How to write Poetry
Synopsis for a 100 page book
Over the years I have attended many meetings and social nights where writers and publishers would meet. Once in a while, some lucky person who was there would make a contact that led to a book proposal. However, I would occasionally mention that I was interested in Poetry and this led to me being told (a lot), “Poetry doesn’t sell. Wasting your time.” And the person from the publishing world would hurriedly move on. Understanding that those in the publishing industry do want to make a profit, I thought (for about five years) about ways to combine my love of poetry with a book that could actually make some money. The only market that I could conceive of that was big enough was to aim at those School pupils who are interested in Poetry while they are studying English at School (I work in a Secondary School and know how interested pupils can be in poetry). I aimed to write a book that would also draw in as many adults as possible.
So, I am now writing a book that is as simple and as practical as possible. Having spent a considerable time looking at the books – that deal with writing poetry – on sale at the moment, none seemed to have the same aim as this book. Books on sale are either mostly about criticism, or deal with a detailed analysis of a particular poet’s work. Only a couple of books out there are aimed at helping the reader properly understand how a poem works. Even these books were more aimed at teaching the reader how to read a poem than they were how to write a poem. I believe that this short practical guide can explain some new (and some not so new) techniques that will help the readers in their construction of a poem. The aim has been to keep the book as simple as possible. And I am endeavouring to make the task of writing a poem, seem as pleasant as possible.
The book is about How to write a poem rather than how to read a poem because firstly, if you can write a poem then you can read one. And secondly, I feel that most readers of poems would really like to write poems. They just don’t feel they have the techniques at hand.
My greatest gift in poetry is that I have a constant striving to discover new ways to write poems. Ways that are practical and take poetry to its limits. I am a performance poet who has been performing for about ten years now.
I love poetry and often talk to poetry audiences. They show great interest in the new ways that I use to present poems at shows and at poetry nights. Almost all of the members of these audiences want to write poems, they just need some motivation and some practical help i.e. this book.
The ideal would be for there to be an audio CD given out with the book. This would carry samples of e.g. the metres mentioned, and include readings of the poems mentioned. It would also have the voice exercises included in the chapter on performance poetry. The idea of an audio CD isn’t essential, but to my mind it would cost little to produce and be easy to make. My own voice should be good enough to meet the demands of the CD.
This book starts out by trying to raise the profile of poetry and to teach some of the basic techniques of poetry. I then go on to discuss some famous poets and their styles. The reader is then encouraged to increase their level of awareness of the poetry around them (geographically I mean). Throughout the book the reader is asked to consider how they can use the techniques mentioned to create their own poem.
I hope my excitement over and love of poetry comes across to the reader.
I am used to research and am now reading lots of books relating to the theme of poetry analysis. I also believe that my special interest in new techniques will be especially useful to the reader.
Useful Ideas for Those Writing Poetry
(This is a book I am writing and I enclose the first few chapters to see if anyone is interested!?)
Chapter 1 Important words
Chapter 2 Don’t feel guilty (that you write poems)
Chapter 3 Haiku
Chapter 4 Telling a story from different viewpoints
Chapter 5 Concrete Poetry
Chapter 6 Performance Poetry
Chapter 7 Some poets and poetry styles
Chapter 8 Metre
Chapter 9 Metaphor
Chapter 10 “Found” text
Chapter 11 Multi-voice Poetry
Chapter 12 Different Techniques
Chapter 13 Some new Techniques
Chapter 14 Improving your Poetry
Chapter 15 Analysing a Poem
This book is aimed at both adults and young people who want to know more about how to improve the quality of the poems they write. I am a performance poet who has created a few new forms of poetry myself. I will also deal with some of the many different types of poetry that are featured in many standard poetry books, things like concrete poetry. Being a simple lad myself, I shall keep this account as simple as possible. Hopefully by the end of the book you will be trying out some of these new poetical forms yourself. This book is meant to be practical.
I believe that poems can sometimes be amongst the most beautiful things created by human kind. I am a “fan” of poetry and of poets.
Chapter 1. Important Words
It is probably worth asking ourselves, “What is Poetry?” at the start of this journey together. A hundred different poets will give you a hundred different answers. My own definition is that, “Poetry is text that shows reality in new and useful ways.” So for me the main point of a poem is that it usefully says something about the meaning of life; or nature, or relationships between people. I see poetry as something which in the main deals with the deep and difficult questions that philosophy and religion deal with. Usefully, poetry can sometimes show reality in ways that people find much easier to understand than they would if they read it in a Philosophical treatise. Words in poetry are important and do their “job” in a way that is hopefully interesting and that may stay with us, the reader, for a long time. However, some of my poems consist mainly of nice rhythms and interesting sounds. Indeed, certain important words and phrases (like parts of certain human rights documents)-merely because of their importance-I see as almost poetry.
Nowadays it is seen as the norm to belittle poetry and poets. Many people say they don’t like poetry. Yet the same people love song lyrics-which may on their own be poetry. Because you don’t like two poems that you got drummed into you at School doesn’t mean that you will dislike all poetry.
There are poems which are ideal for those who like to hear a good story. Other poems deal with human rights. Some poems set puzzles which the reader has to work at over numerous readings. There is a poet and a poem for every reader.
For some poets, the puzzle is the point of a poem. When I write a poem I sometimes allow certain ideas and facts to develop in the curious reader’s mind over several readings. But the puzzle in the poem is not the main point of a poem, to me anyway. Any difficulties in my poems tend to arise from poems that deal with intrinsically difficult human rights topics.
Some poets like to impress others with their references to obscure historical figures or figures from mythology. I don’t believe that you have to have a Degree in Ancient Greek Literature in order to understand a poem. I feel that many people are turned off poetry by this type of poem and poet
If I am writing about Rwanda, for instance, I will hopefully know a lot about the particular theme of the poem and may deal with things that are little known. But they are things which you will still be able to understand in the poem even if you don’t know about the specifics of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. One of my poems (well, a few of my poems) deals with the killings in Rwanda in 1994. I write about someone who conspires to have a neighbour killed because they wanted their Zinc roof. If you learn a little about Rwanda and the events of 1994 you find out that many people died because their neighbour coveted their land, or their cattle, or their zinc roof. Some of my friends come from Rwanda and I hope that I would never write anything about Rwanda that was gory just for the sake of it. You have to have knowledge of the subject that you write about. Perhaps you may have seen something that few others have noticed. Perhaps you can explain something in a new and useful way.
When I am preparing myself to write poems, firstly I read a lot about the subject that I want to write about. Then I may go somewhere that gets my creative juices working, for example hillwalking on Arran. A few of my poems are inspired by the hills of Lochranza in Arran. Also, I find that working my way up a difficult hill makes my brain jump into areas it normally doesn’t consider.
Sometimes I write down observations and facts as a story. Later, I see if this works being put into poetic form. Quite often, I use rhyming couplets. Other times I just use free verse-text that does not belong to a set repeatable structure. Usually I write a couple of lines and then look for another couple of lines. This gets built up into a poem. My main point in writing the poem is to get across an idea in a way that will make the reader look again and again at the poem and find out perhaps a bit more with each reading. Most of the time I ask questions in my poems: questions that are useful rather than just telling someone what I think is right or wrong. People don’t like being preached at. Also, the reader will pay more attention to something that they find out by themselves, with the poem as a catalyst. As I build up the poem couplet by couplet I will again and again reread lines aloud in order to get a sense of the internal rhythms and any end of line rhymes.
