Writing on Poetry

Some thoughts about letting go

David Malouf said, ‘You have to fall out of that part of your mind where you know too much, into an area where you don’t know anything before the best writing can happen.’ Paul Muldoon, speaking about using traditional poetic forms, said that, ‘Everything seems pre-determined, pre-ordained, and yet, one has absolutely no idea how it’ll turn out.’ e.e.cummings wrote, ‘A poet is a penguin – he has wings to swim with.’

These pieces of writerly insight can create a sense of vertigo in the new writer because they are about learning to let go of what one ‘knows’. The question I want to explore in this presentation is, what do poetry students hold on to as we urge them to ‘let go of what they know’. And what can I, as a teacher, offer these students as they head off into this unknowing/unknown territory on, as Paul Muldoon would have it, the great adventure that is language?

When we ask poetry students to ‘let go of what they know’ and trust in the exploration, what do they then hold on to as they try to locate the poem? In asking them to let go of what they know, we are asking them to enter that oh-so-revealing territory of what they don’t know. In that big, wide unknown are some tools to show a more complex truth. There’s metaphor and there’s evocation, there’s connotation and space. There are adjectives, which Anne Carson in her book length narrative poem,  Autobiography of Red, describes as ‘…small imported mechanisms in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.’  Writer and academic, Kevin Brophy, in his book Explorations in Creative Writing says that, “What poetry does through its play with images, through the violence, ambiguity and surprise possible with metaphor is to assert over and over that everything is connected to every other thing.”

What tends to be thrown open when we attempt to let go of what we know, is the whole wide world and possibly also the universe and maybe also infinity.

‘What we know’ what we hold on to as what we know, may not be the best version of a life, it may not be the best news in the world, but it is at least something to protect ourselves with.  It is a construction. It sets us apart. It is not nothing. Little wonder that some students get stressed and defensive in the poetry class. It’s delicate territory. We need to be careful. We need to offer some tools to take along the way – maybe a drink that will make you invisible, maybe a flute that will summon all the writer’s who have entered that territory before and know how to survive it.  Margaret Atwood writes chillingly and accurately about the journey into the unknown in her prose piece from Murder in the dark called ‘The Page’.  She writes:


The question about the page is: what is beneath it? It seems to have only two dimensions, you can pick it up and turn it over and the back is the same as the front. Nothing, you say, disappointed.

But you were looking in the wrong place, you were looking on the back instead of beneath. Beneath the page is another story. Beneath the page is a story. Beneath the page is everything that has ever happened, most of which you would rather not hear about.

The page is not a pool but a skin, a skin is there to hold in and it can feel you touching it. Did you really think it would just lie there and do nothing?

Touch the page at your peril: it is you who are blank and innocent, not the page. Nevertheless, you want to know, nothing will stop you. You touch the page, it’s as if you’ve drawn a knife across it, the page has been hurt now, a sinuous wound opens, a thin incision. Darkness wells through.


Once you let go of what you know, you have to accept that you are no longer entirely in charge of proceedings. So you need some strategies. Here’s one strategy for moving in on a poem. Treat it like a cow, or some animal that startles easily and is behind a wire fence. You probably know not to rush up to the fence. You know to stand still for a moment, at a respectful distance and let the cow look at you. You might start to walk alongside the fence. The cow, on its side, will probably start to walk along beside you. If there is a stand of poplars between the cow and the fence and you, that’s fine too.  You will still see the cow, in flashes, between the trees, keeping pace with you. And when you can’t see it, you will feel and hear the regular thump of its hooves.

You don’t barge up to a poem and demand that it communicates with you. You move in quietly and you take a little walk, you listen to its rhythm, you glance at its eyes. You smell its familiar/unfamiliar smell.

Some days you are walking alongside your poem and it turns out it’s about your little sister, and it’s the day you were crossing the road together and you let go of her hand. What do you do with this? Are you writing a poem or having a cathartic experience? “Can somebody”, the stressed poetry student might ask, “tell me what’s going on here”.

