Blank notebook pages and first-line nerves
A sort of mea culpa to start with on this ridiculously lovely Easter Sunday. I’m pretty sure I promised you a guest poet today, and I have her poems and her back-stories all lined up. But the fact is I can’t do her justice. Not today … two weeks ago I set off on that 380-mile drive down to St Ives, had six days of intensive poetry reading/writing/discussing/planning/dreaming, and then drove back again.
There was a point in the course where the visiting poet Ann Gray read a poem of hers about identifying the body of a loved one. It was electrifying; I thought it had shown me the way to write about two events that have troubled me for years. This was it. And since then I’ve had a poetry/travel hangover. I can’t think straight or concentrate. I’ve come to accept this as predictable, and I was careful not to point it out in the post I wrote recently about poetry residential courses. You can get high, but you have to come back down. In a day or two I’ll be back to normal, and in the meantime I’m finding it hard to write even this paragraph coherently.
Meanwhile, as I write, thousands of doughty souls are posting their daily NaPoWriMo creations on Facebook and Twitter, and good luck to them. A special shout-out to Clare Shaw who does this every year whatever the weather and emotional circumstance. But this post will be for all of you who look at a blank screen or a blank page and simply can’t get started. You are not alone. There is a solution.
What is it about portraitists and poets, that default pose of prophetic pensiveness? Painters just can’t help themselves. I think that they think that they’re immortalising visionaries, all tremblingly open to the arrival of the Muse in a whisper of flame and plumage. What I see is the blank-eyed terror of the creature in the headlights. It’s very layered, isn’t it, that apparently youthfully-dismissive line of Keats? "If poetry doesn’t come as naturally as the leaves to the tree then it had better not come at all.” Something like that. Think on, though. You can’t force a poem to be, can you? And meanwhile, there’s that screen or that sheet of blank accusing paper.
The empty page. Like many others, I swear I can’t settle to writing poems without the right gear. It’s like a soccer player’s lucky socks, isn’t it? You’ll have your own arcane rituals. With me it’s having to have a pen with a fine nib, black ink, lined-A4 hardbacked notebook; it used to be unlined paper only. Now it isn’t. Maybe you have to have tea and a particular brand of biscuit. You get the picture
So, here we are. Sitting at desk. Radio 2 (I can’t think in silence or in noise that’s interesting). Coffee. Notebook(s). The right kind of pen. Workshop notes in another lot of notebooks; draft poems have to have their own notebook. And a blank page. And ...
I hear the whisper of the dying Kurtz. The horror ... the horror ... And tell me, all you poets, why should that be? Perhaps for you it isn’t. But it is for me. Why not just start writing, anything, anything at all, no matter what?
Which is the point at which I turn to the idea someone planted an idea in the front of my mind, and it won’t go away. Thank you, Mimi Khalvati. This is roughly what she said:
"The first line of the poem contains the DNA of that poem."
It deserves its attention-demanding space, does that. She says a lot of other incisive things in her workshops, about line and stanza breaks, and the tricks they play, but this is the one that shouldered its way to the front of the queue. It made me think of the first sentences of novels. Bleak House, for instance:
That’s the sentence. That’s where we are, and as sure as eggs is eggs, that’s where we’ll spend a good deal of time. Why write it, otherwise? Then, first sentence of paragraph two:
Well, we’re not going to be in a world of moral or topographic certainty, now, are we? Dickens is committed, and so are we. An even more disturbing first sentence, I think, is in DH Lawrence's The Rainbow. Here it is:
"The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm."
If that doesn’t make you shiver involuntarily, then you’re not listening; because they’re not going to live unchanged and comfortable for very much longer, are they? Changes are coming, and they are hardly likely to be comfortable ones, otherwise the novel will very soon end.
"The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, and because they had the hang of it and were quite happy, they went on living like that."
