On How to Write Poetry and Prose

At the risk of confusing the search bots out here on the wondrous wide web, there follows a duplication of two short articles I originally wrote for a beta blog site some months ago. Of course, I go against what I’ve been taught in reproducing them here (for the aforementioned reason of confusing the poor nano-trawlers), but I found that the words still spoke to me. So, here they are:
How to Write Poetry . . .?

Rhythm, meter, assonance, etc., might well form concrete components of a poem, but these portions won’t form the essence of the whole. Poetry is, of course, impossible to define. How do we write something that cannot be defined? How can we analyse such an abstract construct? We can only be objective about our subjectivity. In phenomenological terms, we seek the essence of the experience: others’ objectivity of their own subjectivity chimes here with mine . . .

Poetry is what gets lost in translation (Robert Frost). Or maybe language is surrounded by languages we don’t know how to speak. Too many words here may well pop the bubble. Language is surrounded by the space: ohne Wort. Write delicately, even when with harsh pen strokes.

In a poem the words should be as pleasing to the ear as the meaning is to the mind (Marianne Moore). In the cold harsh delicacy, clarity of sound will manifest. We should strip away all the mud and straw that muffles this. Write as you hear it, but do not be afraid to scratch out and re-write, re-write: it is the search of cold crystal quivering on your skin.

Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the colour of the wind (Maxwell Bodenheim). All the senses hasten: we’re human and bedevilled by these. We can’t escape this, so we should write embracing their constant pleading at us.

Literature is a state of culture; poetry is a state of grace (Juan Ramón Jiménez). We should serve our senses with words; we should not gripe or bemoan our ineffectiveness at finding perfection. Write with love or lament, but quietly so, knowing that words are greater than you.

I am overwhelmed by the beautiful disorder of poetry, the eternal virginity of words (Theodore Roethke). There is little as distasteful as spoiled words: write carefully, though from the well where ordered thoughts don’t often reach.

Writing poetry can only come from unseen places. They are places of quiet grace, despite the chattering and the pleading of our senses: make us cold by perfect words. They are places of potential and of utter clarity, where what is written is a shiver on the whole of you. What is ‘written’ may not be what is contained in actual letters: it may be in between the words, or it may be — in essence — elsewhere.
How to Write Prose . . .?

How do you write prose? How do you write prose? Listen to the way words susurrate. Listen. Why use simple stones of words — lumps — when there are so many better ones out there? Stop here. Pause for a moment with me. Others have listed their rules and techniques, commandments and reflections for writing: they write about writing in general, the life of the writer, and ways of thinking; here we’ll find a small selection, interpretations, on how to write prose.

Neil Gaiman’s first rule of writing is ‘write’. It is a simple instruction, but simplicity often needs spelling out. Words won’t write themselves. Beautiful prose (it is this that this article is concerned with) is not stitched by elves and pixies under candlelight. Write. Out of your gruel and grey slurry, you can pick the small shining jewels.

Treat ‘language as a found object’ (Susan Sontag). Wipe clean the jewels you find; let them settle on the windowsill, on the desk, or in the drawer. Once, when you return to them, look on them with wonder if they shine. Know that you have created these: they may not be worth a penny to another, but you have created these jewels. Look around for more.

Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied (Zadie Smith). If you treat your life as in ‘treat, sweet’ and as in ‘treatment, application’, regarding your looking, you still may never find the most beautiful of jewels. You should not let this stop you from looking. Writing is looking: feel it.

Something that you ‘feel’ will find its own form (Jack Kerouac). In the looking, sometimes we just cannot see. Sometimes we will find the things we have lost, or the things we didn’t know were there, right at our feet. When something is ready to be found, or formed, it will manifest itself. Be ready to let it flow from you.

Flow and rhythm can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material (John Steinbeck). Words are part of you: even the gruel and grey slurry.

So, how could you write prose? Embrace all that flows in you, because this is a part of you. Feel the flow of words in you, and they will find their own shape. Some shapes, however beautiful, will not be the shapes of absolute wonder. Be fine with this and keep searching: your already-found objects of language, in the meantime, will continue to settle as you continue your search. This search must be written out, in all its gruel and greyness, and your jewels may shine when wiped clean. Words can susurrate here. So, how do you write prose?

Scatterlings and Short Thoughts: Abundance Seen to Unseen

You can survive as a writer on hustle: you get paid very little for each piece, but you write a lot of pieces. Christ, I did book reviews — I did anything. It was $85 here, $110 there — I was like Molly Bloom: ‘Yes I will, yes I will, yes.’ Whatever anybody wanted done, I did it.

(Kurt Vonnegut)
I’m thinking about writers of the past: those with talent and initiative — what would they have made of today’s publishing opportunities? Here’s Vonnegut, secretly offering up praise because he thinks he doesn’t have to poke around any more. Unfortunately for him there are also all the other writers piling in like ghosts. A lot have plenty to say. Some should never have been published at all and are found out. Would they then run away and hide?


Medicine is my lawful wife. Literature is my mistress.

(Anton Chekhov)
I will run away with you, printed on my skin, because you’re rare. I have looked for you for so long. Perhaps you’re not perfect, this you, this time, this incarnation; perhaps you’re perfect enough for now. Does everyone have such mistresses? If I abandoned you, and if all of us who have you and your kind here with us do likewise, where would that leave the state of the nation, without consideration and wonder in words?


A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavours and odours like butter in a refrigerator.

(John Steinbeck)
How will the stories you’ve written transform when translated into a different language? Languages are curious. There are some languages that have words that can’t be translated into English, some whose certain words sparkle in their combinations in a way that English words might not; there are some languages that just strip a beautiful English phrase to its bare bones and bleach it with a simple inelegant wash; there are languages that look quite identical on the page but, when examined closely, show up scratch marks to the reading eye of the writer of the original piece. I read, somewhere, how an American reader disliked the way an English or British writer might write ‘whilst’ instead of ‘while’, or ‘learnt’ instead of ‘learned’; this English writer is often similarly set off-kilter by the American ‘oftentimes’ and by the use of ‘likely’ instead of ‘probably’ or ‘probable’.

I write English, by the way, because I’m not British, as such, in much the same way as my Scottish and Welsh friends may well view themselves as such before British.

I wonder how my words might transform when written in different languages. If I consider a line to be beautiful, will it stay that way? If I consider a line inadequate, just lacking in some degree, can it be improved in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese? It is all dark to me.


I put a piece of paper under my pillow, and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark.

(Henry David Thoreau)
Writers always write in the dark.