The Poet as Novelist

As Jenn discussed metaphors in the previous post regarding the advantages of a poet and novelist working together I thought I’d introduce me (hello) and my mentoring style by talking about structure. Us poets don’t have as much (in terms of volume) to structure as novelists, but we have a lot to learn from them.

As all poets are well aware, there is plenty of detailed examination (archaeology, Jenn called it) in critiquing poems in writers’ groups. And how useful is that? I personally love the discussions that can come out of whether a comma or hypen is doing the best job in a line … sad perhaps, but when there aren’t too many words every word, piece of punctuation and breath of white space counts.

What I think coming to the Smithy offers over a writing group (or workshop group for that matter) is the opportunity to have a sequence of poems looked at and discussed.

So far the work I have had the pleasure to read and discuss has ranged from short sequences, pamphlets to book length collections. And while not everyone opens a poetry book at its first page and reads through until the last, the poet still has to make the decision as to what will be the first poem, what will follow it and so on until choosing the final poem.

And while uch of this is instinctual, it can be good to follow the old teaching principle: ‘say what you’re going to do (the first poem), do it, and then say you’ve done it (the last poem).’

Of course, you don’t actually say: it’s implicit.

Whether or not the poems are written as a themed sequence, they have been written by one person and will have connections, overlaps and resonances. Putting them together is like knotting together a huge origami lantern, and knowing what kind of light you want to spill from the sequence/pamphlet/collection is crucial to deciding what goes where. The light in this case, being the atmosphere/ tone of the book or pamphlet or sequence.

Laying poems together also flags up unintentional repetitions (how is each poem different?) echoes, underlying currents (where you revert to habit) and the flab. Sadly not everything we write makes the grade and often it’s only when poems are laid next to each other they can start talking to each othera enabling you to realise which don’t fit. So be it a themed collection like Tim Liardet’s The Storm House, or an apparently wide-ranging collection of poems like Furniture by Lorraine Mariner, held together by the force of her voice, there is a narrative within the work. How evident you want that to be is another question.

In my opinion the best poetry books/sequences are ones that vary the tone: that swoop, dive and roll in unexpected ways, as poems can themselves. There is no ‘right’ tone, as there is no ‘right’ way of setting poems out. It comes back to that light you want to shed, the atmosphere you want to generate from the energy of the work. And sometimes this exploration leads to discussions between myself and the mentee as to intention, execution, shape and fulfilment. And discussion is always good. It can validate ideas, alter them and generate new ones. One thing I’m sure of, ideas are self-replicating: the more you discuss and share them, the more you have.

(Sarah and Jenn from the Writing Smithy literature consultancy are guest blogging here until August 12th.)


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tim Ellis says:

    With both my collections I spent weeks agonising about what order to put the poems in. When I did my first collection, the publisher was probably getting impatient and told me to just put them alphabetically by title. Once I’d done that it became obvious to me which poems were in the wrong place, and I confess I changed a few of the titles to make them go where I wanted them.

    1. I love that story, Tim. I wonder if you were happier with your new titles too!

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