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?

A Philosophical Perspective on Words

I come back to notebooks, from time to time, because therein lie truths and other scraps sometimes forgotten. If there are things we lose in the fire, these must not be the books. They line the shelves and accumulate. Buried on page dot dot dot (un-numbered) of one such notebook in a series, I read the correspondence of my editorial eye in this literary world. Sonam wrote, once:

‘It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find someone who is willing to listen and, indeed, able to grasp our spiritual (you call it ‘love’ or perhaps ‘art’) dream and aspiration. Therefore, the themes we address at the expense of our private spiritual/creative dreams — political, economic, and environmental — are jarring and discordant.’

I come back to this time and again. I dig down and see how we all coat our world-views in otherly-honeyed words: we treat our common experiences with differing words. Your spirit is my love. My dream is your ‘any other word’ for this. The writer and the reader are divided by the same language: words of written intention and words of read interpretation.

Can we ever truly connect our words? If my theme happens — one book, one story, one scene, once — to be love fallen away, will you ever read the words as anything like they were intended?

Of course, you’ll read them differently. You will colour them. You may even heighten them from the intention, which may have failed, to more than this. Perhaps then the themes we do address, which are more universal, are not the themes we might need to address: those themes that cannot be fully expressed because it may just be impossible for another to read/interpret just as the words were written/intended.

Drawing from phenomenological thinking, and in particular from intentionality (that is, whatever the object of consciousness is), words written/read are experienced in certain ways. I think of the words of this book, and that is my experience of them; you think of the words of this book, and that is your experience of them. We see them from different sides, say, as we see a cube each from our own side.

All we can do, as writers, is let this be. We cannot change the way the words are read. How do other writers view their words?

I come back to my notebook, and I think of yours.