Sunday, 27 May 2018

Quality versus Quantity

Some poets don't produce much. In 1988 Faber published Ian Hamilton's "Fifty Poems". This included just about all he'd previously had published, and six new poems. In the preface he wrote: "Fifty poems in twenty-five years: not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think". Amongst novelists, Harper Lee produced little. Their lack of volume didn't seem to hold their careers back.

In the "Bridport Prize anthology 2017" one poet's bio mentions a single success - being commended in the Ware poetry competition. For the author of the Flash winner the anthology appearance was their first published work. I suspect that however brilliant their Bridport pieces, these writers aren't going to break through unless they have worthwhile portfolios. For small-press writers I think quantity matters - it helps keep your name in circulation long enough for the right people to notice. The difference between a relatively well-known writer and an unknown one is not necessarily in the quality of their best pieces of work (an unknown's best piece may be superb) but in the quantity of good work produced.

Producing more will mean that your worst pieces will be worse than before, but can trying to write more lead to your best pieces suffering too? Perhaps. The easiest way to increase output is by lowering standards, by being less self-critical. If this policy is adopted uniformly, a writer's best work will suffer. But if self-criticism is reduced just long enough to release some new ideas, a return to harsh self-criticism afterwards can mould those ideas into something useful.

So there are grounds for believing that a writer's best work will be improved. In "Art & Fear", authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were given an A for producing fifty pounds of pots, whereas the others were judged on quality, needing to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. The best works came from the group being graded on quantity - "It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

I've often seen this experiment quoted. I'm unsure how generally true it is. Pots can't be re-edited - poems can. Photographers used to be encouraged to take many snaps, but now re-touching solves many problems. That said, just as you need the photos before you can use Photoshop, so you need first drafts before you can re-write, as Robert Lee Brewer points out. It's easier to improve a piece than start one from scratch. And you never know where a writing session will end up - you may sit down intending to write one poem and finish with a different one altogether. The important thing is to be in the right place when inspiration arrives.

So perhaps having more raw material helps. How can one write more? NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) and NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) are initiatives to help improve the amount produced by writers. Books like "52: Write a Poem a Week. Start Now. Keep Going" by Jo Bell can help too.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Rewriting workshop

Congratulations! You've got further than many budding writers - you've actually written something. Pat yourself on the back. But you know there's more work ahead. How much more depends on you.

People have different attitudes to rewriting. For some people it's checking for typos and removing some superfluous words. That's certainly part of the task (often called "polishing"), and we'll do a few exercises on that topic, but that's the easy bit.

We'll also be looking at other changes we can make, and the inhibitions that stop us making them. A particular problem is over-familiarity with the text, and - let's be honest - boredom having to go over the same old stuff again and again.

I'll mostly talk about novels, though I'll mention other genres in passing. Any book on writing will be helpful when you're rewriting. I'll focus on the quick-fixes, throwing lots of suggestions at you, some of them contradictory. Just pick the ones that suit you!

During the re-write you may discover that your novel isn't ever going to work. I'll look at what to do in that situation too, because all is not lost.


What's the difference between writing and rewriting? For some people, a lot. When they write their first draft, they don't expect to change it much. Anthony Burgess worked that way. Other people are always re-writing.

  • "You write a script twice. The first time you pour out all your passion, anger, energy, and frustration. Then you go back and write it with your head" - Jimmy McGovern (TV scriptwriter)
  • "The first draft is like a romance, flowering and easy during its first few months until eventually the situation has to normalise, to settle. The second draft is like a marriage. The passion will not have evaporated but it’s now tempered by responsibility" - Ashley Stokes
  • "I write every paragraph four times - once to get my meaning down, once to put in anything I left out, once to take out everything that seems unnecessary, and once to make the whole thing sound as if I only just thought of it" - Marjorie Allingham
  • "The unconscious creates, the ego edits" - Stanley Kunitz

The hard part's knowing when to stop. Even publication doesn't stop people like W.H.Auden and Nobel winner Alice Munro wanting to change their work. Artists feel the same way. Apparently the Post-Impressionist Bonnard once persuaded his friend Édouard Vuillard to distract one of the guards in a museum while he touched up a work that had been completed years previously.

So let's re-write!

Exercise 1
Improve these
  • They are so gripped by the film, they're frozen in time and sit on the sofa like statues, absolutely still and hardly breathing (from a novel by Dawn French)
  • Eli was not quite seven years old when he discovered that he was different. But perhaps 'different' was not at the time, at least, the right word. For all that time, in most ways, he was a quite ordinary child, with the common traits, good and bad, and many in between, that ordinary little boys will have. But in one important respect he differed from the ordinary (the start of a short story by Salley Vickers)
  • In the not too distant future, college freshmen must all become aware of the fact that there is a need for them to make contact with an academic adviser concerning the matter of a major (from a prospectus)
  • I stepped out of the city and into the park. It was as simple as that.
    It was January, it was a foggy day in London town, I'd got off the Tube at Great Portland Street and come up and out into the dark of the day, I was on my way to an urgent meeting about funding. It was possible in the current climate that funding was going to be withdrawn so we were having to have an urgent meeting urgently to decide on the right kind of rhetoric. This would ensure the right developmental strategy which would in turn ensure that funding wouldn't conclude in this way at this time.
    (from a short story by Ali Smith)

Later exercises won't be so easy - chopping words out is far easier than deciding where words are missing and which words to insert. But at least chopping makes space.

Alternatives to DIY

Before we consider doing all the rewriting ourselves, let's consider alternatives. You could find a trusted person to swap drafts with. Alternatively there are commercial services. One example is They offer several options, amongst them Editing Services: Final Polish for £680 – £1020 which is, I presume, the going rate, and an indication of how much work is involved. So think hard before asking someone to look through your work as a favour.

