Writing Poetry: Process and Problematics

In Poems on May 16, 2009 at 10:45 pm

c24998-bMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

Note: This post is an amalgam of two smaller pieces, one on the use of rhyme generally in poetry, and the other on the process of putting words down on paper, and why it sometimes goes nowhere.

Part I: On process and stray lines

I feel blessed to have such poets as M. Lyon and Puritano writing intermittently for Sympathies, and on reading their work with care, I find myself fascinated by the process by which we arrive at a fully fledged poem.  I suspect that an evaluation of the process of each one of us will turn up some broad similarities, but also significant differences (how’s that for a cliche?)–and I’d like to start a conversation on process by posting some stray lines of mine that I like but which have never made their way into a finished work.  Each will be illustrated with a comment describing why, despite what I perceived to be their potential, they never led anywhere.  If readers have their own examples of stray lines, free-floating couplets that need a home, it would be great if you would post them along with a comment.

i) The only single poem of mine made of a single couplet is “The Pomegranate.”  It goes like this:

The pomegranate is essential to the sophisticated palate
Far more evolved than onion, watercress or shallot

Comment: Almost everything I have actually managed to get down on paper starts with a flash of language–usually two lines (a couplet), sometimes four lines (a stanza), that come out of nowhere.  From this starting point, there are three possible paths: i) the original lines give me something to build a whole poem around.  The original lines may be, probably are, the best lines in the poem, but the rest of the thing holds it’s own and may rise to the level of being not obviously derivative of the virgin couplet; ii) the couplet or stanza leads to a series of competent, but basically derivative imitations that may add up to a poem, but fails to fully satisfy and cannot even with good conscience be put up on a blog; iii) the couplet or stanza leads me down a series of blind alleys but continues to tease me; it retains an allure, but cannot, by me, be improved on.  Of the third type, only “The Pomegranate” feels truly finished.


I pissed in the toilet
he pissed in the sink
and said ‘I haven’t got a god above
I haven’t got a drink’

Comment: Here I started with a stanza about my roommate freshman year of college, one J. Riordan (and I await his libel suit).  A remarkable man, about whom I have been trying to finish a poem for well over a decade now–but this promising starting point just cannot be bettered, and I’m still stuck.


I knew a sad sad lady
On a diet of silver spoons
She’d sometimes strip for nothing
In the sultry afternoons

Comment: Years ago, and I still like it, but it was only ever pure Leonard Cohen imitation, and suffered as such–here, the flash of insight which produced this minor-league Cohenism could only be followed by a hyper-intentional process of imitation.  This is as far as I got.


I think about my uncle
when my uncle comes to mind

Comment: This morsel of utter nonsense I cannot shake–but what on earth does the poem that could contain these lines look like?  Beats me.


Elevator music in Illinois
a dateless woman with a hand-held toy

Comment: God only knows where this material comes from, but come it does, and what to do with it?  In this case, I had worked up something close to a start of a poem based around the couplet, but it just doesn’t stick–it’s not bad, but…take a look and you’ll see what I mean:

“Half-Empty Spaces”

In a waiting room in Montreal
rages one of my paranoid aunts
muttering threats and curses.
She eviscerates the man down the hall
upturns her potted plants.

A smoking room full of prescient observations
elevator music in Illinois.
Idle entertainments for an idle age
where perversity, dereliction, and public sanitation
wait upon a dateless woman with a hand-held toy.

It is worth emphasizing that these lines are not really any good–and show no improvement whatever over the original two. And yet, considerable work, I am ashamed to say, has gone into trying to massage the material into something usable. No go; good money after bad.

So, that’s my cards on the table. I actually can’t really “write” poetry at all–all I can do is get lucky with a few lines out of the blue and try to shape them into something approaching a poem. But I am interested in other persons’ processes.  Does the above sound all too familiar?  Or is it completely alien?  Let me know.

