“Why I am not a painter”: A post about writing poetry

“There is a vampiric quality to us, you know, whereby virtually anything is potential meat for cooking up a new poem or story”Mary O’Donnell

If you’re very lucky, you’ll know that this blog is named after a Frank O’Hara poem. If you didn’t already know that, you’re even luckier, because I have just told you the name of a great poem and who wrote it. Even better, I have posted a reading of it here for you to enjoy.

This blog isn’t about why I’m not a painter, although, at one point or other there might have been a collection of  awkward poems written about awkward things with ‘Because I am a child who cannot draw’ scrawled awkwardly somewhere under a very awkward title which still to this day makes me feel rather awkward, awkwardly enough.

Poetry for me is a private passenger. It greets you as a mumbling upon the inner ear. After this tryst, the idea of a poem charms you at every glance or feel of a pen.  By the end of a morning coffee you may try to make sense of those few initial inner mumblings, or you fall out of love with them altogether. After time, the glimmer of a poem becomes clearer, as a diamond under a loupe – or it is never clear.


Passengers! by 曾高兴

I have learnt to accept this uncertain yet alluring quality of writing poetry. Not that I’m expecting a Nobel Prize anytime, mind you. You write in the hope of bringing that private passenger –that quiet mumble – to its final destination. And then you must learn to abandon it. No slight of hand will craft perfection, so the poet must learn to be detached and carry poems briefly – sometimes for the sake of sanity.

However, this search for perfection can be a motivator when writing. When asked to mention her main considerations as a poet, Mary O’Donnell (The Ark Builders, Storm Over Belfast) has said she aims for “a poem that is the absolutely the best work, artistically that I am capable of …the drive for perfection, which we all – no matter who we are – fail at, but still strive for”.

It is this struggle for perfection which makes the process of writing poetry a constant for the poet, as O’Donnell puts it “part of the mind is continually in recording mode”. Although the process of constructing poetry is by no means a nine-to-five occupation, a poetic temperament is one which is predisposed to uncovering inspiration at any time or place.

by chillihead

Poet and Editor of Windows Publications, Heather Brett (Green Monkey, Travelling, Abigail Brown) recently remarked that “poetry seems to be with continuously… I find myself writing lines in my head and designating them to the wings… whether I’ll ever use them or not is inconsequential. I’m content in continuously adding to that store”.   Shortly after visiting an old church during the summer, Brett wrote her poem “The Crypt at Saunderson”, after the idea for it rose “again and again”.

The poem deals with the destructive nature of the creative force, depicting the vibrancy of the natural world alongside inert led coffins where people are laid to rest. The inevitability of death is accepted as “human and humble”, yet the cool touch of the led coffins suggests humanity’s overall struggle to accept death.

The destructive nature of the creative force permeates Brett’s poem. Photo by scottvs91

Brett says that the idea of a poem must be captured quickly after the initial inspiration, as she did with “The Crypt at Saunderson”.  This quickness helps to preserve the potency of what inspired the poet: “If I’d left it longer the mood of the time or the image I wanted to offer with the poem would not have resurfaced… poems only wait so long, proving away in the dark, if not captured in that time, they curl up and turn brittle, lose their resonance”.

There is a shooting star-like quality to writing poetry according to Brett. Some ideas must be worked on quickly in order to keep their original essence. This aspect of poetry writing is reflective of the fickle nature of memory, which can be a writer’s most called upon tool.

A poem’s succinctness is also akin to the shooting star: cast once briefly upon the eye, to linger in the mind.  Poetry is beautiful in its brevity, and for centuries poets have endeavoured to encapsulate many aspects of the human experience in tightly woven lines.


photo by fivepointtechnique

Poetry, like many art forms is a way of searching for meaning in life, or to take a more anthropological view, a way of creating meaning itself. Yet there need not be any meaning to poems at all. The Haiku proves this by merely rendering landscape in the written word without further comment. The process of writing such a poem as the Haiku becomes more like a meditation. There is no room for meandering within this most succinct of forms. Haiku appear to be written in a fashion that is as instant as the work of a Polaroid camera, as one can see from the 16th century Haiku of Basho Matsuo.


An old silent pond…

A frog jumps into the pond,

splash! Silence again.


Autumn moonlight—

a worm digs silently

into the chestnut.


Lightning flash—

what I thought were faces

are plumes of pampas grass.

Perhaps one of the most interesting comments I received from a poet for this post was from Paula Meehan, which I think is the best way to round up this blog post. ‘My muse is jealous. She is kindest to me when I forsake all others. The best hope of her visiting is if I am at my desk with a clear diary. She doesn’t like me to be busy except with syllables. She likes long walks where I can walk the poem into a song, where I can find the tune. She believes in me even when I have lost all belief in myself.’

Thank you for reading! Feel free to comment, and get creative. Personal Haiku are welcome.



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