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How do you go about writing poetry? (Advice I)

In this article, Dr Nicoletta Asciuto explores how to approach writing about poetry.

How shall we begin to write about poetry? In order to write about poetry, we first need to look at poetry. In fact, simply looking at it will not be sufficient: writing about any poem involves observing it, hearing it, touching it, and perhaps even tasting it. Poems start off as words on the page, written by someone —four centuries ago, eighty years ago or yesterday, no matter—, and come to life in the eyes, hands, ears, and mouth of the reader.

Poetry on the page is like some beautiful objet d’art locked away in the basement of the gorgeous Victoria & Albert Museum: while it is shelved there, no one can enjoy it, but when it is taken out and exhibited on the upstairs floors, the art object begins to live again. From this privileged position, we can more effectively examine its size and dimensions, enjoy its linear form and curved shapes, relish in its colours and materials, ponder its purpose, style, and historical context.

In a similar fashion, with our nose on the page or our laptop screen, we need to examine a poem’s form, structure, imagery, vocabulary, musicality, use or lack of rhyme and metre. These elements of a poem carry very important information about the text itself, its style, and its author. Modernist poet and artist Mina Loy was able to put this synaesthetic overlapping of sense in poetry wonderfully into words in her essay ‘Modern Poetry’ (1925): ‘Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea’ (The Lost Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger L. Conover, p. 157). The images within a poem can create musical echoes, and not just verbal or visual ones, claims Loy, and the musicality of a poem helps us to also explore specific meanings of words, not only their sound. The rules of prose go upside down in poetry as if in a magic trick, where “anything can happen”.

But how do we make sense of this poetic magic when writing about poetry? Before I start writing on a particular poem, I read and re-read it until I feel confident about its meaning, form, imagery, and language, or, in other words, until the poem becomes a part of me. This process is not simply impressionistic, but rather technical. In order to familiarize ourselves with the poem, we need to describe it as much detail as possible, but sometimes our interests are narrower. I often try to focus on only one or two aspects of the poem(s) I am considering, which could be anything from form, metre, imagery, rhyme, and so on, although recently my focus has been mostly technological language and imagery. If I am not writing about a whole poem (perhaps because it is rather long), I try to include enough of the poem or section of the poem I am referring to for readers to understand the broader context. In the lines where I comment on the relevance of the poem for my argument, I try not to summarise or paraphrase; rather, I go beyond the text, explaining what I see there that has not been seen by critics before. At the same time, I make sure never to impose my ideas onto the poems and try not to prejudge the possible meaning of a poem: if what I am looking for is not there, then it is not there (and I should not claim it is).

For Ezra Pound, the modernist poet and editor of poetry, writing and commenting on the poetry of other poets was like creating his own ‘gallery, a gallery of photographs, of perhaps not very good photographs, but of the best [he could] lay hold of’ (‘I Gather the Limbs of Osiris’, The New Age, December 1911, p 131). As photographs of poetry, he thought his essays could not be particularly good because only in very rare cases can photographs of artworks surpass the work of art itself. Writing about poetry may seem to present itself as an impossible feat—translating the most sublime literary form into simple prose. But Pound’s photographs have real value not only because they are the best he thinks he could have possibly taken, but also because they give us a glimpse into his, very special, perspective on poetry. When writing about poetry, your camera work will make all the difference!

Over to you

What do you focus on with your poetic camera? Let us know in the comments!

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This article is from the free online course:

Poetry: How to Read a Poem

University of York