‘It’s about increments of meaning,’ James J McAuley, wearing a pressed white shirt, tie and navy-blue jacket, told us on a sunny Saturday morning at the Poetry Ireland Jessica ColleyIntroductions workshop. ‘The word verse comes from the Greek meaning to turn… But wait, let’s introduce ourselves.’
Jim paused his opening remarks on how our poetry lacked rhythm and could ‘use a good haircut’ to let the nine attendees say a few words. Sitting next to me was Martin Dyar, the 2009 Patrick Kavanagh Award winner. A few seats away was Andrew Jamison, the young poet from Co Down who was lucky – and talented – enough to have his poem alphabetically follow Seamus Heaney in Poetry Ireland Review 100. Across from me sat Rosie Shepperd, who has a lovely poem, ‘The Limit of Perpetual Snow’. in PIR 99. We’d barely completed the circle of introductions before Jim came back with: ‘The question we’re going to address today is, who is going to win the battle: the poem or the poet?’
Former Introductions participants had warned me that Jim McAuley can be a tough critic. However, my first impression of this professorial type with his tidy white hair and beard was that he might be gentle to us, might have nothing but positive comments on our polished submissions. Wrong. Even before the workshop commenced, advice was launched at us from across the room, and then Jim began the 5-hour marathon by holding up a series of books on poetics, rhythm and form, and asked if we’d read them? We should. Dramatic pause. ‘Poetry,’ he told us, ‘is a long craft to learn and life is short.’
Jim decided that the workshop should begin in the order people had turned up. After the first poem was read, the conversation quickly flowed with candid observations and suggestions. Jim jumped in with, ‘Who said you could enjoy poetry?!’ But then he cracked a smile. Jim is just the type of provocative character a workshop needs. He was tough at the beginning of each discussion (‘this poem has no music’; ‘the content is good but the form is irritating’), but at the end he always offered encouragement: ‘It’s just a matter of tidying up.’ I wondered if he was trying to teach us that it’s vital for emerging poets to develop a thick skin and to be ruthless in rewriting.
We broke for lunch and brought our sandwiches into the Yeats Memorial Garden in St Stephen’s Green. Displaying a clever workshop strategy, Andrew Caldicott revealed that he’d brought three poems, and only chose which poem to share after becoming familiar with the group and the instructor. Andrew Jamison had taken a 5am bus from Belfast just to be in Dublin on time. Peter Goulding had been writing humorous poetry (he has a villanelle with the repeating lines: ‘The only problem with the villanelle / Is that the repetition grates like hell’), but tried something new for the workshop, an anecdote about his childhood. One thought Jim had left us with before the break was that writing poetry can be a lonely practice. Sitting in the sun, discussing our triumphs and failures, it didn’t feel lonely at all.
The afternoon began with: ‘No poem worth talking about has only one meaning.’ By this time, a familiarity in the group encouraged deeper discussion of the work. I was appreciating the value of devoting in-depth time to each individual poem (instead of the ten minutes we’ve become accustomed to at festival workshops) when I was pulled out of my reverie by Jim’s excited voice, ‘the poem starts to say no, no, no you son of a bitch! I want to be this way!’ He was talking about listening to our poems, about how they come alive with rhythm, about how we need to learn to listen to this pattern. By listening, we weren’t forcing a rhythm on the poem, but letting it become what it’s meant to be, organically. I was about to learn firsthand what exactly Jim meant: it was my turn.
The first comments came as the poem was distributed to the group: Blue ink! How new age! Not exactly – the morning of the workshop my printer had decided to run out of black ink, so in an act of desperation I printed in blue. I read my poem, ‘Baker’s Hour’, a piece I’d been working on but wasn’t yet satisfied with. Afterwards, Jim asked me to read it again. When I finished the second time he said, ‘you don’t just need to listen to the poem to find its rhythm, you need to strangle it until it tells you.’ He then proceeded to read my poem out loud sweeping his hand in circles like a conductor, finding its rhythm. The poem begins:
Someone left the heat on downstairs, all night
it has been rising. In dreams there is a grassy bank
and rushing waters, cool as I dip my feet.
While Jim seemed pleased with the title, alluding to the early morning-time when we dream the most, when bread is rising in bakeries and filling rooms with too much heat, he broke my lines in different places:
Someone left the heat on downstairs
all night it has been rising. In dreams
there is a grassy bank, rushing waters
cool as I dip my feet.
Jim wasn’t satisfied with the last line, but said I needed to fix that myself. He ended the analysis of my poem by reminding us, ‘how bloody difficult it is, writing poetry’, and quoted Paul Valéry’s famous epigram: ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’
This was a day full of images: a busy Laundromat in Paris; a bird accidentally frying his claw on a hot stove; stones thrown into a still lake. Jim returned time and again to the notion of ‘increments of meaning’. This is a concept I’ve added to my box of revision tools, along of course with: ‘Strangle the poem until it tells you’.