Poetry, for me, is an attempt to nail a combination of experience, thought and emotion, using some kind of rhythm and rhyme that resonates for others, in the hope that they might feel it too. It's also a good way to cut a long story short. I didn’t begin to achieve this, to my own satisfaction, until I was in my 50s. Before that, I’d written verses for my children: treasure hunt clues or messages from the tooth fairy in rhyming couplets, and a poem for my friend Sue, when we were both living as single parents in small towns.
Then my son died, at the age of 34. Somebody asked me recently, “How do you come back from that?” Well this is how: First, I decided, after 17 years of celibacy, that I didn’t want to be on my own any more. I went to a “Flirting Workshop” at the Buddhafield Festival and put my profile on a dating web site. Emotionally, I had nothing to lose.
In my initial email exchanges on the dating site there was a guy who kept sending me haikus. When I realised he hadn’t written them himself, and was probably sending these to lots of women, I decided to respond with a sonnet. I had no idea how to write a sonnet. So I took the Complete Works of Shakespeare off the shelf, found the sonnets, noted the rhyming pattern, counted out the syllables, and used the content of this guy’s profile and initial messages to send him packing.
Then I found a man who put me in touch with my body and my grief. The experience of counting syllables and trying to frame what I was feeling in a strict pattern helped me to start a poem that expressed what I was feeling. But then the emotion took over and the poem seemed to write itself. And it said what I wanted to say. And for the first time I understood something about art and creativity that I hadn’t experienced before. That relationship didn’t work out. But my next poems flowed from a hopeless relationship with an alcoholic clown. These included Blind Date, In This Time, Stolen Words and Lodgers*. I summed up another brief relationship with Tribute to John Lennon, and after yet another man told me “I don’t want to waste your time”, I decided I’d had enough of this roller coaster ride.
A late marriage
What happened next is recorded in the Wedding Poem I wrote (*incorporating 'Lodgers' as an introduction) when I married Ian in 2008. Around that time, I joined the Waltham Forest Stanza Group, now Forest Poets, and when someone picked a word at random for us to use as the title of a poem, I managed to dredge up a childhood memory and write Crusaders. After slipping on a banana skin in Walthamstow Market, I wrote a poem for Ian, Without Whom. I then retired from full-time work and after an extended trip to Australia and New Zealand, my creative energy over the next few years was taken up with choirs and SingawayE17.
Ten years later
A request from my daughter, Jenny, to write a poem for her wedding in 2019 has got me going again. And an invitation from the Forest Poets to read at their Open Mic in the Walthamstow Garden Party encouraged me to finish off a poem I’d started a few years earlier when I was watching Families on a Beach in Cornwall (see below). Books on "How to write poetry" often tell you to start by imitating the styles of other poets before you develop your own voice. I feel I'm only just beginning to discover what fun it can be to attempt this kind of imitation and I'm probably too old to worry about developing a style of my own! For example, I recently read, and enjoyed Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate – a whole novel written in what’s known as the Onegin Petrameter, and I’ve used this to frame a narrative poem in 11 sonnet-length stanzas, Free School Camp, following the recent death of my son’s father.
What I call a verse and what I call a poem
A group of friends meeting on Zoom during Covid lockdown agreed to set each other the task of writing a poem about a garden. I decided to write a poem about a moment in my childhood but wasn't sure I could do it within our one week deadline. So I knocked out some "Garden verses" in the simple rhythm (da dum de dum de dum de dum) and pattern of rhyming couplets. These verses offer a wry account of gardening problems - all of which have occurred at one time or another in my experience. But I feel they could have been written by anyone. In The medlar tree, however, I feel I've captured something that was uniquely mine (and re-titled it "Penis Envy", but without changing the title of the document). To achieve this I started to set the scene, writing freely, in the first two lines. Then I counted the syllables (13 in the first line, 8 in the second) and found a rhythm and a rhyming pattern to follow on from there. The rhythm is a bit clunky, but I wanted to repeat the word garden in order to stay true to the task we'd set ourselves: to write a poem about a garden.
Families on the beach
A real poet wouldn’t watch the families on the beach without a rhythm and a shape To reach for something that she needs to understand. Nor would she lack the discipline To keep her focus on a clear and simple strand.
A real poet wouldn’t try to bring in the confusion of this lone observer Of a model family on holiday. Car. Picnic. Mummy. Daddy. Boy. Girl. Dog.
See that black dog run to fetch the ball. Watch it scamper Splashing through the shallows on the shore A real poet would reflect on her ambivalence regarding animals In clever and descriptive metaphor.
A real poet wouldn’t tell you how those chubby-fisted toddlers planted in a pool Were simply scooping up wet sand to throw. Instead, while painting in their sun-red glow, She’d show you how it feels To mourn the broken promise of a future spilling through their fingers.
And as she tries to rhyme the ripples, plop and splatter when their sandy missiles hit the water She would make a different poem of, or leave out altogether The expression on their faces, that mixture of absorption and delight Because she also saw them glancing sideways at each other, And recognised the lurking rivalry, “Did she make a bigger splash?” “Has he got more sand than me?”