Monday, 25 February 2013

The Shape Of a Poem

It is interesting how poets shape their work and I would like to hear from other poets as to what sort of emphasis they put on the shape of their poems.  Personally I am a real freak when it comes to how my poems sit on the page and I must admit that the wording of my pieces is often changed to accommodate the shape.  As many of my poems progress I find more and more words making their way into each line so I often end with a kind of wedge shape.  Mostly this will happen with poems that need a lot of work and get far too long, if I get near forty lines I often consider that to be way too long, for page poems anyway, spoken word is very different, I don’t much care what shape they are because it is all about how it sounds, punctuation and grammar get a by ball during the writing of spoken word as well. Of course everyone has different styles and ways of approaching this but it would be interesting for me to know how others shape their work or if they even consider shape.

Many years ago when I was making my first attempts at long rhyming poems I took a piece I had written back then and painstakingly made it into the shape of Ireland.  The poem was called ‘For the want of peace’ and it was written after the ceasefires in the mid 1990’s.  It took me a couple of years to get it done from the initial idea to shape it that way to finishing it and that was my first real experience of editing.  I changed a lot of it to make it fit.  I am raging I don’t still have a copy of that poem but I am sure there’s one somewhere at my Mum’s with all my early writing.  I can still recite it perfectly but I wish I had kept a closer eye on the copies I had of it. 

I have a terrible obsession with trying to produce a rectangular poem.  I have been trying for about 4 or 5 years to write a piece of around twenty lines which is as close as can be got to a perfect rectangular shape.  I don’t know why but having little literary goals like this amuses and enthuses me so I don’t question it.  This is a poem I wrote in February 2008 having tried and failed at a rectangular poem.

Writing rectangles

Before the day has properly
begun I wake and look out
into the winter and the wind
it is out there being brutal
with the trees and pushing that
big whooshing sound around.
I suppose that most of the world
close by is probably sleeping
but they are all at a safe enough
distance for it not to matter.
I sit and start stealing snippets
of English and making them
into rectangles but not perfect
I tried to form a perfect rectangle
once only I abandoned it after
just three lines, it was taxing,
one of these days maybe I’ll
make a perfect English rectangle.


Around that time I was just coming out of a particularly rich vein of form.  I had written close to a thousand pieces from the end of 2005 until very early in 2008.  Shortly after this poem was written I entered an intense spoken word phase which appears to have changed my reliance upon this rectangular style, I still freak out about the length of lines but I am nowhere near as bad as I was back then.  That shape and length of poem was almost essential for me back then and I would say that easily 85 percent of my work in that early period was between 18 to 24 lines in this very strict shape.  Indeed in most of my book you will notice this just by flicking through and observing how the poems sit.  Some with longer lines others much shorter but the shape prevails.

When you look at how poets structure their poems it really is fascinating and the major factor is that there is no right way.  While I busy losing the plot about the shape of my words I was heavily reading Plath, Bukowski and Carver. As far as I can recall, having not been reading them in while, Plath and Carver were pretty uniformed in their approach to shape, Larkin is another that I can recall to be this way but Bukowski was all over the place sometimes very extreme like one word in one line then about ten in the next.  The length of his poems were also very different from one stanza quips to a poem that rambled for three or four pages, in ‘The Last Night of The Earth Poems’ in particular

Just a couple of days ago I was coming back from a shite talking session in town with Colin Hassard and when he was leaving me home I wrote a poem on his dash board on some scraps of paper that were sitting there.  I said to him that he could type it up if he wanted.  He did and he posted it up on FB yesterday.  I am nearly sure he didn’t change anything of my original wording but this is the shape he came up with:

The Odd Word

“Jaysus boy, she’s Baltic” I said
and we rubbed our hands as if to
enforce that chilled feeling.

He started the car and we both said
nothing as I wrote these words,
with no seatbelt on, occasionally

Losing control of the odd word when he
took corners in the dark, with Erasure
playing, and the moon making
light through the clouds.

And this is how I would have typed it up:

The Odd Word

“Jaysus boy, she’s
Baltic!” I said and
we rubbed our hands
as if to enforce
that Chilled feeling.
He started the car
and we both said
nothing as I wrote
these words with no
seatbelt on, occasionally
losing control of the
odd word when he took
corners in the dark, with
Erasure playing and the
Moon making light
through the clouds.

