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Ant Smith
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Writing Poetry - A Worked Example

Thursday 6th February 2014 10:30pm

Here's a worked example showing how I typically go about writing poetry. Not that I intend to prescribe this as the de-facto standard approach, but it will perhaps be of interest to other practitioners, if they can raise their consciousness from their own place in the pit of hell that is life on earth for but a moment; which in itself is no bad practice, given that poetry is supposed to speak to our common humanity

So it was Tuesday January 24th and I woke with enough time to smoke two cigarettes and peruse Facebook not only to count the overnight likes on yesterday's postings but also to actually look over some of the stuff my connected 'friends' had posted. One of them piqued my interest with this:

I never slept in the gutter or spent a night in the cell

But I think I've been to Heaven and I know I've been in Hell

Which quite impressed me, although it transpires it was a quote, unbeknownst to me at the time. So I thought 'crikey, he's writing something that good I'd better have a bash or the kids'll be leaving me behind.

The first step in writing a poem is acquiring the impetus, the energy, to do so. I can't stand the idea of sitting down at a prescribed time to exercise an intellect, as though I have some great power that others do not possess. To turn one's mind to the problems of humanity, to pontificate on some terribly grave issue - awareness of which filters through the lies and propaganda of the state. Such approaches are seeded in condescension and intelligentsia and can never carry the passion that is critical to honest communication.

The mornings are ideal for taking that first step. Waking up from some sexually charging dream with your wife and lover standing naked by to ease you from the idyll of a shared-warmth bed into the turmoil of a city filled with compromised lives. Live passionately in dispassionate times. Find an energy that wants to twist from your grip and infect a new generation. Read something, hear something, see something, taste something. Smell something. Shit something. Poetry starts in the beads of condensation fashioned in the heat of the moments of an impassioned life. I've measured out seasons walking from the arms of my wife to the clutches of my public life turning over thoughts and ideas that have been gifted to me by her, or at times, by friends. True poems are less written, more discovered. But that isn't some kind of mystique, it is solid practical advice. Poetry is about you, the individual, only in so far as it arises from the life that you lead.

So I awoke typically enraged and read this couplet, with its degraded heart and spiritual accoutrements. And I started to think about the nature of sin in terms of our responses to it. I started to construct an initial couplet that only had to make a statement illustrating our attitude to sin. At this point I have no idea what the poem is going to say about this, I only know the starting point which has been gifted to me at my most fertile time.

The second step is to equip yourself with the materials you're going to need to effect the construction. Unlike building a house though, I don't at this point have a plan. There's no denying that so many houses look so much the same. If you want to keep people safe and cosy a house is a very fine thing. Houses, even the crazy cells they build on Grand Designs, always start with a plan - which is destined at some point to disappoint. I don't want to write poetry that is safe and cosy and destined to disappoint. So my second step is to cast about for suitable building materials - allowing my subconscious to temper the bead of inspiration.

Therefore, I found myself looking for the opposite of sin, so that I would have an idea and a counter expression with which to fashion a couplet.

I didn't find one, but I did find some fascinating forum discussions on the subject (http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/10991/whats-the-opposite-word-for-sin). The argument that stuck for me was that the English have no opposite word because it derives from a religion that does not encompass the opposite behaviour in its philosophy. In other words we can spend a life in guilt of inevitable sin but we can do no thing to escape the judgement. No amount of personal introspection could ever have brought this concern to my mind - but I clearly had here the spine of a concern that touches many people.

And from that I fashioned my opening lines:

There is no word, the opposite to sin

I guess then it's rare, to do the right thing>

At this point I was arriving at the tube station and I found myself taking the unusual action of posting that couplet to Facebook. I guess I was unsure if the idea would wind itself into a poem as yet, but felt it was a strong enough concept in itself to share.

This had the effect of exposing my poetry writing mechanics - so I went with it.

The third step is to argue with yourself. Inspect in detail the nature of what you have just laid down, the directions it can travel. The truth, the lies it can lead to. Gathering the next batch of materials to expand the opening concept into a whole stanza.

Immediately somebody liked and commented on the status. I was a little uncomfortable as the couplet is only the start of a thought stream and taken in isolation I don't completely agree philosophically with its stance. But instead of playing this thought through an internal dialogue, I found myself in discussion with other real beings.

The thread ran:

  • That's true, which is why I'm going to steal this line.

  • I had to work it up more (see next post) because its wrong to say we don't need the antonym to sin because we don't do the opposite of sin - rather the control mechanism is to declare that there is no opposite, to tell us implicitly that we not only carry guilt but that we can never cleanse ourselves of it. What twats they are!

  • isn't it grace?

  • I don't think so. At the meta level grace concerns the effect a group feels from the presence of an agent whilst sin concerns the effect an agent feels of an action the agent has performed. Because the subject of the verbs are differently scoped I don't believe they can stand as opposites, which by definition must share a common reference point.

