The real test of a poem

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I was very saddened to learn recently of the death of Michael Baldwin, the novelist, poet, writing tutor and former chair of the Arvon Foundation.

I never met him, but I can safely say his influence on my life was incalculable.

This is due entirely to his marvellous book The Way to Write Poetry (Elm Tree Books, 1982).  Along with other books I have mentioned here before (Peter Finch’s How to Publish Your Poetry and Julia Casterton’s Creative Writing: A Practical Guide) it is part of a personal Holy Trinity of texts which kept me company during my first years of writing, when I knew no other writers and had no idea what I was doing.

Like those other books, The Way to Write Poetry seems to have been written entirely in quotes. My copy is scored with underlining and notes-to-self in the margins. It is crammed with kind and generous advice. Some of this is quite demanding in its implications, but such is the book’s tone of lightness, it never comes across that way.

Here is an example: ‘If we are unsure of a poem we should make use of its first audience, its private audience, by asking the reader or listener to tell us what it is about. This is often more rewarding, and less socially uncomfortable, than asking people what they think of it.’ He has me by the second word, the small, but inclusive personal pronoun ‘we’. The whole book is shot through with similar hard-won wisdom. Rather like a genial uncle taking you to one side during a large family gathering to impart The Meaning of Life, you don’t realise it is wisdom until you look back on it, years later.

The lessons gathered here are for the beginner as much as the professional. Keep a notebook. Read. Get rid of your ego. Join a group. Read some more. Nothing spectacular, you might say, but all delivered with wit, self-deprecation, and above all, charm: ‘The real problem for us…is why write the poem in the first place?  It is the problem I face at [the] poem’s end. In spite of a million protestations of high endeavour it cannot always be faced at the beginning. To the question what will this poem be about? we can often only answer this poem will be about this poem and when this poem knows what it will be. Criticism cannot always precede or even accompany creation. Judgment, even the judgment of genius, needs time. Our thoughts no less than our lines have to be sat over. We write, in other words, in order to write.’

As I say, when you know nobody else who writes, let alone the rules of sending your work to magazines, this is the kind of thing that keeps you going. I am forever in his debt. As Raymond Carver once said: ‘I’m talking about real influence now’ (author’s italics).

I am certain he was one of the great teachers. (Of course creative writing can be taught.) Is there a better way of critiquing what you (or anyone else) has written than to ask: ‘The real test of a poem is not does it duplicate? The real test of a poem is is it alive?‘ (author’s italics).

I am fairly sure I have copied this into several notebooks over the years. But, just in case, I am going to go and do it again now.

7 comments

  1. Nell Nelson

    I think this is one of the very few (at least that’s my impression) on poetry that I haven’t read. I’ve sent for a second hand copy. And that Tim Clare link was ace. 🙂

    Like

  2. Jazz Cookie

    Anthony…An air-punch was the perfect response to Tim Clare’s post. And beyond that, a great response to your own message. The real test question, “Is it alive?” is just the question to ask. Sometimes we need the reminder…Thank you for offering it.
    All best, Molly

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thank you for that affirmation.
      The thing with reacting with the body like that is you do it before your process it.
      Body preceding mind. So it must be real.
      As at a six, or a cover drive, or a rare try by England.
      Anyway, you get the picture.
      As ever with good wishes
      Anthony

      Like

  3. Peter Carpenter

    Great post. Thanks so much for your Rothko & I am very pleased that you are out of the Slough of Despond. Loved your next post as well. Will send you that creative writing article that has you, Sansoms, Baldwin & Brownjohn all in one field. Much love Murray xx

    Peter Carpenter

    Like

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