People like to hear alliteration. Alliteration is when you have the sound of a consonant repeated one or more times e.g. “slimy snakes are often slipping”. Verse in ancient and mediaeval times was often very heavily alliterated. I like to use a bit of alliteration.
Alliteration was used more often than end rhyme in the verse of the great Anglo-Saxon books like Beowulf. A few years ago, I wrote an alliterative poem which used a similar (but not identical) line structure. In my poem I reversed the usual subject of the poem and had the hunted creature as the hero of the poem (and not the hunter).
Assonance is a harder technique to use properly. It is when you have words used as line endings (or even internally in lines) where the vowel sound is repeated but none of the consonants are e.g. “hate and bare”.
Pararhyme is not quite a full rhyme. Often it is when the sound of the consonants at the start and at the end of the two “nearly rhyming words are the same, but the vowel is different one example would be “blade” and “blood” It is hard to use properly and can be picked up as a bit unsettling. Wilfred Owen deliberately used the unsettling effect of pararhyme in some of his war poetry.
It may be useful to you if I give some details of how I wrote one of my favourite poems. I was out walking on a lovely sunny day enjoying the countryside and hoping for inspiration. At one point I passed by an old shed with a rusty iron roof on top. Initially, my mind had this image of the rust being beaten by torrential rain. At the same time I started to try to nudge my mind towards images and text relating to this picture of a roof. After a few seconds I remembered that in Rwanda people had killed their neighbours to possess their very desirable zinc roofs. I had read a lot about Rwanda and had friends from Rwanda. As I wrote the poem I tried to see it through the eyes of one of the killers. I tried to make him seem ordinary and a “nice” guy. At the end of the poem-which at that stage was just a story without rhyme or alliteration, I had the teller of the story betray his friend so he could get his zinc roof. I thought that was an OK ending. But then a better ending came to mind and I imagined the teller of the story angrily asking the audience, or the reader, “You would have done the same wouldn’t you?” This makes the audience part of the story and makes them think about whether they themselves in such a situation could betray a friend in order to get their valuable zinc roof. And zinc roofs were a life saver in Rwanda.
After that I then put in some rhyming couplets. Then, added some alliteration to make the poem sound pleasant. I tried to give the poem a very strong “African” rhythm.
I never think of trying to make poems into sonnets or set out to use Iambic Pentameter. My focus in a poem is mainly to get across some important statement or question. This poem was written down in a little notebook in about half an hour. I then worked on it over the next two weeks: I would think about the poem a lot while out walking and at lunchtime in work would go away somewhere quiet to try and get the poem as perfect as possible.
In all my poems, I go over every line every phrase every word in a poem again and again. Every poet should make sure that they do not have a single weak line or an unnecessary word. If I intend using rhyming couplets, then I will not change the meaning of the poem to suit the rhyme structure. I read some poets’ work and it seems that they are setting out to show the reader how clever they are. A poet has to be genuine and if writing about a subject must have sympathy for the subject, or person, or creature, or whatever. Lots of poets just seem to me to be trying to create very complex rhyme structures filled with obscure historical references. Personally, I cannot relate to that type of poem.
If you are trying hard to find an end rhyme to match an obscure word in the second line of a couplet, you can try reversing the order of the lines so that the obscure word comes first. This trick is often used by poets. Listeners and readers find it more acceptable to hear a complicated word first and then a common word. It makes it sound as if the poet has solved a difficult puzzle rather than having to make do with an obscure word for the end rhyme.
In Ancient civilisations important words were often remembered by monks or other holy people chanting them. Sometimes these chants had a repeatable structure. Many people’s Holy Books were first remembered as chants. Often this was for hundreds of years. How accurate this process was is debateable.
Every word in a poem is important. Not only should it be the right word for meaning but it should sound good. A nice rhythm throughout the poem is important to me. And each word should be part of this rhythm. The rhythm can be one that is mostly repeated line by line or it can be one that builds up line by line. I find my rhythms by instinct. I read aloud the lines that I have got and feel for the rhythm already in the poem. I then either build on these or work to a rhythm that I want to use.
It is good practise to read the work of poets who genuinely had lots of rhythm in their work: poets like Dylan Thomas. I write my poems to be performed as well as to be read. And I think this is good. Knowing that your poem is to be performed makes you pay attention to the rhythm in the verse.
To me visual imagery is important. When I read poems by other people I see the images in my mind and they are a way “into” the poem. Dylan Thomas uses a lot of visual images in his poems.
Try to be pleased that you want to read poems. I also think that anyone who reads poems has a desire, no matter how deeply hidden, to write poems themselves. I am not a great fan of creative writings Courses. But I do think that anyone with a desire to write poetry can write poetry.
On and off for ten years of my adult life I would write poems than leave them aside for a week or so. Then give them another read and then put them in the bin. It was a long time before I ever wrote anything worth writing.
When you do write you may want to write about someone you love or about someone in your family who has recently died. These things mean a lot to you and you want to write about them. That process may be useful to you and may be a kind of poetry. However, it will be of a type that is similar to thousands of other sentiment based poems. You need to say something new to get people to read your words, or listen to your voice.
I often write poems influenced by things that are important to me: human rights, Buddhism, animal rights and the countryside.
Chapter 3 Haiku.
I work in a School and know how much pupils in English Classes enjoy writing Haiku. I think they prefer the haiku to every other type of poem. Perhaps, this is partly because it is such a short type of poem. Pupils spend ten minutes writing one. Failure or success, they haven’t wasted much time. But then, they see, sometimes, that the poem might be deeper than they intended. This poem is often the first poem they have enjoyed. Britain is not Japan, and Poetry is not usually seen as being worthwhile here. So the pupil might have had little experience of poetry in their life.
Also, it is easy to convince oneself that one has written something meaningful because so many famous Haiku seem vague and hard to understand. And so a beginner poet can get away with writing a poem that is also a bit vague and hard to understand, due to inexperience rather than design. The writer believes it just could be a Zen masterpiece?!
It is a poem that can seem to be the easiest to write. However, it can still hint at ideas that take the reader years to fully understand.
The Japanese wrote many types of Haiku. However, pupils in Schools enjoy writing the type where there is an initial line that describes something. The second line describes something apparently disconnected. And the final line brings these two seemingly unconnected things together. This can be quite satisfying, for the reader and for the poet.
The subjects of the first and second line could be things separated by, for example, nearness; beauty, or awareness.
A “cutting” word, or kireji, is sometimes used in Japanese haiku. This has no real meaning but serves to introduce a change in the poem’s direction. In translations this is often included as an, “Oh” or an, “Ah”.
Japanese haiku tend to have a special word or phrase that describes the season in which the poem is set. Pupils quite like taking part in this little bit of tradition. Although the Japanese have dozens of words and phrases that they use.
Many people think that anyone writing Haiku has to write one that corresponds exactly to the rules that the original Haiku were written in. I think this is not helpful.
Firstly, there are dozens of rules relating to the Haiku and you could spend months getting to know them all. You could use the exact seasonal words and phrases the Japanese did and still do. But many relate to animals and plants that do not live in Britain.
You could write a first line of five syllables, a second of seven syllables, and a final line of five syllables, as happens in Japanese haiku. But this is not helpful in English. It adds nothing to the poem. English is a very differently set out language from Japanese. If you want to write a Haiku like some eighteenth century master you admire then you must be fluent in eighteenth century Japanese and in all the nuances of the dialect that were spoken in the region that poet was brought up in. A time machine would come in helpful here.
And, Japanese and Chinese masters of Haiku often liked to throw in a few literary allusions to previous poets or to mythological works.