That’s not got legs, has it? But just try to think yourself into David Herbert’s head, looking at the blank sheet, and dreading writing that first sentence, because he knows that once he’s done it, his feet are set on the track, and he’s handed over all sorts of freedom and choice, for thousands and thousands of words. Who’d be a novelist, eh?
And then I started to think: but it’s even more critical in a poem, isn’t it, because there’s nowhere to hide. You’ve got maybe 10-20 lines, and you’ve got to grab your reader, and you’ve got to surprise and intrigue, and you daren’t give the game away too soon, and anyway, you don’t know what the game is till it’s over and you’ve lost or won. And then I began to think: it’s not even the first line. It’s worse than that. It’s actually the first word. Unusually, I started to make notes, scribble ideas, knock together a list … all very speculative, but it’s what I’m going to share if you can spare me the time.
Comfortable? Here we go. What I’m going to do is work through the word classes (I know that they used to be called ‘parts of speech’ but actually they’re not … they’re parts of sentences. Of course, if you’re 10 years old, or a primary teacher, then you are a graduate of the Literacy Hour, and you already knew that). Let’s see where we get to.
It’s all about syntax. English is all about word order, and poetry loves to play around with that to see what happens. So what’s the first bit of word language we handle? What’s the bit you learn first in a foreign language. Nouns. (And ‘that one’). As we say to the children: a noun tells you what the sentence is about. So how often is a noun the first word in any of your poems? What I did at this point was open Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems at random (in a sequence from the late 1970s as it happens) and copy the first lines of 30 consecutive poems. How many start with a noun? Four. That’s more than I expected:
Travelling’s fine – the stars tell me that
Everywhere place names
Petitions pour into the Big House
Reality isn’t what it used to be
Now, what strikes me is that they’re actually interesting nouns, but the lines all sound more like titles than first lines … or that they’d make great titles. It’s what nouns do. And what comes along with nouns? Determiners, that’s what. (At this point I can hear the hot breath of former pupil and university lecturer in linguistics, Anthea Fraser Gupta, on my neck, but I’ll press on and damn the consequences). You might not call them that, but they are all those useful/necessary little words … a/the/those/this/my/her/many/ three (or any number word) and the rest. Now, how often is one of these the first word? MacCaig again:
The last word this one spoke
That sun ray has raced to us
That cold man with bad poems
That green alone
The dunnock in the hedge
The countless generations
A cubic inch of some stars
It gets me thinking. It seems that MacCaig is likelier to say ‘that’ than ‘this’ (but don’t hold me to that!); he’s certainly drawn to the assertive ‘that’, and ‘that’ carries more baggage than ‘the’ doesn’t it? ‘The' is uncompromising too, of course. It knows where it is. The Brangwens. The pig lay on the barrow dead. ‘A' is always going to sound more tentative, more abstract, less assertive. But whichever you choose will be followed by a noun or a noun phrase. English syntax makes sure of that. You’re going to play your hand early in the poem with a noun, determiners or not. Is that what you want? Mind you, we were wise enough to invent words that would do instead of nouns, and save us a lot of repetition. Pronouns, clever little workhorses. he/she/I/they/them/you/me … they can’t all be the first word in a poem, unless you’re being really subversive, but which do you favour? MacCaig at random, again.
They sit at their long tables
You have to be stubborn
You have more nicknames than legs
I think of Lycidas, drowned
I feel miserable, acting
I see an adder
I like the almost perceptibles
I thought they needed no Women’s Lib
I don’t want to shuffle in a Greek theatre
This list surprised me. All those ‘I's. You have to feel pretty sure of yourself to get away with that, don’t you? Or have been steadily published for 30 years like MacCaig was then. Whatever, you have to be reflective, in some way or another, and I’m sort of suspicious of a poem starting with ‘I‘. Maybe it’s an English thing. ‘You’ is more interesting, because of the ambiguity … maybe it’s a way of avoiding ‘I’, a quick way of pretending objectivity. He/she/they are good because they are, however minutely, suspenseful; the reader is forced to read at least a bit more to find what they refer to. They don’t give the game away.
