The art of writing and reading poetry

by Lucy Newlyn

Creativity is mysterious, and cannot be learned or taught. But the craft of poetry is available to anyone who reads a lot and is willing to undergo an apprenticeship. Each person has their own unique pattern and pace, skill coming with practice.

I was lucky enough to be surrounded by books from infancy. My parents used to read poetry aloud to me and my sisters from an early age. I learned to read very late (the last in my class to do so) but writing followed immediately, in an unstoppable rush. I had a little red book in which I wrote verses, stories, anything that came to mind; this became inseparable from my childhood self. I remember being especially pleased with a story in which I turned into a bluebell, invisible in a sea of bluebells. Nature has always allured and consoled me.

I went on writing poetry, though more sporadically, into my teens — inspired by whichever writer I was reading at the time. My tastes were eclectic, but I had a sustained commitment to William Wordsworth and Ted Hughes, whose poems I used to chant while pacing the floor of my attic bedroom in Leeds. I loved them as much as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, whose songs I had by heart. When I went to Oxford to read English, my own poetry stopped. There is no Creative Writing component in Oxford’s English syllabus, the emphasis lying on rigorous academic analysis. I was, however, in my element in this scholarly environment, analysing to my heart’s content. My creativity went into composing essays. I read these aloud to myself to get the rhythms right— a practice continued throughout my life. The music of language is important, whatever medium we are using, and critical prose can be beautiful. I wanted mine to be.

As a scholar, it was always poetry that I loved best, my understanding of the canon building gradually through close reading and teaching. My passion was and remains the English Romantic poets, about whom I have published several books and given hundreds of tutorials, lectures, seminars. Everything was going smoothly in my academic career until my older sister Sally died. I was in my early forties at the time, with a small child as well as a demanding job. To my astonishment, I found that the only way that I could process the immensity of grief was through my own poems, which welled up uncontrollably. It was as though the traditions of centuries (familiar to me until then only through reading) were channelled by my grief into new forms. In intense lyrics of love and loss I composed a sequence called ‘Cancer Calendar’ which I showed to my family and several poet-friends. They saw that the writing was too raw, but encouraged me. Years later, the sequence would be reshaped and extended as a published collection called Earth’s Almanac. But not before I had done a lot of work coming to terms with the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder — a condition which emerged out of bereavement. 

It was grief, then, that turned me from an academic into a poet. What has followed, over the past two decades, is a late apprenticeship in the craft — which I am still undergoing.  By ‘craft’ I mean the practice of putting poems together, getting to understand the nuts and bolts of forms and techniques from the inside. I  have found over the years that immersion in craft is therapeutic. Standing back from raw emotions and giving them poetic form enables a reflective distancing from issues that inevitably remain unresolved. In my first collection, Ginnel, I watched this process at work as I wrote about the remembered places of childhood and childhood as a place. I was mourning the death of my father at that time; the poems are a distillation of  loss.        

The act of writing is usually intense and solitary. But writers need readers. They learn through the responses of others how their words are going over, which helps them to improve. Wordsworth, to take a famous example, relied on his sister Dorothy — who served not only as muse and amanuensis, but as first reader of all his poems. My sister Sally died without seeing me turn into a poet, but I’m lucky to have received help and encouragement from friends, colleagues and students; this has confirmed what I knew already from studying the Romantics, that collaboration and community are vital in fostering creativity. The recreational workshops I convened in my college involved sharing poems with fellow apprentices in a safe environment. Regular habits of giving/receiving feedback increased motivation and encouraged experimentation. Every one of the poems in my recent collections was tried out on trusted readers in a private internet space called the Hall Writers’ Forum.  

My book The Craft of Poetry has emerged from a systematic effort to engage with the techniques and forms of English poetry. These were familiar to me from reading, studying and teaching long before I learned how to use them myself. Even so, an emphasis on practice rather than theory characterises my method. There is no better way to understand how metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, etc achieve their effects than to try them out. Likewise, we cannot fully appreciate the distinction between Petrarchan, Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets until we have learned to follow (and sometimes to break) their distinctive rules. I know from my own experience that the technical aspects of poetry can appear daunting, especially when described in academic prose. By writing my book as a sequence of poems about a remembered place, I hope to have made specialist knowledge accessible and pleasurable — showing how a range of techniques can transform lived experience in different ways. In the Facebook Group which is an adjunct to the book, I am putting the methodology of my ‘primer in verse’ to the test with a new community of reader-writers.

A final word about inspiration. However hard we tinker (alone or collaboratively) with the nuts and bolts of a poem, let’s not forget that creativity is mysterious. As mysterious as the processes of grieving and remembering — or as the sound and motion of a stream. Throughout The Craft of Poetry my guide and muse was the Widdale, a beck in Wensleydale where I paddled and played as a child. Everyone has sources of creativity like this — in themselves, their environments, their memories. These are waiting to be discovered and explored.

Lucy Newlyn is a poet and emeritus fellow in English, St Edmund Hall, Oxford. In addition to studies of the Romantic poets, she has published four collections of poetry, GinnelEarth’s AlmanacVital Stream, and The Marriage Hearse. She lives near Truro, UK. Visit Lucy’s website for more poetry and information.

Inspired by The Craft of Poetry, Lucy Newlyn has set up a Facebook group for anyone who would like to explore poetic forms and techniques and share their own poetry with Lucy’s experienced guidance. The group is open to all, whether you’re just starting out or have been writing poetry for years.

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