A Serious Business: Advice for Budding Poets

Every now and then I write poems.

I used to write a lot of them when I was a younger man. Many young people henri_fantin-latour_005do. I was lucky enough to find a friend who read them and encouraged me. Someone whose opinion, as a writer, I respected. I renewed my efforts a few years ago, when I joined a writer’s group and found, again, a friend who reads the work and encourages and supports me. This is a piece of advice I would like to give to budding poets: if you are serious about it, don’t be shy. Find readers and ask for feedback. Especially people who love poetry and maybe write it themselves. As a writer, you must expose yourself. Get used to it!

It also helps if you are a music lover. Poetry has rhythms and sounds that make it musical. These rhythms and sounds are almost completely instinctual and intuitive. Or at least they are for me. Pater said, ‘all art aspires to the condition of music’ and I believe that poetry is the art that is closest to it. When I was first writing poems I would listen to music or just have it on in the background. Somehow, it got me into the right place. Try it! It worked for me and it might work for you.

Another piece of advice I would offer is don’t be afraid to go to the edge. By this, I mean you must obsess over every line, every word until you get it right. It is a form of madness. It’s like having your mind in a washing machine: your thoughts are spinning round and round and round until you are close to getting it right. Of course, you will never be 100% happy with it, so know when to stop too.

Another piece of advice that most poets would give you is to read as much poetry as you can. It’s the only way to learn. If you don’t like to read serious poetry, if you don’t enjoy the works of great poets then don’t even try. Maybe you are only writing for yourself – nothing wrong with that. But if you have literary aspirations you must immerse yourself in poetry. It is a serious business. As Seamus Heaney said, poetry can’t change the world but it can change how people understand the world.

My final piece of advice would be to work hard at getting your poetry out there. Don’t just sit there waiting for something to happen. Enter competitions, submit to journals and magazines, go to workshops and events, make friends and contacts and, of course, submit to publishers. No excuses. There is always something you can be doing to get your poems read and heard.

I wouldn’t call myself a poet but enough people have liked my poems on this blog to prompt me to write something about it. I hope this post will help anyone thinking of taking up the pen. If you have the talent, the luck and you work hard enough it will happen. It requires some patience but it will happen.

On Joyce

By David Jordan

A genius in the wood,179px-revolutionary_joyce_better_contrast

The wood of the postmodern,

A genius at play, dancing,

Lighting the way

With good laughter and song.

 

Scealai!

File!

The grey wood’s guiding light.

Star of Ireland:

Its angel and its eye.

Son of light,

O flower of the fair city

Won’t you show me again?

Getting to the ‘Good Stuff’: the Art of Creative Writing.

They say there is prose and verse and you can have poetry in either. This williamblakeartstrikes me as true.

Literature is an art, not a science. Living is an art, not a science. This is why the term ‘Arts’ is often associated with, and even interchangeable with, the term ‘Humanities’.

The American poet, Jim Morrison, was once asked about the cross he wore around his neck at the Doors’ famous gig at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968. He said, ‘it’s just a symbol. It doesn’t mean anything.’ At first this might seem a contradiction: you might argue that a symbol is all about meaning. You might say that a cross is a symbol of suffering. That is its meaning. I think what Morrison was trying to indicate was the difference between a fact and a symbol. Facts have an exact meaning. They are scientific. Symbols don’t have an exact meaning. In fact, they don’t say anything at all. They suggest. They have multiple aspects. Symbolism is at home in verse but it should be present in prose also, or any prose that sees itself as literary.

Yes, there is logic and science in literature, only it should serve the symbolic, the imaginative and the poetic. I believe a writer achieves maturity when he comes into awareness of the symbolic. When he begins to manipulate symbols in order to suggest and play with possible meanings. The mature writer knows how to strike a balance between symbolism and logic. The concrete nature of symbols allows him to play with them in his art. You can’t play around with abstracts because they can’t be visualized or imagined. That is why too much abstraction is a flaw in literature – it goes against the imagination and the imagination is paramount in literature in all its forms.

Consider Homer, the first poet of Western Civilisation and then consider Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of the last fifty years or so. They both worked with concrete. With that which can be visualized and imagined. They worked with symbols.

Life is mysterious and writers can only capture a portion of that mystery through symbols. Life is messy and mixed up and confusing an only the mirror of art can reflect this. A good story, just like a good poem, shouldn’t have a precise meaning. It should only give you something to think about. It should suggest, allude and indicate. It should never impose itself. It should never enforce. It should never moralize except in the most general of senses e.g. it’s wrong to take another life. Good literature is an invitation to play – play with the intellect, the feelings and the emotions. Only when you master this will you become a good writer. Some of us master it at a young age. Some of us have to wait a few years and some never master it at all. It is a mixture of imagination and intuition, two terms that are alien to science and even craftsmanship. No matter how much you read and discover, there is no formula for it. You must simply write to get to it, to get to the ‘good stuff’, and, if you are lucky, you will.

On Yeats

By David Jordanyeatspencil

Thoughts born out of nowhere

Like the goddess Athena.

Your mind flashing with intuition.

 

Or, under the sun, a sword

At play, flashing

On a perfect day.

 

With a blade that kept its edge

And its passion over time,

As the darkness came.

On death cast a cold eye

He dared to write.

 

The sweet sounds, rhythms

And repetitions:

Instinctual, musical, masterful.

And the imagination

Like a Titan, towering,

Watching the ever changing, soaring

Pleasure dome.