Another challenge in reading haiku is the fact that Japanese is not as precise a language as English is. And some of the poets deliberately wrote their poems in a way that allowed as many shades of meaning as possible.
I am not saying that we should not try to write poems that respect the Japanese love of Culture and Haiku. What I am saying is, you can’t write a traditional haiku in English. You can write a haiku inspired poem that obeys a few of the traditional rules. It need not even be over three lines, though three lines are a good length.
It is worth remembering that the Japanese when they write about a Season are often looking forward to the next Season. By this I mean that a poem about winter can really be saying something about spring.
All my adult life I have been fascinated with haiku and have read and written haiku. I have also tried to “translate” haiku. My Japanese isn’t good enough to do a translation properly, so I read as many proper translations of a poem (by different authors) as possible. And I use a dictionary to look more closely at some of the difficult words. When I have an idea of what the poem is saying, I try to write my own “translation”. This method teaches you a lot about the poem. I have used this method for looking at poems in Ancient Greek as well as in Japanese.
For two years I studied Japanese at night classes-mainly to get some understanding of the role of Japanese language – grammar and sounds – in a haiku. I strongly recommend that you start out writing haiku similar to my description above of how haiku in Schools are written. Also, try to read as many haiku as possible. You will be dependent on translations. Try to look at different translations of the same poem-to see what translation seems to work best for you. You will find that translations vary greatly.
Haiku are written about many subjects, mostly serious subjects. Although there are a very few irreverent Haiku.
Haiku are often a bit like a Koan. A Koan is an enigmatic mind puzzle used in Zen Buddhism to shake Monks and Nuns out of their habitual thinking processes
There are many poems written about Satori. Satori is the Zen word used to describe a first glimpse of a much deeper truth: enlightenment.
In Theravada Buddhism this step is known as First Jhana. Those who achieve this first step are not meant to boast about it. But they may write a Haiku which describes something of what they experienced. The sound of dry leaves is one symbol for Satori. Another is the sound of rain on pebbles.
Some haiku are about the objects used for meditation. For example, the sound of water running over large stones is meant to be conducive to achieving a state of meditation.
The final line in a Zen haiku sometimes describes things from the different perspective of the monk who has finally achieved Satori. There is a poem by M. Basho where he is describing a horse moving across a scene that is observed by his mind. The last line describes the poet as now being part of the picture. So, he sees no separation of observer and observed. It needs quite a deep state of Satori to actually realise this. But the reader can intellectually understand this. However, although it is very difficult to actually attain that state, readers can, if they allow themselves, feel that there is a great depth to the poem. That is, it makes the reader feel a deeper and truer than usual sense of reality.
When I was fourteen, I first came across haiku in a library book at my School. I didn’t understand any of them totally, but they each made me feel that hidden within the words of the poem was a deep and satisfying truth. This made me interested in Zen Buddhism.
Japanese culture and art is very different from that of the West. But that should be seen as something interesting: a new way to look at life
For instance, Japanese paintings and poetry stress asymmetry before symmetry. Whereas, western artists and gardeners love symmetry.
Symmetry is where things either side of a central line are in balance. But Japanese calligraphy can sometimes have a huge white space set against a drawing and a tiny piece of writing in a top corner.
Japanese also love the strange and the tiny. They see lichens and mosses as just as beautiful as flowers i.e. everything has its place. To see lichens as beautiful requires a big change in perspective for a Western artist or poet. It comes naturally to many Japanese and Chinese.
Haiku tend to be about important matters. If a poem is about a seemingly unimportant matter like “what a frog is thinking about”, then the poet is probably asking some deep questions about philosophy and life and all that kind of thing.
The other joy of mine when reading Zen Haiku was the fact that the poems were often about nature. They tried to see animals from the perspective of the animal, and not from the selfish view of a small minded human. Animals are not merely “failed humans” in a haiku. K. Issa is the Japanese poet best able to relate to animals in his poems. Indeed, for a Japanese poet, he often writes in quite a Western manner: he often explains a lot in his haiku, rather than leaving it for the reader to read, explore, and question.
In the dragonfly’s eyes
Another great poet worth reading is Y. Buson. Buson is said to be very difficult to translate. But still, some of his poems are stunning.
The evening breeze
Splashes water over
The heron’s legs
Perhaps the most famous haiku is one by M. Basho. The first line reads, “An old pond”. The second line deals with a subject seemingly disconnected from the first, “a frog jumping” This second line also shows that the poem was written in spring. As “a frog jumping” was a symbol for spring.
The last line describes something which is created from the joining of the first and the second happenings, “The sound of water”.
The reader may ask themselves, is this sound, this “splash” or “plop” as it has been variously translated, independent of the pond and of the frog. Or is it part of each? The last line reads in Japanese, “Misu no oto”. Here the repetition of the sound of the “o” may be a symbol for the ripples produced by the splash.
One of my favourite haiku is by H. Ransetsu:
Far above the monks-
Chanting on the misty road-
The wild geese fly
One “understanding” of this beautiful, deep, and visual poem, is that the monks are working hard to develop the Buddha nature that is in them, while all they have to do is to drop off all attachments and they will instantly be as free as the wild geese flying free above the mist. Mist might be seen as a symbol for delusion.
Monks are meant to work very hard at attaining their Buddha nature, their natural enlightenment, but they are also taught that there comes a stage where they must stop trying and just allow this state to come about. A poem, or a sound of a frog splashing into an old pond, may be the catalyst that will help initiate this change.
Another possible meaning of the poem is that the “honking” noise of the wild geese is like the chanting of the monks and both groups of creatures are searching for their Buddha nature in their own way. I have seen other explanations of the poem’s meaning in other books. Finally, it is what you, the reader, decide that is important.
Two terms which have changed over time; are described differently by different authors, and seem to be quite vague anyway are Wabi and Sabi. Wabi can mean accepting that the imperfections of life – like notches in a tea cup – have their own perfect beauty.
Sabi has been described as being about seeing beauty in things that are aged and weathered by time. Loneliness is also seen as a sign of Sabi.
And now I am going to give you a few ideas to use to get you started writing haiku. You do not need to go on a two week Creative writing Course. The intellect you have and the imagination you have will be enough to get started with. Just keep writing until the poems appear as if by magic, easily and often. Often can mean once a month or once a week.
Carry a notebook with you and write down words or phrases or ideas that you have when you are inspired. Go to places where you are more easily inspired, like a deserted seaside. Well, it works for me. Try to spend sufficient time working on building up your poem. If you can’t quite finish your haiku, then put it to one side and come back to it a week later. Read it as if it is completely new to you. Also, try reading it from the viewpoint of someone you respect who you have just shown it to. What bits would they like? Is every sentence perfect? Is every word the best word possible? Words are important!
Please trim off any excess words.
You only have three lines to complete, but take your time over them. Every haiku should be a complete thing of beauty. Perhaps you want to say something about how unfair life is. Or you want to describe how animals react to a change in the weather. In Zen, everything can be seen to have depth. Have respect for your poem. You are working hard to make it perfect. Some people write better and better as time goes on. Myself, I believe that the poems I wrote ten years ago are as good, or, depending on your opinion, as bad, as the ones I write today.
I tend to do things better if I saturate myself with the subject that I am participating in. If you want to write good poems, try reading as many different types of poems as possible. Anthologies from the library are good for getting to see as many poems from as many different poets as possible. New poets always complain that people read dead poets like Wordsworth or Dylan Thomas and not new poets like themselves. However, people have a rough idea of what they will get with the “dead poets” and new poets books tend to be very short and expensive.
