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!  :  )

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