it’s hanging in your parents’ house
this one thing that made you happy
brought us closer
taught us much
about each other,
things that if i’d known
I would have scribbled
in a corner
of the scene.
it should be there, nestling between
the brushmarks and the
broad slabs of white on your shirt;
the story that
this picture should tell.
one day I may whisper these colours
in your ear
like the caress of a brush
just the right shade
to make things clear
I struggle with sonnets. I’ve been writing them for years and have had a good few published. I won a cup in 1978 at college – The Bruce Brown Trophy for Poetry – with a sonnet in fact. However, I still feel that the majority are lacking that essential sonnety sonnetness.
They tend not to rhyme although I dare say they might have done at some point. The Bruce Brown one did certainly. I find rhyming sonnets a little clunky, mine anyway. Others have produced fine rhyming flowing pieces of magic but mine don’t seem to evoke a sense of spontaneity.
Anyhoo, I continue, my usual practice having been since about 2006 to write at least one a month, one of them always being named after the month itself and attempting some kind of mood and overview of the current situation.
Consequently I have a hundred and something sonnets only a few of which have been published and fired at the unsuspecting public.
What I feel is that in the main they work better as a group of poems than as stand alone pieces. Does this imply that the sonnets are somewhat weak?
They’re a set of things I keep revising. They often go back into my revision process and there are at least two in my Revision file at the moment. The ones I have abandoned or may have been published end up in this blog, as it gets to the point where I have become so familiar with them that I can’t judge them objectively, coupled with the fact they have usually been rejected a number of times by editors whose judgment I have learned to trust.
I have just been working on one in fact, and finding this one quite exciting after a few changes. I’m toying with the question of whether it needs an overall metaphor and/or more ambiguity. Could I add an extra layer of meaning to it?
If I had to find a metaphor for my relationship with sonnets, I’d choose watercolour painting. I love the medium but I have never mastered the art of it to the point where I am often satisfied with the results. It’s a difficult skill to achieve. You can edit the sonnet, but like a watercolour there is the danger of overworking it to the point where the freshness and vitality of the first draft is lost, and one is left with something dull.
However, I persevere, as I can not stop.
You can view a selection here, or just click the sonnet tag at the foot of the post. Please feel free to leave comments as feedback is good and it’s always helpful to know why someone liked or hated certain pieces.
I was watching television
though my mind was looking elsewhere
when a voice said ‘Yes, Delores’
and a face was dredged from under
all the scree of things forgotten.
I had worked with a Delores
and had buried her at some point
with her corkscrew mop of ginger,
crazy shoes and bright green jacket
under a patio of years.
Now she’s resurrected with her
baggage and her sister’s phone calls,
arguments that raged relentless
days on end while she sat typing
multitasking rage and wages.
This is clawing to the surface,
bits of her in different bin bags.
I’ll have to have her round for tea
to ask how quick she buried me.
helen is terrified of anaphylactic shock
to the extent that she screams when
people mention peanuts
latex, she claims, can bring it on,
defence turned to lethal attack;
deadly condoms waiting in packets
for that special moment
to send her into spasms
she runs from wasps and bees
through potential trees
though she’s never been stung
or been shocked by anything
apart from that scene in ‘game of thrones’
and the price at which they sell fridges
she may not be suffering at all
apart from a condition
a substantial proportion of sufferers
have no cause found
despite all efforts
even in the most expert clinics
doctors call such unexplained
symptoms ‘idiopathic phantom anaphylaxis’
the word ‘idiopathic’
in practice means
we just don’t know why she does it
This is the first in the Chief Inspector Wexford series which saw a very popular run as a TV series some time ago.
Margaret Parsons, a seemingly very ordinary and perhaps dowdy housewife, is reported missing by her husband and subsequently found strangled in a local wood.
Suspicion falls at first on the husband, an afficianado of real-life murder literature, but then is discovered a cache of expensive poetry books, sent to Margaret on various occasions with written messages of love from the mysterious Doon.