Re-writers block

Writer's Block is when you're staring at an empty page and nothing happens. Re-writer's Block is when you stare at a full page and nothing happens.

Many of the factors involved with Writer's Block still apply to Re-writer's Block. Indeed, re-writing may itself be a form of Writer's Block, stopping you writing anything new. It can become an obsession - you can re-write for ever.

What factors particularly inhibit re-writing?

  • Fear of destroying the freshness of the original
  • Fear that you might realise it's all rubbish, that you've wasted your life
  • Fear of commitment, that there's no going back
  • Rewriting's boring
  • Not knowing where to start
  • Not knowing when to end
  • Not knowing what to change
  • Self-imposed restrictions - e.g. "write about what you know"; "but that's what actually happened!"; sticking to the same length, genre, era, age/gender of characters

Many of these are more "project management" than artistic issues. Let's see if we can remove some of these hindrances.

Have a plan

Don't be open-ended. Be focused. Don't fiddle about or tinker - that's a displacement mechanism.

  • If it's rubbish, dump it. What's worse than spending 5 years writing a rubbish novel? Answer: Spending 10 years writing it. So put it away in a drawer. With any luck you'll be able to publish it after you've had another novel published (the first two novels that Iain Banks wrote were published well after his breakthrough novel "The Wasp Factory" came out).
  • Focus your attention on the sections with the biggest pay-off - the start, the end, the crisis moment. Editors will do that, so you might as well too. Chekov suggested that you should write the beginning, middle, and end, then cut the beginning and the end. That sounds extreme, but it's worth at least underlining the first interesting sentence in your piece. If it's not near the beginning, have a good excuse ready.
    Ernest Hemingway went through 47 endings for "A Farewell to Arms" before settling on: "After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain." Scribner published an edition containing all of them.
    Exercise 2 - Beginnings
    Here are 2 beginnings of stories by James Runcie about Grantchester. The first is rather flat. The second is rather poetical. Swap the styles -
    • Sidney was uneasy. He knew that it was one of his principal duties as a priest to keep cheerful at all times and he liked to think that he was content with his lot in life, but the copy of The Times that he was reading one late April morning in 1963 carried a biblical quotation at the top of the Personal Column that gave him pause
      'Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you'

      ('Death by Water')
    • As the afternoon light faded over the village of Grantchester, the parishioners lit fires, drew curtains and bolted their doors against the dangers of darkness. The external blackness was a memento mori, a nocturnal harbinger of that sombre country from which no traveller returns. Canon Sidney Chambers, however, felt no fear. He liked a winter's night.
      It was the 8th of January 1955. The distant town of Cambridge looked almost two-dimensional under the moon's wily enchantment and the silhouettes of college buildings were etched against the darkening sky like illustrations for a children's fairytale.

      ('The Perils of the Night')
  • For novels especially, you needn't make all the changes as you go along - just make a list; e.g. - 'beef up X's character'; 'sort out lost-letter plot'; 'revise Chapter Six'; 'check geography of Manchester chapter' (Emma Darwin); 'research into what rubbish is dropped onto pavements'; 'find names of nail-varnish colours' (Tim Love).
  • How do you decide what needs changing? Read others' stories critically to practice finding problems, or go through a checklist of features a short story should have. Many checklists are online.
  • You could try to perfect your novel a chapter at a time, as if each one was a short story - see later.
  • Don't put yourself under pressure by presuming that each re-write will produce the next version of an ever-improving sequence. Some re-writes will be dead-ends or experiments - you might learn something from them, but mostly they're disposable.
  • Try to add variety to your rewriting sessions. Try to make them fun!
  • Get in the right mood - maybe start the day by revising the previous evening's work? Work in a different room when you revise? Use rituals?

Version Control

Amongst the inhibitors to change is the fear that you'll make things worse.

You can work in such a way that you can save all versions and compare old and new versions side by side. Knowing that you can go back to older versions helps make you more relaxed and radical about changing your current version. You're free to experiment.

There are other reasons for preserving versions. e.g for Flash, I try places which have limits of exactly 75, max 100, exactly 100, exactly 101, max 200, max 250, max 300, max 360, etc, so I have multiple versions of some pieces.

How do you do this? First, if your Word processor allows you to track changes and revisions, do that (the diagram in the right shows how versions of a program of mine budded and merged). Some versions of Office let you recover earlier drafts, some don't. Or you can use Overleaf, GoogleDocs, etc.


  • O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us! - Burns
  • editing is like sex. If you do it to yourself you can't really call it editing - Matthew Welton

Whatever your attitude to re-writes it can help to distance yourself from the text before attempting a re-write. By "distancing" I mean being more detached from the piece, as if it weren't yours, so you can see it as others see it and you're less inhibited about making changes. This distancing can be achieved by waiting, but if time is at a premium there are other options.

  • Samuel Beckett started writing in French to distance himself from his work.
  • "No passion in the world is greater than the passion to alter someone else's draft", said H.G. Wells. If you're that type of person, then pretend you're someone else when you read your piece.
  • Write a review of it, or a blurb.
  • Try printing it out in a different font, or reading it out, or recording it and playing it back.

Or you can alternate between small- and large-scale views.

