Some reflections on writing and reading poetry, by Robin Malan

Robin Malan has been helping poets, writers and playwrights grow for many decades. As the Editor of English Alive, he has seen a vast amount of poetry from young people over the last fifty years. In the latest issue of the magazine, his introduction is addressed to those who were not published. It is some of the clearest, most practical advice I’ve read on writing poetry – and, therefore, on getting it published. It is reproduced here with his permission.

This is probably the wrong forum as I really want to talk to those students whose poems were not selected for publication. I hope what I say reaches them somehow.
Most of the poems submitted weren’t really good; in fact, they weren’t really poems. They were prose accounts of things in your life, with the lines just chopped up at various points – sometimes quite arbitrarily – to look like a poem.

Poetry is more than that. You must offer some insight you’ve had into an experience in life. You must have seen, heard, smelled, thought something that was quite extraordinary, what people like to call a Wow! moment.

‘That was amazing!’ you say to yourself. ‘I want to tell someone about it.’ That’s the beginning of a poem. You use words, sounds, rhythms, lines on a page to transmit the experience you have had to someone else. But you do it in a different way from writing everyday prose. You tell them about A not in a literal way, as scientific truth, but in a non-literal way, as imaginative truth, by comparing A to B: ‘A is like B because they have this in common’ or even by saying ‘A is B’, and then our imagination has to see the common ground.

My favourite example is Humbert Wolfe’s little poem called ‘The squirrel’, in which he describes the squirrel as a ‘little grey coffee-pot’. The reader’s imagination finds what’s common to the two things: their shape. There must be something we can all relate to. It wouldn’t work if the line was ‘Little grey lamp-post’: there’s just nothing in common.
Let’s use an example of how poetry works from the English Alive 50 anthology. In 1999 Chris Honey of St John’s College wrote this poem (I’ll quote it in sections just for the sake of making my point; I’d never do that otherwise!):

Poetry ain’t easy

But it’s not as easy here
By the sea, and poetry ain’t easy.
In a stuffy room with music it’s easy.

Today the sea taught me a lesson I want to tell.
But in the presence of reality
I feel underqualified for this grand task:
To put the taste of the salt
And the sound of the wash
And the fiery Berg wind
And the scalding sea-sand
On to the paper.

So that’s what he wants to do: he wants to tell someone about the taste of the salt and the sound of the wind and the feel of the sand. (He’s already started to do that: the fiery wind, the scalding sand.) He decides he can’t do it using any easy ready-made formula:

Mind to the grindstone
Hand to the style guide
Pen to paper
Is not how it should be.

So, look at what he does, instead:

Instead I sprint across the beach
Which seems ignited by the sun,
Carries me to the closest lick of a wave
And lets me ice my feet.

Now, that’s poetry! The beach is ignited by the sun – there’s the closest lick of a wave – and that lets me ice my feet.

You’ve had an experience that’s so special that you want to tell it to someone; then you have to find an imaginative way to put it across to a reader or listener.

Then you look at the form of the poem: Is the structure right? Does it need stanzas? What sort of line-lengths? Is the rhythm appropriate? Is anything gained by using rhyme? (There usually isn’t, so don’t get hung up about rhyme.)

How do you learn to do this, and to do it well? Well, like anything else, you have to practise doing it: write, write, write. And then re-write, re-write, re-write.

Look at one of the most polished and professional poets of his generation, Philip Larkin: there are 21 drafts of his poem ‘Church going’, carefully filed and dated, between April and August 1954. He worked on it, changed it, revised it 21 times over three months.

But also – and this is the real point of this editorial – you have to read poetry: read, read, read.

It sounds, from much of the poetry that was submitted, that you’ve never read any other poems. Why’s that? One reason is that ‘in the old days’ education departments or schools prescribed a whole anthology of poems and each student had a copy of that anthology. It contained not only the poems prescribed but a whole lot of other poems by a wide variety of poets. So, students could read lots of different kinds of poems by different poets. I can’t prove what I’m going to say next, so let me hide behind the phrase ‘it has come to my attention’ that teachers/schools now buy one copy of the anthology and then photocopy just the prescribed poems. So students never see any other poems.

That’s sad, because it’s by reading poems that you discover (nobody tells you – you discover) which poems are good and which are not so good and which are plain bloody marvellous! That’s how you develop ‘taste’.

The more good poems you read, the more good poems you will write. So, read, read, read, and write, write, write. And … enjoy it.

(Oh, btw, I see that much of what I have said about poetry is also true about the kind of prose we like to see from you.)


If you are a school teacher or learner, see the English Alive website to find out how your school can submit poetry and prose for publication.