I think this is interesting because when I write on paper I usually follow the same pattern as I do when I am typing them up.  Sometimes it really does my head in because my hand writing is not as uniformed as typed words and I find myself getting all uptight during editing and I know at least one of my pieces was abandoned in a partial folder because it freaked me out so much.  Interestingly he also elected the title, I am not sure what I would have called it but The Odd Word is perfect so I wouldn’t like to speculate on any other possibility.

Hassard seems to have completely ignored how I put the words on the page and typed them in the style that he normally would.  Many of my peers whose work I would see regularly seem to follow a similar pattern with slightly longer lines.  Part of me kind of thinks that shape doesn’t matter but I know for a fact that if it where not for my heavy reliance on shape especially in those early days the wording of quite a lot of my work would be very, very different.  When I look at older poems I want to edit them but I am not going to start doing that it would mean I would be spending the rest of my life editing everything.  After a year or two I tend to let them be and even stuff I read from three or four years ago aside from some exceptions will be read just as it was when I had finished whatever editing I did to it, however long ago. 

I think my very short lines is a throw back to the days when I was intensely writing rap and I would go with the last word in the second line rhyming with the last word in the fourth line.  I did that for quite a few years before I ever looked at poetry.  When you’re rhyming like that to music the length of the lines is essential because if you have too many words in the lines you will lose the ability to speak them before the bar changes.  When I wrote ‘Dawn of the Craigavonite Dead’ and we first went to record it I had to completely change the way I rapped it because the lines where really long.  If you listen to ‘Ulster Fry’ and then listen to  ‘Dawn of the Craigavonite Dead’ you will notice a massive difference in the speed of my voice and hear that the lines in ‘Dawn’ are very elongated.  I did quite a bit of messing about my voice during that recording and it is fascinating because ‘Dawn’ came after I first entered into spoken word and ‘Ulster Fry’ came just as I was really getting going with page poetry, way before I even tried spoken word.  I really didn't know that it was so different though until we sat down to record it because I had written it pretty quickly and didn't do any beat mapping with it before hand.

Maybe some people think that it isn’t important how the poem sits but I believe it is important and it is very difficult to say how something like shape urges our words.  So here’s thanks to The Hass for getting me thinking about this!  :  )

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Who do you think you are?

A lot of the stuff I am writing about recently I may well have written about before but I am not revising old posts, I am not even looking at old posts I am just going on ahead and I will look back on them all in the future some time to see how my ideas may have changed or been expanded upon.

There’s this thing that we do and I do it myself!  I am sure you have all heard people make statements such as ‘speak for yourself’ or ‘you’re one to talk’, I am sure you hear such statements quite a lot and you probably say them quite a lot. These statements are a very subtle form of counter blame.  Much of what we do is done very instinctively so you will find people reacting sometimes quickly to things that are being said during normal conversations. 

I have been catching myself out a lot lately, I can’t let myself away with anything now because I am very aware of how I work and it’s like I have some type of internal mirror whereby I am not only experiencing life, I am simultaneously watching myself experiencing life!  It all sounds very complicated but it isn’t really, after you do it for a little while you get used to it but it doesn’t mean my social ineptitude is any less than it was it just means I am aware of it and I am getting much better at not being a dick.

When someone says something about other people which may have negative connotations sometimes someone listening will automatically address them with a statement which is aimed at making them look at themselves to see that they too are guilty of negativity.  I have noticed this to be very prevalent and you’ll find it happening to larger degree among people who have known each other for a very long time or among people who are in a very direct and competitive mode of being.

Equally when someone is talking about themselves in an overly positive manner people will say things like ‘who do you think you are?’ the way that these statements are used in a social sense seems to be a natural part of our very tribal state of being.  There is this constant to and fro between people, especially people who know each other well or people who believe they know others.  These statements are like tiny little acts of balance which people carry out to keep themselves in tune with the world around them and to keep the world around them in tune!

The onus seems mostly focused outside of the individual making such statements, obviously, due to the fact that they are talking about others but something which is much less common is individuals who speak about themselves in this manner.  This is a very clear indicator of how our society is structured, people will be more likely to try and redress someone else’s balance rather than looking at their own.  This is an example of what is known as ‘The Blame Culture’ and it is much more widespread than many of us may realise.

