Friday, January 25, 2008

Writing my walking poem

I've been planning a poem about walking, specifically a Horatian ode. I've been playing around with odes for a while, and thought the form might suit the subject - a leisurely wander through the topic, as it were. This was my first stanza, composed at the bus stop on Wednesday:

Bathed in a dust-cloud of travellers,
The string-dog crusty crew who share
---One half of taste and creed,
------I owe the road

All I have not got on my back.

And so on. But there are two problems here, one specific to this sentence and one general to the form. First, the sentence doesn't really make sense. It isn't ungrammatical, but it hardly presents a convincing concatenation of images and ideas. There is a suspicion that the debt to the road is only tenuously connected with the image of the dust-cloud; to put it another way, the first image isn't developed properly and doesn't lead into the second. And whilst I think that one of the charms of the Horatian ode is the way it can slide slightly obliquely from one crystallisation of its topic to another, here I think that effect is not charming but merely bad writing - form-led writing.

The second problem is to do with the stanza shape. It's very pert, the two lines of tetrameter followed by the trimeter and dimeter which advertise the formality as ornament. It's dainty, and could work well for lots of subjects, but the effect is likely to come across as cleverness, a kind of feverish polish a la Empson, and here I was thinking rather of a good-natured rambling in the manner of later Auden. So I think the solution might be to take apart this stanza and mine it for images and ideas, and put it into a looser form which hints at rhyme and metre without taking them on as strict constraints.

I'm also aware that a poem about walking risks turning into a Wordsworthian sermon, so I don't want just to go on about how it feels and what might happen - some of that ranging cleverness is a necessary element. For my second draft I went back to a draft I wrote a few months ago about nomads, to see if I can combine the two and write a poem about movement as a proper human activity. That draft opens:

Nomads carry their warm cone rolled
Across the tundra, a bundle
Of paraffin, glasnost, salt and cribbage,
The lit faces of Sergei and Aleksandr
Whose wraiths sit at the prow and set
Their death-masks to the lunar drift.

So now I need a means of proceeding from the imagined specific to the general case. And I'm aware of the bathos of a man hiking about northern England seeing himself as a Siberian reindeer herder. So I'm thinking the next strophe has to begin with the nomads themselves rolled inside my mind as dreamed equivalents. Similarly, it's clear that I never actually meet the travellers, or reach my destination. Now all I have to do is write.



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