It’s an extremely well-written novel set in a town where everyone, it seems, has secrets and connections to the enigmatic Mrs Parsons.
Rendell paints a somewhat dire, but somehow not depressing, picture of this Nineteen Sixties community, most of them seemingly trapped in a hideous race to achieve or maintain social status.
There’s some excellent characterisation, although paradoxically I suspect Wexford himself is yet to develop into a fully rounded individual.
That, however, is my only gripe. I thoroughly enjoyed this book which comes in the kindle version at least with a fascinating introduction from Ian Rankin.
From Revision Part I
Most of my revision is done either on my phone or my tablet, and is a lengthy process.
I use Evernote, which has become completely invaluable, since all one’s notes are saved in a cloud and one can access them from tablet, phone or laptop. The free version has a limit of three devices but a paid upgrade is not excessive if one needs it.
If you’ve read Part II (see the link above) your poems should be in a physical folder (or an Evernote folder) with the letters V A W C M R A I P L B R E printed at the top of each poem. Work through the poems, dealing with one letter sequentially for each poem, crossing it off and moving the poem to the back of the file. Add new poems to the back of the file as they are ready for revision.
Evernote is handy like this, as if you always start at the bottom of the list, it gets moved to the top once it’s been edited.
OK. Here we go.
This is the initial run through the first draft in which I am looking at the Voice of the poem. Whose voice is it? Is it consistent? What mood is the voice in? It’s surprising sometimes how many obvious changes can be made just by asking these questions, and indeed any others that may arise
V is a twofold exercise. It is, in the first instance, a chance to look through the first draft, considering it as a finished work. Minor changes or excisions often happen at this point. It is also your chance to look at the Voice. Who is speaking these words? Is it their voice? Would they say this in this way and is it consistent throughout?
A is for ‘and’ and other small words. ‘and’ is one of my most persistent cliches. It should be excised if it serves no purpose. There are occasions, especially within reported speech when it can actually be beneficial however. It depends very much on context.
Look at all the small words, the ‘and’s and ‘the’s and any other words that may have lazily slipped in and check if there’s a better way of saying what you are saying.
I am unsure why this was ever W. Feel free to change it to whatever you want. I suspect it was because I didn’t want too many As. A would the obvious choice as we are looking at adjectives and adverbs. Look at every one. Shout at them. Make them justify their existence. If they can’t, expunge them from the scene!
I found that additional considerations tended to bleed in here and sometimes entire lines and phrases start to look suspect. Deal with them in the same way. Rid yourself of clutter.
C is for cliché.
For me clichés come in two sorts, the public sort and the private sort.
The public sort is just lazy phrases and worn out metaphors and similes.
If you find yourself describing clouds as fluffy balls of cotton wool then stop right there. It’s a cliché alert.
Personal clichés are more difficult to spot. They are the path of least resistance on your word journey; things you write regularly and have become blind to. Your friends won’t tell you because they love you and hate poetry. The ones that love poetry may tell you but it’s no use waiting for them.
M is for metaphors and similes. I look at this in two ways. Is there an overall metaphor? Is the poem itself a metaphor for something else as many poems are? Are you subsidiary metaphors consistent with each other? Mixed metaphors are a little messy but can work if there is at least some relationship between them.
The same goes for similes. With similes I tend to check if they can be upgraded to metaphors. I’ve always found the metaphor to be a superior form of beast. That’s a metaphor.
‘Her head was like a train
huffing down memory’s rails.’
The first line is a simile. The last contains a metaphor. Taking out the word ‘like’ converts the simile and presents a far stronger image.
The first R in the sequence is for rhythm.
Read the beast aloud. Look for bumps, things which impede the flow. Even free verse has some sort of rhythm.
Examine the pauses, the breaths, the dadadada of it all.
