Poetry Project

A problem to be solved

I wrote the following about writing fiction in Eloquent Body, but the same can be applied to writing poetry:

‘In a collection of her published interviews,i Doris Lessing said that a novel is a problem to be solved. Something must be worked out, or worked through. This puzzle starts at the writer’s desk, and if the issues in the book are resolved satisfactorily for the author, even if there are no happy endings, the reader will usually feel satisfied as well.

The difficulty for the author does not only lie in the narrative, or storyline. It is embedded in all the layers of creating the piece. There are the questions of voice, language and style, of form and content. Problems of character and dialogue, of pacing and the shape of scenes, of beginnings and middles and endings. Tensions between the personal and the political, background and foreground, tragedy and comedy.

At the heart of a novel will be a concern that is not random. The writer is embroiled in the subject matter precisely because it originally resides in her own heart. The novel is a vehicle for the author to probe and explore this terrain, not as propaganda, but as an open-ended question. In writing that ventures below the surface, as in living deeply, there are no easy answers. Engaging with the unresolved questions posed by the novel requires the novelist to engage with undecided or disturbed parts of herself. E.L. Doctorow claimed that writers hazard themselves every time they compose a book, as the composition of themselves is at stake.’

Take an unresolved question from your inner or outer life (yes, that one), and find an image or picture in your mind’s eye that carries some emotional resonance; use this as a starting point on the page, then allow the image to speak back to you, showing you a way into both the dilemma and into the poem. Through free writing, see whether you can allow what you know about the question to decompose, and thereby create something new and unexpected. Creativity often comes from a place other than what we know and understand. Once you have hazarded yourself, and found the composition, engage with the problem of how to make the subject matter of the poem work better with the form.

As always, you are welcome to submit a poem that has nothing to do with the exercise. Send your submissions to pieter@slipnet.co.za before the 3rd of March.

i Doris Lessing, 1996, Putting the Questions Differently, (Flamingo (HarperCollins).

Submitted Poems

Jeannie Wallace Mckeown

This feeling
is a complicated
merging of the less
rowdy emotions, those
which do not steal
the limelight
or flaunt themselves
in primary colours

These are the wistful emotions
the blush-tinged
pinks and ice-candy blues
of the sunset
after the sun
has forced its
gaudy skeins
fierce orange
flaming pink
deep below
the earth

This feeling
is the passing
of a high ice cloud
across the vestiges
of a dying day
Jeannie Wallace Mckeown

Black stylus pen
in ink
with art deco
a backdrop
against which
a single rose
green stem
red bud
sharp thorns
with the
of my
fibularis brevis
as if in a
freshening breeze.

into my skin,
this symbol of a
freedom I didn’t
to embrace.
Ross Fleming

squinting in the half dark
at a video of our wedding
jammed into the player
to placate the ankle-biter
with white noise
i pop the dummy into
the open mouth and
double-take shite who
was that guy who caught
the garter now dancing
cheerfully with what's her
name never saw them again
wipe the spit and re-insert
the dummy did i actually pay
Telkom could be why i got
that odd sms in a German
accent in the early
hours now we're cutting the
cake my but that's a drunken
leer if only we could have
seen ourselves i'm too
old for this rock a bye sleep
chap please i ask you
and the sky lighting in
the east fuck another day
starting i'm not ready for
this where will i find pants
in this tip stretch
my neck around baby
still asleep God it's
Saturday sweet relief
Redemntion is the
word that springs to mind
is that spelling correct
looks a little bit too much like
Damnation must get a
dictionary oh and a
thesaurus while you're
about it put a note in
my cell where did i
put it mind like a sewer
house not much different
feels like a gaol
the Lord alone knows
what i resemble
remind me to
run a spellcheck
so this is what married
with kids looks like?
Ross Fleming

Barbara Robinson - My mother once said that ten years of her life passed in a blur. Five kids! Wow!