Have a look at Poetry magazines and see if any takes your fancy. You might one day be sending poems to them and wanting them to publish your work. Remember that hardly any poet ever gets a book of their poems published.
One day I was trying to be aware – by this I mean in a heightened sense of perception, a bit like meditating – as I walked through a nearby park in autumn. Shadows were being chased around by a strong wind. Or, so it seemed. I tried to say something about cause and effect, and about perception:
The wind blows,
The shadows so hard,
That the leaves fall from the trees
As you can see, I have used three lines of varying length. The Seasonal phrase would be “the leaves fall from the trees”, which makes the Season, autumn.
A few years ago, I helped set up an Annual Vesak Buddhist Festival in Glasgow. As well as being one of the organisers, I ran a Stall which gave information about Zen. I gave out posters with haiku on them which visitors to the festival could draw an enso on. An enso is a circle which is drawn freehand with a brush and ink. A Zen master is said to be able to tell the state of someone’s mind from the circle they draw: but I was just doing it for fun. It was one of the busiest stalls there. As well as this, every hour I organised a public participation haiku reading session around a circular water feature in the Hidden Gardens. I had translations of twelve haiku which each dealt with the sound of a Bell. The circle of readers would read their haiku which was on a large piece of card. I would then ring a bell and the next reader would read from their card. People very much enjoyed taking part. This went on round and round the circle for about ten minutes. And then the event was repeated an hour later.
INTERACTING WORDS. I have developed my own version of Haiku. Some of the Zen haiku I read seem to require the reader’s mind to grasp more than one concept/idea at the same time. If the right words are used by the poet, the reader can find the words forming something new out of their joining together i.e. it is as if they melt together in the mind and form a new entity. My opinion is that this can best be replicated in English by using a very short number of words to make up a new kind of poem. The reader is to hold each of the words in their mind – at the same time – until they form into a new concept/idea.
Indeed, I am working on ways to write Poems using as few words as possible. I know that certain Poetry Groups have done similar things before. However, I want the number of words used to be so restricted – between 4 and 8: any less than four has insufficient interactions and more than eight has too many interactions – that each word in the Poem has to interact with all of the other words in the poem, so as to create a new meaning.
These works are meant to be real poems. They are not merely puzzles or experiments. There is no definite sequence in the poem. There is no story being told sequentially downwards.
Simply think of all seven words at the same time and the Poem will come together in your brain-well, that’s the idea.
Red Poppy Ejected
Mud Fingers Poem
And now, the point of this book is that you try out these new ideas. Simply sit in a relaxed manner and imagine four or five words that you can join together to make a new idea. Then write them down as a poem as I have done above. Remember that there is no sequence to the poem. They must all be “held” in the mind at the same time.
Take your time when you perform. You must read confident that the audience want to hear the Poem (anything less is an insult to the Audience, to the Poem, and to the Performer).
You might need to emphasise important words (or at least be aware in your mind that these words are particularly important e.g. underline them in the text you use to practise with). Sometimes I emphasise a word by speaking quieter and the audience have to work a bit to hear what the words are.
Understand the importance of the phrases you use.
Every word and phrase carries a meaning. Use them well and appropriately.
You must change the tone of your voice to suit the words you are speaking and the emotions you are communicating. Try to act out the part of each distinct character in the poem-as an actor would.
Give the same amount of attention to the poem that a famous actor would give to reading Hamlet.
The words you speak may also have an attractive sound, and so deserve a particular mode of delivery. Pay attention to any inbuilt rhythm in the words, or in the sentences, or even rhythms built up through the Poem. Listen to Dylan Thomas reading his poems in order to learn about rhythm in poetry. Also perform some Dylan Thomas poems yourself. To a modern day listener, Dylan Thomas sounds a bit dated, but his poems and his reading voice are full of rhythm (much more than any other poet I have read or listened to).
I have heard critics saying that because people like rhythm that poets should deliberately underemphasise (if there is such a word) any parts with rhythm. I disagree. I try to have as much rhythm as possible in my poems. People in audiences have said to me how much they enjoy poetry with lots of rhythm in it. Many famous poets who talk a lot about the essential nature of rhythm in poetry don’t seem to have much rhythm in their poems. I have listened to a few published poets performing their work live (and heard many poets online and in recordings and CD’s). Few seem to read with any great rhythm in their voice.
Be careful when you read faster, as words may become jumbled and hard to hear by the audience.
Pay particular attention to the words you read out at the end of a line: often people get quieter at this point. Others run out of breath. Breathe properly and make sure you have sufficient air in your lungs.
Make sure you read clearly-so the words can be heard.
Don’t read/speak from the page. Learn all your words.
Face the audience and speak to various members of the audience. Make good eye contact.
Practise so often that you know the Poem inside out and understand all its nuances (of meaning and of the sound of the words). And practise in front of an audience as often as you can.
Usually, the reading of the Poem should be a balanced whole and not unbalanced by one particular section.
If you can, record yourself reading the Poem and listen to it carefully. See where your reading of it can be improved. Ask yourself if you would enjoy it, if you were in the audience.
Perhaps take a Certificate in a, “How to Improve Your Voice” Course. I took such a ten week Course and it helped a lot (my natural voice is weak; has a dreadful Glasgow accent; is monotonous; has a narrow range, has little character, is effeminate, etc). I also have since learnt that, like many people, I don’t pronounce my “r” sound correctly. This is common but people just don’t notice it.
A Poem is short and has no gimmicks or music. The words are everything. Hopefully, the Poem you are reading is so well written that the audience will enjoy it.
See yourself as an actor delivering the main speech of the show.
A few props can help. For instance, I use a mask when I perform a particularly sad poem about death. It does help to emphasise the importance of the message. Poetry is important. Never perform thinking, “It’s only a poem, the audience won’t like it and I must rush though it so they don’t get bored.”
The audience are there to experience the poem and your performance of the poem. Both should be as good as they can be.
Go to Poetry nights (advertised in Poetry magazines and on the Internet). Most Cities have a few poetry nights. Find one that suits you. Some are Academic. Some competitive. Others are mostly music. Others exist to get Poets giving opinions on each other’s poems. Listen to what others say, but trust your own “inner voice”.
When I write a performance poem, I try to have some of the meaning (or the purpose of the poem) easily accessible to the listener. But I try to ensure that there are a couple of bits where they must reread the text or work at it in their own mind.
I have an awful memory and sometimes write poems as stories-so that they are easier to remember. My Poem, Muraho was originally written as a short story. For Refugee Week, I had to prepare a piece of writing. For two weeks I had writers block. I know little about the life of a Refugee, so I got started by writing down various episodes from the life of one of my Refugee friends. And then I found that a few rhymes suggested themselves. Then, I thought I may as well put the whole poem in rhymes-which I did: rhyming couplets. It is one of my favourite poems. An extract:
As she pours out the tea, her hands shake with the strain,
Dreams of her parents, her head filled with pain
A half-smile on her face as we eat and we drink,
But she never sleeps well and she struggles to think
Enjambment is a technique which also ensures that the performer and the reader of the poem is dragged onto the next line again and again. In Tam O’ Shanter by R. Burns the story never finishes on a line and the reader has to go to the next line to find the finish. But are then again “dragged” onto the next line, again and again. Try and read it and see.
