On Poetry: Excerpts from a talk given to the Holy Name Convent Literary Club, Port-of-Spain.

By Anson Gonzalez

After unrecorded introductory remarks, the speaker begins by reading his poem, 'Your Chosen Duty'.

This poem is written for young poets who are striving and who feel that success is not forthcoming. I think that I captured all that I should tell you in this poem. Therefore I can leave now. (Laughter)

Many writers sit and wait for inspiration; but I think one who wishes to develop into a writer must sit down and write. Writing is a profession like any other; one has to work at it to improve one's standards, and work towards gaining recognition. One famous English writer wrote every morning from five to nine, before he began his civil service duties. He became one of the most prolific writers in history. When you hear stories of successful writers you will find that they all work with diligence at their craft.

In this poem I was responding to all the cries of young writers, which I had also experienced. What to write about - I suggest, "the music of your mind". You have to listen to yourself. Most of what we become come from within. We decide who we are. It's all in us. So you have to listen to the thoughts of your heart, the feeling of your senses, the logic of your brain, the intuition of your soul. Your total self, then, speaks to you. Everything you do, think, imagine, dream about, your hopes, aspirations - that's the matter you write about, wherever you find yourself.

School life would be much of the matter of your work now, your relationship with parents, relationships with siblings - the matter of your work; your relationship with peer groups - the matter of your work. All the things that interest you and arise from where you find yourself - that's where the material comes from.

Some people like to write 'deep philosophy' - at age 14 and 15 - but philosophy comes from experience, and reading. It comes from thought, and it comes from having time to think deeply about matters. Perhaps young people would be better served to write about things that they actually experienced, things that have real meaning to them.

Young writers want recognition, while they are still learning the craft. This indicates that there is something to learn about writing. We have to learn to manipulate and craft language creatively.

Language is the material of writing. It is the tool wit which you express all your thoughts and intuitions. So you must become expert in its management. You girls, with your inherent facility for language, have an advantage. But you must consider whether you practise language - whether you have respect for language.

In our society, there is a big problem of mass movements and movements towards excellence. Two currents pull at you. Your peer group doesn't encourage you to excel. Your peer group wants you to stay at a level where "all ah we is one." That wants you to operate at the level of the least common denominator. But, if you want success, you must operate at the level of the highest common factor.

Some people confuse accent with language. So that those who speak properly may find their friends asking whether they are "playing English" or something like that. One can speak with a Trinidadian accent and still speak properly. If there is a scale of speaking one should aspire to the upper, rather than the lower part of it. The way you speak reflects and influences the way you think, and would be reflected in any writing you attempt. So it's very important to be aware that the words you use in normal speech are the same kinds of words you use in writing. Therefore the better the store of words you have to draw upon, the better you can express yourself. If you confine yourself to slang, for instance, and you have one term meaning a range of words, for instance the word, bad, that was in vogue some time ago, you may have a sentence which says, "This is a bad tape recorder". Does it mean that the machine is faulty? What does it really mean? If one is of a different generation, or a foreign culture, one might get the wrong meaning.

If you want to be a writer, or to write at any serious level, or even to do well at your CXC English examination, you have to practise the language. Practise the speaking, so that what you say will be what you will write. Then you would not have the problem of converting thought is one language to another language to satisfy the examiners.

As a poet, or writer on the whole, you have to practise the art continually; even while you are quietly sitting, while you are travelling to and from school. The only time I would dissuade you from doing so is during class time when the teacher is explaining something to you. (Laughter). At any other time you practise it. When you look through the window, what do you see? Is it simply some vines on a gnarled, old tree trunk, overhanging some cryptic pictures on a wall? Like what I am saying I'm seeing out there? If you are just seeing at that level you are not getting into writing, and particularly poetry, at all.

The thing is that poetry in particular, is one or ten or one hundred levels above ordinary language usage. What each poet is trying to say is, "Look, this is what this view of life appears to feel like to me". And the reader must be made to respond somewhat like this, "That's a unique view; I wish I had been able to see it like that. Thanks."

You will find that many 'poets' say things in the same way a non-poet would. Some people have divided poets into categories. Some, a few, are the true poets. Others are the poetasters. Poetasters produce things that look and sound like poetry.