This second A is for ambiguity. I love ambiguity. It births dual meaning like new growth branching off into a separate understanding. I seek if possible to change words in order to bring additional or alternate meanings to the work. This is – I must emphasise – just a part of my own personal process and not a mandatory thing.
It’s hard to spot though.
Sometimes it leaps out at you in a moment of serendipity. These are rare as hen’s teeth but sometimes twice as sharp.
In most cases it’s a question of lingering over every word, pondering alternatives.
I’m finding this frustrating, although rewarding when it actually happens and – one has to be sure that it has – improves on what it replaced.
I can’t think of a better strategy I am sorry to say.
I am working on it though.
I is for internal rhyme. You may have formal rhyme anyway but I do like a bit of rhyme relationship within the body of the piece. It’s a useful thing to look for since one has to inevitably look at words that can possibly be changed to accommodate something that might resonate with a word somewhere else. Very often while doing this I find better words, more often than not they turn out not to rhyme with anything. Go with them if they work better.
The next two revision points are related to how the piece appears visually and also controls its pace, the way it would sound in your head or if read aloud.
P along with L is one of the most important stages of this process. P is for punctuation and L for line breaks, which we’ll come to.
They will determine the way your poem looks on the page, as well as determining how it is read, the breaths and pauses.
This is the presentation of the poem.
For a long time I wrote in lower case only. This wasn’t simply an affectation. I felt that the words were somehow freed up from the constraints of capitalisation and punctuation. I know other poets wrote in this way but no idea of their justification for it. This was mine alone.
I have moved on since then, and capitalisation has returned for the most part.
You may or may not choose to employ either, but whatever your choice make it consistent. Here, I would consider what style of punctuation you wish to employ and make it consistent within the piece, unless you have a very good reason for not doing so. Some might.
Whole books have been written about line breaks, which is our L consideration. At least one book anyway, ‘The Art of The Poetic Line’ a copy of which is well worth the investment.
Glyn Maxwell also has some very useful things to say about line breaks in his ‘On Poetry’.
For me, they are about time and pauses, functioning for the most part as replacements for full stops and commas.
One line break is a comma. A stanza break is a full stop. However this just a current experiment of mine and does not cover the full diverse purposes for which line breaks can be employed. Check out one or both of the books mentioned. You’ll thank me for it.
This section is aimed mainly at free verse rather than formal structures, although in something like the sonnet you may wish to introduce stanza breaks either formally or randomly.
Here, you will look at where each line ends and consider whether this is the appropriate break.
Some words may need a line to themselves if one wishes to highlight it for instance.
Read the beast aloud and consider whether the slight pauses at the end of each line are in the right place. Should there be long pauses, short pauses? It is up to you to decide how to communicate the pause to the reader. I consider line breaks to be the best option, but use what suits you best.
The last three letters are the most intense in terms of scrutiny. To a certain extent we are looking at aspects we have already covered, but fine tuning what we have edited. It demands concentration and a little ruthlessness.
B is for best word. Examine every word. Is that the best word you can think of? Interrogate them all. Make that word justify its place.
R is for redundancy. This is your final chance to look at the elements of your poem and remove anything that does not need to be there. Words, phrases, lines, stanzas.
Examine Every Line! Is the line necessary? Is it doing its job?
This is your final chance to check – line by line – whether your poem works or not. By now you should have rid yourself of cliches, redundancies and anything else that does not add to the work. If there is something missing, it should have been picked up before now but here is a final chance to add something that might make your poem shine brighter, or remove a line that was hiding it back. Make this section count.
Once you’re happy with this, make the amendments and your poem should be in a far healthier state.
I’m sure people who’ve never tried it think writing poetry is some relaxing exercise that – if not exactly easy – is akin to a half an hour with a vodka and orange doodling romantic things in a pleasant manner.
Admittedly, it’s enjoyable and a tad addictive, but to get it right is effin’ difficult and often frustrating.
It’s hard work, in other words.
It’s the other words that are the problem most of the time, finding them, and then arranging them in the right alchemical order.
