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.

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.

Irish Mythology and W.B. Yeats


If you are interested in Irish mythology and you haven’t read the early poetry of W.B. Yeats, you really should. Through his early volumes of poetry such as The Rose and The Wind Among The Reeds he re-invented Irish mythology, making it more accessible to anyone who could read.

There is an animism to his early poetry – he brings the natural landscape to life better than any other ‘Celtic Twilight’ poet. There is also danger. His Sidhe or Danann are amoral creatures and there is the suggestion that if you hang out with them too much you run the risk of going insane.

And there is the sheer escapism of his poetry at this stage. Or maybe escapism is the wrong word. Transcendentalism might be more accurate. The early Yeats sees art as separate from reality. It exists in its own transcendent realm and this is reflected strongly in the work. The natural world stirs the imagination and allows us to enter a place where the troubles and toils of daily living can be left behind. This kind of escapism is best demonstrated in the poem, Who Goes With Fergus?

Who will go drive with Fergus now,

And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,

And dance upon the level shore?

Young man, lift up your russet brow,

And lift your tender eyelids, maid,

And brood on hopes and fear no more.


And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love’s bitter mystery;

For Fergus rules the brazen cars,

And rules the shadows of the wood,

And the white breast of the dim sea

And all dishevelled wandering stars.

The early poems are also heavily symbolic and intuitive – they have no precise meaning, which is how all poetry should be. You get the sense that this is a world that exists in the poet’s imagination and not based on experience. The poet William Blake was a huge influence on Yeats, especially in his celebration of the imagination. For both poets, there is more to life than what we take in through the five senses. There is something we all own which is unique to all of us and we can access it through the imagination, something that is ours and nobody else’s. In Yeats’ early work there is a strong sense of a deeply private world been depicted. Because Yeats was so young, he didn’t have much else to draw on except his intuition and imagination, but what a body of work he gave us!

His early work far surpasses the other ‘Celtic Twilight’ poets such as Samuel Ferguson and Thomas Moore. You will find no leprechauns and fairies in Yeats’ early poetry. His work harks back to the old, pre-Christian mythology of Ireland. To the Tuatha De Danann and the Book of Invasions. To the hero, Cu Chulainn and his epic, The Tain. Yeats recognised what a treasure trove of imagination the myths are and how they could provide a framework with which to express his own unique vision of Ireland.