The traditional poet’s greatest challenge is surely the avoidance of cliché. It takes great effort to eradicate from a composition, made harder by the fact that in the throes of writing, it can be difficult to detect. Adding to the agony is the task of its extraction—oft at the cost of a much-loved idea.
I continue my work on the “Autumn” poem, extracting from its many stanza variations those that best express the theme.
The composition consists of eight couplets. Presently, I have whittled the variations for each down to two for the first couplet, one for the second, third and fourth couplets, two for the fifth couplet, one for the sixth couplet, and five for the seventh and eighth couplets—most of these have internal refinements yet to be made.
Now and then, a new idea for a variation interrupts me, but it is a welcome delay. I hope to have a final draft in January.
A poem is the sublimation of words—the transfiguration of phrases through all the devices of language available to the poet—into a work of art. Through theme and style, it transforms an abstract idea into something perceivable and comprehensible when read, recited or heard.
A traditional poem is not mere rhyme, a modern poem not mere prose. To be a poem, a composition must transcend the common function of language. How it does so is up to the poet.
At the extreme of modern poetry, Aram Saroyan tampers with the very construction of letters and words to transform them into “one-letter” and “one-word poems”. In an infamous example, he adds a fourth leg to the letter “m”, creating a symbol that may be interpreted in any number of fanciful ways; in another, he modifies the spelling of “light” to read “lighght” (and in yet another, “eye” to read “eyeye”)1 to produce a kind of orthoepic novelty.
If these “compositions” are Poetry, they are barely so. They do the absolute minimum to be worthy of the title—low incarnations that mock the very discipline they profess to represent.
Such works receive the participation trophy but not the prize. Titillating to consume and quickly discarded for the next extreme, they are surely as unfulfilling to the poet as to the society that looks to him for Beauty, Clarity and Redemption which cleverness alone cannot supply.
- In both instances, the misspelt word by itself constitutes the entirety of the poem (hence “one-word poem”).
The mechanics of artistic thinking is as interesting to me as what it produces. One part of my creative process I have not written about before is the use of mood boards.
Sometimes they are abstract—mental images of the scenes or incidents I wish to embody in verse; sometimes concrete—collages of photographs and words. Whatever the form, as I compose a poem (or musical work), I draw upon these as a source of ideas.
To illustrate, I include a simplified mood board1 for “Autumn” (the poem I am currently composing). In 2012, when the original version was composed, I had not yet developed the mood board approach—moreover, the poem was very much an impromptu affair.
Since then, my process has improved significantly. The mood board visuals keep before me what inspired the verse—evoking words and phrases to express the theme.
- The photographs are not my own: top left is by Kuzmenko Viktoria, top right by Daniel Kay, bottom left by Neenawat Khenyothaa and bottom right by Gints Ivuskans.
When one revises an existing poem, it can be difficult to let go of some of its original ideas because they seem inextricable from the fabric of the composition. This has been my Achilles heel revising “Autumn”. Instead of accepting that I must forego certain parts of the original version to achieve a better work, I clung to elements I knew to be conceptually debilitating.
Over the past two days, as these shortcomings became ever more pronounced, I was forced to come to my senses; and lo, the beloved lines I lost were soon replaced by ones more fitting, liberated from the creative constraint that had plagued the revision hitherto.
“Autumn” was my first proper lyric poem.1 At the time (2012), it was an indulgence of my poetic ebullience, a manifestation of my love for Nature and Verse. Seven years later, it must be elevated into something greater: a work combining that love with skill and substance. Having embraced the inevitable, I can now do the composition justice whatever the cost to its first incarnation.
In the original version of “Autumn”—my first lyric poem proper—my enthusiasm for the subject resulted in an opening stanza that attempted to praise too much of the season at once. In a mere four lines, it mentioned autumn fires, bracing air, shorter days, bluer skies and green hills!
This exuberance was at odds with the rest of the stanzas which each focused on a single idea: stanza two on the morning mist, stanza three on the dew-drenched grass, stanza four on the flooding rains.
I have now rewritten the first stanza so that it follows the same approach, dwelling on one of its original points only: autumn fires. Instead of conveying much in passing (as one sweeps through the lines), the new version describes little in detail (with more words expended on the topic).
This adjustment does a great deal to improve the cohesiveness of the composition. There are one or two more decisions of this kind that need to be made; then I am confident I can come to a final draft.
I captured this impromptu photograph whilst out among the hills, late yesterday afternoon, and shared it with a friend. “It complements your art,” he said. The inverse, however, is true: my art seeks to complement it—indeed, the Overberg1 inspires the Theme (Wonder), Subject (Natural Beauty) and Style (Simple Lyric Poetry) of my work. Here, every resource must be husbanded, and the minimalism of the landscape is the result of drudgery. Both shape my attitude to words when I extol this region in verse.
- A rural region of the Western Cape province of South Africa.
A few days ago, I was ready to abandon the alternating refrain approach of the “Autumn” poem’s 2012 draft—where every second stanza is a couplet with the same starting phrase and internal and end rhyme—in favour of regular end-rhyming couplets.
My chief criticism of the refrains was that they felt, at times, contrived—forced and engineered—not so much contributing to as stunting the unfolding of the poem, wherefore I experimented with the regular couplet format as a more natural—spontaneous and fluent—alternative.
Yesterday, I decided to keep the refrains. In the original version, they emerged from the cadence of the stanzas—dum-di dum-di dum-dum, dum-di dum-di dum repeated in two successive lines—which I sought to emphasise with recurring starting phrases and internal and end rhyme.
At the time, it was perhaps an indulgence—“Autumn” was my first lyric poem—now, I embrace it fully. Already, it demands all my poetic ingenuity to make it work, but I am hopeful that I shall overcome the challenges and achieve an elegant outcome.