Demystifying Poetry-Writing (Hopefully!)

As a secondary school English teacher, I often have people commenting that they don’t know how I do it - there is no way they could teach hormonal teenagers and other such veiled compliments. I find these observations the most puzzling from Primary School teachers, often wondering in reverse how THEY cope with the ceaseless demands of small children throughout their working day. Even Year 7 are a little small for me and I have to remind myself to be nice-and-not-scary when they put their hands up for the umpteenth time to ask whether they should turn a page or underline a title.

I get a similar response when I say I write poetry; many think of it as a mysterious, unfathomable pursuit. I so enjoyed a session I led at my local ACW Group on writing haiku; it was lovely to see self-confessed non-poets freed from their fears and limitations and scribbling away, creating the most wonderful verses-in-miniature.

For me, in writing poetry, I am free to express my soul’s cries through my pen; if those cries resonate with others, touching something within them and enabling them to name and process some of their own soul’s cries, so much the better. William Wordsworth believed “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquilty.” I have to confess, I don’t agree with him. Some of my best poetry has flowed out of powerful emotion, committed to the page while the full force of doubts, losses and disappointments are still coursing through my veins.

I have to admit, this approach hasn’t led to an awful lot of poems that are enter-able in competitions – most have a line limit (usually around 40 lines) so my cathartic outpourings don’t usually qualify. But when another grieving or struggling soul takes time to let me know that my words have moved them, resonated with them or helped them, that is better, to me, that fifty prize-winning entries. I can, and do, write in set forms – sonnets, villanelles, haiku – but my most powerful poetry is written free-form with no heed paid to limitations of any sort.

Is there no crafting, then, of this sort of poetry? Far from it. The process, for me, tends to start with the seed of an idea, planted in my mind, or maybe a line that I know will feature in the poem. Sometimes I will jot down notes – a form of plan, if you like, to give myself a sense of the shape of the poem or the ideas I might want to include. At other times, I will just start writing and take myself through a number of false starts, until I know the right beginning has emerged. In the case of the poem below, I took the false start approach and had about eight of those before it began to flow. In this poem, I didn’t even write it as poem at first – I just wrote paragraphs, by hand in a notebook and then decided where the lines should go, and edited it as I typed it up.

I hope this at least begins to demystify the process of poetry writing for those that wonder. Perhaps other poets could join the discussion and offer their insights too? Every poet is different and may have entirely different processes that work for them.

I agree more with Robert Frost than I do with William Wordsworth – he said “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” With the fourth anniversary of my sister’s death looming, this poem helped me to do just that (I wrote another, like it, on her first anniversary – found here if you are interested):

The Shadow Me: A Reflection on Grief and Anniversaries

and the Main Me
has to face
the Shadow Me

The Main Me
takes the children to school,
smiling and chatting on the way.

But the Shadow Me,
dormant for a while,

It stands on the corner
of Mum and Dad’s road,
remembering that time
you were so cross,
that you got out of bed
(despite feeling so rough on the steroids)
that you marched up to school
and complained.

You felt good that day,
you told me –
like the old you,
with a purpose,
a life.

I laughed and knew
I would never go round
that corner again,
without thinking of

The Main Me
goes to work, teaches lessons,
heads home.
But the Shadow Me
revisits the hospital,
where I took you to the bathroom –
the last time you would ever
get out of bed.

It remembers the hardly–dare–ask
conversations with nurses,
the selfies to keep your girl entertained;
her haunting, five-year-old words:
“Mummy isn’t coming home you know.“

And I knew,
I could never go into that hospital again,
without being blind-sided
by memories of

The Main Me
attends appointments,
gets things done.
But the Shadow Me
glides, again,
through the hospice corridors,
remembering what it was like
to walk through those doors,
for the first time,
would never walk out.
The Shadow Me sits, again,
In the lounge,
rocking, entertaining, changing
the baby
and wondering how I’d love him
enough for you, too.

And I knew
I could never
go back there again
without vivid,
memories of

The Main Me buys the groceries,
cooks dinner for the family,
But the Shadow Me cries
in the hospice hallway,
unsure how on earth
I can do this –
how I can say a final goodbye
to you?

The Shadow Me
wants to look away,
change the script,
but I’m there again,
holding your hand,
wondering how I can bear
to drive away
into the cold, September night,
with only my memories of

And I knew
I would never
drive that way again,
without stinging tears
pricking my eyes,
at the memories
of those final moments with

The Main Me
laughs with friends,
enjoys an Autumn evening.
But the Shadow Me
is back in a cold park,
chilled by more
than the afternoon wind.
The basket swing rocks,
your girl cuddled up to me,
clinging, uncertain.
I hold her and swing,
trying to anchor her here,
now a piece of her heart
is in heaven.

And I knew,
I could never swing in one again,
without it reminding me
of the sudden, agonising
absence of

The Shadow Me,
buried for much of the year,
comes roaring back in September.
Autumn sun forces it
out of hiding.
After my birthday,
It will wane again, in strength,
and the Main Me can keep living,
less painfully, less raw.

But for now,
I turn my face
To the gentle, Autumn sun,
knowing the Shadow Me
and the Main Me
have to coexist,
dancing together,
under the Autumn trees
until the leaves
and the memories
settle, again,
on another year.

Georgie Tennant is a secondary school English teacher in a Norfolk Comprehensive.  She is married, with two sons, aged 13 and 10 who keep her exceptionally busy. She writes for the ACW ‘Christian Writer’ magazine occasionally, and is a contributor to the ACW-Published ‘New Life: Reflections for Lent,’ and ‘Merry Christmas, Everyone,’ and, more recently, has written 5 books in a phonics series, published by BookLife. She writes the ‘Thought for the Week’ for the local newspaper from time to time and also muses about life and loss on her blog:

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