The permutations of poetry

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Spare a thought for the poets.

When your favourite band records their latest 12 track album, there are 479,001,600 ways they can arrange the songs on the album.

When a poet writes an average-sized book of 70 poems, there are 11,978,571,669,969,891,796,072,783,721,689,098,736,458,938,142,546,425,857,555,362,864,628,009,582,789,845,319,680,000,000,000,000,000 ways they can arrange the poems. And, even if they arrange them well, it’ll be something that’s scarcely noticed.

Every book of poems I’ve had a hand in editing has gone through a tried and tested process. The poems are printed, then laid out on a large floor for painstaking arrangement and rearrangement. It’s an arcane task that’s part intuition, and part logic. Its aim is to find a compelling order and a natural balance for the poems’ themes, images, vocabulary, etcetera.

But, anyway, that’s the maths.

Recommended: Writing the long poem

There seem to be those who regard the craft of poetry as an engaging and useful topic for discussion, and those who regard it as a somewhat contemptible and self-indulgent one. I’m among those who often find something insightful or useful in discussions about the practicalities of writing poetry, whether it’s via a writers’ festival, a radio interview, or a podcast. And the more practical the discussion is the better.

I recently watched a number of videos by poets.org, including a video in which American poet Ron Padgett talks about writing long poems. In particular, he suggests the following writing strategy:

‘I just made a dumb rule. I said, I’m going to write every day. I’m going to sit down at my desk every day and I’m going to write ten pages. And I don’t care if it’s good or bad, or indifferent, or if it’s notational or whatever. I’m going to write ten pages every day. And I did that for five or six days … I came up with about fifty or sixty pages of material and I put it away for a while. And I went and looked at it again later and a lot of it was dreck … But some of it was pretty good. I was surprised. So I did the obvious thing: I took out all the dreck and I stuck the other pieces together … It all fit together and made this long poem.’

The full video is available here:

Those familiar with Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson may be aware that Padgett is the author of several of the poems supposedly written by the eponymous main character, played by Adam Driver:

100 days: an idea worth spreading

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When I speak to school students about poetry, I often tell them about an exercise or challenge I’ve used to help me write. The idea of 30 or 100-day projects began for me with a TEDx Auckland talk, called Inspiration Wherever You Are, The 100 Days Project, by New Zealand graphic designer Emma Rogan:

As Emma Rogan explains in her talk, it’s an idea she’s adapted from Michael Beirut, a graphic designer and design critic at the Yale School of Art. Each year he asks his students to undertake a project where they repeat one simple creative exercise of their choice every day for 100 days.

I’ve used the practice for periods of 100 days, or 30 days, and it’s the latter I usually recommend to students. For example, in the past, my daily exercise was as simple as writing a 12 line draft of a poem, perhaps about something that made an impression on me that day.

As I explain to students, the results are very imperfect, but the practice helps you develop creative discipline, encourages you to be attentive to ideas that arise in your day-to-day life, and generates creative work you can return to later to edit or rework.

I emphasise that it’s not an idea designed by or for poets, and can work just as well for aspiring novelists, short story writers, graphic designers, photographers, painters, songwriters, game designers, choreographers, actors, and so on. It’s a great idea, and one worth spreading.