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How does any poet start writing a poem?

I was surprised when I heard a well-published poet say he writes a line at a time, always finishing one before moving onto the next.  Surprised because it is so counter to my own way of writing, and I began to wonder how others write, how others start on a poem.  A poetry colleague said to me recently that he often doesn’t start to write until he has an idea – whether the idea is in the final poem depends on how the poem progresses – but that’s where he starts.  And Helen Mort, recently wrote that she constructs lines in her head when out walking, and sees whether they survive the return home.

For me, I like to start with free-writing or speed-writing, I pick up pencil or open my computer and start writing without thinking what I will write about and see what pours out, until I land on that ‘aha’ moment when I discover I am writing something that could turn into a poem if given enough time and focus.  I know some poets who free-write and then read through their texts to highlight words, phrases and sections that leap out at them as the ideas for development into poems.  I’ve tried that but it doesn’t work for me, those words and phrases just sit in a pile like so much lost property unless they have started to take on their own form during the free-write stage.

Completing a poem is then a painfully slow process of editing and rewriting, but always, for me, involving writing it down.  Even the thoughts and ideas I have when out and about become something very different during the process of writing them down.   So I’ve never started a poem without paper or screen.Perhaps we are ‘head poets’ or ‘paper poets’ when it comes to starting to write poems?

But how do you start to write a poem?

This Post Has 35 Comments

  1. When I sit down to write, it works in a workaday fashion.
    The really good stuff appears in a musical mental frenzy sometimes preceded by days of quasi catatonic mulling.
    The title poem of my recent collection – I Love The Internet – pretty much appeared as is in an hour long dam burst.
    I cleaned it up a little bit.
    For me, if it doesn’t feel like music it is not really working.

  2. I’ve got an idea for a more interesting activity than this one – how about recording people arguing about road numbers or describing their dreams? FYI if there’s anybody out there who wants to know how I position myself to watch paint dry I’ll be more than happy to explain my unique method.

  3. It’s an untidy sort of process – sometimes a line or a title comes as a gift and the poem almost writes itself. Usually it’s start writing first thing on waking up [well opening the eyes] and BEFORE I put on my glasses, like making the first mark on the blank canvas get something down to work with – or not. Always, always a notebook for the odd remark or overheard comment that could be the start of something. I have found that I have lost several useful things or titles by trying to remember them. ditto the notebook by the bed. The things forgotten may not have been any use but I am always convinced they would have been.

  4. Okay, I’ll consider the question with the respect it deserves.

    A word, phrase, line, something someone says, a song, a sight, a sound, a feeling, a thought, in fact, practically any random event can be the stimulus for me. Usually though what is put down quickly needs reshaping through a transformative poetics – lifted off the page – through patient editing and reworking as most of my pieces, unless they come straight out of the hand in one piece (which doesn’t happen often) – seem to lie dead on the page. The trouble then being, of course, halting the transformative poetics before the poem is stillborn or overcooked.

    That’s my take on the writing process, take it as you will.

  5. I use different approaches on different occasions.

    (1) Sometimes an idea comes to me when I don’t have an opportunity of writing it down such as in the bath. On these occasions I tend to repeat the lines that come in a song like way so that I can remember them. If I’m out walking I will record a line or two into my phone to initiate further writing later in manuscript or on the computer.

    (2) I sometimes get a recording device and step about in my flat uttering any nonsense until words start to come out. Often much of this is repetitive. I then transcribe the recording onto the computer and start editing.

    (3) At the moment I’m working on a project for Uni where I’ve already outlined the overview of the work. I then reflect on what might fall under the headings in the outline and research them and type out my thoughts often straight into the computer. These thoughts take the form of a conversation with myself that asks questions. There are usually more questions than answers. Sometimes during this process some lines of a poem or poems will flow out that can later be edited when I’m sure I have the feeling that I have the essence of the poem regardless of its current content or structure.

    Hope to see more comments on process. Always a fascinating subject.

  6. Most often, I have to “hear” a line; in other words, a line whispers in my ear (sometimes shouts). Lines for poems have woken me from a sound sleep. I find that when this happens, I’d better pay attention, as these “downloaded” lines often turn into my most successful poems. Lately, though, I’ve been doing the line at a time method, tinkering, tinkering, and although that method feels restrictive, it is yielding some interesting results.

