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

Professor Matthew Campbell provides some pointers on how to write about poetry.
A procession of marble busts stretching back into the distance inside a library with old books visible on black shelves.
© University of York

In this article, Professor Matthew Campbell gives us his advice on how to write about poetry. He asks how far we should consider the life of the poet, and how to write about poets who are critics themselves.

Good critical writing about poetry requires a number of skills. Foremost among these are knowledge of the whole of the primary text and the ability to analyse it closely at local moments in order to provide strong textual evidence for a successful argument.

Other issues are in play: precise contexts which are both historical and biographical. This latter issue continues to cause much difficulty for readers, audiences, gallery-goers and cinema fans, and is the stock-in-trade of everyday cultural commentary, obsessed with the life of the artist before struggling with the difficulties of the art. Think: Shakespeare’s second-best bed, Van Gogh’s ear, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s marriage, who was the Mona Lisa? Poeta nascitur non fit (a poet is born not made) is the usual account of artistic talent and the idea continues to pack in audiences to this day. See Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.

We still have to look at these issues, see where they came from and how they inform our reading and understanding of actual works of art, in this case, poems. So, the pertinent questions might be:

  • How much do we have to know about an author’s life and opinions?
  • If the author is also a critic, how should we use their criticism to read poems?
  • Does the author’s poetry bear out the principles explored in their critical writing?
  • Where does theory end and art begin?
  • If art brings new things into the world, is that down to ‘creativity’?

These questions are endless, or at least the answers might be endless. But to take the last question: William Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot, writing a century or so apart, seemed to have different answers. Long passages of Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads are about the psychology of composition, of what goes on in the feeling self of the poet. The poet and poetry are written as if they are the same thing, poetry a record of an intense creative process centred in the mind of a person of feeling – or at least someone with habits of feeling. The poet is made to the extent that they have acquired habit:– the present of creativity is impossible without past habits – and good habits – of perception, memory and feeling.

Eliot would say that the present of modern poetry is impossible without another sort of habit – attending with exactitude to the long history of poetic and cultural tradition, without which you cannot imagine the new. Both poets link what they might be doing in a long line of experience, both personal and social: the poem doesn’t emerge from the present in a flash of inspiration. It is the product of various pasts and principles, of different people and of their beliefs and their languages.

For Wordsworth this might mean preferring one sort of past over another: that built up in everyday speech and expression, ‘a selection of the real language of men’. The ‘ballad’ of Lyrical Ballads is also a creation from the past: it might have been written by ‘Anonymous’, who may very well have been any number of authors, revisers, inventors. And that ballad shows skill, convention, form and structure. In Eliot’s poetry, the past looks a little more ‘formal’: various world histories and religions, classical allusions, fragments of texts, thinkers, even world languages. But it is no less tied into the existence of these things as memory and mind – just a mind that doesn’t seem to be centred in a single individual. Both poets move between the individual and the broader reaches of human society and communication.

So, in writing about poetry, I like to consider how poets as critics consider the creative moment as it relates to the past – whether that be tradition, personal memory, or the great thing that all writers share, the acquisition and the dissemination of language. If you want to write about a poet’s attitudes to tradition and creativity, you can approach this question in a number of ways:

  • Remember that ideas of creativity are historically bounded and specific, as we have seen at a number of points throughout this course. What does the poet say about creativity and tradition (in their poetry or in their criticism), and how do they do creativity and tradition – in other words, how do they explore and build on past voices to create their own verse?

  • Remember that words matter: writing has linguistic and verbal considerations at its heart. So ask yourself what words the poet uses, and why they have chosen this particular word at this particular point?

  • Think about the kinds of pleasure you find in the poem, even if it is difficult or upsetting. How does the poem carry us through different kinds of feeling, and different ideas?

The Irish poet Michael Longley says that if he knew where poetry came from, he’d go and live there. And in the end, it might all come down to the luck of finding a decent tune, and who cares what the lyrics say. But that is not really an end, more a starting point, and if we read poetry, and then read more in what the poets told us about poetry, we can’t help but enjoy it more: the word ‘pleasure’ occurs in the 1802 ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads forty-four times.

You can read the Lyrical Ballads (1798) by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Project Gutenberg – Lyrical Ballads – Gutenberg – Online.

Over to you

Consider these prompting questions and let us know what you think in the comments section. You may like to use these questions as a starting point for your comment, or you may choose to answer one specific question – we look forward to hearing from you!

What do you consider to be most important to good critical writing about poetry?

What are the challenges of writing critically about poetry?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

© University of York
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