Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The case of the ten-year-old poem

It doesn't take three years to bake a cake. So why do people sometimes take years to write short poems? I was at the Dan O'Connell a few weeks ago and the person reading mentioned that it took them three years to write a villanelle, which befuddled me. Did she have that much trouble in finding the rhymes?

I was thinking about this again yesterday when listening to an interview with the New Zealand poet laureate. Apparently some of her pieces were written over the course of several years. What took her so long, I wondered - did she get distracted by the television? For several years?

Still, poets love setting themselves challenges, like elaborate narratives, or odd verse structures, or words that rhyme with 'plinth', and it occurred to me that it might actually be quite interesting to devote one's whole life to writing a single poem. Indeed, there's something grand and inspiring about the whole concept. A limerick should do it: the average limerick would have about twenty to thirty words in it, and, if you devote sufficient time, you should be able to space it out nicely. Each word and item of punctuation could be composed over the course of a year, so the whole thing should take some forty years.

You would start fairly early, at the age of 25, or 30 or so, leisurely marking down the first word on the page. As you rise to the task over the following years, you would place down several more words, a comma, and a hyphen, taking you into your late 30s. You would hesitate for two or three years over the colon that terminates the first line and begins the second, for you would probably have reached your mid-life crisis - and you possibly might be unable to think because of your children running around.

But soon, in another year, you would really throw yourself into the task, and write another word. Fired with ambition and inspiration, two more words would quickly follow, in the course of a mere six months, followed by a hesitation for a small year or so while you pondered whether to put in a comma after or before some quotation marks.

And so, in a leisurely manner, over the course of decades, your limerick would be written. As you reach your sixties, and age of retirement, you would proudly place the last words on the page, and your limerick would be finished. You would take another five years or so in checking the poem to see if there are any spelling mistakes, but by the time you had reached your seventies you would really be in your prime - you would have sent your poem off to the publisher, and had it published in a medium-sized book, half-a-page in size, with a title like 'The Collected Works' - or perhaps 'The Only Work'.

Should you happen to be healthy, you might indeed have time to start another poem, a haiku, say, or a couplet, but I wouldn't count on it. It would hardly do to be too prolific. Your readers might start wanting less.


Dan the VespaMan said...

I think it is a bad idea to spend too long writing a poem.

I believe that in China and India they have factories full of poets churning out poetry twice as fast at half the price. Oh yes, we may scoff that the quality is not all that good, but when you need some poetry in a hurry and are a bit short on cash, where will you turn?

TimT said...

I generally agree with that Dan. There are a few exceptions, but I think it's possible to put too much effort into writing a poem - for me the writing of a poem should be largely a matter of finding the right words to express the right sentiments, and giving those words the right form (rhyme, meter, etc). Those are all tasks that can be finished off in fairly short order.

But let's be careful about generalisations, since there are obvious exceptions to this rule (long poems with somewhat elaborate rhyme schemes, for instance, like Byron's Don Juan.)

TimT said...

There's a large market for greeting card poetry/'inspirational' verse on the net and elsewhere, I'm told, in the English speaking world. There may in fact be poetry factories over here!

Maria said...

"So why do people sometimes take years to write short poems?"

Cakes don't have to rhyme.

I don't know whether people spend years writing blank verse or haiku but if so shame on them.

It's a case of many people wandering around saying to themselves "I am sure there is a good word rhyming with orange" and spending two years and 364 days racking their brains at it before settling for the next best option on the very last day.

Maria said...

Eeeeergh - not a fan of the greeting card verse or greeting cards sentiments stuff in general. The more stuff written in a greeting card the less inclined I am to buy it, generally.

It tends, for me, to get really flowery and self-indulgent, or flowery and specific but doesn't really say what I think or have anything to do with the person I'm giving it to. How do they know the person I am writing to is into wine and chocolates and late nights out and was always there when I needed someone to talk to on the phone and made me so proud and walked my dog for me? They probably didn't.

That, or there are the really religious ones which don't really work for me.

Or the humour ones which are unfortunately often not humorous. It's a shame that so many of the funny ones are very lame or very crude.

Easiest card to buy is a plain picture card or one with a simple sentiment and then write the rest in yourself (or make card yourself). That's how I feel about it...

I like the story in the Adrian Mole books where he buys his 38 year old mother a card for an 18 year old and craftily changes the "1" to a "3" so it reads "Happy 38th Birthday"

Then the sentiment reads

A-quivering on the edge of life
Some day to be a mum and wife
But now it's discos fun and laughter
Why should you care what's coming after?

[forgive accuracy of poem, I'm doing it off the top of my head and haven't read the A. M. books in years)

And then realises it's a bad choice of card ... poem does not match his Mum.

TimT said...

Greeting card poetry is something that can be done well but is usually not.

The only greeting card joke I can remember is from an Archie and Jughead comic - Archie gives a greeting card and present to Veronica, which says,

'I love you more today than I did yesterday, and will love you even more tomorrow than I do today.'

Veronica says:

'Why didn't you love me as much yesterday as you did today?'

Archie looks scared, and Veronica goes on:

'And why don't you love me as much today as you will tomorrow'?

Archie hangs his head in utter despair as Veronica rains her fists down on him.

Maria said...

That reminds me of a belated greeting card joke that Amanda Keller once showed in her show Mondo Thingo.

I can't remember the exact words but it was along the lines of "Happy Belated Birthday - I love you more with each passing day so this card means more than it would have if it had reached you on the actual date of your birthday."

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