When I first tried performing poetry at events, I was terrified. My voice and body shook with the effort of trying to remember the words and not make a mistake. Even today I still have to carry the words in case my memory goes. I always carry the words with me (but don’t usually need to read from the text). But to me that is better than what some poets do-they forget the words and having no copy of the words have to leave the stage.
The next stage of reading poetry is when you become confident with a few poems. Sometimes I use the same poem at four or five different poetry nights in a row. Usually each performance is better than the last. Sometimes, I have even found a better understanding of the meaning of the poem from this (even when it was my poem).
The last stage is to use props and to perform like an actor. I am just trying to enter this stage myself. Here you must deal with subtle changes in volume and tone in order to properly communicate things like differing emotional states.
Next, I will next deal with some of the things that I learnt at Voice Classes.
As someone who is almost tone deaf I find it hard to use pitch as an effect in my Poems. But I am using the relevant exercises that I was given at the Class. I think they are having a positive effect.
Although I have always used volume and timing as an effect, I now use timing much more: by this I mean putting in halts in the performance of lines (up to a second or two). I also use a change in the pace of delivery (of poems) more than I used to.
I have always used change of tone in a Poem (e.g. from a conversational tone to an intimate tone), but I try and do this more often than I used to.
Some people have naturally lovely voices (like Sean Connery). But although he only does the one voice it has been attractive enough to keep him in work all his life. The ideal is to have a lovely voice that can change in character and tone to fit lots of roles. This is very hard to achieve and can take years of training.
Below is a much shortened version of some of the articulation exercises I was taught at the Class. The exercise sheet below was a good length for me to use three or four times a day in the week leading up to a show. I simply don’t have the time to do all the exercises I learnt at the Class. Many techniques like Breathing and Relaxation, well you really have to go to a Voice Class to learn them properly (and I do recommend this).
Thanks to The Centre for Lifelong Learning at Strathclyde University for permission to reprint these exercises from their Finding Your Voice Evening Class (which I do use).
(all instructions carried out, and then whole sheet repeated once)
TONGUE TWISTERS. (each line said three times)
Red Leather Yellow Leather
Unique New York
A Cricket Critic
Red Lorry Yellow Lorry
Rubber Baby Baggy Bumpers
DO BACK WARDS AND FORWARDS (three times)
pb, td kg, kg td pb, pb td kg, kg td pb.
KEENING (pitch exercises-repeat for 30 seconds)
Make puppy dog noise through nose-going upwards in pitch, then lower in pitch
PITCH EXERCISE (repeat for one minute)
MA (middle pitch) MAW (low pitch) MAY (high pitch)
“Come Here”, said loudly- repeated in different tones
I am no expert in rhythms that are set out for the poet to work within-like Iambic Pentameter. Indeed I think it must be very hard to try to write a good poem and keep to the restrictions of the form at the same time. I know that great poets in the past have used this kind of structure but to me it is very limiting. Listening to more modern poets who read their poems which have been written in complex set rhyming schemes, I just don’t get much sense of rhythm. I think these set structures can hamper the search for meaning and also the search for rhythm. When you read your own poems feel for the tiny rhythms that are already there. Build up a relationship with the rhythms of your poems and yourself. Trust your poem and your instincts.
In prose or poetry two connected beats that consist of an unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat are jointly called an iamb. This relationship between beats can be described in various ways: the most used example being ti-tum. If there are five iambs in a line or phrase (ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum) the line is called iambic pentameter. Penta means five.
Blank verse consists, to a large degree, of unrhymed iambic pentameter
If we consider Shakespeare’s line, To be, or not to be, that is the ques[tion.] The beat is said to be ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, tum-ti, ti-tum, ti. So looked at closely, the line is almost iambic pentameter (five iambs). However, there is an extra syllable [tion.] He could have done without the extra syllable and had Hamlet say, To be, or not to be, that is the point. The line is so famous that it is hard to judge what Shakespeare gained from the extra syllable. Also, the fourth double beat is reversed and is tum-ti instead of ti-tum. The tum-ti (technically called a trochee) brings attention to bear on the fourth double beat, that is.
Without the speaker consciously intending it, spoken English in ordinary conversation often follows a pattern of iambs. We instinctively find it easy to use.
One type of rhyme used be called masculine rhyme-and this is where the two rhyming syllables (at the end of a line) are the last syllable in the line. The rhyme is now said to be a strong rhyme. Calling a rhyme “masculine” is now deemed to be outdated and sexist.
Another type of rhyme was called, feminine rhyme and this is where the rhyming syllables are the second last syllables in the line. This rhyme is now said to be called a weak rhyme.
Dylan Thomas often used a molossus. Whenever I listened to Dylan Thomas reading his poetry (on CD) I could hear that that he often used a triple rhythm i.e. three strong stresses in the same phrase. Sometimes the stressed words were also alliterated. Occasionally, one molossus would be followed by another, after a short break of perhaps one word. It is an interesting rhythm and people enjoy its short rhythmic “interruption” in the flow of a poem
Two worthwhile books to read are:
The Poetry Handbook by John Lennard. It has lots in it but is heavy going. There is also, An Introduction to English Poetry, by James Fenton. This is short but interesting.
Another book which teaches less but has more poems in it is, The Secret Life of Poems by Tom Paulin.
I am a School Technician who, twelve years ago, started to write short stories and Scottish History articles that I had researched myself. Over the years, I managed to make a couple of important discoveries relating to Sir William Wallace (detailed in, The Double Tressure, 1999, No. 22).
At the school that I used to work in, I organised an Amnesty UK Human Rights group for pupils. For the Elimination of Violence Against Women Day (in 2005), I wrote a performance poem about Domestic Violence (Another Night). I thought of using the six girls’ – who wanted to put on something for the Day – to each perform a different voice in a poem.
While performing the poem, the readers sometimes speak at the same time and it sounds a bit chaotic, but as it is repeated the listener tunes in to a specific voice and makes sense out of the chaos (this was intentional, and was appropriate given the subject of the poem). It was also intentional that the performers have to do a bit of work to fine-tune the piece so that their timing and volume are correct. The pupils enjoyed working on the piece. It was performed by the Hillpark Secondary School Amnesty Youth Group to Assemblies of first and second year pupils and to audiences of Teachers and Higher Drama pupils. It was received with a lot of applause, one standing ovation, and a few tears from Staff.
The Animals and Amnesty Poems were written to be performed at Animal Rights and Human Rights stalls and events. I wanted to make stalls a bit more interesting. I am a Human Rights and Animal Rights Campaigner.
The Amnesty poem was written so that the performers at a workshop can rewrite it and then perform it (the skeleton of trigger words remaining the same). The trigger words can be printed large on A4 card and held by the reader to let the audience see them; I think this reinforces the link between those words and the body of the poem.
Near the end of 2006, I sent some poems to the Literary Group, ConFAB. They (Rachel Jury in particular) have been very helpful. They applied for and received funding so that some of Scotland’s best Performance Poets could display the work (some of my poems) in front of an audience. Funding was provided by, the Scottish Book Trust, and Glasgow District Council. Many thanks to them both!
The VOICES performance was held on International Human Rights Day (December 10th), 2007, in front of an audience of about 35. It took place in a small venue in Glasgow’s Merchant City. The Production was very theatrical, and, I think, worked well. The Director was Anita Govan. I believe, from the comments of the Performers (who are all performing Poets), that the cast enjoyed experimenting with the rhythms and timing of the poems. We had six rehearsals before the show.
I performed one poem on my own and was terrified-I was not a Performing Poet then (Initially, I wrote intending others to perform my poems).