Small scale

Re-writing your work is little like a surgeon operating on a loved one. It helps to be detached, to operate on the knee, not the person. Similarly, it helps to look at the details of your story one aspect at a time. While you're making these little changes, don't consider the effect on the piece as a whole - that will come later -

  • Look at sentence length and paragraph length to see if they're too samey.
  • Look at word frequency. Are you over-using "not", "still", "suddenly" or "but"?
  • Add imagery - don't worry about adding too much, you can always cut back later. E.g. "There was a man whistling, walking along holding a can of Skol ahead of himself. He was holding the can like a compass" (Ali Smith)
  • Look at each adjective and verb (change "red" to "crimson"; "walk" to "saunter"?)
  • If you want to look at each sentence in isolation, replace full-stops by new-lines, or go through your piece from back to front.
    Exercise 3 - Sentences
    (Print the start of a story out, one sentence per slip of paper. Give each person a slip and get them to read the story out. Now get each of them to rewrite the sentence. Get them to read the revised story out)
  • Look at each minor character in turn, listing all they do

Medium scale

These change the whole work, but only one feature of it. You can try something out as an experiment, to revive the story's freshness for you. Keeping the original, try

  • Changing the location
  • Changing the gender or age of a character. Making them visually-impaired, wheelchaired, very tall.
  • Changing the viewpoint
  • Changing the tense
  • Change the era (useful to solve the plot refutations involving the use of mobile phones, etc)
  • Halving the word-count (it's interesting to see what parts really matter to you)

Even if you abandon these versions, trying them out may give you ways to add detail to what you've taken for granted. For example

  • if you change the location to somewhere exotic you may mention the meals more. Why not mention meals in your original?
  • if you set it in an Arctic Research Station you ay find that the confinement intensifies emotions.

Large scale

Re-writing from scratch - produce a new draft of a chapter without looking at the old version! The differences between the versions might be revealing.

Outlining - block-out your piece to see if it flows and if the proportions are ok - e.g. A page about Jim. A line about Mary. A page about London. How Jim ended up in London.

Re-conceiving - Sometimes when you re-read a story you might realise that the crux of the story isn't what you'd originally intended. Perhaps a secondary character has become more interesting than the main one.

Re-structuring - Re-order chapters or sections. Are you starting too early? You can put an important chapter at start, as a prologue, or put chapters in reverse. Instead of strictly chronological ordering of chapters, you could use alternate chapters according to location or point-of-view. Such tricks aren't especially avant-garde -

  • Iain Banks' "Use of Weapons" has 2 narrative threads - one going forwards in time, one going backwards.
  • Two recent best-sellers ("The Miniaturist" by Jessie Burton and "Days without end" by Sebastian Barry) begin with funerals where the identity of the narrator doesn't become clear for pages, and the deceased's identity takes chapters to reveal (in "Days without end" we're told on p.62). Both first-chapters are flash-forwards.
  • "Chang and Eng" by Darin Strauss is framed by the death-bed scene (the final chapter's a repeat of the first). The chapters alternate between 2 storylines: 1811-1842, and 1842-1874, 1842 being the year Chang and Eng met their wives.

If you can't decide how to end a novel, why not include several options. Again, it's not avant-garde - in "Jane, Unlimited" (2017, it's YA) Kristin Cashore included 5 endings, each a different genre.

Novels and short stories

Maybe your novel could become some short stories. Maybe a part of a short story can immediately become a Flash piece. looks at how related short stories can be made into a novel and vice versa.

It's perhaps better to plan ahead if you're going to do this. One benefit of writing a novel as a set of short stories is that you can start sending the stories off long before you've completed the novel - parts of "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan appeared initially in The New Yorker and Harper's. Jill Widner has published (and won prizes for) several story-like chapters of her novel that she hasn't yet published. Doing this also helps with marketing - a story can be a teaser for the novel.


Here's a piece of mine that I've had published -


Suppose one person’s death could save the lives of many others by providing them with vital organs. Should the state intervene for the greater good?

In 2007 I wrote a story called “Going.” I entered it in a couple of competitions before deciding that no one wanted it. Its street market went into “Late” (published in By All Means), the tea flavours went into “Out” (Ink, Sweat and Tears), and the passage about hearing noises downstairs appeared in “Correspondence” (Necessary Fiction). None of those other stories were true, though “Going” was. Did I do the right thing?}

There are 2 things to learn from this - firstly, you can publish the story of your failure; secondly, it's a true story - those parts weren't wasted.

It's easy to flog dead horses, to work on a piece that you like but nobody else does. I've hung onto stories for years not realising that it's just one scene that I liked. You can cut your losses and recycle the bits (having of course saved the original version first). Pieces of dialogue, or even whole scenes can find new homes.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s "Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses" won the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award for 2017. The author said it was in a “process of accrual” for a decade. He said he would be working on his novel and would get frustrated and leave it a while and write a little vignette about a horse. When he started to have enough of the vignettes and his character became a “backbone” to them, he spread them over the floor and called it a story.

I've not gone to that extreme, though I've had success sticking fragments together, putting ``* * *'' between them or numbering them.

Exercise 4 - A complete work
(Hand out a piece of Flash. Get them to identify the sections (3 of them?), turning points, weaknesses)

See also

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Gappy poetry

In "Tears in the fence" No.59 Spring 2014, Mark Goodwin's "Mind Will" begins with

wind th    rives in sky's grasp the   wind
ing of cloth pulls   the sky's hear   t open

and takes the p   ush of clouds & distant
land into the text   ure of corn's matt talk

Some of these gaps are between words, denoting a pause or break that's rather less than a line-break (they sometimes replace commas, or they're like the gaps in anglo-saxon verse). Poets not usually considered avant-garde sometimes use such gaps too - for example, Kim Moore's "Some People" (in "The Art of Falling") and Liz Berry's "Bird" (in "Black Country") use them. The gaps within words are more challenging. "In Tears in the Fence" (No. 65) Mark Goodwin writes about what he describes as his gappy poetry - "with the development of the gappy poetry there was never really an aim, not an an intention, certainly not to begin with. It was all about play". I can see that the gaps allow a little Joycean wordplay, bringing out new meanings. There's disruption too, stopping the reader using a standard novel-reading method of processing - letters rather than words need to be processed, and the 2nd line's "ing" will cause most readers to backtrack. In the 4th line, readers are likely to sense "text of [the] talk" and "corn stalk".

