The Fastest Poems Ever Written
Well, the fastest poems ever written by me to be precise. I hope you don’t mind the headline grabbing title. Have you ever revised a poem to death, lost the very thing that sparked it in the first place? It’s a common enough occurrence for poets I believe. Even more common if you are revising to keep other people happy, such as workshops and the like.
Most people revise, it’s how you hopefully morph your initial spark into something that might be vaguely acceptable as a poem of merit, or at least a semblance of a poem.
Like all writers, I jot ideas down. I’ve even been known to do it in the middle of the night, jumping out of bed to get that sudden line down. What happens though if you don’t revise, if you want to keep the initial explosive event that boomed from your pen instead of refining and processing it to the point of wetting the powder? Can the original thought ever be more powerful than the edited one?
I suppose it is subjective. As with painters, sometimes that fresh spontaneous stroke of the brush can be preferable to the pedantic sure footed but lifeless colouring-in of a piece. There is a certain appeal to be had from quick sketches as much as there is from a photorealistic painting. Can it ever be the same with writing?
On Saturday 3rd October 2015 I found myself at the Lowry and Arthur Berry exhibition at the Potteries Museum in Hanley, Stoke on Trent, U.K. I was there to take part in a ‘Writing Is Seeing’ workshop run by Paul Haughton, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Staffordshire University. Part of the workshop brief was to walk around the exhibition of the two artists and note things that may form the basis of future writing and later workshop discussion.
What followed for me was a rather strange experience. Perhaps I misunderstood the brief, who knows, but the very first note I made at the Lowry exhibition was in response to the figures in his paintings. They immediately made an impression on me that they looked like musical notes. So I jotted that down “Quavers and semitones.”
This impacted upon me, not as a note (pun not intended), but as a line, the first line of a poem perhaps, and I carried on in this way, preserving immediacy and freshness, going with the sheer rawness of it all. In a way it was liberating, unconstrained and instinctive. I found myself writing poetry without thinking, just getting onto the page my immediate impression, my immediate resonance, my reaction. The thought process, at least the conscious processing of thought wasn’t engaged. It was more like word association or the inkblot exercise.
My intention was to work these initial responses into a poem, but the longer I have lived with them the more reluctant I become to alter them. I believe I was subconsciously writing poetry, but instinctively. By altering the original words, developing them through replacement and rearrangement, they will surely cease to be my responses at the time of writing and become instead something far more considered and deliberately articulated, a poem. One that will more likely become a consideration, and I use the word carefully, of the two artists’’ work, not the immediate experience of an instant response that the artists’ elicited from me.
You may say that this process of refining is perfectly normal and is a logical workflow but the question I ask is do we sometimes lose spontaneity and freshness when we overwork and over-consider our original spark? Is it sometimes, maybe only sometimes, better to let the warts and all version go into the world or should we always try to make sure we produce the very best written piece? Such a piece, a poem, may though, be one that has lost its spark. I suppose editors and proof readers and some poets may be tearing their hair out reading this, but I think that reaction may be more relevant to prose writing than poetry. I think poetry is closer to painting in a way. It has more room for artistic interpretation and risk.
Here we are then. I offer my original pieces, my poems word for word. All I have done is given line breaks and space. Not a single word has been edited and if they do have any value, it may just be a novelty one, as the fastest poems I have ever written, but there is something telling me to leave them alone. They have something I might lose. Perhaps looking at photography as opposed to painting is a useful analogy. Where would we be if all portraits of people were just studio portraits? What value can be placed on the humble snapshot?
Against this more forgiving approach to writing might be the argument that it is unacceptable to the traditional academic poetry authority. You know, a good piece of writing is a good piece of writing and a poor piece of writing is just that. Or is it? For example, the writing of an autistic child may be academically poor, but just how more valuable may it be in poetic terms? (My own grandson Sam is autistic, but I would like to thing he can see the world in his own scrutinising way, a way unique to him. He may just simply need help in transcribing that into what we know to be poetry.)
Should we look deeper and wider when considering the heart of poetry? Is polish the only validity.
My tour of both exhibitions was quick, very quick, my impressions formed were immediate and written immediately and of the group I was the first one back to the room, which I didn’t deliberately set out to do, it just happened that way. I remember reacting to the content of paintings, thoughts stimulated by other non-painting exhibits and even words in the title to paintings. The two poems that follow are the result. I intend to record them. As a matter of personal development and comparison it is also my intention one day to write two more poems based on these words. I will then evaluate what I feel about both approaches. In the meantime, here are the fastest poems I have ever written.
Looking at a Lowry Exhibition by Neil William Holland
Quavers and semitones,
human notes on a scale
of hats and coats
and dabs of life
Jimmy’s lunch and Edith’s strife.
“Hey bald man,” calls the girl with a dog
here is a man looking out to sea
and a copper
looking down at me
through the mill
for a few pence
or maybe five bob.
in a Lowry paint job.
Come with me come with me
past the smoke and the mills
to a better place grown
from people talking
and kids walking
past dark window sills.
Looking at an Arthur Berry Exhibition by Neil William Holland
There’s a light on at the back
and Arthur’s seen it
crayon and charcoal
and dark thoughts
There’s a truth inside
four corners of each frame
dogs and doorways
all the same.
How it was, the truth,
painted not said
but truth all the same
and folks that are
you and me
in all but name.
You can scribble and dollop
chalk up age and youth
but stand there long enough
and you’ll see the truth.
Sometimes a bit dour,
but all through the honest eyes
of Arthur Berry.