We usually recognise a poem by the effect it has on us: a good poem hits us “beneath the radar” before we have time to erect our usual defences. A good poem will tell the unvarnised truth about the things that matter: life, death, relationships, joy, pain, desire… And when you read it, you recognise that truth and say to yourself: Yes. That is how it is.
Robert Frost recognised this when he said “The way in is the way out.” What he meant was that the poet’s task is to convey, in words, his or her emotional state, so that the reader can experience the same feeling. In this sense, a poem is, in the words of W H Auden, a “contraption” – a little device which encapsulates a state.
Another way of putting this is to say that a poem is the successful communication of a moment of awareness. Which is interesting, because if the awareness is not present in the first place – if the poet is not prepared to (in the words of Oprah) “get real” and be emotionally direct, no poem can result. If the feelings are artificial or manufactured, the result will not work.
For a poet, many of the writers that inspire him are usually dead. One of the best ways I have learned to improve my own verse is to simply copy out, in my own handwriting, some great poems of the past – Shakespeare’s sonnets, Christina Rosetti’s poems, Tennyson, Yeats, Donne, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Hardy, T S Eliot. In doing so, you feel part of the “Dead Poets’ Society” and you realise the high standards that have been set. You will also learn the standard forms and rhyme schemes, and then depart from them if you wish.
The idea for a poem, in my case, usually begins with a line – a musical line. It can float into the brain in the early morning or on the evening train. It’s like a refrain. At that stage, it’s like retuning a bady tuned radio to see can you get any more from where this came from. Usually, there might be a few more words and a sense of how the poem will look on the page. Potential rhymes may appear, and there may be a choice as to whether the poem will be “formal” (as in a sonnet) or more loosely structured.
O Aeropuerto Reina Sofia
You breathe warm air on me
And kiss my soul to life again.
Whether it is the sand in your ashtrays
Or the glittering trolley snake, I cannot say:
All I know is that as we leave the terminal,
My life moves from monochrome to colour.
I am alive, and the stars are my friends.
Luminous bougainvillea. Palm scent.
I stroll to the wave-fondled beach.
A blonde models a day-glo green swimsuit.
A speedboat hauls its parasail.
Surf surge. I listen as it washes each black grain,
Administering its balm, relieving pain.
The sky’s slate is wiped clean.
(From How Now! Anvil Press Poetry, 2010)
Alan has a degree in English Literature. He worked for five years as an editor and technical writer in a publishing house. "I am a slow writer - my output is usually about 250 words a day. My poetry book, Opia, published by Anvil Press Poetry was a Poetry Book Society Choice. Anvil will publish my second collection, How Now! in 2010. Despite these literary credentials, my fiction is very much of the "pulp fiction" variety - lots of action, incredible scenes, and more twists than a box of hairpins."