These multi-voice poems sometimes conform to a style that I call, Sideways Poetry. Sideways, because it can be read be read sideways, backwards and forwards along the adjoining verses, as well as top to bottom (of the page). The meaning travels across the page as well as up and down. And, quite often in these poems, more than one speaker speaks at the same time. It sounds confusing, and it is. Well, only for a few moments. But, I hope, it does yield interesting results.
I use a number of devices to increase the sense of stability (as the poem proceeds) in some of the poems: increasing use of alliteration, words (or sounds) repeated by more than one reader, increasing strength of rhythm…
The person listening in the audience can listen to the effect of two or three voices intermingling and creating strange rhythm patterns, or they can tune in to one particular performer and look to that performer for the sense of the poem (or one aspect of it). Individual members of the audience usually do both during the performance of one poem.
I believe that this style of poem could become very popular. So far, the performances have met with a very good response from audiences.
These multi-voice Poems do require rehearsal and (of course) more than one speaker. However, I believe the performer learns a lot from performing this type of poem. At its easiest, two poets could perform one of the simpler poems after about one hour of rehearsal.
I have kept the language in my poems simple. I believe this allows a greater depth of experimentation. Also, I do not feel a listener should have to have a degree in Ancient Greek literature to be able to understand a poem. Most of the multi-voice poems are both 1. Poems in their own right (i.e. they show reality in a new and useful way) and 2. They are also exercises in multi-voice rhythmic experimentation, which is meant to be enjoyed for the sounds created.
Some Performance Poets make their poems more interesting by using visual effects while reading their poem (e.g. jumping about or using elaborate hand movements). Some poets make their poems more interesting by the use of their richly textured voice. In a multi-voice poem, it is the interaction of the words read by the different poets that makes the interesting effects. The rhythms and complexity that can be heard in one of these poems arise naturally when more than one poet reads words at the same time. Anyone can read these poems and can get the same rhythms and complexity: it is inbuilt into the poem’s structure.
The hardest work in a multi-voice poem is done by the audience. But, audiences like having to listen hard, question what they are hearing, and feel for the hidden rhythms.
Some Poets initially dislike the idea of their well crafted words being obscured by the words of other Poet performers-in a multi-voice poem. However, I have found that audiences listen extra carefully to the words because of this partial blurring of sounds and meanings. Multi-voice concerts are the only poetry events where I have seen members of the audience coming up to performing Poets to ask for the words of the Poems they just have performed.
CHROMATIC VOICES. The next obvious step was for other Poets to write multi-voice poetry. ConFAB got all the People together who were involved in the Voices show and formed them into a new group called, Chromatic Voices. All the performers began writing multi-voice poetry.
Chromatic Voices performed during Refugee Week, at the Tron in Glasgow, on June 20th and 21st , 2008. Paragon Kaleidophone Ensemble worked with the Poets to produce original music that enhanced the Poems. The event was a great success, with members of the audience coming up at the end to ask for copies of the Poems and to shake the Poets by the hand. It was a tremendous occasion.
POETRY KARAOKE. Making Poetry accessible to everyone.
Someone goes along to a Theatre space and stands in front of screen 1. and watches four poems being read out- one a single voice poem and three multi-voice poems. Each of the poems is read through on screen 1 by the performance poets. Then, on screen 2 (next to screen 1), the words come up for the lines of a poet’s part (from one of the poems just read). The other performance poets read their lines on screen 1. While the visitor to the theatre reads the missing poet’s lines i.e. replaces one of the poets. I think this would be fun to do and could work well.
I saw a production recently with two screens where screen 1. showed a person talking about how they felt and screen 2. showed them saying what they really felt. It looked good. It would take a bit of technology to do, but the tape / disc would just be left to run on repeat all day and could be used at a number of sites. People could even buy the disk to do Poetry Karaoke in the house (OK that is taking it a bit too far). In practise, someone would listen to a single voice poem, then try and repeat the poem using the words on screen 2. They would then listen to (my poems) Rhythm in the Trees, and then take part in it as one of the voices. This would be repeated for Happy the Dawn, and then Daybreak. I honestly think it would work.
Four poems should be enough. A lot of people would probably even like the extra technology involved.
Perhaps it may even be possible for a CD copy of the “collaborative” poem to be produced for each visitor (one which included the three Voices Poets and the visitor speaking the lines). Another option is to have the Poetry Karaoke on the Internet.
People tend to feel left outside the poetry experience and I think this is a way of letting them really take part. They would also learn, as they practise, how to change the volume and tone of their voice in order to complement the other poets.
I have been interviewed about this idea on National Radio.
How to Write a Multi-Voice Poem
Cascade Effect. The first multi-voice Poem that I wrote (Another Night) is also one of the most complicated. It is also the one that gets asked for the most. Many of the multi-voice poems use Trigger words. This is where one performer reads the Trigger words and they are also the first words read by another performer, who goes on to read their own verse. The Trigger words being read at the same time by both performers. Then, usually, the first performer who was reading, stops reading (to stop too much cacophony). In Another Night, the Trigger words used by the first person are different from the words used by the second person-which makes it slightly harder to do. Another Night also makes use of a Cascade Effect. This is where the Trigger word starts two or three performers reading, and this Cascade Effect may be repeated. This is hard for the listener to keep up with, so Another Night is read through three times. The Cascade Effect looks and sounds very effective. The Trigger Words can be printed on large cards to be held by the reader of the trigger word/phrase. This draws attention to the word.
When working on a new multi-voice poem, usually I start by writing out all my notes, and all the words spoken by the different speakers, freehand in a jotter. I work on these until I have a rough idea of how the various speakers will combine. I then transfer this rough draft poem to a word processing package on a computer. For two part multi-voice, you can just have the lines going down the page next to each other with a line of dots at various points to show when a speaker is not reading any lines. For three or more speakers, I put my page on “landscape” mode (sideways) so that I can fit more columns on the page. I try to get every speaker fitting in side by side on the page (so it is easier for the performer to understand what is happening).
I highlight (put in bold) all the Trigger words and try to ensure that if they are spoken at the same time, that they are at the same level of the page as each other. I spend some time making sure that the poem on the page will be easy to read in performance (you can then of course, go on to learn them off the page). Another way of writing is to firstly write out the form of the poem (with all the Trigger words and columns) and fit your writing into this. In practise, I have found this the harder method.
Multi-voice is excellent for having each speaker show different views of the same situation. As an example, when there are only two speakers, these voices can be used effectively in opposition to each other, this being emphasised with the speakers facing each other and using inflammatory language.
Types of Multi-voice. There are at least four types of MVP (Multi-voice Poem).
- Trigger word MVP. The “Poems” running side by side down the page are linked using “trigger” words and phrases. The Cascade Effect can (doesn’t have to be though) be used with a Trigger word MVP.
- In Poems like Twins and Loving You, two protagonists carry out a kind of conversation using MVP. Occasionally in these Poems, the speakers speak at the same time. But, quite often, they speak one at a time. Sometimes, however, the speakers’ lines cross-over and each takes over the words of the other.
- Side by Side. In this type of MVP, the two or more strands of Poetry going side by side down the page (“Poems”) are very similar. The small differences between the lines spoken create internal additional rhythms.
- Prose/Poem MVP. Here, much of the text is in prose. But at various points, the text changes into MVP.
Using cacophony with care. Cacophony can sound awful if kept up for too long. But it can emphasise a situation of change or peril out of which freedom (no cacophony and freedom for the character in the Poem) can arise. I think this is almost always a good thing, it shows optimism in any situation. But someone could argue (and someone has so argued) that some situations don’t change into a happy state quite so easily. You also have to imagine how much Cacophony your audience can take. Cacophony can be, so many voices reading at the one time that individual words cannot be heard. Or it can mean, just too much going on for the listener to keep up with events.
