At the end of last year (yes, this is a very belated post!) I took an evening course entitled ‘Poetry Essentials: Writing Free Verse’. This was a six-week short course run by the Lifelong Learning department at the University of Southampton, which took up two hours every Tuesday night.
Each week, I would haul myself to their venue after work and sit reading through the latest class paperwork, listening to podcasts and drinking hot chocolate from the overpriced vending machine as I waited for each session to start.
And each week, I’d get my Uber back home and explain to the driver that I was trying to write poetry but, no, I wasn’t any good and, yes, most poets enjoy a drink while they write and, no, most of us don’t make money from it and, yes, I would deny that I was any good.
I had been (as I always am) looking to work harder and learn more about the art of writing poetry, so this course was perfectly timed. My studies when I was at university covered dissecting poems in detail, but rarely explored the actual creation of your own verses. Creative seminars were always my weak spot, and I wanted to find out more and understand what I might need to work harder at in order to find my own poetic voice, and improve it.
I expected to leave the course with a better understanding of structure and rhyme outside of the usual, more regimented forms (like sonnets, villanelle or ballads), as well as finding some new favourite poets to follow and learn from.
This was just the tip of the iambic iceberg; this course taught me a lot more than just about structure, sound, and style.
The course was varied, exciting, inspiring and motivating; and was taught by a really wonderful writer called Alice who shared her passion, experience, and knowledge with us.
Months later, I think it’s about time I shared some of them with you (and reacquainted myself with them as well).
Let us begin.
A writer’s work is never done
This is something I want to go into more detail about in a proper, full-size post one day. However, the main point I took away from this course was that a true writer never truly ‘nails’ their art. There is always progress to be made, things to learn, techniques to master and more to do. Your work evolves with you, and you are never done growing as a person. The creative process is a continuous loop, and your work is never finished; nor are you ever at your peak.
Which leads me to my next point…
Editing is just as – if not more – important than getting words on the page
Say you write a poem. It’s good; you’re happy with the word choices, the sound devices are pleasing, and you make your point clearly. You’re pleased with how it’s come out. It’s what you had in mind.
Don’t leave it there. It’s not finished.
There is always more that can be done.
Editing a poem can take months or even years. Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art is a perfect example of this; there are 17 (yes, 17!) versions of it, and we can see the steps she takes and the decisions she makes in forming and creating the final piece, each time saying something different.
Eventually, she gets there; but not without work, refinement, and effort.
This course helped me to realise that I need to spend more time editing than I do writing in the first place (and seeing as I find time for writing hard, goodness knows how I will manage that!). I have a habit of writing a piece, and then publishing or sharing it exactly as it is, without considering how I might be able to tweak it here or there to strengthen it.
The editing is as important as the writing.
Sharing is (really) caring
Sharing your work is terrifying; hearing people pick your writing apart in front of you is almost worse. The idea of workshops sends most people into a blind panic, but they are such an important and integral part of the writing process. Braving an Open Mic is equally part of it too, in a different way; audience feedback and reaction is informative and a great way to gauge your progress.
The important thing to remember is that good criticism is always constructive and never personal, and having your piece explored from a new point of view can add so much more to it.
You find out whether your message has been put across, whether certain stylistic choices work, and if you evoke the emotion you intended to. Much like when you edit any other piece of writing, other people spot the bits you miss because you are far too close to your own piece.
During this course, I’d often leave our workshopping session feeling wiser and more inspired; the people I learned with had fantastic ideas and I was able to benefit from that. Yes, I felt intimidated by their skills, but instead of seeing it as a negative thing to focus on, I listened to what they had to say so I could improve too.
Writing alone is my default setting, but you need to work with others to get the piece just right.
I think having the opportunity to workshop will be one of the biggest things I’ll miss now the course is over. I’d love to continue meeting with fellow writers on a semi-regular basis to keep this going and to stay accountable. Something else for me to work on.
Don’t forget to have fun and play
I’m a creature of habit, and a lot of my work ends up looking and sounding very similar to my previous pieces. It’s good to develop a ‘brand’ or recognisable voice, but what if you’ve never even explored alternatives?
In our course we were encouraged to cut up our work, reshape it, use line breaks where we wouldn’t usually, change the order of our stanzas, edit down to an unrecognisable piece, or put together irrelevant sentences to form something disjointed and unexpected. It was about ‘Free Verse’ after all!
This really helped me to look past traditional poetic forms and, though I struggled a little to begin with, it helped me to look at things from a different perspective, let go of my own restrictions, and consider alternatives.
It’s fun to play with poetry; we need to remember that.
Even if the end result doesn’t look any different, experimenting in the middle of the process can really help to remind you that writing, above all, should be enjoyed, and your work could well reflect this!
It might even uncover something a little different, and help you to enjoy it more; especially if you’re in a rut.
And finally…respect your audience
No, I don’t mean by avoiding insulting language or writing with only the reader’s approval in mind.
Throughout the workshops, I discovered I had a bit of a habit of explaining the obvious to my reader, even unintentionally, by spelling out feelings with unsubtle language or obvious imagery.
I might as well have taken them by the shoulders, shaking them while yelling ‘I wrote this poem because I felt like THIS! FEEL IT WITH ME!’
Fortunately, I worked alongside a woman who was very skilled at producing work presented by an unreliable narrator; a trope I find fascinating but hard to master, and so I tried to take a leaf from her book.
She was brilliant at using language and form to allude to emotions and experiences indirectly. She also had a real talent for imagery; the unexpected, unusual, and ambiguous. We spent many an hour trying to piece together her messages to uncover her feelings and experiences. One poem about biscuits turned into something else completely.
What I mean by this is, you have to respect your reader enough to understand that you do not have to spell out your thoughts or message word for word for them to grasp what you’re trying to say.
Give them some credit; they’re not stupid. Let them interpret it, let go of your meaning, and accept they may come to a different conclusion as to what you intended. The beauty of poetry is that it can mean different things to different people, regardless of what your GCSE English teacher told you. It’s the beauty of language and imagination.
I’m keen to do this more; most of the poetry I have written and performed in the last year has still been explicit, blunt and to the point, so I have a long way to go – but it’s good to acknowledge your shortcomings; another lesson, of course!
There is, it seems, always something else to learn, and I fully intend to continue my education; perhaps its time to get out my class notes and brush up on my skills again. Who knows where it could take me.
Have you ever taken a poetry class? What did you learn? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment if you have any experiences or thoughts you’d like to share!