Part II: On control, M. Lyon, and rhyme

For such a young man, M. Lyon shows both a remarkable control over form and a willingness to take a chance.  The manner in which he implements his rhyme scheme is certainly of interest.  Here is part II of his poem asking for information about me broken down into the underlying rhyme scheme:


Two technical and one general point:

i) It takes a considerable degree of skill to sustain abaabc over three stanzas without losing one’s grip and merely making rhymes for the sake of sound rather than content.  Mr. Lyon not only sustains interest, but actually invests the poem with forward momentum and energy quite apart from the rhyme scheme.

ii) What I especially like about this effort is the last line of each stanza–all of which rhyme, but also succeed in bringing the reader up short because they appear at first read to violate the carefully constructed meter of the individual stanzas.

iii) Rhyming poetry sometimes comes in for criticism by certain modernists, who insist that rhymes are an outdated and gimmicky organizing principle for a poem.  I disagree; while there is room in the world for a little blank verse, a reliance on rhyme is anything but a barrier to greatness.  When I think of my favorite poems or pieces of poems I come up with the following, in rough order of seriousness (with the least “serious” first):


The common cormorant (or shag)
Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
The reason you will see no doubt?
Is to keep the lightning out.
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

Christopher Isherwood, “The Common Cormorant”


I do not love thee Dr. Fell
The reason why I cannot tell
But this alone I know full well
I do not love thee Dr. Fell

Tom Brown, “Dr. Fell”


The owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note

Edward Lear, “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat”


Wine and honey, lipstick and spit,
you’re coming through the door with a cigarette lit.
And I know I’m not supposed to think your death wish is cool,
but then I see you knocking back tequilas by the pool.

John Darnielle, “All rooms cable a/c free coffee”


Because you’re always giving splendid
Dinners and never ask me, I’ve
Planned my revenge.  I’m so offended
By now that if you beg me, “Please
Come to my house,” on bended knees
I’ll…what will I do to you?  Arrive!



Well I gotta get drunk and I sure do dread it
‘Cause I know just what I’m gonna do
I’m gonna spend my money calling everybody honey
And wind up singing the blues {…}

There’s a lot of doctors who tell me
That I’d better start slowing it down
But there’s more old drunks than there are old doctors
So I guess I’ll have myself another round

Merle Haggard, “Gotta Get Drunk”


Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our love’s long day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain.  I would
Love you ten years before the flood:
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress.”


I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.

What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me.  Softly I go now, pad pad.

Stevie Smith, “Pad, pad.”


He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or take that you bastard

Philip Larkin, “Poetry of Departures”


The aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”


I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”


Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

W. H. Auden, “The Fall of Rome”

The only piece of blank verse which comes to mind is also from Auden:

From murals and statues
we get a glimpse of what
the Old Ones bowed down to,

but cannot conceit
in what situations they blushed
or shrugged their shoulders.

Poets have learned their myths,
but just how did They take them?
That’s a stumper.

When Norsemen heard thunder,
did they seriously believe
Thor was hammering?

W. H. Auden, “Archaeology”

Rhyme is a tricky subject. Jimmy Buffet has said that he has little interest in rhyming “moon” and “June,” and looks to pull off slightly more difficult operations such as:

It’s these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
Nothing remains quite the same
With all of our running and all of our cunning
If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane

Fair enough. But I’m always prepared to be amazed with a couplet rhyming “moon” and “June,” and am jaw-droppingly jealous of simple couplets like:

And I know I’m not supposed to think your death wish is cool,
but then I see you knocking back tequilas by the pool.


And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

What strikes me about rhyme in poetry is how a rhyme scheme can be vital for both the most ridiculous and nonsensical pieces such as Isherwood’s, and the most serious pieces such as Yeats’ or Bishop’s.  Anyway, though I have much enjoyed the chance to quote some of my favorite lines from the history of poetry, this section of the post should end where it began, with the very talented M. Lyon.  What interests me about his work is the quality of his structuring and meter, something that cannot be faked, and can really only be attained by extensive reading.  For instance, my own work, such as it is, remains deeply infused with my early reading of Lear, too much so in fact, as the shadow of his work has been very difficult to escape.  Indeed, I have never really been able to get beyond:

The owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note

There are worse places to be than in Lear’s pea-green boat, but one gets the sense that M. Lyon will be able to transcend his early influences, whatever they might be.  I look forward to living vicariously through his future work.

Image Credit:

  1. I think you mean philiSHAVE.

  2. Sympathies good for something after all. Philistine.

  3. Damn it all, you’ve got me reading and appreciating poetry. Stop it!!!

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