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The hidden life of poets

Poetry: at first it’s all around us, in nursery rhymes, ‘children’s poems’, at primary school, even in some form on children’s television. We learn to speak in rhyme, which is patterned language, and it makes up our earliest games. It’s at school. Then it becomes something we ‘ought’ to do, it’s homework, teachers tell us if we got it right or wrong. We move on.

Poetry is the book your boring aunt gives your sister, maybe, and maybe your sister hates it. She wants a giant Teletubbies make up set instead, and everyone agrees it’s really bo-oring. From this chance moment, perhaps – the moment you quietly take the book to your room, and know nobody will ever miss it – poetry is your secret.

At secondary school, poetry rears its head again, but very much in public. ‘What do you think the poet is really trying to say here?’ ‘Can you interpret the symbolism in the metaphor?’ ‘Analyse the influences of the Metaphysicals on the conceits of…’ oh, wait. ‘Where does the real message of ‘The Hitcher’ come out?’

It’s happening in public, but the real poem is still happening in secret. You write the stuff in secret. You read it and print it out and keep it in folders, and gradually you show some of your poems to your friends. They say nice things, but what do they know? And maybe they were the ones who laughed at your boring aunt’s book with your sister. So it’s still – the work that poetry is doing inside you and your conception of language as a medium through which to perceive the world – a big fat secret.

This post could be pages and pages long. But ultimately, there is a point for all of us where there is one big difference between our poems and the ones in books. They get read by people, and ours don’t. They are written TO be read. The poets who write them do so knowing that they are making something for other people to read, and we write ours both from and to the inside of our head.

Don Paterson talks about the various stages of ‘publication’, as being the biggest transformation in a poem. He says that in one sense a poem is ‘published’ – broadcast to the outside world – the minute we show it to someone else. Then there’s sharing it in a workshop or an email. Then maybe getting it in a magazine. At each remove, the poem becomes the property of (more) other people, not just us.

This of course changes the poem, because it becomes a public artefact, an object to be used, consumed, participated in, by anyone who finds it. And it changes you, because you now have a different relationship to your secret. It has a perfectly acceptable public side.

With this comes a change in how you write your poems. You need to learn to access both the side that’s secret within you, and the side that faces outwards: a strange mysterious element that makes your poem a Thing, Made for Other People. Your innermost thoughts aren’t much good to them unless framed in a way they can access, empathise their way into, relate back to the world THEY are perceiving, and – with luck – be surprised by.

This is the life cycle of a poet, maybe. The hidden life, that secret that made you steal your sister’s Christmas present, and the reason you alone ever noticed that it was not on the shelf where it got dumped, carries on. But the poems you make out of that self begin to have a life of their own, beyond you. They have relationships with other people you might think you have nothing in common with whatever. This is about being human.

A poem works on this level in proportion to what it gives to the reader. General reflections of sagacity, or complicated abstract metaphors about your inner turmoil, are not news; everybody has those. In making a poem for people to read, you are holding something up to the light and saying: ‘Look! Look at this!’ Make sure the reader can see what you’re holding up; make it come into their space a little, and touch them. Let it ask them something, not just tell them all about you. Let it sit there so they can just be with it.

This means making sure it’s clear what the poem is about. Putting specific images in, not just Big Ideas. Not bombarding them with how you feel, but creating a space where they can feel it with you. It means making sure the images all hang together, the examples all tell the same story, the language fits the mood, the rhymes aren’t overpowering.

For many people, the first step out of their hidden life – the first time their secret is aired outside their circle of friends – is sending a poem to a magazine: maybe a local one, or maybe a big important one, which they’ll never get in. For some, the first step is sending it to a competition. This feels safe, it’s all anonymous, you don’t have to have a name. Your secret identity is still safe!

The poem doesn’t get anywhere, of course, in this competition. Except that sometimes it does; because it’s about the poem, not the poet. But in any case, what it HAS done is, it’s gone and sat in the box with hundreds, maybe thousands, of other poems, all of them poems together, all coming out of the secret space and blinking into the sunshine of a real, unknown, real reader. And maybe, when you think of it sitting in there, you begin to really want your poem to be read by that reader, to be understood, to resonate with them the way other poems have resonated with you. To be, like Pinocchio, alive.

This is an important moment for your poem and for you. It’s the moment the lights come on, and shine into your hidden life. You find you are sitting at the beginning of a road…

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. All very good points – and certainly no less for having been said before.

    The finding the when to re-state insights is an art in itself.
    But these things need to be re-stated. Hopefully it will fall at that ‘right moment’; for some writers and readers toignite the chaff of used up ideas that is lying around still. I think it has for me.

    So, great many thanks for this.

    Michael M

  2. A very perceptive understanding of the way that poems need both sides of the
    experience – to be heard as well as written. So more power to your elbow.

  3. As I think I put in a blog before, this is the way I write poetry.

    Making a poem.
    To me a poem comes when the first gift lines
    Smile into my head
    Like my wife across a room at parties
    Making me feel good all evening,
    Valued in a world of strangers.
    I wait, unthinking and yet willing
    The words to speak again and listening
    Hear a voice as though reciting
    From the turned page of an unwritten volume,
    And each line that follows called out from where
    My mind is bound like wiisps of mist
    To the opaque surface of lake water
    Very early on a Sunday, sunny morning.

    Harry Haines.

  4. Surely there is something else in good poetry. Good poetry is not about oneself, it’s also about other events, take the great poets who wrote about other things besides themselves. Examples, Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the light brigade’ written as a task when he was Laureate and certainly one of the best Laureate poems to be written because although it is basically true it resonates with the sound of the horses hooves pounding towards the guns and sound in poetry should be almost as important as the meaning. Keats’s ‘Ode to a Grecian urn’ is not about himself or though perhaps there is something in it that reflects himself. That his seemingly off the cuff poem ‘O blush not so! O blush not so!’ the poem that is rarely quoted because Keats is still seen as an other worldly poet and not what he was a very lived man. This poem is not about himself, though it certainly reflects what he knew about women and had experienced. This perhaps, modern poetry, about almost crying about ones inner turmoil is akin to pop music and not real poetry, or not serious poetry at all. So let us have some serious poetry for a change.

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