When you listen to the things that people talk about generally you’ll find that most of it is about other people and most of that is about what other people have been doing.  People are careful about what they say about themselves because they are constantly in competitive mode and they want people to like them so their behaviour will directly reflect this.  We are social animals so much of what we do is done in relation to others and that should always be considered when making judgements about people.  You will probably be less aware that you are doing exactly the same things that they all do!  We all behave like this but we are always more likely to overlook our own misgivings and focus on others.

Here’s the interesting thing though.  When someone is doing this they’re obviously not thinking about themselves because they’re speaking about the other person aren’t they?  So the very act of making this statement is in itself the same hypocrisy they are accusing the other person of!  It’s very useful to watch this kind of behaviour among large groups of people who know each other, especially males.  Men are much more likely to pass the buck in this way because men are less inclined to look at themselves and much more likely to not want to take the blame.  Women are better tuned to their emotions and less selfish generally, that doesn’t mean this is absolute because you’ll obviously get men and women who don’t quite fit their particular moulds but there needs to be some kind of generalistion in matters concerning billions of people.  The reasons for the differences between the sexes come I think from the very simple fact that women are built differently due to the fact that they are the ones who have the children so there is a more pressure on them emotionally.  This doesn’t mean that just because you’re female you can be a dick and get away with it of course, balance is key and knowing your own personal limits is crucial.

If go and look at a video on you tube of someone who is ultra famous and scroll through the comments you’ll see a whole lot of people talking about these people while saying absolutely nothing about themselves, of course celebrity culture is at the extreme end of everything but it doesn’t make it any less insightful in terms of how human nature works.  People are so often deluded by celebrity culture, it’s like we think that vast wealth and fame somehow make people Godlike but celebrities are no less human than you and I.

I have written before about our competitive nature, it is at the very core of who and what we are, it has been since the very beginning but people are not even aware that they are competitive and I often wonder why this is because it is glaringly obvious.  If you say something, anything, about someone more often than not the person will counter blame to try and make you look bad in return or conversely with complimentary behaviour.  You will also find that if people have emotional or social difficulties they will be much more likely to behave this way.  You need to be aware of this aspect of humanity so you can take it back to yourself and realise that things as simple as a debate in the workplace or the need to beat your mate on the Playstation will bring out the competitive side of you and thus lead you to behave in a kind of otherwise manner.  Indeed it is important to also realise that we are all constantly changed by people and situations whenever we interact, so you may find yourself doing and saying certain things differently depending on who is around or what is happening.

This post was born out an interaction with a mate. He responded to one of my posts on Facebook, the post before this piece.  I had written a poem about some boy who was gurning about Brittany Spears.  In the poem I was attempting to focus on how people do exactly what I have outlined here and Barry came on and started slobbering about me being just as bad as the people I was talking about!  Of course I hadn’t said I wasn’t, the point was to make people look at themselves and oule Quinn then went ahead and proved my point for me!  But here’s something unexpected, right now I am focusing back onto Barry and what he said and I have obviously now entered competition mode else I would not be mentioning this!  There is no better example for this type of thing than real life interactions.

No matter how far I go with my explanations on these matters I keep having to reign myself back.  I am writing a piece at the moment about individualism versus the collective and the crux of it is that society is not either or, it is in fact a constant merging of those two great philosophises.  No matter how far along the line you go you must always make your way back to the beginning and the simple fact that we are each ourselves and everything begins and ends with each of us.  How you interact with others, how they interact with you and how everything interacts with everything else is the way of the world but knowing yourself and being aware of yourself is crucial if you are to be successful in any endeavour.  

I have dispelled a lifetimes worth of guilt and regret by getting to know myself and getting to know my limits.  I am still prone to dickish behaviour, who isn’t?  I can still be a dick, depends on who’s around at the time! ; )  I am aware of it though and if you wish for change you must begin with the only thing you can change, you…

Listen to people and you’ll hear yourself speaking, speak to them and you’ll be speaking to yourself and next time you say to someone ‘Who do you think you are?”  say to yourself afterwards ‘Who do I think I am?’