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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Growing up poetic

Nancy and Robert over at Poetic Asides , one of my favourite blogs, say they started out writing free verse and only later experimented with forms. For me it was the opposite way round. I was brought up on formal poetry, which my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncles all loved. So when I started making poems as a little girl, it was natural to give them rhyme and rhythm.

Below is my first poem, written when I was seven. Well, I didn't write it immediately; I made it in my head first, saying it over to myself in my mind until I had something I thought worked – which was quite quick really. Explaining my process at Writer's Resource Center, I spoke of training myself to hold lines and verses in my head when my kids were small, when I couldn't always get straight to pen and paper as soon as the poems started forming in my mind. I had forgotten until just now that that was how I started out. Indeed, 'forming in my mind' is always what happens first.

So here's that first poem:

When the violin leaves
whirl round and round,
when the violin leaves
scatter the ground,
then Jack Frost comes out
and throws snow all about.

My Dad asked me why 'violin leaves' and I explained that I thought the leaves I was looking at were shaped like tiny violins. My first metaphor! It was quickly followed by my lifelong urge to be understood. I changed the phrase to 'autumn leaves' and called the poem 'Autumn' so that it wouldn't need explaining. I still hold accessibility as one of the highest values in writing, and at the age of 68 am only just starting to soften that stance a little, to accommodate more indirectness and mystery.

What with the Jack Frost image, completely derivative, and the mention of snow – which I only remember happening once, briefly, in the town where I grew up – my alterations made the piece ordinary. I was happy, later, to put it back the way I first composed it, even though more people 'got' the second version. Accessibility's one thing, compromise is another.

My Dad, no mean versifier himself, took my poem seriously enough to have a conversation with me about the merits of 'violin leaves' over 'autumn leaves' and the spuriousness of my other images. Probably I'd have continued creating verses anyway, but his attitude certainly encouraged me. He made me feel that I had enough potential to strive for greater things.

At school I played a bit with the forms we learned about: ballads and sonnets mostly, and eventually some free verse. I didn't have much idea how to go about it though until a family friend, who wrote very formal verse himself, took the trouble to introduce me to the word and idea of 'prosody' and the techniques of scansion. He explained about the number of beats to a line, and patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. He showed me how to note metre on paper, and I still do it the way he showed me, with / for heavy syllables and . for unstressed ones, so an iambic pentameter (5 beats to a line, each beat having an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one) looks like this, the way I write it: . / . / . / . / . /

I couldn't imagine anything better to be than a poet. To bring so much beauty into the world! When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was always 'a famous poet', until eventually my father explained regretfully that a poet wasn't a thing you could 'be' in that sense and I'd have to find some other way to earn a living; and that, furthermore, very few poets ever became really famous. He opined that while my juvenile efforts were unusually good, he didn't know that they indicated latent genius!

Mucking around making poems remained one of my favourite pastimes, but by the time I was in my late teens I was convinced I could never be a 'real poet' – real poets were those other people, the brilliant shining lights who got published in books and literary magazines. I imagined their wonderful works were the result of inborn genius and divine inspiration; I didn't understand about the 99% perspiration. Nothing could stop me making poems, but as I entered adulthood it became my private indulgence. I seldom revised or polished anything. I was doing it just for me. But I still wanted to shape it; it was never just blurting stuff on to the page.

Poetic form is all about making patterns, so I started experimenting. I played with rhyme and rhythm, preferring a loose rhythm with a variable number of unstressed syllables to a strict meter – probably because I found it easier! I parodied popular songs just to get variations in rhymes and rhythms. I started making up my own forms (nothing very elaborate or innovative, I'm afraid) usually starting with a pattern of the number of lines to a verse and then looking at rhyme schemes and rhythms. So when I did finally try to go public with poetry, I discovered to my own surprise that I had given myself a good grounding in form while I thought I was just playing around.

I sometimes allowed people to see my very private scribblings, and they usually said they liked them. I was never sure if they were just being polite. One boyfriend told me it was like 'a diary in verse' because it was all confessional stuff, though we didn't know that term then. It was not until I was in my early thirties, the young mother of two small children, that I started asking myself why I was always restless and discontented even though I had everything I was supposed to want: nice husband, nice house in nice suburb, nice kids, nice career (in librarianship) which I was able to pursue part time while the kids were so young…. All that niceness could have been a clue!

'What more do you want?' I asked myself, and the proverbial lightbulb went off in my head. The thing I had always wanted was to be a poet, not just as a private self-indulgence, but really ... whatever 'really' meant. Well, one thing I knew it meant was being published. So I figured I'd better try.

That was a different game. In another post I talk about training myself more consciously by attempting every style of poetry in English to that date. (1975 if you must know.) At least, that was the intention. Pound's Cantos proved daunting, and by that time my own words, in my own style, were screaming inside me to get out. I sent some pieces to Nation Review, the most radical Australian publication of the day.

'These are too long for us,' the editor wrote back. 'Send us some shorter pieces.' I did, by return mail, and he selected four! I never looked back.


  1. Oh, I'm so glad you wrote this post. And changed it back to "violin leaves". And that you found a way back to what you already knew as a child.

    I laughed when I read, "It's nice". I hate giving my writing to friends and family if they're not writers themselves, or at least have some grounding in lit.crit. (Not necessarily formally, but something.) Nice! Urrgh. Does that even count as an opinion?

    I remember my first poem too. I have it, and the date, somewhere but I can't remember how old I was. It was about a witch throwing herself off a cliff. My uncle asked me why I wrote about suicide, and I was so offended by his misinterpretation. Lol.

  2. Things people say.... Oh gosh, I think you've just inspired me to a whole new post! Stay tuned.

  3. I'm glad you changed it back to 'violin leaves' too; it's such a lovely image.

    Your post has made me think about my childhood writings, which were, like your own, largely caught up in rhyme. I had an unnaturally large vocabulary when I was very young and actually seemed to 'unlearn' what I had an instinct for as I grew older and began to write things down.

    The egocentric and instinctual nature of childhood is wonderful for writing; I wish I could have kept some of it!

  4. What an interesting challenge to set for yourself to do every form. Lovely story of yr dad and the first poem.