Swift horses, balanced Buzzards and ‘happenings’ versus ‘so whats’

I’ve not read many texts about what a poem should do. Since I fell in love with the possibilities of contemporary poetry some ten years ago, I’ve mainly read poetry. I’ve read very little theory, and not much on ‘how to write’ a poem. For these reasons the observations I’ve made below may appear very simplistic, and to some perhaps, obvious. Others may find them contentious or wrong.

But I wanted to concisely set down a few basic ideas relating to what I think makes a poem successful and rewarding.  This is a short post, so I won’t be examining or explaining these ideas very deeply. Here they are.

In order to keep the reader’s attention, a poem should have tension. There should be tension as in the surface tension of water, (as opposed, say, to the unpleasant atmosphere in the aftermath of an argument.)

Concision helps with tension. Conversely, verbosity can cause the poem to be ‘slack.’  Slack will also occur in the presence of cliché, metaphor that doesn’t convince or when similes are weak, as well as in the presence of clunky or lumpy language which can often be detected by reading aloud.

Another enemy of tension my occur where lines are broken in ways

which do not serve the
poem  but rather disrupt
it need
lessly and cause difficulty and
even irritation to the
reader in their
search for  meaning even if there
no obvious meaning which
is OK
too but I’d rather
not have to try so
very hard to find this

Line breaks and spacing can of course be used to great effect to wrong-foot the reader- I am merely arguing that there should be some purpose to this ‘wrong footing’ and that it the kind of poems I like to read don’t do this merely because it can be (and has been) done.

Along with tension, I like the idea that there should be plenty of movement. The Italian Romantic poet Leopardi wrote that a poem should have ‘rapidity and concision of style’. I’ve mentioned concision already, and it is easy to understand how this will keep the poem tight and concentrated.

Leopardi suggests that a poem should ‘keep the mind in constant and lively movement and action, transporting it suddenly, and often abruptly, from one thought, image, idea, or object to another, and often to one very remote and different; so that the mind must work hard to overtake them all, and, as it is flung about here and there, feels invigorated, as one does in walking quickly or in being carried along by swift horses’.

Along with tension and movement there should be balance. I’m not going to say much about this. Here is a poem by Robin Robertson which I think demonstrates balance very well, (not to mention tension and rapidity of movement.) Look at how the rabbit is exposed!


A buzzard works the field
behind the harvesting:
the slung bolt of her body
balanced in the wind
by wings and tail, hanging
over the machine blades
and the soft flesh below
– a rabbit
exposed in the shorn stalks
and she’ s holding,
holds still
till her wings fall away and she drops
like a slate into snow.
The wounds feather through him
throwing a fine mist of incarnation,
annunciation in the fletched field
and she breaks in,
flips the latches
of the back, opens the red drawer
in his chest, ransacking the heart.

If you are thinking, as some might be, ‘hmm, typical visceral (and possibly hyper-masculine) Robin Robertson poem’ then check out his fantastically elegant and tender ‘Primavera’ from the same collection, Swithering (Cape.) 

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, (or maybe not,) something has to happen in a poem. There are of course an almost endless range of human responses a poem can invoke. It seems to me that what one needs to try to avoid is the ‘so what?’ response.

I’ve been wondering lately about something a poet friend said upon hearing a well crafted poem which described a spider. He said ‘Yes, it’s beautiful. But that’s all it is.’ I think what he meant by this that the wonderful description did not lead the reader anywhere. It was a beautiful diversion, but beyond this nothing happened.

Of course one person’s ‘happening’ poem might be another’s ‘so what’ poem.
This isn’t a science, and since the reader brings the poem to life by reading or hearing it, there will be a spectrum of experiences and interpretations beyond the intended meaning. For example, my intended epiphany may not seem like an epiphany at all.

I try to be honest in judging which are my own ‘so what’ poems, and either leave them alone, perhaps forever, or return to them until I feel they have turned into ‘happening’
poems.  I like to think I’m getting better at this. I would hope so after the amount of time I’ve spent writing. Writing skills develop like the muscle and reflexes of the athlete .

Of course, worrying about all this while writing will no doubt be counterproductive. To adapt a John Lennon lyric, maybe the best poem, like life, is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.



  1. I’d rather have thinking out loud, like this , than than any amount of academically presented stuff. Which is usually dead as nails. Wouldn’t you rather read ‘poetry in the making’ than anything by , say, Frank Kermode? Line breaks, surprise (is it any good if it’s not surprising in some way?), and a journey. How far can you travel from the first line to the end? And thanks for reminding me about swithering.


  2. Thanks John. Re line breaks, surprise and journey. Yes! I’ll make a not of those and add and refine this at some point. I think Swithering is great, and I also like his first two, A Painted Field and Slow Air very much- more than his latest books. I’ve got an old copy of Hughes’ Poetry in the making’ but haven’t read it so I’ll check that out too.


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