  7. It’s a word, a line, something seen, heard, or remembered, accompanied by a mysterious feeling that more is waiting just out of sight. The next bit is the most important thing: get it down and let it keep coming. Don’t dismiss, correct, stop, censor – trust your imagination and go with it – changes, cuts, chucking in the bin, can be done later. As Michael Longley wrote recently: “If I knew where poems came from I would go there … writing a poem cannot be an act of will .. at least I didn’t write fakes .. I have to wait for poems”

  8. My poems are inspired by a photo I take when I’m out walking my dogs, I then mull over words for the poem and start writing when I get home, or in the car.

  9. Ideas are constantly swimming around my head. I could be driving, in a meeting, anywhere.

    The first few lines of any poem just come to me unless it’s for a competition, although they don’t always end up being the first few lines and I will also skip some lines, complete the poem and then go over what I’ve missed.

    I have to say, writing a poem is never an elongated process for me as words are my thing: Scrabble, Countdown etc. are played daily on my DS and I’m a speed reader who’s read thousands of books and receives a word of the day email!

    My main problem is trying to stop the ideas and just relax!!

  10. I first have an idea then I will start formulating lines until in my mind, from a clear picture of what I want to write. I will wright it down and then build my structure until I have a poem.

  11. It’s not really about sitting down and writing a poem as if you were baking a cake. What usually happens in my case is that an idea comes into my head (often at an inconvenient moment, say 2 in the morning). I get up, write it down, go back to sleep and in the morning a poem arranges itself around the idea. I then work on the poem for days, weeks or even years – and in the process I might watch the original idea turn into something altogether different. It seems to work for me!

  12. I always have to decide what it is that I actually want to say – and then work out why I’m not actually saying it – why I constantly slide off the point and resist expressing the idea.

    After that it’s down to fine-tuning the language.

  13. I write… I take pictures of things that I like or find interesting… Walk around observe and just write… I try to write daily and keep journals or phone handy. I try not to judge as I write and then look back and edit and find poems :).

  14. Hmmm you’re right — it IS like watching paint dry…or wallpaper, slowly…sliding off..

  15. It’s impossible to know when it starts – years earlier with an image or experience or idea that haunts you until it works its way forward on to the page, connects with something in the present world —and with its own musicality – it’s a music that you try to capture like some tune you only half remember but know is there in your head. Drafting allows you to hear the tune more distinctly, to surprise yourself with images perhaps you weren’t expecting. There is something strange about it – there but not there – until language makes it distinct. All the poems that remain unwritten – because you don’t have time to search for them – that’s the frustration. I could never write early drafts line by line as described in the blog – but I could redraft line by line, section by section as the poem takes its form. The poem decides to be written. I can’t decide it should be.

  16. Poems come when one of the senses is primed, ie it could be a rainbow, a smell, something overheard, often memory. Two in the morning can be a very creative time also fasting helps. Notebooks have to be in various places ready to catch the moment. Often left as others say, for time to give them a different shape. the really difficult thing is writing to order – as in a workshop, then my mind goes blank

  17. Some ideas forf my poems have been chunnering in my head for years others are ignited by something seen on a walk or overheard and then it’s a matter of making notes before I forget. Writing every day has helped me loosen up. I don’t think writing line by line would work for me. I tend to get things down quickly then re-work the clumsy bits. Some lines don’t change and they are usually the most honest ones.
    Poems have a life of their own and can take an unexpected path.

  18. I’m probably with Roberta on this: I sit for quite a long time without any ideas at all, trying not to have ideas in fact, because the ideas would come from the wrong place. Then something – an imagined image, or a real one, or a sliver of philosophy, or what someone said to me yesterday, often just a word is the most pregnant stimulus – and then I will start writing – again without any pre-digested idea – letting whatever is present in my mind free access to the page – then I see what I’ve written. Very often it’s gibberish, which is fine, because we’re talking about process here, not finished work of art. Very often that will come weeks later. Or not at all. You have to be very patient in the writing game!