It can be a bugger.
Everyone has their own way of writing and presumably their individual ways of getting from first draft to that polished submittable final work.
Revision is, for me, where the major slice of my writing time is used up, but there are strategies you can employ to maximise the value of that time by concentrating on various aspects of your work in a logical and systematic way.
If one compares poetry to photography – and to be honest there’s no reason you should, it’s just a cheap way of bringing in some handy mental visuals – then the writing of the poem would equate to taking the photograph, and revision would equate to heavy Photoshop post production.
I have to stress here that what I am about to expound upon is my personal workflow process and none of it is mandatory, but I hope that some of you find it useful.
Revision is clearly different for everyone. Some folk, I have read, dispose of the first draft entirely and rewrite the whole thing on the presumption that they will remember and improve on the good elements while discarding or reworking the things that weren’t working.
That’s never been good for me. I am more of a ‘take the broken thing and fix it’ person, rather than ‘destroy the broken thing and build a new one’
Anyhoo, whatever your revision regime is otherwise, there are strategies you can employ to make it a more thorough process, examining your first draft by looking at different aspects of it sequentially in a logical order.
I have to also point out that a variation of this process was originally found in one of those ‘How To Write Poetry’ books (of which I have dozens, and only found one or two useful in any real way) although I am at a loss to remember which. I promise I will credit the book when I eventually track it down.
It’s evolved somewhat since to fit my own personal workflow, but this should work for most people. The fun is in finding your own recipe that works for you.
At this point I would like to address the issue of organisation and storage of your work since for me it dovetails into the revision process. In this day and age I would advise storing your work digitally. How you get to the first draft is up to you. I usually write by hand late at night, often in bed, although I also write some work on my phone or laptop. You can write them in organic violet ink on hand-pressed papyrus for all I care, it’s what happens to them when the first draft is finished that’s important here.
My preference for storage and organisation is an Access database, regularly backed up. For revision I use Evernote, a free app (with upgrade options) which allows you to edit ‘notes’ on, for instance, your smartphone. When synced this will upload and is accessible to another device, such as a laptop, with Evernote loaded.
For a long time Evernote gave its users an unlimited number of devices, but recently have introduced a limit which I believe is three. I upgraded to an annual plan as I use it on my work mobile, personal mobile, laptop and a tablet.
Before Evernote, for revision purposes, my most efficient tool was the humble ringbinder. At one point I even had a stock of A5 paper so that I could print out poems onto prepunched A5 paper and carry them around in an A5 binder. This is far easier to deal with on a bus or train than the A4 version.
However, let’s stick to basics.
1 ream of blank paper
The Luddites among you may wish to copy out your first drafts by hand onto the A4 sheets. If so, one per page. Double space your lines.
Those with Word or other WP packages should put all your new (or to be reviewed older) poems into one document, double spaced.
Set the header for every page to contain the following sequence
V A W C M R A I P L B R E
Those working by hand will need to either write these letters at the top of each page or keep one master page, empty apart from the letters at the top and make as many photocopies as you have poems to revise.
I find between 28 and 40 is a manageable amount.
Print the document, holepunch the pages and place them in the ringbinder.
This process will rely on you examining only one specific aspect of the first poem in the folder, and making any necessary changes. Each letter in the sequence relates to these specific aspects and will be explained later.
Once that aspect has been ruthlessly scrutinised and any changes made, one crosses off the letter in the sequence, moves the sheet to the back of the folder and looks at the next poem.
The reasons for not doing the whole sequence in one poem at the same time are many. After 2 or three serious examinations of the one piece, poem fatigue sets in and the words cease to make sense. Distance is needed for any further progress. It needs to rest. One pass ensures that the poem will be relatively fresh the next day or the next week for a look from a different angle.
For instance I may come to a poem where A W C and M have been crossed off, leaving R A I P L R E.
You are therefore at the first stage R.