Having written the poetry, he later thought about the style -

  1. as I thought about it, and tried to analyse what I was doing, and no doubt also constructed reasons for what I was doing, I began to see, especially as most of my gappy poetry is concerned with landscape and place, that this gappy form has much to do with the way we continually attempt to read and reinterpret the layers of our worlds … and how we get from one layer of landscape to another, how we go over horizons, how we get from one valley to another. We go via gaps, gaps in hedges, or via a col, or pass, or gap between mountains. What is a path but a form of gap - a strip of place where material has been worn away
  2. words on the page are governed by the gaps … By re-arranging the gaps, and adding gaps, you are still left with the base-layer interpretation/score/material of the original poem (or landscape) before the procedure was imposed on it, but you also have a new surface that reveals, from a new angle, or point of view, or position of hearing, some of the pure sound or music of language detached from what we usually experience as familiar speech, and also you get sudden shifts in meaning, all generated by moving or adding space(s)
  3. Perhaps I can say that my gappy poems happen to be a particular pattern at a particular time, but that the gaps can lead on or rather invite another reader-maker to break the poem (or even world) down again, and re-map as they will


  1. gaps aren't necessarily a lack of something, they can be a means of going from one place to another (a corridor, an airlock) or a space waiting to be filled - he writes "I often approach writing poetry … much as a painter might approach a canvas, and also in some ways how a dancer might approach and proceed across a floor")
  2. gaps can destablize the readers' attempt to organise their sensory input into layers. It does so without making the original text inaccessible
  3. gaps offer the reader more interactive play between the parts

These aims aren't new of course.


  • Line-breaks - Much of what applies to using line-breaks also applies to gaps - if poetry is cut-up prose, then gappy poetry is cut-up poetry (see my The End of the Line for Modern Poetry article). Linebreaks have lost their power to disrupt, but gaps haven't. Rosmarie Waldrop wrote that "Perhaps the greatest challenge of the prose poem (as opposed to "flash fiction") is to compensate for the absence of the margin. I try to place the margin, the emptiness inside the text. I cultivate cuts, discontinuity, leaps, shifts of reference, etc. 'Gap gardening,' I have called it"
  • Mimetic expression - Olson proposed that nuances of breath and motion to be conveyed to the reader through typographical means. Gaps are an obvious means.
  • Negative space - rather than looking at the gaps, one can look at the clusters thus formed, and consider how the gaps create a framing effects - "Typographic isolation does not "emphasize"; it frames, rendering a familiar word or phrase momentarily unfamiliar ... Emphasis limits the range of possible meanings", Stephen Cushman, "William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure", Yale, p.60
  • Clustering - words are in sentences, grouped into clauses determined by syntax. The freedom to move words around on the page provides a different way to create word clusters. The idea is similar to the use of phonemes - matching phonemes can be spread amongst words not connected by syntax - or how a realist painting can sometimes be viewed as an abstract - a "study in blue" where the blueness by chance belongs to various objects.
  • Disruption - In "Broken English" (Wesleyan Univ Press, 1993), Heather McHugh points out that "[Poetry] is a broken language from the beginning, brimming with non-words: all that white ... the making of lines is the breaking of lines ... All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn ... The poem is not only a piece, like other pieces of art; it is a piece full of pieces".
    In informational prose, letters or sounds create words which in turn have meanings that a sentence organises into higher meanings (see my Ingarden and the Sense of Resolution article). Disruption of this mode of comprehension can remind people of the arbitrariness of spellings, classifications, etc. of course, it's not a new idea - e.g. "The radical indentations [in "Tintern Abbey"] let space into the verse column at irregular interval, signaling the abrupt discontinuities and shifts associated with the Romantic ode", Stephen Cushman, ("William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure", Yale, p.57). But such disruption seems to me the moon/June, love/dove of modern poetry - easy to do, with a deadened effect through over-use.
    That said, Ralf Webb writes of Emily Berry's poems that "Several of these use “tabulation”; large blank spaces appear mid-line, as if the poems’ sutures had been ripped out, creating irregular, staccato, breathless rhythms, so that to read them is to enact and experience the urgency of the speaker’s appeals" showing how gaps can produce a different effect to that of line-breaks.


"Spacing in poetry is nothing to do with space and everything to do with time" wrote John Fuller in "Who Is Ozymandias? and other puzzles in poetry" (Chatto and Windus, 2011, p.22). When poetry is read out, it can be hard to hear where the line-breaks are. Nevertheless, poetry readings often successful, bringing into question the importance of the line-breaks. What about gaps?

Mark Goodwin wrote "Encountering my gappy poetry as a reader is of course completely different to encountering it as a listener, and not least because when performing the gappy poems to a live audience I tend to read the poems twice, in different ways: once honouring the gaps, reading in a very clipped style; and once reading the poem without honouring the gaps, and generally by reading in a more natural way. I've found that an audience that might be driven away by the appearance of the gappy poems on the page, once they've heard the two differing but connected musical versions of a gappy poem, well, they 'get' it. That's not a 'get it' so much to do with 'understanding', but rather they 'receive' the music"

I'd like more evidence, but it's an interesting observation.

Mind the gap?

End-rhymes add an effect, but usually at a cost. If gaps offer extra effects without consequences we'd all be using them (in the way that poets use line-breaks nowadays, there being nothing to lose). While we're at it we might as well use coloured text and multiple fonts - they too add meaning-laden features without destroying the original. But we don't.