  19. An event that I witnessed, a beautiful painting, an enchanting landscape, a literary work, a scientific truth or anything that touch my mind in a very special way remains with me, poking me time and again to think over and again of the same slowly planting an idea, a seed for a poem in my mind. Thereafter the mind starts searching for apt words, a natural rhythm in which I can express and communicate the idea. Once this process is over, I feel an urge to put the words on paper. Mostly I write a poem at one stroke. I read the first draft two or three times, may be within a period of one or sometimes more weeks. In the process some words may get replaced better suited ones depending on the content and meaning, the natural flow of words and a rhythmic movement of content and sound. When I feel satisfied that I have done the best I could, my poem is complete and the mind moves on to another subject, another event etc.etc. ready aning and s

  20. Lots of responses on this topic as expected – people who write poetry just love to blather on about it in long dreary preambles before “giving” a four line work of genius by which time most of us have stopped listening. Still, giving them a chance to write about themselves is harmless to most though it has to be said it can temporarily cripple the nice side of the reader’s brain.

  21. A lot of the time, my poetry seems as if it comes from some place deep inside, and then the part of me that does the writing commandeers all the other parts it wants to write the poem, like emotions, intellect, memory, vocabulary &c. Then what is to be written pushes out and gushes or spews onto the page. The style, language, construction, whether it rhymes or not, all these type of things are decided by this part of me.

    The bits of me it leaves out, which unfortunately includes the part that will have to answer for the poem later, are given only very restricted information once the poem is written. I’m allowed, obviously, to know what it means on the surface, but usually have to wait until some intelligent reader tells me what it means to them, or what they think it’s about -then I think “oh, yeah”. Anyhow, that’s what it feels like. While I’m writing the best way to describe it, imperfectly, is that I feel I have been taken over by something more powerful and stronger than me. I do not have a choice, the poem will be written. I never sit and wait for a poem, if nothing is coming at the time I get on with other stuff, like editing and my life.

    Editing can take weeks, months, sometimes years, I consider each image, sentence, word, punctuation mark – in this sense I would describe myself as a meticulous poet. Again, for most of the editing process it is what is deep inside controlling, I know something feels right or not- but only sometimes why.

    Poems come to me from any direction. From what I’ve read, seen, heard, remembered, thought about, imagined; this can instant, or from years ago. They cover almost any subject, any style, a range of different voices, sometimes two or more in the same poem. I cannibalise other poems to make parts of a single one. Or I take a short poem and extend it. I wish I knew what goes on down there when some poetry is being mashed together. .

  22. Sometimes ideas for a poem come into my mind in the middle of the night and I try to remember them or jot down the title then, as soon as I sit at my computer, I start writing, then adding and subtracting lines which I feel are not quite right.

    A lot of my poetry also comes from memory of events and places. Also, I have attended workshops at a well known large garden containing very many statues and have enjoyed writing a poem based on each statue, as well a part of the garden itself, eg the tapestry hedge and the season of the year.

    When writing Haiku or Tanka, I try to formulate them in my mind completely, then type them out.

  23. Just to give this subject the respect it deserves I wonder if anybody who’s responded (apart from Clive Donovan) realises their response has reinforced the fact that a lot of smug nonsense is being written and spoken on this subject. Just think, the time spent littering this blog with the b——-g obvious wasted the same time that could have been spent on writing something entertaining, inspiring or witty or preferably all three.

  24. In response to Joanna Kettle, and others, may I respectfully suggest you take your time which would be better spent, as you point out, on writing something more entertaining to go and write it – to many people who write, pretty obviously from the responses here, it is interesting to find out how others do so, I certainly found it so.

    The process of writing and how someone starts from having a blank page to go to have a completed poem on it is, I find fascinating. Since you clearly do not, then it might be suggested, heaven forbid, that you should refrain from reading the responses and move on to something else rather than letting us have the rather dubious benefit of your views.

    D I H

  25. I’m a bit baffled by Joanna Kettle’s approach – clearly she needs to be spending her own time better rather than reading things she finds boring. The question of how poems arise is fascinating, and, I’d have thought, connected with the frontiers of neuroscience and psychology – so many people talk of an outside force either inspiring them or dictating the poem, which links into old bardic and oracular traditions. Where this “outside force” comes from is interesting to those of us involved in the creative process, as is the way in which a poem develops a life of its own, refusing to go in a particular direction and then revealing aspects to third parties that the creator wasn’t aware of.

  26. I’m enjoying reading how poets arrive at a completed poem. We have different triggers. Sometimes I’ll stop to look at the turning trees or someone on the street and I need to write down notes only to discover its a metaphor for something from the past that’s been waiting to emerge. So the poem works its own way onto the page and never stops surprising me.