  • The opposite of sin is liberating.

  • Not as liberating as sin is though!

  • I was thinking more about the removal of the moralistic connotation. I've never committed a sin; and I'm a total cunt.

  • Ah! I think my point is exactly that you've to liberate yourself from the guilt associated with 'sins' (in the broadest terms) - so you're kind of right but the scope of liberating needs to be focused on a common reference point. I'd suggest that really a compound verb is needed. "Guilt liberation is the opposite of sin", (which is a guilt adoption). Which returns to the starting point, that we've never needed to construct a single word to stand against sin. One syllable words bury deeper into us. I haven't sinned much today.

It is clear the dialogue is progressing both internally and in the public sphere, but what's important is that the domain is explored.

Three concepts emerge from this exchange:

  • The unforgiveable nature of sin

  • The unacceptability of the unforgiveableness of sin

  • The possibility of refusing to accept the guilt of sin

In terms of material I was well armed now with enough to compose an entire stanza.

There is no word, the opposite to sin

I guess then it's rare, to do the right thing

But then again maybe, maybe perhaps

It's a sense of forgiving society lacks

Try as you might with your virtuous acts

Angels and devils will hound you in packs

For if original sin is never paid back

ou never can then, escape from the trap

Here I've tried to maintain the metaphorical accoutrements of the second line of the original inspiration (sin, virtue, angels and devils) whilst echoing the stark modernist feel of the first line (with society, pack hounds and traps). To me, the whole stanza is a crafted blend of modern life and traditional values. 'Society lacks/never paid back' are hyper modern allusions. 'Do the right thing/Virtuous acts' deeply traditional values and attitudes. The stanza draws a world within which the argument can be played out.

The fourth step is to draw an abstract world that can at once be recognised by others but is owned by the poem's central concern, not by any facet of the poet. The social network debate turned out to be effective in these terms, but is reflective of my natural approach all the same.

The fourth+nth step is pretty much more of the same. Lay out the natural extensions, or inherent limitations in what has already been expressed, and conduct a further dialogue - in other words, keep the creative process fuelled with tasty materials and room to breathe; do not constrain or suffocate it with a framework or cleverly conceived thinking.

So in response to the above stanza I posted:

  • This is not a post based in religion despite its dressings. I'm talking about the attitudes and control mechanisms that the 1% imbues into our cultural mores so that we control ourselves based on their dodgy concepts. We're not really all irredeemable sinners. I for one, am a profligate joyous sinner. Come join me!

From which I derived a partial stanza:

So enjoy those wet things, stand proud and erect

Take heart when you find you're sinking in debt

Take a day off from work when you wake feeling wrecked

Let the celibate frugal be fooled unto death

By now I was arriving at work and that reality has clearly informed my response to myself.

Meanwhile, the earlier stanza had drawn this response from my friend and sometime collaborator Calm Carl Chamberlain:

Knee deep in sin. Scaring kith and kin, Allowed no grace. Not for us the saving face. Twisted rules for twisted fools. On hands and knees begging please. Not for you to say thanks, but from religions and banks. I do no wrong for oh so long. No one cares, no one dares to create some peace, I'm gonna get my piece.

Which accurately reflects much of what I thought I was trying to say - which is nice. Carl though ends here with a statement of what is (the "I'm alright jack" pervading culture) and on this occasion I wanted to end on what could be - in recognition of my personal zeitgeist - a belief that there is a power in a union, and that we the 99% have the option to say "No, I won't buy that for a dollar".

The final step is to express yourself. At the final moment take back control and ownership of your work and place your own sealing wax upon it. This is how you stand up in support of your beliefs. It's far too easy to look like an agent for change but to simply be a painter of pictures. All the foregoing talk of the importance of letting your real life present and shape the work does nothing to alleviate the responsibility you have to your words. They must be at once, deeply personal and universally apparent.

All of which brought me to a point of conclusion on the piece:

Original Sin

There is no word, the opposite to sin

I guess then it's rare, to do the right thing

But then again maybe, maybe perhaps

It's a sense of forgiving society lacks

Try as you might with your virtuous acts

Angels and devils will hound you in packs

For if original sin is never paid back

You never can then, escape from the trap

So enjoy those wet things, stand proud and erect

Take heart when you find you're sinking in debt

Take a day off from work when you wake feeling wrecked

Let the celibate frugal be fooled unto death

Do just enough to get by in their world

Don't buy into futures that no one has earned

Don't beat yourself up with their shitty stick

Vice is the key to unlocking their trick

There is no word, the opposite to sin

It's inescapable then, if you buy in.

And to conclude this piece, Carl and I shared the following exchange:

  • Beautifully crafted, wonderfully thought out and bitterly executed. I like the fact that I immediately knew it had nothing to do with religion. Makes me feel almost as clever as you.

  • Stop it with your accusations of cleveressness!

  • Sorry. Did I write 'clever' I meant sinful.

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