The young poet, in the poem, is seeking uniqueness. Now, uniqueness comes from not running with the pack. To be in society requires a certain amount of running with the pack for social order. We don't want to be continually attacking each other for the few goods and services in society. But, at the personal and interior levels, running with the pack is not the best thing if you want to be an artist. I don't think any great artist ever ran with the pack for a long time. Some never attempted it. Some who attempted usually dropped out. You have to have that interior integrity to be yourself. It is a very difficult thing to tell young people who still have to learn to live, but it is good sense to be aware of it. At a certain time you find that the mass tries to draw you in, to make you anonymous. When you take part in mass action, it should be because you have thought it out and have arrived at the decision that the particular action is what y8 want to do. One should not be swept along because some other powerful personality wants you to commit an action.

Desire for acceptance would lead you to run with the pack as well. When you buck the pack, however, you ask for trouble. So you have to balance out costs in order to find your path.

You have to acquire this attitude as you go along in life, that there is a price for everything: whether it is a reward or a punishment. You should really weigh your intentions in the balance, and decide that you'll abide by the outcome, whether it is pain or pleasure, like a woman. Don't blame anyone if the outcome is painful. Simply make it your own firm decision.

At the end of the poem, I mentioned that all aspects of life: love, caring, affection, duty - all are matter for your poetry. The work that you write will be the songs of these aspects. I even suggest that the areas of your life - successes, failures, trials, tribulations - are only momentary, and matter for your chosen duty, which is, if you choose writing as your vocation, to write.

Francine said that I was going to reinforce the fact that we could all be poets. I know that we could all be poetasters. When, however, soul is activated in us, we can become poets, because then we speak from the depths of the true self. We take the masks off, so to speak. But there are two parts to the process. One is that deep emotion, that truth, that authentic response. The other is the craft. Sometimes people only think about one. Some people simple scribble it out instantly - poem! Some people are great about working out the structure, but they might lack the authenticity of the former. Sometimes both types get published and you are left in doubt as to which is really the poem.

I would say that in the beginning, it is a good thing to try to master a few forms. You must have discovered the sonnet in your literary studies. Writing for a while after the pattern of that form, trying to control your writing like that is a very useful exercise that would help you to master the language. The sonnet keeps your expression within fourteen lines and thus prohibits rambling. It is a kind of poem in which he poet advances a case in the first section, usually eight lines, and then reflects or pronounces upon the case in the latter part. Most sonnets use rhymes, and rhyming and making sense can be sometimes difficult. One can therefore gain a great deal by attempting to write a sonnet.

There are shorter forms like the couplet, quatrain, the haiku, the cinquain, the clerihew, the epigram, the limerick, the octave and others, which can provide interesting opportunities for practice and development. All these help to bring out the highest control and ability in the use of language.

The haiku is usually a reflection on nature. Th result must be an exquisite miniature. You can practise by trying to say/write something very intelligent, picturesque and emotive, in the seventeen syllables allotted. Yu would have to do much pruning and rewording, until you arrive at least at the outward form of the haiku. This is where language comes in, too. Because we often do not speak properly, sometime we pronounce words incorrectly and misuse the syllabification. Again, we have to be more aware of language, especially the aspect of pronunciation.

These short forms make you concentrate on creating that special statement, that kind of picture, that is above the ordinary, that is poetry. Even trying to write nursery rhymes help. These can be quite entertaining to your younger siblings. But do all this in the name of practice. Either for rhyming skills or in the case of creating that special statement of clear vision.

Most longer poems would be called odes, as a catchall classification. An ode has been described as a lyric, often addressed to a person, that is exalted or enthusiastic in tone and elaborately designed. In former times it had been sung as well. When you write in praise of your school, for instance, it would usually evolve as an ode. Most people are going to wax sentimental and produce odes for Mother's day (just after this talk). That is a time when you will get caught up in running with the mass, because of the general connotations of the word 'mother'. But Mother's day is an occasion for writing something. Here's an exercise for the group. Try to write something for Mother's Day. Try to get deep inside and to create something other than the usual sentimentality. That is a fine line to tread. Sentiment is true feeling. Sentimentality is feeling that is passed off as true. Many times one says, "I love my mother"; usually, that's sentimentality. Maybe if one says, "I like my mother", that might be true sentiment. But take the occasion to write - perhaps a twelve-line poem. . Don't go on and on, perhaps three stanzas of four verses. Say it all and say it well within that space. Restrict yourself to that. It has already all been expressed, so you have to say it anew. Since it has all been said, the real problem of the poet of the ages remains how to say it anew.

Q. I am asking about whether we should simply write and not think about form?

Well, that is also an approach. The approaches are as varied as there are individuals. I would say that now I am giving them the challenge of creating something that's good, and different. People have done the acrostic - yet they can attempt an acrostic, but they will have to create their own unique lines for each letter. I don't think I ever saw a limerick about mother. Perhaps none have survived. The topic may be too sacred. There must have been an irreverent poet who would have written a limerick or some comic verse about Mom. The four-line stanza is a good one to try, with or without rhymes. So you can try to write three stanzas of four lines.

In short poems we should try to omit introductory lines, and introductory thoughts, and begin with the poem from the first line. Many poets write their preambles and introductions in verse and then have little or no space to complete the poem. Then they ramble on in interminable, unnecessary lines. One of the secrets is how to find that poem, the real poem one is trying to write, among all that camouflaging jungle of verses. What one has to do is o remove everything that is hiding the real poem. Erase, rephrase, and rewrite.

Perhaps it would be a good idea not to write about one's own mother, but to write about someone else's mother. This would distance you from your subject, and give you a certain amount of objectivity about your effort, especially in the rewriting stage. Perhaps it would even be better to write about an enemy's mother. This would lend a different, almost magical element. You must also decide whether you are going to rhyme; whether you are going to have one rhyme for all lines; whether you are going t have alternate rhymes; whether you are going to 'stagger' them. When you think about it, it will begin to construct itself in your head. Sometimes the poem gives us clues about its own form. One can tell from the lengths of line that seem most insistent. The helps you to write itself.

Q. Wouldn't your own mother influence how you would think of a mother, and therefore shouldn't that be the way to write it?

I am suggesting approaches, I wouldn't actually tell you how to write it.

Q. Are you saying that one shouldn't use one's own mother?

For this particular exercise, yes. Concentrate on writing rather than sentimentality. Could you dare to write anything but something nice and hackneyed for your mother? However, if you don't feel comfortable with the exercise there is no pressure, so you can do your own.

Q. Are you saying that in general a good poet is one who sticks to traditional form?

No. Though what we usually think of as untraditional had been written for most of this century and is in fact, now traditional as well. But many feel that certain background is missing when one 'jumps' into it.

Q. You seem to be giving the impression that there are rigid lines. What happens to poetic licence and all those things?

They are still there. Poetic licence is permissible when you have achieved a certain level of competence, or if you are a genius or prodigy. For mortals there would always be rules to follow, guidelines from the masters and so on, and when you have mastered these, then you can take them and reconstruct them to create a new and unique unity. This is where the mastery manifests.

Q. How do you know when you have mastered these principles?

When people accept your work. If you are called upon to render your poems at a school function, for instance - then it means that the teachers think they are good. If you send them to some journal and any are accepted, that is another guide.

Q. Based on public opinion, then?

Once it's an informed public. They are our audience.

Q. It's not how one feels, then?

No, not exactly. It's what you know, more than what you feel. When you have created a work based on the best principles, which can stand up to any other, you must have that confidence that you have created a work of art. After a while you come to realize what it is, hopefully. After all this reworking that a poet does, he begins to acquire a voice, an approach, and later on the poet can create a poem with much less reworking. The things, skills, one had to master in the beginning become second nature, instinctive. Line control, rhyme control, image selection and so on become natural, because of practice.

Q. When you write from inspiration, can the poem be good? Are you still a poet if your inspirational writing cannot measure up to literary standards?

Authenticity in a writer is reflected in the writer' work, even though the writer may be lacking in craft. Sometimes subjectivity gets in the way of the inspirational writer's success. A little constructive criticism sometimes helps. But one must not confuse inspirational writing with automatic writing. Good writing is good writing; bad writing, inspirational or otherwise, is bad writing.

Q. Some of the girls write poetry, which is published in school magazines. Perhaps it would be a good idea if you could discuss how you write poetry in a way that would help them. They have written many poems without paying attention to form, for instance. They have exercise books filled with poems, but need someone to say whether they are doing well or not.

Well, I thought I was telling them all along. Wasn't I? (Laughter). See what you have gathered from the notes of this talk; that ought to help. If your poetry is as good as anything being published at present, say in The New Voices, then you are doing all right. If they are almost as good as those you are studying, then you are on the right track. Read and compare. Go to poetry readings and compare. Choose a form, or a poet, and try to get as good as possible in that genre as you can, before experimenting with another. Try to be objective towards your work. Most of all keep writing, and get as many people as you can to read your work. If they start running when you approach them, then it's back to the writing desk for you. Good luck.

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