Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Poem and the Poet: Inspired Beginnings & Unknown Ends

06:00:00 Posted by Lara Clayton , , , , , , , 4 comments

This week I’m cheating! Due to feeling tired, overworked and a little stressed, I’ve decided to post something I wrote 2 years ago. The piece I’ve chosen is taken from my undergraduate dissertation, which attempted to blend the creative with the academic through Poetics – and argued against the assumption that Creative Writing is a ‘soft option’.

The Poem and the Poet: Inspired Beginnings & Unknown Ends

The Poet does not know how the poem will look; she has no expectation or assumption. She lets the poem be what it wants to be - not forcing it into being.

It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. [...] It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, [...] but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood – and indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad.
(Robert Frost, 'The Figure a Poem Makes', 1939)*

On paper it begins to exist with the first line. The poem is no longer a mere idea that might get lost in a crowd of life’s distractions, or a thought that gets thrown hastily into one of mind’s drawers and never retrieved. It moves from a condition of abstraction – memory, thought, feeling, imagination, creativity – and adopts a physical, more permanent form. The abstract is transformed by a line of words, making it more difficult to lose or forget that moment of “delight”. The first line is powerful; it is the beginning that will lead the Poet to an end, and it is the tone – the voice – that the poem speaks and will continue to speak on each consecutive line.

And just “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting” (Frost, 1939); the first line is the hand that places the ice on the stove and enables the melting to occur.

The Poet does not plan the poem’s line breaks by counting syllables; a line is not a stack of pennies and a verse is not a collection of five and seven pence towers. At times there is no need to count out value because the poem holds the potential to subconsciously calculate its own worth... If it is given the autonomy to do so.

The Poet does not dictate a rhyme upon the poem’s ends in order to form a scheme of alphabetical echoes.

a-a-b-b-c-c-d-d-e-e...” does not drone or befell the form today...

...it did not want to. Thus, she applied no pressure.

The Poet is not dictator but writer. She listens to thought, to idea, to words, to sound. She is not a prophet but a messenger, who cannot see the end nor predict it. She is the owner of a pen, and its metal surface is void of apparitions that depict the future or foresee the unknown. The Poet surrenders to the now and accepts that the next cannot be hypothesised about, but rather she must write towards it. With each line and passing verse the unseen end steps closer to being visible – to the state of now – and eventually, the Poet falls upon it...


Thank you for reading,

* In: Gioia, D., Mason, D. & Schoerke, M. eds. Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. (New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, p.11-12)



vicky ellis said...

I disagree with Frost's comments about it being wrong to come up with the last line first. I think it's a perfectly viable way to write. I often start writing by having an end point in mind and find a way to write my way back from there, to elaborate on a journey to that point.

That said, I think there's perhaps more delight in this method of starting out with an idea and following it to its conclusion, whatever that may be. The wonder of not knowing can be an exciting or worrying experience.

The prose style of this excerpt it superb. What a brilliant way to write a commentary. I'd never have thought of mixing the academic with the autobiographical and the creative in this fashion. I hope you don't mind if I make notes :) x

Lindsay said...

A brilliantly written articulation of the essence of poetry. Lara another great post :)

Lara Clayton said...

Vicky, I completely agree with your comments. There have been many times when I have started a poem with the last line, then worked my way backwards. The delight aspect is, almost, achieved by discovering the first line that was so evasive at the start.
What I really like about writing poetry is when you have a first line and you're certain about where the poem is going... Until you write a single line (or even a word) that changes the direction completely. You somehow find a route you'd never considered, and the poem is better for it. I guess, therefore, that I am always cautious of being too certain - I like the surprises that poetry can hold.
Please do take any notes that you'd like. I chose to do my dissertation to prove that Creative Writing can be academic, and knowledge can be added to the subject. I didn't like that it is was only classified as a dissertation if you picked either Language or Literature; a Creative Writing project is deemed to be a 'writing portfolio' and NOT a dissertation. I really do hope that my dissertation will inspire other students to push the boundaries in a similar way, allowing Creative Writing to gain a more academic standing.
Sorry for such a long-winded response, but it is something I feel quite passionately about :)

Ashley R Lister said...

As eloquent as always.

And you're right to contend that creative writing is as academic as any other discipline.