you in the first place because it stands for something that resonates at a deeper level. Richard Hugo, in his book The Triggering Town, makes a useful distinction between

the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.

That first subject jump-starts the poem, but it begins a stream of thought which might take you somewhere else entirely. If you start writing with a particular message in mind and doggedly pursue it, you may end up missing something more subtle and honest. Let go a little, and see where you end up.


My own approach is to start, not with an idea I want to express but with something that strikes me about the physical world, as I suggested in On Looking. I don’t mean that you should write only about the physical world, so that your poem is about the taste of oranges and not about the joy you felt this morning. I mean that if you do it well, the taste of oranges will stand for joy.

In your case, that physical incident might be, say, the appalling traffic on your way to work. Don’t worry how to make it mean something. If you noticed it, it meant something. Note down everything about it, concentrating particularly on the five senses. The smell of exhaust fumes, the endlessly repeated view of a single person in a car with the occasional variation of a child or a dog in the back, the sign that says THIS ROUNDABOUT IS SPONSORED BY AMIR’S DOUGHNUTS. Get it all down.

Stay focused on the physical, avoiding lyrical interpretations or florid descriptions. Do not say, for instance, that ‘there is a mournful halo of mist over the motorway; melancholy swirls of fog’. Stick to what you actually see and feel. It’s misty. Some of the cars have their fog lights on. The air feels metallic and wet. Be specific too. Was it the Tinsley bypass or the turn-off for Little Gidding? Was it a Volvo or a Vauxhall that you saw? Format doesn’t matter here. Do not worry about rhymes, or strain to make wise observations. No-one is looking over your shoulder. Just observe.

At this stage, gag the personal devil who tells you that your phrases are too crazy or too orthodox – that you should definitely write a sonnet or villanelle – that you must know precisely What Your Poem is About. Instead, keep hold of the opportunity to surprise yourself. Don’t worry about surprising or impressing the reader: as yet, there is no reader. Let everything spill on to the page without filtering or over- thinking. Don’t get it right, get it written. This more or less ordered jumble is your raw material. There will be plenty of editing and refining in the days to come.

Your method may be different from mine. You might start by drawing a mind map or annotating a New Scientist article, but I find that building from the bottom up like thisbgives a firm foundation on which you can stand some very delicate and subtle ideas. I feel increasingly that the poet’s job is to get out of the damn way of the poem, and let it come through. In the first stages, at any rate, trust your subconscious to spot that which is of real importance, and only later bring wordcraft into play.

Whatever your notes look like, you have got something on the page. Have a cup of tea. Come back to your notes, congratulate yourself for having got this far, and get to work. These first steps are a repeated sorting or  ltering processes. Terry Pratchett  said that ‘The first draft is you telling yourself the story,’ and subsequently we work out how to communicate our ideas to someone else.


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What do you do with that first splurge of notes? Discard first the big, obvious chunks of clutter – the phrases that don’t make sense to you any more, the tangent which serves no purpose. Look at the very beginning of your draft. Very often writers do a sort of mental warm-up to get into the right frame of mind. If your first lines are nothing more than you saying ‘let me see now, where and when did that interesting thing happen?’ then they can be discarded. Your notes on the traffic jam may say ‘M6, junction 15 there was a massive tailback. Something spilled on the road, police on the scene. I noticed a man in the car behind me....’ You could put a line through all of that, call it TRAFFIC JAM, M6 and start with ‘The man in the car behind me....’

From now on, a great deal of your work consists in simple selection. You can undo any changes. For example, the right order of events may not be chronological. Start at the end, or begin with one image that has a powerful impact. Every image you select has an effect on the tone of the poem. Perhaps the man in the car behind you was singing along to the radio at the top of his voice, whilst you were listening to a traffic report about the tailback you were already sitting in. Put that at the centre of your poem and it becomes a piece about his optimism versus your pessimism. If on the other hand the AMIR’S DOUGHNUTS sign turns your mind to creeping commercialism, then your poem changes focus and the singing commuter becomes expendable. If you want to emphasise the mindful pleasure of the moment you might cut out the exhaust fumes, and spotlight the roadside flowers that you noticed as the traffic stood still. To highlight the environmental impact of commuting, you would cut out the singing man and devote a line or two to the squashed badger and the hum of planes overhead. Bit by bit, your choices will start to shape the poem.

Resist settling on a form too early in the process, and absolutely resist se ing out with the intention of ‘writing a sonnet’ or ‘writing a ghazal’, unless as a training exercise. The relationship between form and subject is organic, and becomes clear in the writing. For instance, the endless repetition of your daily commute might suggest a repeated phrase. The line of traffic could suggest a series of couplets, each dealing with a different car. Look at what you’ve written so far: are there accidental refrains or internal rhymes you could make use of? Hone in on them. Select and discard, select and discard.


The more poetry you read, the be er equipped you’ll be to make those decisions. As for your readers – don’t worry about them too much. At this moment, they don’t exist. In your next draft, you will start to think about readers. Right now, the important thing is to work out what you are saying. Don’t worry about who you’re saying it to.


Have another cup of tea. You’re ready for your second draft, which is the most important one.


How to Be a Poet by Jo Bell and Jane Commance is published by Nine Arches.



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