Poems made by hand

Swings and roundabouts. It’s going to be a much shorter than usual post this week, but homework will be set.

It starts, I suppose, with the poet Jane Draycott. It starts on a writing week with a writing task which we were given….subsequently, and unnervingly, it was never mentioned again. Jane D. never asked what we’d done, or even if we’d done it. I think I felt a bit miffed, because I did it religiously. Maybe I wanted a mark out of ten, or a smiley face. The task was this.

Each day, for five days, take a poem you think you know pretty well, a poems that means a lot to you. Each day for five days copy out a fresh poem by hand. Don’t type or keyboard it. Write it out by hand.

Or it starts with Anthony Wilson, and his wonderful Life Saving Poems and his jaw-droppingly, consistently excellent blog. I’ve quoted this bit before, about the genesis of the life-saving poems project, this time for a different reason. This is what he wrote:

‘I began it in July 2009.
Since then I have been copying out poems into a plain Moleskine notebook, one at a time, in inky longhand, when the mood took me. ………………………………………………………
Frequently, the poem that was copied into my book was not especially famous, certainly not representative or even the ‘best’ of that poet’s work.
My criteria were extremely basic. Was the poem one I could recall having had an immediate experience with from the first moment I read it? In short, did I feel the poem was one I could not do without?
It is a list of poems I happen to feel passionate about, according to my tastes. As Billy Collins says somewhere: ‘Good poems are poems that I like’.
Copying them out into my book has not always been fun, but now that I am finished, I am in possession of a deeply satisfactory feeling of having learnt more about myself and about each poem that I copied.’

Two things catch my attention (or suit my purposes…it’s often the same thing, isn’t it?). I really like the way he feels the need to say he copied his poems out ‘in inky longhand’. And that he chose ‘a plain Moleskine notebook’. Because I think ….no, I firmly believe……that the small physicalities of using a pen and paper are important. The texture of the paper, the way the pages lie, the marriage between the point of the pen and the paper itself, the friction that’s exactly right, the way a pen sits in your hand, the colour of the ink, your choice of lined or unlined paper, the size of the page. It’ll be an intensely personal choice. I can’t be doing with anything less than A4, I like plain paper (though I’ll use lined paper in a workbook), and I like a decent weight of paper, and I want it to be properly white, and so on, and I want black ink, and I won’t write with anything but a Stabilo Point88. Years ago it would have been a stainless steel Parker cartridge pen with an extra-fine nib. You know how it is…unless you have an unhappy relationship with handwriting. There’s a cure for that, but that’s another story. Just go along with it for now.

Or, it starts with the number of times folk will say to me at a workshop: haven’t you got lovely neat handwriting? I don’t think it’s lovely; but it is neat, and it only comes through years of minute-taking in meetings, and of teaching children handwriting patterns. I’m aware that different people handwrite with more or less fluency, and if you’re fluent, you’ll enjoy copying poems more than if you don’t. But in any case, don’t think it’s not for you. It’s not a handwriting test. Let me try to persuade you.

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The first poem I chose to copy on Jane Draycott’s course was U.A.Fanthorpe’s ‘ Not my best side’. I really did think I knew it quite well, but when you copy out a poem you have to sort out your short-term memory; you sort-of-memorise a line or a phrase or a couplet, and you look away from the text, and you look at what you’re writing. And then look back, to check. What did I see? I’d remembered, it’s nice to be liked. After all, it’s a common enough collocation. But what’s not common is the line break that I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t mis-copied. The other thing that happened as I handwrote the poem was that I became strongly aware of repeating words like ‘I mean’, ‘like/liked’, ‘I mean’…my eye and my ear had sort of slid past them in all the time I thought I’d read the poem before, but they have a shape that your hand becomes aware of. Maybe this just proves I’m a careless and inattentive reader, but you see what I’m getting at. Here’s another example

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Another favourite: Carole Ann Duffy’s Little Red Cap. I found out two things as I copied this one out. First was that it wasn’t easy to hold chunks in my mind. I was constantly checking back to the text. I realised that was because of its unpredictable rhythms. I’d thought it was simpler than it was, but copying it kept showing me how it bumped from one rhythm to another. I became much more aware of all those internal rhymes in odd places  I’d not attended to. ..murder clues. I lost both shoes, the Dylan-ish rush of go there, wolf’s lair, better beware. I saw how I could more easily hold in my mind  a long sequence like

deep into the woods / away from home, to a dark, tangled, thorny place / lit by the eyes of owls

and realise that was because it was the rhythm of the folk-tale narrative and its rule of three, and then the way the poet’s playing different kinds of register or narrative styles off against each other. I’m not saying she was doing it intentionally. Sometimes it’s one of those things you realise you’ve done and feel very happy about. All I know is that I thought I knew this poem quite well, and realised I didn’t. And I’m also suggesting that the same thing doesn’t happen when you’re keyboarding, because the units you work with are single letters, and not words or the parts of words (I have no idea what it might be like to be able to touchtype…maybe Kim Moore will tell me) and I think there’s a disconnect between what your hands are doing and the marks on the page or screen. And the marks will always be consistent. And you can correct them too easily and forget what you’ve mis-seen. I can’t prove it, but I do believe it. Just one more thing (because I said this would be a short post,and it’s growing like Topsy):

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Here’s Ted Hughes, copied from ‘Remains of Elmet’, and separated from Fay Godwin’s unnerving monochrome photograph on the facing page. I copied this out three years ago, and I’ve just gone back to look at the original….and find that I chose not to copy it out as printed. In the print version, every line begins with a capital letter, as was still the custom.. I must have realised, consciously or otherwise, that most of the stanzas are a single sentence, and all those capital letters were distracting. But I do remember that as I handwrote that second stanza it seemed to make absolutely no sense, and seemed to make even less with the distraction of Poetic capital letters.  What on earth is sharing ironically? The mills? The looms? I’d gone along quite happily with the familiar resonances of mill, loom and pit, with the sound and texture of ‘crumble of  doll’s curls and calcium’ and actually stopped listening properly or attentively. Suddenly, it wasn’t all I’d thought it was cracked up to be. And without handwriting it, I wouldn’t have noticed.

So. Here’s the deal. I’m going away for some days and there’ll be no more cobweb-weaving for the next two Sundays. I know I’ve said this kind of thing before, but this time I’m firmly resolved. While I’m off, why not get yourself a nice notebook, a pen that suits, and, like Anthony Wilson, copy out a lot of poems you love. Who knows…you too could end up with a blog and 7500 faithful followers. Let me know how you get on . See you in a couple of weeks. Have fun.

2 thoughts on “Poems made by hand

  1. I’m not promising to crack on with this task immediately but I wanted you to know that I like it and I will add it to my list of things to do. A hand-written list, by the way. See you in two weeks. 🙂


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