It’s time to remind your student about the insufficiency of words. The almost enough but not-quiteness of language.  ‘Poetry starts’, as poet Susan Mitchell says, ‘where ordinary conversation leaves off.’  Poetry resonates or calls back to the past, and forward into the future. It does what ordinary words can’t do. A poem has a bigger job to do than just locate your most significant memories and tell your story.  Stay with the detail, it is the golden thread that has the poem attached. Stay with the poem, stay with the detail. The awful and wonderful state of being human will filter through. Don’t try and write about it. Walk alongside it, hear it breathing, feel it walking. It’s not about your pain or your ego or your insufficiency. We all have pain and ego and insufficiency. It’s about something bigger than that.

So, one thing I do to keep students in safe territory is to keep telling them about the work of poetry: In the shape-shifting world of poetry, the poem is not just about the day you let go of your little sister’s hand when you were crossing the road. If it is a successful poem, it is about more than this known and remembered experience, it is the noise, as I think Carol Ann Duffy said, of being human.

When I sent out my questionnaire for this paper to ex-students and ex-classmates and some colleagues and asked them ‘What do you hold on to as you let go of what you know and experiment with “not knowing”’, I didn’t forget to interview myself and ask the same question. What I hold on to is the sense of being in a community of writers. I take with me as my guides sure and powerful poets.  I also take with me an almost evangelical faith in the rich, shared  resource of language – the word-hoard that is there waiting to be dipped into.  It took me ages to realise that this resource was available to me – I used to be stuck with ‘what I know’ and that felt like terribly skimpy pickings.

The group of people I asked my question of was small and the replies can’t be built up into any kind of evidence of anything. But they were thought provoking. Here’s a sample of the replies:

Brent, who was in my class in 2007 when I did the MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters, told me about a poem that he had been writing about his daughter sleeping. He had called it ‘Softness’, but didn’t like the title. While he mulled over what to call the poem, he came up with ‘Morphine’. He said that, ‘although that new title had nothing to do with my sleeping child, I realized the poem (in its ambiguity) described very nearly the image I carried from some years earlier of my dying mother.  He reminded me that we used to talk about some poems being ‘happy accidents’ and the way that a poem can come in through a side door. He pointed out that this idea twins nicely with David Malouf’s thoughts that ‘You have to fall out of that part of your mind where you know too much, into an area where you don’t know anything before the best writing can happen’.

Another fellow student said: ‘What do I hold onto when I let go? When I climb rung by wicked rung to some fresh-new view of the page, or sink down into the wonderfully mucky sludgy gold of intuitive burble … maybe it’s just the motion of the thing that stays with me. The seeking, stretching, surfing pleasure of following where sound leads. I try to keep my heart about me, and lose my wits.’

An ex-student who recently completed an MA in Creative Writing, said that she ‘…lets go of control in order to gain control’. Each morning she gets up at 5am and does an hour’s free writing. She then goes back and ‘harvests’ that writing to find a line for a poem, or sometimes a whole poem. She then starts writing the first of several drafts of the poem to find its final shape. She says, ‘I find the golden thread, or words start being attracted to other words. She said again, ‘I let go of control in order to gain control.’

Another ex-student said, ‘I held onto my uncertainty, knowing that’s the place where anything can happen.’ She also said, ‘I held on to words (the fabulous English language) and a small confidence that they would respond to the ride, wherever the hell it was going.’

Rachel, from my MA class said, ‘I’m a snippet writer. I don’t seem to be able to sit and write and write in a lyrical flow. Instead small snatches come out, like ink blots and often they were around particular words that fixed in my head. So I would be reading a book and a particular word would jump out and spin around in my head and I would suck on it and build ideas around it.’ She went on to say, ‘Reflecting back Lynn, what I needed most to hold on to and what I kept dropping was self belief. The belief that what I was creating had meaning and would lead somewhere. I think if I had held that constant then I could have trusted myself to let go.’