When New Formalists write about the positive effects of rhyme they usually don't mention disadvantages. Similarly it's not surprising that those who promote gaps don't list their disadvantages -

  • they distract the reader from considering "meaning" (visual effects are often considered more superficial than "meaning")
  • the use of gimmicks (uncommon notation) can put readers off (gaps aren't common - they still seem rather quirky)
  • the use of apparently random devices can put readers off

Even some practitioners have doubts. In an interview Emily Berry says that "These spaces appeared initially as a way of indicating a kind of stutter or inability to speak/write except in a fragmented way (which is probably a textual representation of how I feel when trying to talk about emotions!). They started appearing in other poems I wrote, mainly the ones about dealing with absence and I guess you could also see them as symbolising the way in which someone’s absence can seem so physical. I don’t seem to be using them so much any more. I like the way they give you a bit more freedom in terms of line breaks, but they’re also quite annoying to work with, you end up spending ages deciding how many spaces a particular gap should be, which is not the greatest use of one’s time".

In "Tears in the fence" No.65 Mark Goodwin's "Mind Will" is quoted from -

wind     thrives in sky's tigh     t lipped pert
progress the winding     of cloth pulls heaped
eyes & speech     less beetles sky's heart open

which is different from the version I quoted earlier. Perhaps I've miss-typed.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Linguistic psychopathology of poets and strangers

Poets are a clan, a secret society. One poet reading another will as likely trust them. But to prose readers, poets are strangers. An atmosphere of trust needs to be fostered by the poet otherwise the reader will just shut the door in the poet's face. Readers need to be convinced that the effort of reading will be repaid. A collection of poetry offers the poet an opportunity to develop a trusting relationship. The reader might come to assume that some poems share a persona, so assumptions can be made about the persona's gender, era, location, sexual orientation, etc - factors that complicate interpretation of poems when they're read in isolation. As readers continue reading, they might find shared understandings and shed suspicions of there being any Emperor's New Clothes. They might feel that they're getting to know the poet. Some poets (Sharon Olds maybe, or some Confessionalists) encourage or even require such an engagement by the reader, a commitment for richer and for poorer.

But suppose the poet seems untrustworthy? In real life when introduced to new people we sometimes encounter similar situations, meeting people who seem to be bad judges of character, whose opinions fly against evidence, who contradict themselves, who talk too much, who exaggerate, who are pretentious or incoherent. None of these traits of course is sufficient to sever all contact with the person - they may be interesting and likeable nonetheless. Even if they're not, you may have to interact with them - they may be new colleagues or in-laws; they may be sitting next to you on a long flight. You make allowances, even if the people are a little strange. Indeed, strange people are often rather interesting to people who read poetry, especially if their use of language is strange too.

Is all non-standard language poetic? Of course not. Indeed it's barely a meaningful question. And yet, within each domain of language use, a poetic element can be brought out. Perhaps it's easier to see the poetry when it's in an unusual context. Away from the familiar poetry patterns, rhymes, metaphors, and emotions, there's potential in recipes, adverts, specialist jargon, shopping lists and rants of the mad. This relocation (often removing the purpose from usually purposeful language) draws attention to the strangeness of language.

Any breaking of the word=world equivalence, any doubts raised on the transparency of language, can be considered poetic. The disruption may be minimal. For example, in one of her poems Jo Bell writes about "disappearing her toes in the sand". Making an intransitive verb into a transitive one in this way doesn't make the text harder to understand, but does make the text more likely to be considered a poem.

The most poetic non-standard language comes perhaps from people with mental disorders. In his 1911 book, Bleuler (who coined the term schitzophrenia) quoted this much-quoted passage that exhibits some non-standard traits - "I always liked geography. My last teacher in that subject was Professor August A. He was a man with black eyes. I also like black eyes. There are also blue eyes and grey eyes and other sorts, too. I have heard it said that snakes have green eyes. All people have eyes."

When people are in a manic phase their language is affected. There's likely to be

  • an increased use of pronouns and verbs at the expense of adjectives and prepositions. Speech is likely to be I-oriented
  • more circumstantial, anecdotal or random links between phrases
  • more discursive and verbose discourse. More loose ends.

These features can make a manic person more tedious to be with. The resulting isolation can worsen their problems. With high-functioning manics these features are no less tedious, but at least there are more compensations. Other non-standard personality features that affect language may also be present -

  • Quirks and idiosyncrasies
  • Disinhibition

This disinhibition (which makes it possible to say things that one wouldn't normally), coupled with the greater variety of links between ideas, aids creativity, so it's not surprising that there's a similarity between manic language and some styles of poetry. Those with borderline symptoms may be encouraged to be conventional, or (if writers) try to write a normal piece with a mad person as the main character. Alternatively, rather than change the writer to fit society, new surroundings can be found to suit the writer. The poetry world is one such world, confessionalism being a tempting style. The world of poetry offers opportunities to legitimize behaviour that would otherwise be considered anti-social or rude. If a person with mental problems adopts an existing role, other people to know how to interact with them, thus helping to socialise the troubled person. It's well known that poets have poetic license, so people expect non-PC or unconventional behaviour from people who identify as poets.

Because manics are more likely to be isolated or drugged nowadays, for many people it's something of a novelty to listen to a manic. Their words can superficially sound creative. However, you don't need to be with patients long to know that the illusion soon wears off.

There are of course huge differences between a reader-manicpoet relationship engendered when reading a collection, and the kind of relationship one might develop with (say) a manic stranger on a long plane flight -

  • In real life, stuck on a plane, one politely makes allowances. Quirks and idiosyncrasies (e.g. beginning each contribution with "Er ..." or "Well ...", for example) are filtered out in a way that we're not used to doing when we read (Christopher Smart's ‘My Cat Jeoffrey‘ being an exception)
  • One tends to become tolerant of exaggeration during casual conversation. One might be expecting Truth and Illumination from a poet.
  • Though it's tempting in a book to assume that the persona is the person, that's far from always true.
  • On a plane, one can't easily walk away. Once one's bought a book one tries to justify the time and money spent, especially if the book's been recommended, but one can always stop reading
  • The stranger may not realise that they're coming over as egotistical and demanding. If the poet doesn't realise, then presumably the publisher should. Gratuitously unconventional language and subject matter means that the listener/reader will need to work harder. There's an added elitism in the poem situation - only poetry readers with editing skills will be able to benefit comfortably from the text.

