Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Waffling about poetry...

I never start a poem with the title - the title usually becomes clear to me in the middle of writing or sometimes only after I've finished the poem. However recently, over a few days, several poem titles popped into my head including what seems to me quite possibly the title of my next collection! So far I've written one of the poems but have yet to have a feel for where the other titles will take me.

I think Tomas Transtromer is most definitely my favourite poet - I just so love his perfect and surprising metaphors and similes, and his ability to bring together the internal and external - the union of the psychological and natural world in the most fluid way. If only he was still around to produce more work. I find his poems spark off new writing for me when I am in the right place to 'hear' the words. His poems encourage me to see things differently, think more creatively. I'm grateful for poets who do that for me.
I've been enjoying Marina Tsvetaeva's poems recently - such a powerful and direct voice - I prefer Elaine Feinstein's translations of her work.

These days I try to write regularly whether the inspiration is there or not just to keep my hand in. I find myself following up and researching great concepts for new work which may and may not lead to anything. But I have to force myself to remember that it is the act of writing itself, exercising the writing muscle, that will in the end lead to something. So I end up with reams of notes and images some of which become useful at some point or another. What I have noticed is that on a rare occasion I achieve an absolute clarity and I am able to turn pages of seemingly disparate notes into several poems. It always surprises me when that happens.


Jim Murdoch said...

I think most of us—artists in general and not simply poets—are very lazy when it comes to titles. Perhaps this is because we’ve spent hours or days or even longer on a work and we want to be free of it and so we lump for the bleeding obvious and move on. Looking back on over forty years’ worth of poems I can, hand on heart, only come up with one or two instances where I think the title came first but in all honesty the titles in question are so predictable it’s hard to say for sure. For example, ‘The Impossibility of Crows’: how could you possibly write a poem that includes a reference to Kafka's thirty-second Zurau Aphorism and not call the end result ‘The Impossibility of Crows’? Only one poem doesn’t have a title and that’s my one—can you believe it? one! in all these years—haiku. I have toyed with not bothering with titles—none of my paintings or pieces of music had titles, well, apart from the songs—but there’s something about a title that says, “Done” even if I—as I so often do (and I’m sure you do too)—potter with the damn thing for months on end before assigning a number, printing out a hardcopy for the big red folder and letting go.

I found it interesting what Amorak Huey had to say on the subject here: “[S]ometimes I write the poem first and then flail about looking for a title until I settle on (or settle for) something. But sometimes, as in this project, the titles come first and lend shape to their poems from the very beginning. The title is the idea, the unifying force, the narrative – then within the poem, I’m free to play with language, to fight against the title or work with it, to complement and contrast, to confound or fulfil the expectations established in the title.” [bold mine]

I think all of us should take this to heart and not settle, either that or do what the likes of Kandinsky did eventually and just stick with numbers. I like what Magritte had to say on the subject: “The titles of pictures are not explanations and pictures are not illustrations of titles. The relationship between title and picture is poetic, that is, it only catches some of the object’s characteristics of which we are usually unconscious, but which we sometimes intuit, when extraordinary events take place which logic has not yet managed to elucidate.” Is a title a label or a key? It’s the first thing we read and yet I suspect most readers pay very little attention to titles being in too much of a rush to get into the work. Carrie and I watched a series a few days ago called Kiss Me First and for the life of me I’ve no idea why the series had that title. I meant to look it up but forgot. I’ve just written a note to do that later.

On the whole I’m a big fan of whatever works. And maybe that’s a fault, sticking with what works. Had Dylan done that and not picked up an electric guitar one can only wonder what history would’ve made of him. I’ve tried to write “without inspiration” as you put it but it’s never worked for me. It’s like the difference, if I can lower the tone for a moment, between making love and having sex; it’s not enough to get the job done. I also hate the idea of throwing out words. I hear about authors who written thousands and thousands of words and then trim away the fat. Can’t do that. I write skeletons and graft onto the bones only what’s necessary and what works. Maybe it’s that I grew up in a pre-digital world. Nowadays you can afford to take hundreds of snaps and only keep the good ones. Back in the seventies when I started taking photos I made every one count because I didn’t have the money to waste a single shot. Paper wasn’t as expensive but the frugal Scot in me hated to waste that too. We’ll go with that. It’s as good an explanation as any.

Marion McCready said...

Hi Jim!
I enjoyed reading your thoughts here. I had a quick glance through my most recent poem titles and I think I tend to use them, much of the time, to anchor my work. Not exactly as an 'explanation' but to give the reader an entrance into my poem - which can be at times not exactly a straight forward read!
My favorite titles are those that act as the first line of the poem - Sharon Olds has a tendency towards this and I quite like to do it on occasion.

In writing without inspiration - I don't mean trying to write a poem, that would never work for me! I just mean taking notes really of images, describing things, snippets of conversations etc to keep the writer in me going. At the time it all seems dry and adds up to nothing but I know now from past experience that when the inspiration (or sudden clarity as I think of it) strikes much of it will become useful and the poems I never saw before will become obvious!
It's a strange experience, I wish I could live in those moments of inspiration forever but of course that would be completely impractical - nothing else would ever get done!! :) :)