26. So You Wanna’ Write a Poem??

In another life, before blogs took over the world, for a cou­ple of years Thor was the Writ­ings Edi­tor for an expa­tri­ate com­mu­nity web­site in South Korea. He there­fore saw a lot of awful writ­ing, and some that was pretty good. By any mea­sure, the reams of very self-absorbed verse were the hard­est to be kind about … so this is the story of piti­lessly stamp­ing on the face of a nice young Irish­man.

One of the perks being an edi­tor, how­ever hum­ble, is that you can pre­tend to play God. Of course, it’s tough if no one comes to the tem­ple, but if a stray does wan­der into your com­pound from time to time you have a licence to dis­pense advice from on high. Some time ago one of these men­di­cants not only came to the gates of Pusan­web, but *asked* for a cri­tique. We watched as he care­fully unwrapped his lit­tle bundle from a scar­let ker­chief, and spread it out on the dirt floor before our altar. It was given with a good heart, we could see. But we sighed. That sigh of a god who is sick to death of gifts of chicken feath­ers, and milk, and honey. Should we tell him? Damn it all man, we want GOLD ……

Hi S,

I have your lat­est poem. I will pub­lish it if you insist (heck, we pub­lish almost any­thing :0). You asked for con­struc­tive crit­i­cism. O’rright. One of the nice things about Irish cul­ture (as opposed to, say Korean cul­ture) is that you can put it in someone’s face and still talk to them later.

Like you I can’t help writ­ing poetry, and the sort of stuff you are doing gives me echoes of my own mis­spent youth (not that I’ve grad­u­ated to any finer plane). One thing I have learned is that most of the mil­lions of unread poems in the world deserve their lousy rep­u­ta­tion. They were des­per­ately sig­nif­i­cant for the peo­ple who wrote them, but nobody else is inter­ested. There is a whole cat­e­gory of Inter­net money scams trad­ing on the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of these poor crit­ters with fake ‘poetry com­pe­ti­tions’.

Why is this stuff junk? 1) one because most of the poems are utterly self-absorbed; 2) the verse fraud­u­lently trades in abstract con­cepts and the code words of ‘uni­ver­sal truths’ while the sub-text screams ME ME ME..

Now for a moment let’s get a bit abstract and bor­ing (like we say poetry shouldn’t be)…

Most great poetry (..and great art gen­er­ally) has some­thing speci­fic to say about a real tree, or a real man, or a real dog in a real place. Its power is in vibrantly evok­ing that sit­u­a­tion in liv­ing sounds and colours and smells. Insight comes from emo­tion, and emo­tion comes from sen­sa­tion. It is no good talk­ing about the emo­tion and expect­ing read­ers to assume the sen­sa­tion.

Emo­tion of a cer­tain kind can also come from the ‘aha’ sen­sa­tion of cogent log­i­cal argu­ment which clicks, but that is not nor­mally the ter­ri­tory of poetry.

Any uni­ver­sal truths and epipha­nies which poetry read­ers arrive at will emerge from their *own* evoked emo­tions, not from the emo­tions that you tell them they should have.

If you can trick peo­ple into sim­u­lat­ing some mix of sen­sa­tions, and those sen­sa­tions lead to emo­tion, then insight, well they will think you won­der­fully clever. If you talk about ‘passion’s price’ and ‘sex’s greed’ or some vaguely bib­li­cal ref­er­ence to ‘milk and honey’, then they’ll think you a crash­ing bore…

Yeah but, you say, if I put my bro­ken soul in plas­tic wrap, stuff it back in the freezer, what’s there left to talk about with pas­sion? Well, there are your toe nails, your butt and your crooked nose … but prob­a­bly more inter­est­ing to every­one except you, there’s the tic on the face of that lady sell­ing tteok­bokgi on the cor­ner.

You still want to be pro­found? OK, but this is heavy pud­ding. Take small bites. Car­toon­ists prob­a­bly have a lot to teach wannabe poets. Your aver­age syn­di­cated car­toon, the Peanuts and the Blondies, do not give ser­mons. They scoop out tiny, wry snip­pets of sharp obser­va­tion, and attach them to sim­ple, mem­o­rable char­ac­ters with a smile. My guess is that they have done more to edu­cate, amuse and civ­i­lize the unwashed masses than all the turgid verse ever writ­ten.

Take care.



S: ..Thor, you sur­prise me!

Surely you can’t believe that quan­tity super­sedes qual­ity in this great big game of words. Was Eliot aware of what was to become of his Waste­land? Was Joyce of his Ulysses? Of course I am, thank­fully, not stu­pid enough to believe that what falls from my pen is star­dust, rather that the occa­sional hint of super­nova light is some­times thrown my way when I least expect it, albeit always want­ing it!