 

And the discipline of the

Craftsman, the technician,

Shaping the iron, ever cooling,

Working it into perfection:

The master at play.

 

A wordsmith:

This man was born to do it.

The Unreflected Life

By David Jordandionysos_on_a_cheetah_pella_greece

I awoke to muddy boots,

My clothes soaked and stinking of urine.

Reject of Dionysus I am.

 

I remembered everything:

Stumbling in the dark, on the grass,

On the riverbank, like a rat.

Reject of Dionysus I am.

 

I can hear his laughter.

Old habits and behaviours reappear,

Madness, danger and fear.

Wasted days, wasted years.

Reject of Dionysus I am.

 

Damn you Dionysus!

With your leopards

And your laughter

And your car!

 

I follow Apollo.

Gladly, I toss away my thyrsus

On the riverbank.

 

I awake from stupor

To reason and intellect and imagination.

To the spring of the muses,

So cool and clear and clean.

Yes, there is nothing better on this earth,

I tell you, than to kiss that limpid water.

One Day

By David Jordanriddaren_rider_by_john_bauer_1914

One day

When I’m out of bed, bad blood and

Curses, maybe I’ll smile under the

Cool moon.

 

See her wrapped in a

Cloud mantle,

Reveal herself,

Then cover up again.

 

See her hang there, full,

Like a silver pendant.

 

A calm unwinking eye.

 

See her radiate and glow

The way women glow

Sometimes.

 

See her move slowly and

Silently across the sky

Like a huntress.

 

What else can I do but try

To please her with my pen,

Solitary, romantic old fool

That I am?

 

The Citizen

 

By David Jordan

I swear these long nights

Stir my blood

And steer my spirit northward

Like a long boat headed home.

 

For the imagination feeds

On the darkness like a flame

And tonight I imagine myself as

A man of the North:

Cross countenance, long bones.

Leaping on to the sandy shore.

 

Bringing alien gods to the natives:

The loquacious Gael.

The nature loving, melancholy,

Aristocratic Gael.

 

After a thousand years

Surely the stranger is gone from the house?

 

Tonight, I swear I am a citizen

Of the imagination:

Emancipated.

In flight.

320px-viking_house_ale_sweden_5

Ghost Train

By David Jordan

The carriage rocks you into a semi trance.

Everywhere you look there is a reflected countenance.

Across the aisle a mother and child

Play pen and paper games

With subdued voices.

A man drinks beer from a can stoically.

Strangers exchange non-committal words

And glances.

 

Then the darkness descends outside,

Bringing with it a feeling of dislocation

But also solidarity

As we are visited by the ghost, Society.

 

When we arrive our brief companionship

Is broken up with polite smiles and

Valedictions.

Society disappears once it has done its task:

To keep the darkness out,

Defeat the monster in the glass.

reflection-in-train-window

Castle Freke

By David Jordan

The sky was on fire.

The sea, monstrous

As we walked on the hazardous

Roof of the old Big House.

I was high on destiny.

 

Night fall, full of fear,

We left the fire to commune

With ghosts in the pitch black

Rooms and corridors.

 

Someday, if we ever return,

We will look for ghosts of ourselves.

We will stop and listen for footsteps

And voices

And we will watch for figments of lighter

Flame in the darkness.

 

For who can deny the sweets of memory?

It is easier to deny the raging sky

And the ravenous sea.

castlefreke

The Wife’s Tale by Seamus Heaney

This is one of my favourite Seamus Heaney poems. It’s from his 1969 seamus_heaney_in_the_studio_with_his_portrait_by_colin_davidsoncollection, Door into the Dark. I think the key to understanding the poem is the Eleusian mysteries practised by the ancient Greeks. The man in the poem is basically giving the role of the corn goddess, Demeter, to the woman, though she doesn’t know it. It’s a measure of how much he loves her but she is mystified.

I think a knowledge of the Classics helps to understand much of Heaney’s poetry.

The Wife’s Tale

By Seamus Heaney

When I had spread it all on linen cloth
Under the hedge, I called them over.
The hum and gulp of the thresher ran down
And the big belt slewed to a standstill, straw
Hanging undelivered in the jaws.
There was such quiet that I heard their boots
Crunching the stubble twenty yards away.

He lay down and said, ‘Give these fellows theirs,
I’m in no hurry,’ plucking grass in handfuls
And tossing it in the air. ‘That looks well.’
(He nodded at my white cloth on the grass.)
‘I declare a woman could lay out a field
Though boys like us have little call for cloths.’
He winked, then watched me as I poured a cup
And buttered the thick slices that he likes.
‘It’s threshing better than I thought, and mid
It’s good clean seed. Away over there and look.’
Always this inspection has to be made
Even when I don’t know what to look for.

But I ran my hand in the half-filled bags
Hooked to the slots. It was hard as shot,
Innumerable and cool. The bags gaped
Where the chutes ran back to the stilled drum
And forks were stuck at angles in the ground
As javelins might mark lost battlefields.
I moved between them back across the stubble.

They lay in the ring of their own crusts and dregs,
Smoking and saying nothing. ‘There’s good yield,
Isn’t there?’ –as proud as if he were the land itself–
‘Enough for crushing and sowing both.’
And that was it. I’d come and he had shown me,
So I belonged no further to the work.
I gathered cups and folded up the cloth
And went. But they still kept their ease,
Spread out, unbuttoned, grateful, under the trees.