I’ve read quite a bit of Rachel’s work, and she’s a good writer. During our MA year, she wasn’t confident. Most of us weren’t confident, or our confidence ebbed and flowed during the year. You have to let that not matter. In, Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets, published in 2009, Bill Manhire, in the introduction to his poems says that he ‘started writing poems out of a deep shyness and social awkwardness, and because words sound magical.’ Sometimes lack of confidence is a good thing. The students who can leave their ego at the door are often the best writers, or they are the ones who will ‘get it’ – they will take that surprising journey beneath the page.

Bill goes on to say, ‘Shyness and awkwardness, especially awkwardness, can give a poem peculiar worth – so that the apparently finished thing thrives inside its own sense of incompleteness, keeping faith with the clumsy world it came from. Awkwardness guarantees a kind of authenticity. The stumble, like the presence of bad special effects in a movie, makes us feel human.’

In 2007, a colleague, a successful writer of plays and novels, took a poetry course that I was teaching. In answer to my question to her, she said, ‘What I held on to was my certainty that if I just sat down at the computer on Wednesday night I could write one poem a week and that is all I knew. Well, I suppose I knew they wouldn’t all be poems I wanted to continue working on, but I just thought if I write a poem a week until the middle of the year, I’ll be ok. And I did, and I was.’

Another established writer said, ‘The thing I hold onto now, that thing that anchors me, is a writing routine. When I was a student, I struggled to create or sustain any kind of routine. During those weeks and months where I felt all at sea, I would hear about writers for whom writing was something regular and reliable in their day, in their lives. They were often the lighthouse (just to extend the metaphor to breaking point) in a very dark night-time.’

My colleagues know the pay-off of an established writing routine, and I wasn’t surprised that they chose this appointment-keeping commitment as their reply to my question.

Again, in Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets Cilla McQueen says, ‘Handwriting is a daily practice and essential to the process of my work. I like that clear line flowing between conscious and unconscious mind, the patterns of threads inked by the travelling nib. The outside world impinges; the inside world flows out in language, in a process of exchange between myself and the world through an invisible osmotic membrane.’

In the classroom, I always have tissues on hand. There are often tears, particularly in the first few weeks of class. At such times I try to remember that the teacher, like the poet, has to stay with the detail.  Stay with the poem. Its breath, its tread, and its coming and going. Nurture the poem. Stay with the poem. It’s all we can do, and all we need to do. Each time a poet brings a poem up from beneath the page, and finds its shape, they’ll know that they can do it again. This doesn’t have to involve grace or eloquence or flow or brilliance. It certainly shouldn’t involve therapy or closure. It can involve awkwardness and shyness and pain and stupidness.

I can’t tell students why the poem is a shape-shifter. I don’t know why a poem called ‘Softness’ becomes a poem called ‘Morphine’. I don’t know why metaphors sometimes feel about as powerful as God.  I do know that poetry students can take courage and guidance from their literary ancestors, that they can find their way into a poem by walking alongside it and moving from detail to detail, and that they can learn to sustain a routine of writing.

When asked by an interviewer about the doubts and anxieties involved in ‘presuming to pursue a life in poetry’, Seamus Heaney said, ‘You could say that every poem I write – or that anybody else writes, for that matter – is a way of overcoming those doubts.’











Works sited:

  1. Carson, Anne. 1998. Autobiography of Red. New York. Alfred A Knopf
  2. Brophy, Kevin. 2003. Explorations in Creative Writing. Melbourne. Melbourne University Press
  3. Atwood, Margaret. 1984. Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems. London. Jonathan Cape
  4. Johnston, Andrew and Marsack, Robyn, Editors. 2009. Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets. Wellington. Victoria University Press
  5. Heaney, Seamus. 2008. Stepping Stones: interviews with Seamus Heaney. London. Faber and Faber Limited



Writer and Teacher