When I was in my 20s a friend I'd known since school began acting strangely. For a while he was institutionalised, then he went into shared accommodation - "care in the community". I often visited. I got to know his new friends. Having had a rather sheltered, scientific upbringing I was interested and stimulated by the company. The subject matter was new to me (some of it eventually got into a prizewinning story of mine) but it was more the uninhibited mix of subject matter (and of reality/fantasy, public/private) that struck me. I transcribed the odd monologue. A mutual friend made video recordings that (heavily sampled) have become minor cult hits on YouTube. At that time I hadn't met any people from the creative arts, and was impressed by the imagination exhibited by my friend's friends, free from society's pressure to conform. That said, I grew increasingly bored of their rambling monologues and the repetition. I see the same free association and lack of inhibition in some poetry. I wonder sometimes if people enjoy it for the same reasons I liked those monologues all those years ago - for the novelty, the unacademic unstuffiness, the escapism.

I have bursts of writing between quiet periods during which the excesses of my writing phases are pruned. The writing's not manic, but I'm aware that the re-writing may remove the spontaneity and freedom of association that made the original interesting. So I can sympathize with manic depressive writers who don't want to change a word of their first draft, even those writers who during their depressive phases feel like destroying their work. But on the whole I'm wary of literature that has too many of the traits of manic writing. Poetry and social discourse are very different contexts with different expectations and norms of behaviour. But it's this very difference that readers should remind themselves of. Readers don't have the duties and responsibilities that carers bear. I suggest that they

  • be cautious about the impact of novelty, disorganisation and disinhibition - text that's sexually explicit or non-PC might appear striking and original in a poetry context, but in a wider context it might be common
  • consider what's lacking as well as what's in surplus
  • wonder why they're being made to work harder than is necessary, and wonder whether it's fair
  • remember that they can cut their losses and stop reading. Nobody's present whose feelings will be hurt

Friday, 5 August 2016

Poetry Sales

Assessing "Poetry Sales" isn't easy. Firstly it's not always clear what counts as poetry. Secondly, publishers often aren't forthcoming about sales, which rarely reach 4 figures and are usually part of a long tail. Some publishers give print-run sizes rather than sales, and count review copies as sales. And books on school/university reading lists may receive special treatment. e-books and web-publishing have complicated matters even further. I'd contend that poetry's never been popular, and that poetry's more popular than ever. It all depends of course on what you mean by "poetry".


Was there ever, anywhere, a Golden Age of Poetry? Here are just a few of many candidates. I think fashion and lack of alternatives account for many of these highlights -

  • In pre-literate times, short and memorable passages were popular, often being set to music. I imagine that they spanned the literary spectrum, though I suspect that the equivalent of pop songs was by far the most popular type.
  • In Victorian times, many middle class parents felt they should have a poetry anthology on their shelves. Some evenings they may have taken turns to read poems out around the fire. A new book by Tennyson could sell 40,000 copies in weeks.
  • In 1965, the "International Poetry Incarnation" attracted 7,000 people to the Albert Hall.
  • Toyo Shibata was 92 when she started writing poetry; her first self-published collection of 42 poems has sold over 1.5 million copies in Japan since its publication in 2009.
  • 70 million global viewers watched dueling versifiers vie for a $1.3 million cash prize in Abu Dhabi’s hit reality show "Million’s Poet".
  • According to Publishers weekly, Rupi Kaur has sold nearly 500,000 poetry books.
  • According to The Academy of American Poets director Jen Benka, the Academy’s Poem-a-Day has over 300,000 readers.


More often we hear about sale flops. Some of these stories may be apocryphal, but they're fun anyway -

  • Edward Fitzgerald paid to have 250 copies of the Rubaiyat translation printed, intending to sell each for 5 shillings. Something like a total of six copies were sold. After a couple years, the bookseller put it on the remainder table. Asking price: one penny.
  • Of the 2,000 copies of the 1832 edition of Wordsworth's poems, less than 400 had been sold by Sept 1833.
  • James Joyce's "Chamber Music" was published 1907. By 1913, fewer than 200 copies out of 507 printed had been bought, many by Joyce.
  • Jorge Luis Borges used to carry round copies of his book of poems and stuff them in the overcoats of men who were having a shave or a haircut.
  • According to Nielsen Bookscan, not one of the shortlisted collections in the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry had sold more than 1000 copies by 2008. "Hawks to Doves" by Alan Gillis had sold 39 copies.
  • Michael Juster's "Wilbur Award" winner, "The Secret Language of Women", has sold 400 copies in a decade - slightly above average for the series.
  • The best-selling single-author poetry book of 2011 in the US - "Horoscopes for the Dead" by Billy Collins - sold 18,406 copies.
  • According to The Guardian only 500 copies of Prynne's "Pearls That Were" were produced in England. On the plus side, in China a translation of it had sold more than 50,000 copies" by 2004.


In 1998-9 the UK Arts Council found that Faber published 90% of the contemporary poetry books that were bought. 67% of them were by Heaney, though his UK sales pale beside those of previous popular UK poets - Byron, Kipling, Betjeman, and Pam Ayres.