And their most predictable ability,
being children, is the capacity
to turn the grimmest of situations
into a game.
Like lion cubs, puppies, goslings,
the world is their mussel-shell,
and a settled wasp,
behind the wheelie bins,
becomes a toy in their hands,
to be jostled, irritated, inflamed
and finally smeared
all over the driveway.

The innocent corpse is left behind
by their also-innocent pleasure
as the next episode takes over
in a flow that is unbroken,
brutally kind,
deeply arbitrary.

I try to make meat
or a poem somehow
of the meaning,
falling hopelessly short.

My time line of supper,
a bath, stories and bed
goes haywire
with the novel sport
of jump up and down,
shout and wink,
throw the book
and lummie my brother,
all enjoyed to the brim
until they fall,
across my exhausted chest,
into sleep.

A tired eye gives
a half-schooled wink
and a lopsided smile
as narcotic sleep gives
us its well-earned,
if predictable, reward.
New year
Bertrand Tufuor

the cockerel loudly
cried far out and wide
in daylight's delight

we gently moved
to rhythms of
beating deep within

cowrie beads caressed
your delicate waist,
tracing the tenderness
of a subtle dance

our daily journey
in wealth of wild,
hushed windy moan
of baobab trees

lives richly molded
to cores of Earth's
culture and values
shared with pride

beauty carved from bark,
palm fronds that gently
tease on supple cheeks,
smiles of a rising sun
Rapid-Fire quiz question for John Maytham
Keith Edwards

There is no right answer to this,
only many opinions,
and I have

The most clichéd line of movie dialogue, John,
is what I want to know; though
you may not answer
‘I love you’,
we all know, of course – pace postmodernists –
‘I love you’ is never a cliché.

My guess, classically, is: ‘Try to get some sleep now, dear’,
said recently by John Malkovich’s David Lurie,
in disgrace in ‘Disgrace’,
to his screen daughter.
Or was it her said it to him?


The observed inner landscape that Jeannie Wallace Mckeown describes in her poem Seeker sets up responses in me that I imagine are resonant with hers. This is one of the things writers are trying to do – transmit their lived experience through the written word to another person. I wonder about two things in the poem – first what the experience or thought is that evokes these feelings, and whether it would help the poem to include something of that; also whether longer lines might help relax us into the sensation she is describing. Form and content need to work together, and the short, tight lines work against the more expansive emotion suggested by: the passing / of a high ice cloud / across the vestiges / of a dying day. I would find another way to say ‘steal the limelight’. Cliché mostly makes writing go dead, and it is a very useful exercise to find your own unique way of saying something, rather than to resort to well-worn phrases, unless there is very good reason.

The short lines in her second poem Tattoo work well with the subject matter. I would drop the second stanza altogether – the content is implied in the first. There is a skill in resisting overwriting – trusting your reader to fill in gaps – and at the same time ensuring that the poem is not being obscure.

Ross Fleming’s hilarious Redemntion captures very well the blur of sleeplessness and chaos with small children. I think the last two lines should be chopped, as the meaning is implicit; if the poet agrees, the poem needs something to bring it to an end. His other poem Playing has a similar tension between the creative mess and play children bring and the adult need for order. I would cut the line falling hopelessly short as well as the last stanza.

In Bertrand Tufuor’s poem New Year, there are moments where the well-observed details enrich the experience for the reader – hushed windy moan / of baobab trees. We need more of those – there are too many generic images, for example subtle dance. I have no idea what that actually looks or feels like. Find specific ways to describe this. I would cut the line ‘In wealth of wild’, and ask the poet to rather expand on what evoked this feeling for him, using all his senses. The stanza ‘lives richly molded / to cores of Earth's / culture and values / shared with pride’ could also be cut; instead I would like some experience, perhaps through the interaction between people, or the poet and nature, to allow me this conclusion, rather than be told what the scene is about.

Rapid-Fire quiz question for John Maytham by Keith Edwards plays humorously with popular culture, meaning, slang, talk show hosts and literature. Is ‘pace postmodernists’ meant to be ‘passé postmodernists’?

Comments are closed.