  27. natural poems .. more prose really, not prompted by professors or whatnot come thru me from who knows where. mostly causing a mad desperate dash for a napkin, a bit of envelope. they never strike with any convenience and of course do seem to increase their frequency when some small sort of alcohol is involved..

  28. I’ve learned the hard way to start with things, not ideas – because we are often dishonest with ourselves, and the thing you THINK you want to write about may not be the best poetry material in your head right now.

    I may think ‘I want to write a poem about the death of my father in 1998’ but actually it turns out that my poem is about the dastardly lover who left me last week – or vice versa. I may think that I want to write a poem about the lovely ducks on the canal outside my window, but actually it turns into a poem about urban thugs and gang rape (yes, that one actually did turn out that way). Sometimes I do indeed say ‘I want to write about friendship’ and the right example comes to me, and I can follow the thread to its conclusion.

    Sometimes I start with what I think is a brilliant, pithy observation or a couple of lines which strike me as rather stunning. And I write towards them, and around them, and find almost every time that they become an obstacle, the rock around which the poem is trying to flow. They may have provided the starting point, but actually they have to go in order for the poem to sound sincere.

    But as a rule, nowadays I TRY to sit down and write about the thing in front of me; and see where it goes. I tried to write about the river Severn, but my poem turned out to be about triumph in the face of adversity. I tried to write about how a canal lock works, but it turned out to be about more or less the same thing (what can I say, I’ve had a lot of adversity lately). I try to write about my mother, on the other hand, and my brain says ‘oh, you don’t want to go there. Let’s write about flowers instead. La la la.’

    So in effect – I start with an idea. I start by writing about the environment I am in right now – with that in mind. And if I find myself following the path less travelled by, or into a little room of my mind I hadn’t known was there – okay, let’s have a look in that room. In that room? Really? NOW? Oh, alright then.

  29. Sometimes ideas for poems come from my dreams, other times it can be about the energy I’m experiencing in my body. What is it that needs to be expressed? How can I enable this process? I am inspired by the natural world, by light and darkness, by memory. I am learning to let go of the thinking process and be more present with the image/idea or memory….. free writing helps me do this, clearing the clutter as I keep the pen moving.

    I feel as writers we need to sometimes ponder on how we write, what inspires us and then to share with others. Considering how poems arise is a wonderful way to spend a few minutes, much better than washing up.

  30. I write ideas, lines, verses, etc. in a notebook. Sometimes something just sounds like a good line, even though I don’t know what it means. Eventually I might write a poem (and develop a meaning) around that line.
    However, when doing a workshop exercise or entering a competition, where I am given a theme, I have to write to that theme: that’s a lot harder because the prompt or instruction forces you to concentrate on the required subject matter, or form, or rhyme scheme.
    I always start composing with pen and paper, before moving on to the laptop. That way, I can keep all my crossed out bits in case they come in handy again. I like the idea of “quarrying” a poem from discarded parts of another poem: Patrick Kavanagh often did this in his poetry.

  31. 1 Observe, notice, be intrigued
    2 Find quiet place
    3 Talk to myself on a voice recorder (avoids the inner critic in my fingers)
    4 Transcribe ramblings onto computer
    5 Identify phrases wth life in them
    6 Use as source material for something that often turns out to be completely different.
    7 Edit frequently, even if only a few words
    8 Allow to fester.

  32. I write songs as well as poems. I have been asked on a number of occasions, ‘how do you do it?’ I usually reply that I don’t really know. I suppose it’s the way my mind works. A line, sometimes two pops into my head. It comes from nowhere,goes nowhere, and ends up in a place I least expect, if that makes sense.However, within those one or two lines is the whole poem or song. It then becomes a process of waiting for the rest to appear, which can be a bit of a bugger, as the words don’t always appear in sequence, and some words which really don’t belong manage to sneak in as well! But, by some magical process everything becomes clear, and a poem or song emerges into the light. I have only been lucky once, when I wrote a song in 15 minutes complete with melody while walking along the Leeds/Liverpool canal. That’s another mystery, as I just started sing it! God knows where it came from!

  33. I can’t write directly onto the screen – the pen in the hand, the paper, the notebook
    have a direct significance – as if the idea has to flow down from the brain to the paper and then the words can begin to find order before the screen can transform their voice and make it formal.

  34. Poetry seems to come and go for me, and i most definitely can’t turn it on or off easily, if at all. Sometimes you must be patient.

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