In The Guardian, 2013 it said that "total value of UK poetry sales has gone from £8.4m in 2009 to £6.7m last year", and that Salt (a publisher who had produces many single-author poetry books) found that sales had "a 50% drop over the last five years, half of which happened in the last 12 months"

But don't despair. The UK's Candlestick Press produces gift pamphlets of themed (reprinted) poetry that are on sale beyond bookshops. In 2017 they sold over 70,000 pamphlets. Though most poetry books on middle-class shelves are unwanted presents ("Birthday Letters" is in many charity shops), I think quite a lot of poetry survives under other guises. A thoughtful passage can "go viral" nowadays, being read in hours more than a prize-winning poem is read in centuries. And song-writers shouldn't be underestimated. When Joni Mitchell began a track with "Blue, songs are like tattoos/ You know I've been to sea before" she was taking words seriously.

Attempts to widen the base of poetry have never been too successful in strictly poetry terms, especially those that use slogans like "Anyone can write". Perhaps the most recent successes are Dana Gioia's "The Big Read" and "Poetry Out Loud", which aim to increase appreciation of poetry. The current situation, where much worthwhile poetry isn't involved with establishment poetry (and might not even be called poetry) isn't the worst of all possible worlds. At least the writers don't have to make compromises.


  • In the Mapping contemporary poetry report, these were the top 10 (in terms of value) all-time UK poetry titles (Non-contemporary poetry excluded)
    Title and authorCopies sold
    1 Staying Alive (Astley (ed)) 90999
    2 The World's Wife (Duffy) 67590
    3 Collected Poems (Larkin)40696
    4 Beowulf: A New Translation 51694
    5 The Whitsun Weddings (Larkin) 42579
    6 Being Alive (Astley (ed)) 27292
    7 Birthday Letters (Hughes) 31227
    8 If I Don't Know (Cope) 30776
    9 New Selected Poems, 1966-87 (Heaney) 22775
    10 Collected Poems (Plath)16054
    Eliot, Duffy, Armitage, Cope, Hughes and Larkin dominate the top 50 (the only other people to break in are Paul McCartney, Plath and Astley). After the top 50, sales are in four figures - e.g. Don Paterson's "Landing Light" (67th in the charts) sold 4,258 copies.
  • "Official figures from Nielsen BookScan show a sharp decline in the overall UK poetry market in the last year. There was growth of around 13% in 2009, when the market was worth £8.4m, followed by small declines in 2010 and 2011, and then a major drop of 18.5% volume and 15.9% value in 2012, when the overall value of the market fell to £6.7m." (Guardian 2013)
  • "Over the past two years, according to BookScan, the three bestselling UK poetry titles have all been by Duffy – "The Christmas Truce" (38,181 copies sold), "The Bees" (29,716) and "The World's Wife" (19,933). The rest of the top 10 is made up of three anthologies, "The Odyssey", the Pam Ayres' "Classic Collection" – and two more Duffy collections. The collected Philip Larkin comes in 13th place (10,152), behind more anthologies, and Seamus Heaney's "Burial at Thebes" in 14th (9,253). Even a prize-winning poet such as Sharon Olds has sold only 7,399 copies of her collection "Stag's Leap", while John Burnside's "Black Cat Bone" sold 5,544 copies." (Guardian 2013)

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Minimalism - does absence make the art grow stronger?

Many factors go into the production of a story or poem. Sometimes (as in tear-jerkers, say, or porn) one of these dominates, perhaps to the detriment of other factors.

One person's excess is another's lack. An excess of emotion can viewed be a lack of control. An excess of randomness could be viewed as minimal order. I suspect that in literature the amounts of each factor are measured relative to prevailing literary norms, mindful of genre and context. Because so many factors can apply to texts, an absence may well not be noticed, though excesses might well be. However, readers are likely to notice a related cluster of absent features.

Definitions of literary minimalism

"Literary minimalism" is quite a common term, though people used to Minimalism in other arts may be surprised by its usage in literature. In art, Minimalism is associated with non-figurative works, but in literature the term seems to apply to more mimetic works where the minimal amount of literary gloss has been applied.

  • According to Wikipedia, "Minimalism in the arts began in post–World War II Western art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s". "Literary minimalism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description". Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Beckett are cited as examples.
  • Herzinger suggested that its 'salient characteristics' include - “equanimity of surface, ‘ordinary’ subjects, recalcitrant narrators and deadpan narratives, slightness of story, and characters who don’t think out loud.
  • Phil Greaney writes "I have translated these ‘salient characteristics’ into several more precise elements as they appear in minimalist writing: a reduced vocabulary; a shorter sentence; a reticence towards the expression of a character’s thoughts or feelings; unresolved, even slight narratives which reveal more than they resolve; the use of unadorned language and the rejection of hyperbole; a detached, even ‘absent’ narrator; a more abundant use of dialogue; fewer adjectives and, when used, not extravagant; showing, not telling as a primary means of communicating information; an interest in the accurate depiction of the everyday; and a focus upon the present tense".


In general the assumption is that the audience may need to work harder than usual to see the "artiness" of the work. The audience may need to be more sophisticated - "Artistic simplicity is more complex than artistic complexity for it arises via the simplification of the latter and against its backdrop or system" (Yury Lotman, "Analysis of the Poetic Text"). Fried saw this displacement of the viewer's experience from an aesthetic engagement within, to an event outside of the artwork as a failure of minimal art in general.

Realism, in a minimalist way or otherwise, is queried in The end of realist stories (Alex Gallix).

In "An Introduction to literary minimalism in the American short story" by Phil Greaney other criticisms are cited -

  • John Aldridge’s "Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction" reflects a concern that the minimalist approach was banal, trivial and inconsequential, privileging form over effect: ‘[Minimalism] suspends all aesthetic innovation in favour of parsing out the most mundane concerns of superficial life’.
  • The hostility to Minimalism culminated in 1989, when five critics convened on Minimalism, and under the heading ‘Throwing Dirt on the Grave of Minimalism’, declared that it was ‘dead'.