Blending the Voices Correctly. Take great care with how the voices blend. Even when not blending with another voice, the sound of each word should be appealing and effective. Sometimes the two (or more) performers read lines that are Almost identical. The one word or phrase that is different produces a “Beat” and these “Beats” can be built up line by line to produce a Rhythm. The down side of this is that performers find it hard: reading lines-that are nearly identical-at the same time.
Some of my Multi-voice Poems were developed with me using a voice recorder to take the part of a different voice (i.e. I would record myself as Voice 1 then would speak the part of Voice 2 while the recorder was playing). A solo Poet could perform Multi-voice Poetry by reading one set of Verses while a recording of his/her voice-reading a complementary set of verses-was played at the same time.
If you have the same number of syllables in two adjoining “verses” then there will be a harmonious result. If you have different number of syllables in each adjoining “verse” then you will get a more chaotic sound.
Still try to have meaning in the Poem. Do not be held back by the writing of others writing. Use the Poems already in the Medium as an inspiration or a starting point. Not as the final word. Let your imagination be the final word. Also, Multi-voice Poetry should have more than just clever techniques and nice sounds. If planned well, it can allow more subtlety of meaning than one-voice Poetry. However, sometimes I think it is acceptable to have a Poem that works mainly because it just sounds really nice!
Multi-voice Poetry is new to most people and can work extremely well. Use the Medium with care and you can get great results. The Poems can be fun for the performance Poet as well as the audience. For the performance Poet, because they allow lots of experimentation. For instance, with the fine-tuning of the timing that is involved.
From my own, limited, experience, of performing poetry, I felt a slight edge of competitiveness when all are reading single voice. However, I feel that when you are reading a multi-voice poem, that you do so knowing that you are part of a team. And that you are creating (hopefully) something beautiful together. The group of people that I have been performing multi-voice with have all bonded together quite strongly (or it may just be that they are all naturally nice people). Also, we each took part in each other’s Poems (this increased the sense of bonding in the Group). I write about multi-voice on my other WordPress poetry site: https://multivoicepoetry.wordpress.com/multi-voice-poetry-beginnings/
Large Number Multi-Voice. Since I started writing multi-voice I have been writing different versions that are suitable for large numbers of people: these people being either the audience or the performing Poets taking up the tasks/voices between themselves. I recently devised a version which I think allows maximum variation around the basic idea. Firstly, I wrote a Poem about something that flows or changes (in my case it was the sea, but it could be e.g. time or emotion). There are definite points in the poem were things change by a large amount/in steps. This basic poem has words taken from its text and written up on cards for the audience to read, or for other members of the Performance Group to perform between them. Instructions on how the Poem is meant to be read are enclosed on the card for each member of the audience. The words should have meaning and should fit the various “steps”. In my Poem, I read about the sea and each verse has the sea becoming softer and softer. So, the audience have to read words that are very loudly spoken (in verse 1), then loud (verse 2), then normal volume(verse 3). The words themselves change from being harsh words like crash to softer words like lap. Each verse that I read has a number which relates to a number on the card the audience has: so members of the audience with card one read out their bit according to their instructions while I am reading verse one at the microphone. Similar occurs for verses two and three. Hopefully this relatively simple set up should keep the audience involved and should let them feel part of the poem-in meaning and in sound. This set up might sound a bit complicated but should allow audiences of thirty and upwards to take part in a poem.
MV PLAYS. I recently finished work on the World’s first multi-voice Play. On 9th June, 2011, a five minute shortened version (dealing with some multi-voice aspects of the Play) was performed by the Workin Process Team as part of an Evening of Poetry / Drama interactions at the Iris Theatre in London. My short Play was one of fifteen picked from over 250 entries. www.iristheatre.com/Contents/IrisShows/NewStylePage/WorkinProcess/WorkinProcess2.html
A MV Play has to be mainly MV but can have sections of single voice. Indeed MV benefits from varying from 1 to 2 to more than 2 speakers. Because there had to be a greater level of clarity needed (for the play format) I developed a new type of multi-voice which does not obscure the words (and so the dialogue is easier to make out). I used the technique of having different minor speakers emphasise different words and phrases spoken by the main characters.
The full length multi-voice Play that I wrote is called, Birth of a Selchie.
GAELIC VOICES. During 2010, Rachel Jury and conFab found Funding for an English / Gaelic Multi-voice collaboration to go ahead. The idea was mine, as I had always wanted to do a multi-language multi-voice work. conFAB however improved my idea by making the Show also have short plays and music as well as multi-voice multi-language poetry. The multi-language pieces worked. This was a huge thrill to me. I intend doing something similar with another language: I have written a piece which can have lines inserted in any language (e.g. Urdu or French). However, I would like to work towards having a show where English and Japanese where the two languages intermingling.
For me, I see Multi-voice Multi-language Poems as something that can bring different communities together.
TOUR OF GAELIC VOICES, 2010
Friday 6th August: CCA, Glasgow.
Saturday 7th August: Eden Court, Inverness.
Tuesday 10th August: Ceilidh Place, Ullapool.
Wednesday 11th August: An Lanntair, Stornaway.
Thursday 12th August: The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen.
Saturday 14th August: Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Isle of Skye.
Monday 16th: Henderson’s at St John’s Church, Edinburgh.
The Tour was very successful. Audiences were usually around forty in number-which wasn’t bad for a new experimental work. After each show the cast would meet with audiences in the Bar of the Theatre and each member of the cast would talk to individuals from the audience and get their views on Gaelic and on the show.
NORMAL POEMS. My favourite poet for meaning, is K. Issa. And for listening to the sounds created, is Dylan Thomas (although Richard Burton read Dylan Thomas much better than Dylan Thomas read Dylan Thomas).
“FOUND” OR “DISCOVERED” TEXT. For many years, I researched quite deeply into a number of topics (Buddhism, animal rights, non-violence, and Military History). I found that some texts have a power which comes from the meaning of the Document; the importance of the Document itself, and from the sounds of the words. I had always wanted to write a Poem which was built up around the words of e.g. a historical Document. I have just done this with a Poem called Road Block which is built up around the actual words broadcast by the “Hate Radio” in Rwanda in 1994.
If you use “found” text, then I think you have to obey a number of rules. Not to use the text for the purpose of plagiarism. You have to admit the source of the text. You must show respect to the “found” material. You must not use someone’s personal writings or letters for a purpose that would be against their wishes. If it is possible to gain the permission of the person who wrote the original material, then you must do so. The Poem that you make out of the text must say something new, and say something that couldn’t be done without using the “found” text.
Poets have been using “found” text for many years. One of the easiest ways to use it is to set a piece of text dealing with a situation and set it against or in the body of a piece of poetic text that you make up. For instance, you could collect small snippets of information about Human Rights Laws already in existence in a Country (e.g. from the internet) and make up a poem that includes these snippets or phrases as text scattered throughout your poem. I rewrote (in Poetic terms) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was liked by the United Nations themselves who sent it around the World, to all their contacts, twice. Or, you could use sentences from the laws relating to Health Service provision set in a poem you devise about some elderly person ill and in distress from a failure of these services. You could even make up your own “found” text with fake laws e.g. laws that relate to how things really happen rather than the ideal way in which they should happen.
