Andrew Motion’s 10 tips for being a successful poet

So,  here’s an offering I could not resist linking to:

Andrew Motion ( Poet Laureate, retired)with good advice to all on a BBC arts & entertainment page, item written by Alison Feeney-Hart.  It all seems very sound to me, not that I  do much more than read and write poetry for  my own benefit, though I have to admit that I now like to pass on the enjoyment and frustration of poetry in all its forms.

Link to Andrew Motion’s ten tips:      how to write good poetry

Ten points:   No, I will not labour them here but check them out and see if you agree, and  personal additions should be tacked on for later review, and comfort.   Think about where you need to improve but be sure it is to your creative benefit.  Prefer not to play to the crowd and stick to your own direction.  Having said that in writing and reading, try variety, different, hard and push your boundaries.  You and your poetry will grow.

Which reminds me, I must re-read his: Natural Causes ((Chatto Poetry) and Love in a Life (Faber & Faber)

And if you want to dip into reading and interpreting poetry you will find it surprisingly helpful and informative  for your own work.  Try;  Terry Eagleton: How to Read a Poem (Blackwell Publishing) for a pretty clear and sensible view of the subject, a surprisingly easy (and humourous) read.




Mist: A poem: how to read it, maybe


I nodded to the old man across the way,
Touched my finger to my brow in acknowledgement
Of the way he looked at me.
He returned the touch, hand slowly raised and finger bent,
A nod just faint enough to see the glitter in his eye
To say he wasn’t saluting now.

And the woman by his side sat still and smiled.
She glanced at me and nudged his arm, then turned away,
Speaking to the air.
I watched, waiting for the moment to have my say
But when the pair took hand and turned back to me
I fudged the chance.

The crowd came in, the noisy throng, the drinking song.
The drinking song? A rhyme no longer relevant
But you’re okay with the thrashing, spinning element
Of slot machine and nearly karaoke.

So, I look to the woman in the glass,
The face I scarcely see and wonder what I would have said.
What I would have dared to ask.


J Johnson Smith        2014


Looking into the poem:

A poem of nineteen lines.  Verses one and two of six lines, third verse of four and last verse of three lines.  The lines vary in length, in metre and rhyme.

A rhyme (me) occurs in verse one, end of the line one and is immediately linked to ‘he’ at the beginning of line two.  Another rhyme at end of lines two and six (brow and now).  The next two verses are shorter being four and three lines respectively.  Verse three is the change of rhythm and more rhyme.  A sneaky para-rhyme between ‘okay’ and ‘karaoke’.  The last verse is the shortest with three lines, the middle being longest. You might consider that line could be split at ‘and’ to make it four lines but this would have added a pause, albeit minor that would have changed metre which, as it stands, harks back to the metre of the last two lines in the first verse, lines of seven iambs.

In the first verse the author sees an old man nearby and acknowledges him with a form of salute which is less used today, possibly a more casual form of military salute or that one now sees in films as a touching of the forelock from peasant to gentry, farmer to squire, or maybe an equivalent of raising a hat to someone.  Not a sign usually signifying rank of one to another but more an acknowledgement of respect. It is returned, slowly, possibly due to age, maybe arthritis, as the old man’s finger is bent, though it is not stated.

And a nod, more acknowledgement, of the author’s presence but then the remaining half and one line, where his eye glitters, adds to the scene, apparently to show he is not saluting in a military or ‘servile’ way.  The glitter suggests to the reader that despite his age, maybe fragility of body the old man still has a strong sense of self-image. ‘Glitter” might also mean anger, stubborness or humour but so far we cannot tell.  My initial reading from the opening lines is that it is just an avowal of his own self, still there despite his age.  As yet we do not know where they are or who; any relationship, apart from author and old man.

End of fourth line rhyming with end of second line. Last word in last line ‘now’ rhyming with ‘brow’, mid second line and maybe para-rhyme with ‘eye’ at end of line five. In this verse the first three lines matched the second three, with a slight tweak of metre.

The woman, a companion to the old man, looked at the author and nudged the old man.  Why?  To attract his attention to the author or away from?  Why turn away talking?  To someone out of sight?  So the old man could not hear, or maybe so the author could not hear.  We assume she turned away on purpose but do not know why. Perhaps she was obliged to turn away for some unknown reason despite wanting to talk to one or both, may e despite actually talking to one or both but words just lost as she moved.

So the author waited and it seems the old man and woman hold hands and look towards the author but for some reason the author is unable to speak to the couple. No specifics why but in the next verse there is a change in the scene.

There is noise, people seem to arrive and talk of drinking, gambling and singing. And a change of speed in the rhythm of words, more rhyme to speed the reading and the two words of ‘thrashing, spinning’ side by side as two different movements to break the feel of the previous two verses.  Still no specifics of where this event takes place but it feels like a pub or club.  Another reading could be that it is the world that is noisily bursting in on the two people, three if you include the author.  Is the author actually seeing this or imagining it?  It seems an odd event for ‘chaos’ to arrive so abruptly, would two elderly people sit in that place knowing what might happen?

The last verse might hold some answers.
‘So I look to the woman in the glass’.  Two thoughts. Is the glass a drinking glass or mirror?  Is the woman that in the previous verses or the author?  If the author then it offers a different possibility to the earlier use of ‘glitter’ as it may be for a secret, shared with the old man.  Perhaps the woman with the glass is drinking too much, a secret that is known by the old man.  Two drinkers sharing a secret?  If the meaning is of a mirror then is the author seeing her own face or imagines she sees the woman to whom she ‘wasn’t’ talking.