This would require you to concentrate on the Rhythm of the piece, as R stands for Rhythm. Make any necessary changes and if you are satisfied that your piece flows with a nice rhythm, without any clunks or awkward syllables then cross out the R and move the poem to the back of the folder.
If you are not sure then leave the R uncrossed and move to the back of the folder.
Move on to the next poem.
Get it? Got it? Good.
One odd phenomenon of this process is that while you are concentrating on one aspect, other aspects will sometimes become clearer. Amend as necessary.
Often, no changes will be needed at all. If so, cross off the relevant letter and proceed to the next poem.
New poems should be printed out, punched and put at the back of the folder. This ensures that, once you are through the initial batch you get a more random selection of letters to deal with as you work through.
I will be providing a separate post if anyone expresses interest in how to do this in Evernote.
Next instalment tomorrow in which I will explain what the first block of letters mean. I’ll be providing links in due course so that one can navigate back and forth through these posts.
It would be interesting to know what other people’s revision process is. Feel free to let me know. I am always keen to learn something.
To go part II click the link below
I am afraid of France.
I fear it will look down on me
with a nose-up glance
once I have landed
and finished looking down on it.
I fear its gravity will be different,
that I will be surrounded by mostachioed
men in raincoats who will
force me into a heavy beret
to stop me floating away.
I fear its skies
will be composed of giant brush strokes and that its weather
will be contrary
to my every choice of clothing
except the beret.
I fear its streets will
beat the soles of my feet with every step.
I will be stalked by accordionists
playing ‘La Vie En Rose’.
Cafe Owners will glare at me
from behind bloody striped clothes,
a Gauloise smoking from the corner of a downturned lip
and I fear
that my legs will adopt a british accent
while I am inevitably
running for the border
pursued by older men
with beards, torches,
ropes of garlic.
We wait to see who will make the first move
offering dual sacrifice and threat.
It is a game some say but this is just
a convenient tag to honey life.
This is the bedrock of the human soul,
the war we carry with us from the egg,
embedded in a checkerboard of genes.
I am sometimes white, you often black,
our thoughts in negative across the board
in some antagonistic harmony.
Pawns lumber shivering to work, heads bowed.
Ranks expand to Linked-in, Facebook. Your move.
Knights and bishops gallivanting out now.
You do not see me slip behind the rook.
This is British pulp fiction I guess. Certainly Creasey produced around six hundred novels in his career under his own name and various pseudonyms.
Sir Richard Rollison, whose not so secret alias is ‘The Toff’, is an aristocratic maverick whose strength and skill with guns and fists has made him feared among the criminal classes.
One night his car is shot at and disabled by an evil looking arab in a Daimler. Further down the road The Toff finds a man in a car, shot dead, and the shoe of a missing woman.
And so begins The Toff’s investigation into a sinister drug smuggling organisation known as The Black Circle.
It’s a fast paced read packed with colourful if admittedly one dimensional characters in a strange and distant London where people like Harry the Pug run villainous public houses in a docklands more akin to Treasure Island than Nineteen Thirties London, and where restaurants and pubs have secret passages to other establishments.
The Toff, whose feared calling card features only a stylised top hat, monocle and cane, is threatened by guns, bombs, gas and poisonous tarantulas but eventually wins through to save the day.
It’s also a fascinating insight into the social culture of London in the Nineteen Thirties. The Toff has a personal bodyguard cum butler called Jolly. When the mysterious woman and her fiancé are forced to spend the night at The Toff’s flat, proprieties have be observed. The couple are split into separate bedrooms and The Toff takes over Jolly’s room, leaving Jolly banished to sleep in a chair.
It’s fantastical hokum, but it’s good fantastical hokum and taken in context, highly enjoyable.
The Toff is, one could argue, the Batman of British literature. He’s a rich maverick aristocrat with no actual superpowers other than his intelligence, strength and prowess with weapons, fighting the criminal underworld with the occasional help of the police.
Give it a go. You might like it.