Writing the first draft of a poem is a little like falling in love; it makes us heady, intoxicated, hopelessly myopic.
What we fall in love with is not the words but ourselves as Creator of Words. To catch a thought and pin it to a page makes us feel God-like. Then comes the fear of smiting – after all, who dare tamper with the work of the gods?
Like love, the first delirious flush of poetic infatuation doesn’t last. With time, it cools into something steadier. This is good. We don’t see things clearly in that heightened state.
As a beginner writer, I was always afraid that I would somehow damage a poem by tinkering with it. The idea of the poem as a fragile creature, too beautiful to live long, is a conceit of the novice, again tied to the idea that poems come from inspiration rather than hard work. How many sketches of poems are denied life by means of rigorous CPR because, as writers, we are afraid of a few [ego] bruises?
A good stout love will not fold at the first test of its strength. Neither will a good poem.
I find it useful to think of the first draft not as an idea but the seed of an idea. I think this comes from my training as a designer.
The first step in designing an object is Concept; a manifesto of intent. What is this project about? What do I want it to say? How will I know if I’ve succeeded? A design is usually the product of set criteria – eg. size, function, location, climate. Clarifying intent at the very beginning sets up markers, something to aim at in the process of developing the idea.
It’s not quite the same for writing a poem because the criteria is rarely as fixed as in design. Often I’m free-styling, riffing off an idea to capture as much as possible on paper, while it’s still hot. But once I have that idea on the page, Concept can provide a useful framework for developing the idea – what ideas are at work in the poem, how might they develop, where do I want them to land?
These kinds of questions allow me to tease out the possibilities at the heart of the poem, with the first draft / Concept as the North star, to check in with in case I’ve strayed too far. Playing with the initial idea in this way gives it the chance to develop into something lasting and more potent.
If you are having problems with this part of the writing process, read Wendy Cope’s take on the First Draft of a poem or try out some of these poem first draft and re-write exercises from writer, Jane Holland.
New things need nurture and tending in order to grow. The more work we put in, the healthier they become. The more we practice our skills, the more confidence we build.
In poetry, as in love.
Featured Image: ‘Writing’ – Zhang Xiaogang (2005) (via)