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Letter to a Young Poet    
14 days ago



Dear Writer
 
Thank you for writing to the poetry competition team. Firstly, on behalf of AVBOB and everyone involved with running the competition, let me say that we are very sorry for your loss. I can only imagine that at your age it has been a particularly difficult life experience to handle. I’m sure that I speak for all of the other editors when I wish you strength and luck in the years ahead.
 
I have recalled and read through all of your poems once again. They certainly show promise, especially for someone as young as you are. But it is worth remembering that the AVBOB competition is an open competition, open to everyone without regard to age, race, religion, social status, etc. An open competition means that the bar is set quite high; the editors are looking for the best poems. The age of a participant cannot be taken into account.
 
Please bear in mind that English poetry has a long history as an art, and there are many great and good poems in the language against which the quality of all other poems is measured. Indeed, each poet writing in English, if they are serious about English poetry as an art, has to study what previous poets have written, particularly those poems that have stood the test of time. This takes some time. It means that the apprenticeship of learning to write well is a long one.
 
Next, poets also need to study criticism, what others have written about poetry, how it works and what it means in society as an art. As a part of learning to write, each poet has to learn how to be critical of poems and to become their own toughest critic. Lastly, poets have to study form and technique. There is plenty of information online on the subject of English prosody. It needs to become almost second nature.
 
Poetry is not about recording one’s feelings, as one might do in a diary, no matter how intense or important such feelings might seem to an individual at any one time. That is only the beginning, the background material that all writers might use. Whether or not a poem is true to some particularly experience is not the point; rather, whether or not a poem is so artfully constructed as to get the reader to inwardly feel and understand the experience is the point – to evoke feelings and understanding in others, and at the same time to do so artfully.
 
One effective way of looking at poems is to think of them as like very short novels or as plays. A poem is as much a fiction as is a novel, as much a drama as a play. Once you have grasped that, you can begin to construct poems as stories involving character and plot. Another important aspect to understand about English poetry is that it is best built out of concrete images. There are so many ways to write a poem in English, but it seems to me that those most grounded in a story and finely realised images of the actual are usually the best. In order to demonstrate what I am suggesting, and to provide you with some examples to study in your quest to learn how to write well, let me provide you with three good poems that solve the problem of writing poetry in different ways. 
 
Here is an example of a very short but exceptionally good English poem that communicates intense feelings by presenting a statement (the first line) and then realising that statement through extended metaphor made out of concrete imagery.
 
TO HAVE LOVE
Patrick Cullinan (South Africa)
 
To have love and then lose it:
the white hail in the orchard
lying with leaves it has stripped
and the storm moving away.
 
Note that there is a story, and that the first person pronoun is absent; there is no ‘I’. The poet could have written, ‘I had love and then lost it’, but that excludes the reader from occupying that space. Framing it in a general way allows the reader to more easily become the ‘I’ of the story, to enter the poem as if walking onto a stage where a small dramatic play is in progress. Then you have three further lines of pure observation of the world, concrete images that carry the emotion of the poem because of their relation to the opening statement. The poet is neither telling the reader what he or she felt, nor instructing the reader on what to feel and think. This is, I think, as fine a short poem as there is in the English language, and is as good a model as a young writer could use for studying how poetry works best in the English language.
 
Here is another South African poem worthy of your study. As you read it, try to become the character of the poem and experience within yourself the actual story as it unfolds; let your imagination flow with the images. Ask yourself how the music of the words manages to capture the sense of physical movement in the world. 
 
LAKE MORNING IN AUTUMN
Douglas Livingstone (South Africa)
 
Before sunrise the stork was there
resting the pillow of his body
on stick legs growing from the water.
 
A flickering gust of pencil-slanted rain
swept over the chill autumn morning;
and he, too tired to arrange
 
his wind-buffeted plumage,
perched swaying a little,
neck flattened, ruminative,
 
beak on chest, contemplative eye
filmy with star vistas and hollow
black migratory leagues, strangely,
 
ponderously alone and some weeks
early. The dawn struck and everything,
sky, water, bird, reeds
 
was blood and gold. He sighed.
Stretching his wings he clubbed
the air; slowly, regally, so very tired,
 
aiming his beak he carefully climbed
inclining to his invisible tunnel of sky,
his feet trailing a long, long time.
 
Ask yourself in this poem questions like “Why is the stork compared to a pillow?” This is a metaphor, where one thing is ‘like’ another (without using the word ‘like’). Ask yourself what the poet might mean by “pencil-slanted rain” or “his wings…clubbed / the air”. As an exercise, learn to observe things closely. Try and describe with precision simple household items—a broom, say—not necessarily to make poems, but more to practise observation and close description.
 
Finally, here is a slightly more complex poem from an American poet. Think hard about the amount of time and experience in a whole life. Find an older person in your own family and ask them how it feels to be older, what sense they have of time when they look back on their life. Ask yourself how you represent feelings in images and which images are best for what feelings. Practise often. Remember: most writing is rehearsing for the moment when a poem really comes to you and insists on being shown to the world. Remember also, do not be satisfied with the first version of a poem; or the second…keep on pushing the poem until there is not a thing out of place or unnecessary.
 
LATE SEPTEMBER
Connie Wanek (USA)
 
The leaves grow lighter and lighter,
yet they fall. As the woods thin

a house becomes visible,

and a plume of smoke hand-feeding the wind.

There’s no hurry if you don’t care.
For thirty years nothing knew paint,
but the house still stands.

What is dust, that we should mark
if it fills our empty boots while we sleep?


 
Children love you at first the way a dog does.
But eventually they will reveal

the history of your offences

in high voices that carry across the pond.

Day opens and closes like a camera shutter,
mechanically, with more haste than necessary.

The cat lays a chipmunk at the back step.
I think of its burrow, of all it hoarded,
and of nine consecutive lives without remorse.
 
Do not be scared of not understanding all of a poem on the first reading. Just be open and prepared to revisit it many times. Look up the meaning of any word you don’t know. Print out or photocopy the poem and make notes about it on the side; record your observations and questions. Don’t be scared to ask other writers what a phrase or a line might mean. Keep a file of the best poems you encounter; to learn how to write well you have to first learn how to read well. Study good poems and study poetic technique, the prosody that underlies the music and form of poems. 
 
Finally, let me say this. If you wish best to honour your father, then tell us about him. Write down the stories of him. Tell him to the world. Embody your love and sadness in stories about him. Write them out in prose first. Work on that until it you have precise representations of him in time, when you have small novels or plays. When those are well made, turn them into poems using form and rhythm until you have works of art in which any reader can be alone and experience the sense of being both of you.
 
Best wishes

Douglas Reid Skinner