Keats' House

Keats' House

If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all’ –  John Keats. Discuss

Just over a week ago I had the pleasure to read at Keats House in Hampstead. It was the final event of Benjamin Zephaniah’s residency, and especially inspiring to hear young people perform their work so confidently. After the wow factor of the stunning gardens, I entered the house and the first thing to catch my eye was the postcard declaming the archetypal Romantic stance on creativity: poetry should flow freely, and if  forced,  doesn’t have the right to exist. Until now, I’ve found the quotation rather suspect and believed it the source of volumes of dreadful unedited drivel claiming to be divinely inspired. I still challenge the notion that the first draft is the best draft and strongly believe in drafting, grafting and crafting. But in that moment I wanted to take that postcard and pin it to my computer monitor so that every time I sat down to write I’d be reminded that it shouldn’t feel like ‘shovelling coal’ to quote one of my own poems.

The past few months have taught me the value of writing ‘horizontally’ rather than ‘vertically’.  This means writing several first drafts one after the other so that I have a string of titles rather than drafting, grafting and crafting one piece at a time. Since my ‘retreat’ I’ve attempted to get into periods of drafting only, so that Iwrite more quickly and the ideas flow fast and free. When I have three or four raw pieces I then decide to take them onto the next level i.e. I put on my editing head. It’s liberating. It also means you have a distance on the drafts so when you return to them you’ve had a month or more away and can view them more objectively.

Now some reading this  might say, that’s how I’ve always worked, and that’s certainly how I used to work but as I got more page-obsessed I changed my practice. It’s lead to writer’s block and at times, painfully slow progress. It’s amazing what you can do when you just let the ideas come out. An extreme example of this happens to me every morning about 8am when I step into the shower. I almost always have a creative insight. However, since the clocks went back, I’ve been a bit out of sync which makes me question whether the magic has nothing to do with the shower and everything to do with the hour. I’ve also noticed that since British Summertime ended I have the serious urge to hibernate. The poetry’s not coming as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it feels more like the leaves falling off a tree. ..But one thing I do know, if it’s like shovelling coal at first draft stage, there’s something wrong with the fundamental idea. I only flow when the idea’s fully formed. No more spending three months on one poem. The first draft should take a matter of hours…


2 thoughts on “Creativity

  1. i agree – this horizontal writing thing (nice term by the way) is what many fiction writers do – get out a whole draft first (even if it’s 50% gobbledeygook) and then look at the whole thing to find what’s in it and how to develop/shape it further. Mind you, i know short story writers who have to get the opening lines (and title) perfect before they can proceed….

    • Thanks, Eva! I had a great chat with Roger Robinson at the T S Eliot prizegiving party in January where he said that he maps out entire poetry books at first draft level. It made so much sense to me, especially as I’m working with an existing text, i.e. I already have a sense of the shape of the book, the number and nature of the tales I must respond to. But I’d gradually got into a debilitating habit. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I had a reading booked at the University of Kent early on in the process so I had to produce something that could be read out to Chaucer experts! There were three professors in the audience. The Canterbury Laureateship continued to the end of that year and the pressure was on to produce polished pieces. I HATE reading drafts in public. This year I’ve had far fewer public appearances so have been able to experiment more. It was lovely to see you at the British Museum reading, by the way. Versions of The Pardoner’s Tale (the long one I began with) and The Second Nun’s Tale were brand new. They were a joy to write: the words truly flowed as easily as leaves to a tree.

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