I have heard performed (a couple of times) entire performance pieces made up with just “found” text. One was a piece of Theatre showing film about The Iraq War in the background, while Actors read out the actual words of various World Leaders. It worked amazingly well (Talking About Iraq).
As always, look at things through your eyes. If there is a piece of History or a World Leader you admire, you could use “found” text relating to them.
New Techniques (That I have been developing myself)
BACKWARDS TRANSLATION. My favourite poems are ancient and foreign. Consequently, for many years now, I have had to rely on translations of beautiful Greek, Japanese, and Chinese Poetry. I understand how inaccurate translation is and I am trying to develop a new method of “backwards translation”. I have written a Haiku in English. It is a Haiku in meaning. I don’t believe that a Haiku needs to keep to all the rules (of a Japanese haiku) when it is written in English-the languages are too different to have to restrict oneself to a particular number of syllables-which, anyway, adds nothing to the work in English. I do try to depict a season, try to keep to three lines, and I try to have a depth to the poem. By depth, I mean in the way I write about nature or about a particular Zen topic.
I have found a helpful Japanese Translator on the Japan UK LIVE website (an excellent website set up to allow School pupils from Japanese and English speaking Schools to write to each other). One of the Japanese contributors kindly translated my poem into the original language i.e. who “back translated” the poem into Japanese. The finished work is an accurate Haiku in English (no loss in translation) and has a Japanese “original” which will serve the purpose of letting the reader or audience hear the language that Haiku are usually written in. Some poets (e.g. some Gaelic poets) say that you should not translate from their language into English. Whatever the faults in the translation process, if there were no translations, then many of the world’s greatest books would be unknown to most of the world.
I used to make translations of poetry from languages I didn’t know by reading an exact literal translation of the poem as well as many “poetic” translations. And then trying to understand what the poet meant, before making up my own translation. For two years I studied Japanese at night Classes and for two years I studied Gaelic at night Classes. I have been involved in many cross cultural and cross language projects.
I intend doing “backwards translation” with other languages and poetic forms. I recommend it to others poets to try out. I believe it is an excellent tool and helps the audience and writer to have a better understanding of the poems “original” language i.e. the language such a poem would normally be written in.
The poem below was written as I sat in meditation in a local park. I saw shadows moving about around my feet and it seemed that the wind blew these about.
The Wind Blows
A HAIKU (TYPE) POEM
The wind blows the shadows
So hard, that the leaves fall
From the trees
Mr M. Matsumoto then composed a haiku in Japanese based on my English haiku –
Sunlight filters through,
A disruptive wind comes,
New leaves fall
- Matsumoto from Amaji Elementary School in Ichikawa then also gave the poem in romaji (romaji is a phonetic rendering of Japanese characters)-so it could be read phonetically by an English speaking reader, or read out at a poetry night.–
He added, In Haiku, you need to use ‘seasonal words’ [‘kigo’ in Japanese] that express the time of year. I imagined the scene as early summer, so my seasonal word is ‘wakaba’ (young leaves). With “The wind blows the shadows” I sense these are shadows cast by the light filtering through the trees – we have a word for this in Japanese which I have used – ‘komore-bi’. I took the wind as being wind strong enough to make the leaves fall.
Thanks to M. Matsumoto for the (what I call) “backwards translation” and to Japan UK Live website for hosting such a valuable communication link.
SCRATCHED POEMS. I use two types of “scratched” Poem. The first is similar in purpose to what the Disc Jockey does when he “scratches” between two Records i.e. well known phrases are repeated, sometimes mixed, and often meaningless sounds are added in as filler. The second type is where a Narrative Poem with a strong rhythm structure has bits cut out and pasted in elsewhere in the text. This can work surprisingly well.
VERY LONG LINES. A couple of years ago I started to wonder how it would work if I made the lines in some poems very long-two or three sentences long. I used various techniques to keep a flow going between the sentences and phrases, like internal rhyme and alliteration. Using very long lines is not the same as breaking the line up and pushing them down the poem. With such long lines I get a chance to build up images and ideas much better. The poem flows better. I also get a chance to work with complex rhythms which can be repeated in the next couplet. For instance in a poem about Cycling up a hill, the long lines allow a multitude of images to be built up as the cyclist rides on up and then down the hill. The rhyming is so complex that it took me six weeks to get it nearly perfect in performance. Although a reasonably good performance could be achieved after a few days.
One of the main difficulties in writing such poems is getting very long lines to fit on a page. I use landscape mode, but I don’t like to use too small a font-as it makes the text hard to see. I am though very satisfied with this type of poem and intend writing a lot more. However, so far, the poems I have written in this style have had more imagery and rhythm than depth.
CHINESE WHISPERS. This can be used in performance Poetry.
It is an activity designed to get an audience involved (or as an exercise for the poets). There are no winners or losers and all you have to do is keep the rhythm of the story flowing.
The presenter reads out a (roughly) five or six word phrase. The audience are then asked to hold hands looking inwards in a circle. Or, if the audience is big, just hold hands. The audience are asked to make up a story following the initial phrase given by the presenter. To keep it interesting the audience has to follow a sequence.
The first person in the audience to speak (the person on the extreme left of the line or a designated person in a ring) has to try to keep the story going by reading out a similar five or six word phrase or sentence. But they must make the last word in their sentence rhyme with the last word in the presenter’s sentence. The second person in the audience keeps the story going using a similar five or six word phrase or sentence but this time they only need to keep the first letter of the last word they speak the same as the first letter of the last word that the previous person read out.
This two-line sequence is continually repeated i.e. last word rhyme, then last word having the same first letter.
Each person must on the spot continue to tell the story along whatever lines it is following and must adhere to the two line sequence.
This sounds complicated but the way it is done allows improvisation, brain searching, and a story to get told.
An example I made up on the spot:
Presenter’s line I can soar
First person’s line From the top to the floor
Second person’s line Forever flying
Third person Resting on wings not crying
Fourth person Searching for calmness
Fifth person More not less
RUSSIAN DOLLS. Here I try to have a story partly hidden within another story. Then two stories can complement each other, or can act in opposition to one another. In my Poem called Story, the main part of the Poem asks a question. This is answered by text which is partly hidden within the main text of the Poem.
There is a brief and enigmatic story hidden here. See if you can find it.
where do Plughole Empties start, so begin the movement away, another day fades, fast
stream, Down Until, distant day drifting, sun far lifting, far reaches running track, clue last
field Faster, warmth reaching, colour leaching, day light, bats sight, then last
far Down, fish dark swimming, grey sea rising through brightness, birds fly past
around Travelling, forward fragments finding, toward tiger forest, shadows cast
hot SILVER, Movement, sing softly, Water, treasure trail, wait, waste confuses land
jigsaw, maze haze, Turn, finding , to a Whirlpool key, searching path, drifting back, hand
eyes flies, levity strings, Gravity, star Swirls where, when whispered, cold told, and
search, frog eating jasmine jam, Turning, salty red fish swim, load lorry, sea story, and
one two left right, prime DRAGON, foot print QUEST, journey searching, sand
SEURAT STYLE. At the National Galleries in Edinburgh, I was looking at a Seurat painting when I realised that what he did with vision can be done with sound. He used separate discrete areas of colour to interact together to create new and different scenes or objects-which became visible when the viewer stepped back from the painting. So I am looking at ways to get Poetry performers to read from a group of similar sounding words (they can pick any words from the similar sounding list) and as the poem proceeds, the performers pick from Group 2 of words; then from group 3, then from group 4. Each performer has a different set of 4 groups of words.