Yes, I know that one has to go through the wars with one’s own work in order to come out the other end smelling of Son­nets, but inspi­ra­tion can come from any­where at any moment, and when it does, well whose to say that we are not all Eliots, Pounds, Baudelaires………..all the big guns!


TM : … Obvi­ously quan­tity is no sub­sti­tute for qual­ity if you want to turn up on under­grad­u­ate read­ing lists in brand name uni­ver­si­ties; (not so obvi­ous if you want to turn up in air­port book­stalls and become rich). That wasn’t my orig­i­nal point. My point was that your brain and your char­ac­ter are still works in pro­gress (one hopes). By age 5 you had mas­tered the main syn­tac­tic struc­tures of Eng­lish speech, but prob­a­bly didn’t man­age the pas­sive com­fort­ably until 9 or even 12. By 17, if you were above aver­age you were able to read some­thing like Newsweek or Time; (the tabloid I worked for long ago asked us to write for the masses with a read­ing age of 11 years).

Writ­ing is some­thing else again. You learn to talk pretty young because you do a lot of it, and on the whole your audi­ence is not crit­i­cal. They just want to know if you’re ask­ing for the bread or the soup spoon. With writ­ing, the first trick is to put a mes­sage on paper using traf­fic sig­nals that your read­ers can under­stand with­out all the back­ups of body lan­guage and con­text avail­able in speech. If it’s an SMS din­ner date mes­sage, the demands are pretty low because you are hardly beyond a ver­bal request. If it is an over­time notice, you have to fol­low some rules of eti­quette, but it’s still pretty sim­ple, and this is about the lit­er­acy limit of your aver­age, so-called man­age­ment level exec­u­tive

When you get into “lit­er­a­ture” there is an extra dimen­sion which dis­tracts and leads most wannabes astray forever. This is the game, or the art, of being “clever” with words. Being clever with words actu­ally means bang­ing the sym­bols up against each other and lis­ten­ing to see if you like the echo. With­out doubt there is a skill in this, and with­out that skill you can never play the lit­er­a­ture game.

How­ever, the sym­bols you are clang­ing around in your head for nice effects are just that : sym­bols. Each one of them is a coa­les­cence of your life expe­ri­ence, and is only shared to the extent that other peo­ple have a sim­i­lar life expe­ri­ence. You mother is dif­fer­ent from every­one else’s mother. Then you must peg your sym­bols out on the clothes line of syn­tax. You hope that not only will the peg-line hold for other folk in this clever lit­er­ary cre­ation, but that they will sense all kinds of other, trans­par­ent spi­der webs. Webs which were woven between the sym­bols in some witch­ing hour. You know the spi­der webs are in your brain, and if you haven’t played this game for long, you’ll be so charmed by the morn­ing dew hang­ing on you own gos­samer that you won’t stop to ask …. ask hey ! What do I really know about those sym­bol shapes in other people’s heads? And which other heads pre­cisely am I think­ing about? And what kinds of spi­der webs do THEY allow to grow between their sym­bol col­lec­tions?

Yeah, so you say mar­ket­ing wasn’t in your lit­er­a­ture syl­labus, and you don’t want to sell Mills & Boone any­way. Well the news is that lit­er­a­ture is not made in heaven, and has no ‘per­fect form’ (at least, I don’t think so : never was impressed with Plato). Lit­er­a­ture is the del­i­cate busi­ness of send­ing com­plex mes­sages to other brains, each of which has evolved uniquely with its own sym­bol sets and traf­fic rules. As you write a lot of lit­er­a­ture and beam it out, you grad­u­ally become less awestruck by your own clev­er­ness, and more intrigued by the prob­lem of strik­ing echoes in those other strange brains.

cheers, Thor


Thor May has a doc­tor­ate in lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity, an entirely use­less dec­o­ra­tion acquired too late to sal­vage even the pre­tense of a respectable career. One of the few things he learned in a mis­spent youth was that poets were even less likely to earn a liv­ing wage than the teacher he even­tu­ally became. How­ever, the poetry writ­ing habit, which for most wannabes sub­sides with their rag­ing hor­mones as they sink into cardi­gans, bad teeth and mid­dle age, per­sists as a secret addic­tion for the few. The secret part comes from a poet’s real­iz­ing just how gauche their own attempts at verse have been and remain. The addic­tion, well some peo­ple become resigned to a spread­ing waist­line, but for that lit­tle band of crypto poets, they just wrig­gle their toes and indulge the plea­sure found from play­ing with lan­guage. They are harm­less, except when acci­den­tally hired as edi­tors.

Bris­bane, 2012

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