What about verbs, which tell you what’s happening in the sentence? How often is the first word of a poem a verb (not nouns like running, thinking, singing)? Odds on it’ll be a directive, an instruction.
MacCaig: Stop looking like a purse.
That’s the only one, and it’s from my favourite toad poem. I just had second thoughts. It doesn’t have to be a directive, does it? It could be a question, a request. Can (I)? May (I)? Might? Or it could be sort of tentative: Let (me/us). Need to think about that. About the only one I found in my own poems was Listen. Why should that be? I don’t know. If you have thoughts on this, then please share them. Similarly, adjectives. Only one instance in my random MacCaig survey. Heartless, musical Ariel. Hard to manage an adjective as a first word.
Now then, the next bit’s slightly more complicated, so I’m going to bundle up a number of things together, and think about adverbials and adjectivals. Single words, and chunks, .phrases, clauses. I’ll be thinking about connectives at the same time. I’ve noticed that more and more of late, one of these three words will be the first in a first draft, and, often, in the nonstop of a workshop exercise I’ll start with and / but / so. Really handy for cracking on, but also dangerously addictive. They give me a false sense of security and a spurious air of cocky self-confidence; they seem to say, "No need to introduce myself. I know you’ll be interested, because here I am in the middle of this fascinating stream of consciousness, and how could you not want to join me?" As in
So I’m thinking of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house/ that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags
which implies: ‘you should be thinking: why’s he thinking of that? Gosh, I simply have to find out’. Bingo. Am I seeing it more often in other people’s poetry? I’m not sure, but it’s catching. I’m certainly seeing lots more list poems these days and, as a consequence, lots more lines beginning with ‘and’. I sometimes wonder if everyone has done at least one workshop exercise based on Walt Whitman’s ‘Prayer for those who…’ Oops, I see I’m starting to go off-piste. Sure sign I should be stopping soon. OK. Adverbials, which tell us more about the verb. The where and the when and the how and the why…the warp and weft of narrative. Last bits of MacCaig, then:
Where the small burn / runs into the sea
From its distance
Though I’m in sunlight
Under the broad flat stone
When her life broke into smithereens
Everywhere places/ jut up
(I know we’ve had this before, but the nice thing about words is that they do more than one kind of job. All grammars leak, said Edward Sapir, the linguist)
You could make a longer list, but the point is that they all start longer, more complex sentences or trains of thought or lists. I think I’m always more comfortable writing any of these as a first word because it will be telling me that I have an idea in mind, and at least for a couple of lines I know where I’m going. It’ll let me know I’m going to write a story, or create a landscape, or explain something, or have an argument. And that, I think, is what I’ve understood of Mimi Khalvati’s numinous phrase. The first line of a poem contains the DNA of that poem. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be the first line.
Now, none of this is of any use when you’re doing a first draft (and in any case you might be better off just writing unpunctuated prose and leaving all the fiddly stuff for later). I think what Mimi Khalvati has done for me is give me new tools in the tool bag. Redrafting tools. Reading tools. Evaluating tools. None of them stop the empty page looking any less daunting, and none of them will give you anything to say. Neither will staring at an empty page.
And, by the way, if you’re doggedly writing your April poem-a day I’m assuming we’ve been thinking about a stage when we’ve got past wondering what to write about, and actually made a start. You get your idea or someone gives you a prompt (kind people, like Carrie Etter, and Jo Bell, for instance) and then you write fast, without thinking. Preferably without stopping, without spaces or lines breaks, just to see what will happen. Mine look like this; they look orderly but that’s just because they look orderly.
You leave it for a bit, let it marinade, and then start thinking about making it into a poem (if it has legs, if it has flavour, if it’s intriguing you…never mind anyone else. Start to think about them, and you’re dead in the water)
Just thought. I never mentioned ‘Maybe’. Of late, I’ve found myself starting first lines with ‘maybe’. Forget the gardening and write a new poem? Maybe.