To be a poet one needs the six P’s – the pencil, the paper, the perception, the passion, the persistence and the unshakable persuasion that the poem is in fact possible and attainable. - Grace Perry

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Secret Life of Poetry


On the 19th of May I sprang out of bed, printed out a selection of my poems and headed to the State Library of NSW. With my precious poems clung to my chest I found my way to the Mitchell Meeting Room and made myself a cup of tea in anticipation of a day workshopping with David Brooks. Fifteen eager poets sat down to learn ‘the secrets of poetry’.

Brooks gave us some excellent advice such as, if you are interested in writing poetry you should be reading it. This is something that my dad has long been telling me and that I indeed do practise. I have been reading Mark O’Flynn and John Watson’s new books which I also discovered at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and am thoroughly enjoying. Watson’s poetry, in Occam’s Aftershave, is witty and fun as he explores the process of writing and the purpose of poetry. Flynn’s Untested Cures… is a beautiful exploration of nature, with imagery such as “…Leeches, loving the rain, turn acrobatic somersaults towards us. / They drop from trees…” (2011, p55).

Another piece of important advice that Brooks gave was that if you want to be published and you want to get your poetry out to the readers then you have to apply for every competition and send off your poems to journals and publications. He told us that you shouldn’t be scared of sending one poem to multiple journals. Just be honest, if someone picks up your poem, even if it isn’t the journal you would prefer to be published in, you must withdraw your submission from any other publications that you sent it to. This is something that I have been terrified of, sending my poems to journals and competitions, but with Brooks’ advice in mind I have been putting myself out there more and I will continue to do so.

An important piece of advice for me was to be careful not to write beyond the end of the poem. This is something that I have a bad habit of doing. It is very difficult to know when you have written enough, but not too much. For example, a poem of mine:

the girl in the bar

smashing of glass, a cry of ‘TAXI!
movement of bodies,
money, drinks.
noise, DJ scratching all of the popular tunes,
poker machines sing,
a woman screams, ‘Bottoms up!

one girl sits still,
silent, sipping cool wine.
she wears blue,
sweat glistens on her forehead
eyes gleam the colour of her dress
her cheeks and lips are flushed.

a fleshy faced, Mitch,
is already entangled in the image.

Brooks suggested that this poem should perhaps end at ‘eyes gleam the colour of her dress’. 

Another brilliant recommendation was to contemplate where to place line breaks and how to effectively use enjambment. In consideration of this, Brooks referred us to Denise Levertov’s article ‘In the Function of the Line’ (1979). Levertov notes that traditional poetry forms such as sonnets do not suit contemporary subjects as well as free verse: “…there are few poets today whose sensibility naturally expresses itself in the traditional forms … [t]he closed, contained quality of such forms has less relation to the relativistic sense of life which unavoidably prevails in the late twentieth century than modes that are more exploratory, more open-ended” (1979). Levertov wrote that “[t]he most obvious function of the line-break is rhythmic: it can record the slight (but meaningful) hesitations between word and word that are characteristic of the mind's dance among perceptions but which are not noted by grammatical punctuation” (1979). This is the best explanation of enjambment I have found so far. Brooks hoped to stress the meaning that a line-break can carry and remind us to be careful that we are not splitting up a single concept, confusing the reader by placing a word at the start of another line, which may not flow from that previous image.

All in all this was an informative workshop and I walked out with my poems still clutched to my chest, ready to test out some of Brooks’ techniques.