Craft vs technique

Over the next few steps, we will be pointing out various tools that are available to you as poets. We want to stress that as a poet you have many choices available to you. However, before we do that, it is also worth thinking about the idea that in some things we might have less choice. The poet Denise Levertov writes the following:

I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays. But they are also makers, craftsmen: It is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate that he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are ‘members of one another’. [1]

Levertov starts by suggesting that rather than use tools, poets are the tools or instruments on which she says ‘the power of poetry plays’. What might she mean by this? Perhaps this mysterious sentence speaks to the way in which sometimes a poem just comes to you. Sometimes it can feel less that you are writing a poem, than that the poem is writing you.

Levertov is careful though to insist that poetry is not just a case of inspiration. Of poets she writes that ‘they are also makers, craftsmen’. The two things come together in order for the poet to communicate with others with whom they make up a community.

The poet Seamus Heaney does not position the poet as an instrument, but also splits the writing of poetry into two, technique and craft:

I think technique is different from craft. Craft is what you can learn from other verse. Craft is the skill of making. […] Technique, as I would define it, involves not only a poet’s way with words, his management of metre, rhythm, and verbal texture; it involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality.[2]

Heaney also identifies craft or ‘the skill of making’ as one part of writing poetry. The tools and skills of this craft, according to Heaney, include ‘management of metre, rhythm, and verbal texture’. Verbal texture might include the sound of the poem, and things such as rhyme. However, Heaney also talks of technique. This he links to the poet’s ‘stance towards life’. The word technique is rather confusing as it might also make you think of something like ‘skill’. In fact, Heaney goes on to write that technique is, simply put, that which comes before craft. Lots of people have ideas for writing. Many people might be good at the craft side of it. But what Levertov and Heaney both suggest, is that there is something else needed; something that makes you pick up the tools in the first place because you recognise that something might be worth making.

On this course we have already suggested that ‘craft’ is something that can be taught. This can include self-teaching—as Heaney says ‘craft is what you can learn from other verse’. It is important to stress, however, that there are aspects of being a poet that can’t be taught. It is up to you to be mindful of and to try to cultivate them. As the course progresses, try to describe the process of writing as you experience it. It might help to compare it to something else. For now, join in the discussion and share with us: Which do you think is more important: craft or technique? Do you think there is a real difference? Do you think there are aspects of writing that are unteachable? What makes your writing unique to you—how does what Heaney calls your ‘stance towards life’ influence the way you write poetry?

References

[1] Levertov. D. I believe poets are instruments. In: Herbert W, Hollis M. Strong words. Tarset: Bloodaxe; 2002.

[2] Heaney S. Craft and Technique. In: Herbert W, Hollis M. Strong words. Tarset: Bloodaxe; 2002.

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How To Make A Poem

Manchester Metropolitan University

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