I’m really grateful to Boomie for giving me space on her blog, which I follow with enthusiasm. Boomie often comments on my poetry on simonsworlds13.wordpress.com so I thought I’d pass on a poem and some thoughts about writing it.
Some people write poems about things they see or otherwise experience – a flowering cherry, the aftermath of a car crash, a mountain river, the touch of a lover or a pet’s cry. I rarely do. These things go into a kind of stew and something just about recognisable comes out to be a poem. Here’s an example.
Did you see, there where the cloud broke
Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft
Roughly in line with the uneven river
Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it
Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.
The broken impatient river carved the way
We leave the many-angled rocks behind
And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;
And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.
With cunning and husbanded strength
We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind
Recovering from a slip is hard
Recovering from the task impossible.
There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”
No throne or light or monument
Only the slope is inconsistent
The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order
There is no river
These barren pools are the only water
And then the ghost of a trickle
A few thin fingers feeling
Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:
We have passed the watershed
We have seen the birth
Of a new river.
Somewhere there is a new land
But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.
There is no warning
No sign, no new music
Just the realisation and the standing still
The dropping, blocking hills
The unknown, long suspected
Alien valley ahead
But half-familiar, like a dream
The hidden end
You feel you ought to remember.
The descent from the murderous heights
To the soft valley is always more dangerous
Than the struggling up:
The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage
To the eggshell-crushing fall
And the way to the low glittering lake
May be many miles round.
But at least the first task of the explorer
Seems to have been fulfilled
To show what he wanted to explore
Was there at all.
America is found
Mars glows dully but more clear
In the dark waters, something moves after all
Down the strange valley our suspected
Alive waters fall.
This poem draws on my experience of two places high in the hills – one a watershed in Torridon in the Western Highlands of Scotland, which I did cross one day, and the other Black Sail Pass in the English Lake District, which as its name suggests is a pass between high hills or mountains. The description of climbing up with some difficulty and seeing trees and buildings getting smaller and smaller isn’t far from a straight description of the lower stages of Black Sail Pass rising from Wastwater. The description of the actual watershed, the scattered rocks and barren pools, is from Torridon. The picture of the coming down must draw on any number of climbs. But the poem is not ABOUT any one place. I didn’t say to myself, “Wow, this place is dramatic. I’ll write a poem about it.” Actually I did about Torridon, but it was poor.
What I find I need to do is to let such experiences, such images, sink into my unconscious so they may come back up again changed and linked unexpectedly to other things. Then I can write a poem.
Poems often operate on two or more levels. You could see this one as a fairly accurate description of climbing over a watershed with some slightly confusing philosophising at the end. That wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s also about other situations where we cross from one thing to another, discovering and taking risks. In both my real walks, I knew where I was headed and had a map which summarised what I would encounter – but in the poem, I’m exploring a pass no-one (or no-one I knew about) had crossed before. It could be about discovering, loving and taking risks in another person. It could be about a scientist or a preacher daring to overthrow orthodoxy.
I believe very strongly in the importance of SOUND in poetry. Not only the meaning of the word but also its sound can convey a message. Consider these:
an angled cleft (sounds sharp-edged and awkwardly-shaped)
the last twisted tree (sound of the biting wind?)
we drag from the circle of sweat (sounds to me like pulling your feet up with difficulty)
the shattered smoothing rocks (soft sounds, here perhaps suggesting bare, smooth surfaces)
the hiss and sparkle (sound of small amounts of water moving fast)
the dropping, blocking hills (sound of a lock or a barrier falling?)
but half familiar like a dream, the hidden end (sleepy sounds)
Mars glows dully (blurred sounds).
Sometimes you can see how a line or phrase works. For example, “the eggshell-crushing fall”: falls on mountainsides rarely crush eggshells (though I had a near escape with a jar of honey once). We speak of someone’s skull being crushed like an eggshell and this is what the words are about – someone’s skull being crushed in a fall – but I get by with far fewer words than if I’d tried to say something like “the fall which can crush a skull like an eggshell” and somehow actually talking of crushing eggshells without any “as” or “like” makes the image more powerful.
Sometimes it’s hard to work out why some words are effective. Someone picked out and praised the line “And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist”. I think I agree, but I’ve no idea why it’s powerful or why it works!
I feel the poem drops off a bit in the last verse/stanza/nine lines (choose description of choice). Some people disagree. What do you think?