The Lure | Chris JonesPosted: March 26, 2017
One of the hardest things we ask creative writing students to do is comment on their own poetry or prose in a ‘critical’ reflective commentary. Students are asked to explain a work’s genesis by outlining the process of drafting, by showing how they have used various writing techniques, and by illuminating those literary (or wider) influences shaping the text. I liken this project to wrestling with an octopus because of the multiple strands that have to be negotiated and pinned down in order for the author to speak clearly about the process of composition.
One of the issues underlining such an action is that most writers, however accomplished they are as stylists, struggle to write about process in a clear, rigorous, example-specific way. You will find many books out there that give writers a platform to write about their own art, but they often do this in the most generalised, tentative, jokey or obscurantist fashion. Here are three quotations, picked at random from a collection of mini-essays grouped together as Don’t Ask me What I Mean: Poets in their own Words (edited by Clare Brown and Don Paterson):
When I look back on my earlier collections of poems, I can see now certain obsessions, preoccupations, experiments and styles. My poetry has changed, I think, but the change has been almost wholly unconscious (Elizabeth Jennings).
It’s embarrassing to discuss your own poems in print. You come across as either an awestruck fan of your own genius or a tedious explainer of jokes (Michael Donaghy).
The opening poem, entitled ‘The Shore’, describes an epiphanic experience of the ‘Void’, or Emptiness, which occurred to me while carrying out archaeological fieldwork one freezing day on the Humber foreshore (Peter Didsbury).
These kind of approaches are not at all uncommon: you read lots of (1) vague reflections on poetic development (Jennings, by the way, does not elaborate in any further detail on this statement regarding her growth as a writer. I know she talks about ‘unconscious’ processes, but surely we have some cognitive understanding of what we are doing as writers); (2) deliberate attempts not to discuss individual poems in a holistic or critical fashion; or (3) explanations of poems that rely on the most basic of glosses – interpretations that tell you what the poems are about (I can try to work that out for myself) rather than offering insights into the craft of writing itself. Admittedly, the poets are not being asked to be that clinical in regards to examining their own work: they have only 500-1000 words to discuss their prize-winning collections. The poets don’t have to provide an instruction manual on how their work was made, but at the same time you will discover very little about individual technique (‘how and why I write like this’) in the book. Indeed, one of the ironies of writers reflecting on their own practices is how limited the analysis of craft is, of finding words to externalise this inward-looking game. You may argue that this kind of ‘autopsy’ isn’t really the job of a writer, but significantly, from a viewpoint of reflecting on the skills of writing, there’s little relevant guidance for my students here.
A few years ago I was invited by the artist Paul Evans to collaborate on a project for Derby Museum and Art Gallery. The project took the form of a ‘creative intervention’ in the 1001 Objects Gallery. Paul fashioned the paintings and drawings for a bespoke desk-bureau that reflected on some of the artefacts in the space. I wrote poems to accompany the pictures framed in the artist’s desk and also produced pieces that were stencilled on glass cases around the gallery.
Because there was so much visual data in the gallery, I decided to write concise, discrete works – the poems were small objects in themselves like many of the things on display. Also, I wanted the audience to puzzle over the connections between a poem and an object: the two weren’t always aligned in the gallery space. To help me think about the tone or voice of the work, I had in mind Anglo-Saxon riddle poems (particularly where an object speaks for itself) when devising a number of the pieces.
One of the items we decided to ‘narrate’ (paint/write about) was a large seashell lure used by Polynesian fisherman. The finished poem comprises this couplet:
A clam scooped out by morning sun:
a charm to draw a fish out of the ocean.
You can see from the early drafts I’m feeling toward a way of both representing and defamiliarising the shell:
A tine to snag a fish from out the sea
A tooth to snap a fish from out of ocean
A tooth to bite a fish out of the sea
Originally, this was to be the first line of the poem, but I soon realised I would have to create a more direct statement that named the shell in the first line followed by a more playful, teasing image in that concluding line. The reader needed a clearer pathway into the poem than a metaphor-embellished line could offer.
I then moved on to shaping the couplet. This was my first complete draft:
A clam that’s full of morning sun:
this charm to draw a fish out of the ocean.
You can see the problem with that first line is that the sun’s action on the clam is passive: it’s ‘full of morning sun’ like a glass or vessel filled with water. The final version adopts the more active verb: ‘scooped out’, which befits a workaday object being harnessed to catch fish. The second line is nearly there: I’ve introduced ‘charm’ here because it plays on the notion of something that lures, is charming, charms. Going back to those earliest drafts, I can see now that one of the reasons why ‘tine’ and ‘tooth’ had to be jettisoned if the poem was going to develop was that both words don’t offer any aural connections (in terms of vowels and consonants) with the word ‘clam’. The logical step for a clam that is a lure is for it to be associated with ‘charm’. I wrote a brief guide to each of the poems in a catalogue co-written with Paul that picked up on this idea:
I think in this poem [‘Lure’] I tried to present different ideas of symmetry and reflection. So firstly you have two lines ‘mirroring’ each other on the page. You also have echoes in ‘a clam’ and ‘a charm’, ‘scooped out’ and ‘fish out’, and in that final rhyme of ‘sun’ and ‘ocean’. The closeness of the two lines visually and aurally was important as it added to the ‘allure’ of the poem.
I could have added that further near-rhyme of ‘morn[ing]’ and ‘draw’ to extend that notion of conjoined words over the two lines. When using potentially attention-seeking end-rhymes, I have this paradoxical urge to hide them or, perhaps more accurately, I try to make them seamless within the fabric of the poem. There’s nothing more off-putting than obtrusive end-rhymes (unless you are actively trying to achieve this effect); the reader is too busy listening out for those rhymes or trying to second-guess what they might be, rather than holding the whole of the poem, the full palette of its word-music, in their ear. One of the ways you can shoe-in end-rhymes is by banking up the near-rhymes and internal rhymes around them in the couplet. So ‘clam/charm’ and ‘morn/draw’ are introducing your ear to the possibilities of correspondence: ‘sun’ and ‘ocean’ heighten and extend this awareness in that final beat of each line. That the ‘sun’ is carried and echoed in ‘ocean’ is a bonus that you would take anytime that it comes up.
Listen to Paul Evans and Chris Jones discuss their collaboration on ‘The Spirit is a Bone’ at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, 25 May 2013:
This is the second in a series of essays by Chris Jones reflecting on the craft of writing; click here to read the first in the series. Further essays will be posted on the Longbarrow Blog throughout 2017.
Artist Paul Evans has collaborated with a number of Longbarrow Press poets in recent years; click here to view the paintings, drawings and poems for the Seven Wonders project. His main website can be found here.
Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order: