A couple of weeks ago I went to The Poetry Business in Sheffield for a workshop with Michael Laskey. You’ll probably know that Michael is the editor for Smiths Knoll and you might also know that the magazine is calling it a day after 50 issues. I was never lucky enough to be published in Smiths Knoll but I also enjoyed reading the poetry within the covers. Michael was a generous editor who always commented on positive aspects of poetry submissions. This was much more encouraging (and useful) than an anonymous photocopied slip. Michael Laskey is also a fabulous poet and one definitely worth looking up. You could start here. For the workshop we had to bring a poem along, rather than write one from scratch. So the whole focus of the workshop was to look at a poem in detail.
I knew the workshop would be an interesting one and that I’d probably learn a thing or too. I did, and I’d like to share some of my experience with you. Here’s a good starting point: as an experienced editor, Michael was very definite on accuracy. If you’re going to write a poem on a particular subject then make sure you get your facts straight. Don’t take a chance. Research your topic area, but maybe do so after you’ve written a draft or two, so you keep the poem spontaneous and not rely on dry facts.
Michael was keen on clean poems that didn’t waffle or use superfluous imagery or language. By ‘clean’ I mean poems which have a tidy structure and the form works with the content and meaning rather than being imposed on the poem. I’m reminded of Basil Bunting here, ‘trust your reader, they’re as clever as you.’ A shorter more focused poem is better than one which feels it has to mention everything.
Michael also liked simple, direct language and not overblown diction. If you've ever read Michael's poetry or taken a look at 'Smiths Knoll' you'll see that on the whole the poems have a conversational style. Simple words, used appropriately, can work harder than ones randomly found in a thesaurus. This is something I’ve learnt to appreciate over the last couple of years. I still use a thesaurus and dictionary, though nowadays I’m looking for a more accurate word rather than one which sounds flash. I'm being a little more scientific. That doesn’t mean you compromise the beauty, it means you’re more definite and that words ring true and ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ and ‘that is all ye need to know,’ to bring Keats into this. There I go again. I can’t help making connections on this subject with other authors.
Imagery was also key; it’s best not to cram your poem with images that fly around from one thing to another and keep it original. Too many sights, sounds, images can be disorientating and confusing. You might think you’re treating your reader to a banquet, but without control and clarity it’s too much.
The last thing to mention was Michael’s enthusiasm; he obviously cares about poetry and is a meticulous reader and editor. He’s one of those people who’s doing remarkable things with poetry. I enjoyed meeting him and enjoyed the workshop.
Monday, 12 November 2012
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
However, I would say that for most people who don’t write poetry this would be their idea of a poem: lyric, beauty, sentiment. It’s these new-fangled poets who don’t write like this. ‘All those similies; all that juicy fruit and halcyon sea, eeesh’ says contemporary poet. This poem knows where it’s going, people on the whole (let’s argue this one if you like) don’t write like this anymore.
‘Ok’, says the poet, ‘poems have to make sense in terms of dream logic, off to my notebook I go.’ My own view is that all poetry from different time periods and cultures must be enjoyed. For this experiment, however, the poet wants to be contemporary. To test this I have opened a copy of the latest Rialto – the closest thing next to me at the desk – randomly. Below are the opening lines to a poem, ‘The Last’ by Robin Houghton:
They’ve been coming since posters were invented:
sometimes in dreams, to the tipping of cowboy hats