I’ve never really been able to do poetry, although I’m quite good at writing song lyrics. I have no idea why I just don’t get how to write a poem.
It may be in part because I don’t understand what differentiates poetry from lyrical prose or plain lyrics. Songs I understand – there is a form to follow. You need to follow rhyme and scansion – even if you can cheat a bit and use half rhymes or assonance, and you can mess about a bit with the length of lines by stretching or compressing words or lengthening bars. I can sort of do lyrical prose as well by working with the rhythms of a sentence and the imagery. But when does that stop and poetry start – especially with free verse.
I am always in awe when I see performance poets in particular – my friend Olly Watson is brilliant at it. I can recognise that when he tells a story it is a poem – even when he uses a structure that on paper would be more like prose. I just can’t do it myself.
Perhaps it is an OuLiPo thing that allows me to write lyrics and not poetry – the constraints of the form are actually freeing rather than restricting – or perhaps it is just that my brain is hardwired for patterns. The structure is less obvious when I write prose, but it is always there. I always have an overarching plot, story arcs for the characters, threaded metaphors and allusions, and a number of set pieces I want to place in the correct pattern. A lot of the stories also place within a meta pattern as a close up on a single part of a larger body of work – a bit like those photo puzzles where you have to identify an item from a small element.
The songs are part of that too – I mention in the novel I’m revising at the moment that the lead character is writing a musical based on the Pied Piper of Hamlin and the Comedia Del Arte canon but set against the backdrop of municipal corruption on Tyneside in the 70s. The novel itself is set against the same background and one of the songs I would use if I ever get round to writing said musical is featured. Others pop up in other stories – never miss a chance to reuse something you’ve done in another context. In the same way stuff I’ve done for writing exercises has made its way into larger works, and I’ve often used bits of the same research to inform stories with radically different settings, genres and feel.
But poetry…I wish I could do what James Branch Cabell did and hide whole poems inside his novels by punctuating them as prose. One to think about.