I have had a particular postcard on my desk for many years, a bit yellowed now. It was originally sent to me by the late Richard Caddel, who was at the time the co-director of the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre at Durham University library. It lists Basil Bunting’s advice to his students in Newcastle in the early 1970s. Like Bunting, I have passed this on to my students; over the years I must have shared this with nearly 300 beginning poets. It remains for me the best advice on how to write a poem:
1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjectives; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape.
Put your poem away until you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.
Never explain – your reader is as smart as you.
What poets must achieve is the ‘congruence of line and sense’, to quote another Newcastle-based poet, Sean O’Brien, who spoke on the poet’s process last night at the launch of the new issue of Poetry Review at the Freeword Centre in London. To balance form and content is the challenge in every poem, and each poem presents a different set of challenges. The poem is a jigsaw puzzle, a formal maze, a crossword, a mystery to be solved …