Poetry: are you listening carefully?

The Crafty Writer has managed to persuade accomplished poet Joan Johnston to write a series of posts in which she will introduce readers to the beautiful art of poetry and encourage you to pick up a pen and sketch pictures with words. This month, Joan talks about the importance of listening.

This morning, still half asleep, I opened the curtains on another grey morning and the first words that came into my head were: February. The Final Frontier. I’m not a Trekkie – I never was, honest – but that’s what I heard, complete with American accent. Then quickly after it came: February brings the rain, Thaws the frozen lake again. Marge brings breezes loud and shrill, Stirs the dancing daffodil. Hmmm … remembered lines … and rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration …

Welcome to the poetry page!

I think it’s always worth remembering that poems are meant to be heard. Their origins lie in the ancient oral traditions of recitation, ceremony and song. As Sappho, a Greek poet of maybe three thousand years ago, once said (or wrote) about poetry:

Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear

At school I loved hearing those little poems about the months of the year. I didn’t know what fleecy dams or gillyflowers actually were but I loved the sound of them. And I loved the way I could memorise the lines and then retrieve and repeat them, aloud, whenever I wanted, simply for pleasure.

A large part of learning the craft and skill of writing a poem lies in paying attention to the sound it makes. The sound of its words and rhymes, the beat of its rhythm, its pauses. When I’m writing a poem I have to say it aloud. Even if I’ve only got a couple of lines or phrases I have to listen to them and try to hear beyond (or perhaps under) the meaning of the words in order to catch the emerging rhythm.

And in the process of making the poem, as it grows, I do this again and again. If I stumble over some words as I’m saying them, or if I find something too much of a tongue twister, I know it needs fixing – with different words perhaps, or maybe by using fewer syllables. If I find I’m pausing in the wrong place, it can be a matter of punctuation. A full stop might have to go. Or a comma might be needed (or a stanza or line break – they are part of poetry’s punctuation too). Punctuation, or the lack of it, plays a significant part in controlling the speed and rhythm of a poem.

In the work I do I read a lot of new poems and I can always tell which ones have not been read aloud, listened to, heard. Sometimes a poem will stutter along when the mood it’s trying to communicate is smooth; sometimes it misleads or confuses by the inappropriate use of hard consonants or gentle vowels or rhyme for the sake of it; sometimes it’s just running too fast and needs to take a breath.

Sound can inspire our poems too of course. Here’s an exercise to try:

Recall the sounds of your childhood and list as many as you can. Use first thoughts. Don’t discount any! Then choose one and write about it as intensively, as passionately as you can. Use lots of detail. Write in complete sentences. Try using similes.
As you concentrate on the sound of the ice cream van, your grandad whistling, the school bell, the wind outside your bedroom window in the night … you will almost certainly end up writing something significant about yourself, the people you lived with, your feelings then.
And if you choose another sound from your list and repeat the exercise you could write a series of poems …

Apart from listening to our own poems carefully, and scrutinising them for their sound and rhythmic effects, we can, and should, listen to the poetry of others. By reading poems aloud off the page of a book; by listening to recordings of poets reading their own work (always fascinating for me); by going to live readings. I’d encourage poets to do any or all of these things – because by hearing poetry and listening to it well, we can learn much about its enduring power and about writing it.

This is the first in a series of guest blogs on poetry. If you have written some poetry and would like some professional input, Joan is available for critiquing.

Related posts:

  1. Atrocious teenage poetry
  2. Performance poetry: a novice dips his toes
  3. Red Squirrel Press poetry competition
  4. Poetry: Tolstoy in Love
  5. The Ambulance Box – getting your poetry in print

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2 comments on “Poetry: are you listening carefully?

  1. Pingback: Creative Writing - poetry at The Crafty Writer

  2. Pingback: Performance poetry: a novice dips his toes at The Crafty Writer

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