‘The face I scarcely see and wonder what I would have said’.  This line seems to move the previous thought away from it being the authors own face seen in the glass/mirror. Also increasing the thought that it is a mirror rather than drinking glass. The word ‘scarcely’ also has potential for several meanings: infrequently, or unclearly. Another use might be that the character of the person is now unclear or infrequently understood. The author might be lost for words after all. Both people may be strangers to her, less likely to each other. Maybe just the woman if you lean to the idea that subject is not the author.

Assuming the author is the main subject of the poem, the other two characters are relevant to the author’s history in some way but the accuracy of the event, or as a memory, becomes doubtful. The face in the glass/mirror shifts the reality of the memory into an area of imagination, maybe of dream with the quick change of circumstance in the verses.

Third line, last line: ‘What I would have dared to ask.’ last word rhyming with end of first line. A short line that opens and leaves open the whole poem.  Not a question, and the emphasis lies on the word ‘dared’ .  We are left with the author being left somewhat stranded, having had the chance of a meeting, in a room, possibly in a bar and at a critical moment an overwhelming interruption disrupts all thought.  Last verse gives a moment of reflection (!) which leaves the reader with a hanging thread of thought, of ‘what question?’
It feels like an important, personal question, could it be even of life and death? Even life after death given the quasi- dream elements we can move towards.

Finally the title, a first clue?  Likely unnoticed except as irrelevant to the main poem until near the end and then it might be thought of as blatantly obvious.  ‘Mist’ being the unclear, misty vision in the third verse and also an alternative spelling for ‘missed’ and it’s various connotations such as ‘missed opportunity/ies in the poem’s event and in the joint histories of the characters.  Also about the emotion of the author in missing the presence of the couple.  Just a few thoughts on the journey of the poem, no doubt other options are available.  ‘How to Read a Poem’ was useful in writing this analysis.



Terry Eagleton’s: How to Read a Poem — A Graph Review

                  A Graph Review:    60 with highpoint at 85

How to Read a Poem       by  Terry Eagleton      

published 2007 by Blackwell Publishing              How to read a poem graphpaperback  180 pp

I am quite old and have only recently returned to reading seriously but over the years I have many assorted fiction and poetry authors plus a smattering of biography and non-fiction bits and pieces.  Literature (for me this means any genre of fiction, poetry and drama) has therfor left a lot of interesting debris in a mind that I well know has beenhalf-filed or mostly forgotten.

how to read a poem cover imageTerry Eagleton writes in his preface that one could get away with only reading chapters 4,5 and 6 and that the next best would be to follow these up with reading 1,2 and 3.  His ideal way was to start at page one and continue through to the end………So I did……..

By the end of the first chapter I was quite enthusiastic, even excited  though my brain was running pretty hot trying to cope with all the information.   The run-through in ‘Functions of Criticism’ is a time-line of poets, poetry, styles and reasons why.  Philosophers both classic and continental throw in their literaru theories with critics old and modern who are (usually) poets too.  Semantics and theories abound.  Freud did not make an early appearance here but did, albeit briefly, towards the latter stages of the book.  I expected Jung, Adler and R D Laing to appear stage right, maybe stage left but that ended as just a whim on my part.  Many theorists and critics are thrown into the pot, always with a reason but which might be hard for the less determined student or general reader.  But if you like the style and wit ( I nearly used ‘irony’  but as it doesnt appear in the otherwise very useful Glossary at the back I wasnt sure!!) of Terry Eagleton then I would guarantee that every word here and to the end of the book is worth reading.

Well, except by the end of the book, the couple that had letters missing, maybe an act of spacing in ‘typesetting’.  There was also where the word ‘stoke’ was used when I think it should have been ‘stroke’.  It gave me  moments of reflection on its intention which amused.  It shows how carefully I read the text as each word seemed to count.

I felt my mind had been sand-blasted by the first chapter, a little numb, then as I covered chapters 2 and 3 I realised it was more in the nature of a hard-drive undergoing defragmentation and gaps partly filled. Not always with enough information but as flags of needs and pointers to process.

Chapter 2 covers ‘What is Poetry?’ and chapter 3 is ‘Formalists’ and here again the water seemed a little deep on the essence of what a poem might be and for whom.   Wit and elements of balanced options kept me reading.    Intently, eagerly, laughing out loud at times with occasional re-reads to follow the flow better. For me the whole flowed like a novel,though one with an awful lot of characters and bit-parts.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 were like the so-called smooth water after the rapids whilst white-water rafting.  Chapter 4, ‘In Pursuit of Form’ examines a number of poems in greater depth on their form and content in a cogent style, building understanding.  Next, ‘How to Read a Poem’, which could well be the nub of the book assuming you have absorbed the previous Two chapters.  Chapter 6, ‘Four Nature Poems’ seemed a nice gentle way to finish. Pointing out the many different routes, techniques and potential readings available to taking into account the current and historic time, place and author of a poem; Terry Eagleton enables us to discover what poetry may be about, at least on the readers personal level.

The Glossary is useful (no irony here) and of course a good index.

This was quite  a complicated read for me.  A sign of my level as an ‘old student’ but it is all-encompassing whilst continually pursuing the objective with spurs of examples and possibilities.  This short book is knowledgable, informative, witty and entertaining from the first to the last page.  There is a single paragraph on the last page and it is almost worth pinning up on my wall.  For now I will quote one sentence from page 32 that lets me pin my colours to the mast:   ” A poem is a statement released into the public world for us to make of it what we may.”

How much of this book will stick in my now-refreshed, language-centred mind? It doesn’t matter because it will have a permanent place on my shelf and be considerably re-read.  It is surely one of my desert-island books.  Armed with the contents of  ‘How to Read a Poem’ I will happily continue my adventure of reading and offering reviews with the knowledge that any conclusions I come to will be thanks to a much wider perception offered by Terry Eagleton and this book.