STARTING 1: USING A GOOD LINE

starting a poem 1Points Illustrated

1. Starting with a line of an existing poem, which acts as a catalyst for a new poem.

2. Alternate expansion and reduction into tight forms.

3. Avoiding the predictable.

Lyrics: Starting

Lyrics have a 'singing' quality about the verse, and we need to strike such a note immediately. One way is to take a not-very-good poem (our own or someone else's), and improve on a passable line. Here is a stanza from Thomas Hardy's "Shut out that Moon":

Close up the casement, draw the blind,
Shut out the stealing moon,
She wears too much the guise she wore
Before out lutes were strewn
With years-deep dust, and names we read
On a white stone were hewn.

I shall probably annoy lovers of this much-anthologized piece, but to me its sentiment seems commonplace and the metre uncertain (in the last line).

Step One: Write Versions of the Best Line

Start by writing versions of Shut out the stealing moon:

Do we want stealing, with its suggestion of the tawdry and underhand? Shining would be better, or perhaps radiant, which picks up the 't' sound and deepens the contrast between light and shadow, the promise of then and the scene today:

Shut out the radiant moon.

Step Two: Write Jottings Suggested by Best Line

Now we indulge in some reverie, and write lines amplifying what is suggested. We aim for rhyme but don't worry too much about achieving it, or about the sense for the moment:

draw tight the curtains, bank up the fire,
pull the heavy years across:
who would tell how the ghosts expire,
the living from the dross?

who would suppose in this quiet room,
between shadows and the bright swoon
there would come again the voice in her fevered bloom
in the tapestries of June?

all that might have happened then, while
we two cast our chart:
precipitations in the stoppered phial,
a murmur in the heart.

late or soon, how the thoughts conspire
shut out the radiant moon:
still there fall the shadows and old desire
like a half-remembered tune.

how unfathomable the bodies were,
and bulky, but with a breath
of such fragrance that still there stir
now with the years passing, the twentieth
or thirtieth...

And so on. Poor stuff, but material to:

1. develop themes
2. maintain a certain (enraptured) tone
3. suggest stanza shapes

Step Three: Extract the Themes

Three themes come through:

1. nostalgia for persons or situations now lost
2. voices and/or breath of a loved one
3. occult preoccupations: astrology, alchemy, visitations

Now some analysis. We can either write prose drafts to tease out the sense, or rewrite lines in the most appropriate stanza form, which is what we consider next.

Step Four: Polish Up One Stanza

At present we have a ballad form: 4a, 3b, 4a, 3b. Let's polish one stanza:

Let no memories conspire
in that far distant tune;
for all its elixir and shimmering fire,
shut out the radiant moon!

All very neat, but also predictable, banal even. Let's transpose some words:

Let no radiances conspire,
forgo that fragrant tune;
for all its elixir and remembered fire,
shut out the shimmering moon!

Suddenly the verse is much more evocative and enigmatic. Poetry is not an expression in beautiful language of pre-existing thought, but a way of thinking. At this point we can either pursue what is suggested by this stanza, or construct a more demanding stanza form that will force us to say more.

Step Five: Continue with the Stanzas

On this page we follow the first aim, and rework or add to the earlier jottings:

Let no radiances conspire,
forgo that distant tune;
for all its elixir and remembered fire,
shut out the silent moon!

Who could suppose in this small room,
between the waking and the swoon
of voices faltering and the heady bloom
would call up fragrant June?

All that might have happened then, while
we two cast our chart:
the darkness glitters in the stoppered phial,
precipitations in the heart.

How hard and deep the pain intrudes
that I must fight for breath
and all the anniversaries, the fire and feuds
times twentieth or fortieth.

Unfathomable as those bodies were,
with repentance and long tears,
to me they call, call still, and stir
as my neap hour nears.

And I must go walking again, again,
prodding the grass and stone:
find all sketched out with a poisoned pen,
dark and spiteful grown.

I am not as I was, will you hear me?
I ask you leave to speak.
I have nothing, nothing at all to cheer me
in recollections or physique.

But have grown older and I squander
what the years won't ratify:
I would make a pact with you and fonder
stay with you by and by.

Step Six: Discard and Add

Next we discard the worst of the stanzas above and write more to provide an overall shape to the poem:

Let no radiances conspire,
forget that fragrant June;
for all its elixir and remembered fire,
shut out the shimmering moon!

All that might have happened while
we two cast our chart:
a darkness glitters in the stoppered phial:
precipitations of the heart.

How hard and deep the pain intrudes
that I must fight for breath:
again the impassioned sulks and feuds,
times twentieth or fortieth.

Unfathomable as those bodies were
with repentance and harsh tears,
to me they call, call still, and stir
as I walk down the years

Who knows what happens, the how or when?
Grey-haired and bewildered grown
I view the scribbles of an idle pen
beset by grass and stone:

Ramparts of what was possible:
how far away it sets,
life, the improbable and ineluctable.
I ask for no regrets

If you will stop and you will hear me,
smile a moment, speak
the old words, the silly things, to cheer me
this anniversary, our week

of a walking out for a last time, or
the first, I do not know:
life passes, and the fragrant and the bitter draw
of the moon goes down so slow.

Step Seven: Analyze and Rewrite

Now the hard part: analyzing what's wrong and writing better:

1. Meaningless phases:

a darkness glitters in the stoppered phial:
precipitations of the heart.

I view the scribbles of an idle pen
beset by grass and stone

Ramparts of what was possible:

2. Sentimentality or bathos:

Grey-haired and bewildered grown

the old words, the silly things, to cheer me
this anniversary, our week

of a walking out for a last time,

These we replace or rework to get:

Let No Radiances Conspire

Let no radiances conspire,
lay by that distant tune;
for all its elixir and remembered fire,
obscure the shimmering moon!

All that might have happened while
we two cast our chart:
the fragrance in a stoppered phial,
the murmurings through the heart.

How hard and deep the past intrudes
that I must fight for breath:
again the tempest, sighs, the feuds,
times twentieth or fortieth.

Unfathomable as those bodies were
with repugnance and hot tears:
what haste was in the sorcerer,
what mirages with years!

Am I to say what happens when
now otherwise has grown
the hurt that in a fresh-dewed pen
made silver into stone?

Oh yes, you may hold me, smile, or
say things that maybe are:
but slow and bewildering is the draw
down of the moon and far.

 

The completed poem is published in free pdf form by Ocaso Press.

 A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.