Variations on a theme

Dirty Realism tends to have more lurid content than traditional literary minimalism, but shares its stylistic traits.

The New Puritans group emerged in the year 2000 with a manifesto that included style issues - "We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides"; "In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing" but also content-related issues - "As faithful representation of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculations on the past or the future"; "We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality". The movement doesn't seem to have lasted long - see Are litblogs making writers risk-averse? (A Stevens).

Specialised Minimalism

The term "Literary minimalism" doesn't seem to have been applied to Concrete Poetry (where words' conventional meanings are reduced). Barthes in "Writing Degree Zero" had perhaps this notion in mind when me saw poetic literature existing only in the "absence of all signs", a medium that expressed new, previously non-existent thought or images by questioning or expunging conventional ones. Neither is "Literary minimalism" applied to Prose Poems (where a major poetry indicator, the line-break, is excluded), Haiku, or Found Texts (where the minimum of literary gloss is applied). And what about "The Red Wheelbarrow" or the Blue Mountain poets, or even Larkin?

What a work of art studiously avoids can form an outline, a negative space around what readers have to deduce. Particular absences may be significant -

  • "For (Pierre) Macherey, a work is tied to ideology not so much by what it says as by what it does not say. It is in the significant silences of a text, in its gaps and absences, that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt", Terry Eagleton, "Marxism and Literary Theory", p.34
  • "To understand a literary style, consider what it omits", Mason Cooley
  • "We tend to define our poets by that aspect of sensibility they actually must lack and strive towards", Jorie Graham, "Denver Quarterly", V 26, no 4
  • "The true artist may be best recognised by his acts of omission", Pater, "Appreciations with an Essay on Style", p.18.

Tactical Minimalism

By using more mundane language and situations, writers might be able to encourage readers to look deeper and wider for the aesthetic value, forcing them to re-calibrate their expectations so that they'll more alert to nuance. Displays of emotion can be all the more powerful for being understated or apparently repressed. However, like Art Minimalism, it can appear rather easy to do. What one reader might think is masterful restraint, another may see as a literary cop-out - the author avoiding the issue.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Poetry and precision

In poetry reviews and blurbs, the terms "precise" and "precision" are commonly seen though their use is often vague. They seem to be terms of praise hinting at 2 main concepts -

  • Accuracy - The ability to judge this rather depends on shared understandings and mimetic intent. Is Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" accurate? When Gerard Woodward writes "a toilet cistern refills like an old lady pouring tea" is he accurate? If you see a fuzzy painting of a landscape, it could be the result of the artist's lack of attention to detail or an accurate depiction of a foggy day. How is one supposed to know?
  • Economy - "Precise" often means "small" or "clipped". When an artist captures a face with a few brushstrokes we admire the precision. Economy in poetry tends to involve word-count rather than line-count. 10 words spread over 5 lines is more likely to be considered "precise" than a 10-word sentence. Neither is the time taken by the reader taken into account. If twice as many words mean that a reader understands in half the time, there's a case for saying that the longer version is more efficient, more economic, but it wouldn't be described as more precise.

"Precision" to me can apply to big or small things. There needs to be a small margin of error - if the thing were different even in a small way, the effect would be significant. This concept of "precise" isn't the one that's usually applied to poetry, especially when line-breaks are praised for their precision. I think the economy of the image, more than its exactness, is what provokes the use of "precision", which is why haiku, short Imagist poems and short-lined short stanzas are most likely to attracted accolades for precision. A single, well-aimed (preferably striking) image can be more effective than carpet bombing, and an image can be made to look more significant than it is by being isolated.

The easiest situations to claim that words are precise are where other media have trouble competing at all, or where words' power of reference and allusion (rather than expression) can be exploited. The leverage of a phrase like "remember that night under the bridge in York?" can be large if there are shared understandings or if preparations have been made earlier in the text. A single word or name can be the key to a store-room of memories.

But if one wishes to be precise, why restrict oneself to using words? Words often can't compete with other media. In his novel, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius", Dave Eggers includes a floor-plan - a more precise way of describing the house-layout than words would be. And a photo of a delicately coloured rose is going to convey appearance faster and more accurately than words.

The mouth of Franz Hals' "Laughing Cavalier" is a smear of red highlighted with what looks like toothpaste. Close up you'd be hard pressed to say what the marks represented. By 1851 that style was out of date. Late one summer's evening, Millais rowed across a river to sketch the flowers on the far bank by lamplight. You'll see those impossibly detailed flowers in the Tate's "Ophelia". In contrast there's Picasso's drawings - bare lines on a white expanse - and Schiele's work where areas of untouched canvas compete with highly wrought flesh. Later still came hyper-realism, where painting aspires to photography.

When a poet writes "he rowed across the river to paint flowers", readers are trusted to fill in the details if they wish. It doesn't matter if they erroneously think that daffodils proliferate on the riverbanks. The poet's "flower" is that of a toddler's first doodle: a generic icon. If the writer says that the flowers are "yellow", we wonder why that feature is emphasised. Writers cannot mention without pointing, whether it's at objects or their secondary properties. Because of that, poets have to be as careful as pre-budget chancellors about what they say. Every word matters, but they don't tell the whole story. In contrast, painters cannot paint mere "flowers" - they have to be yellow, drooping, or windblown. Because there are always so many details, none can be singled out.

The world's becoming more graphic, less poetic - we are offered a choice of details to concentrate on rather than being trusted to fill them in. Any lack is a vacuum that must be filled: we have to know the history of each killer, interview those they knew at school, know in which beauty spot the body was buried. If we mistrust what we see our response is to zoom in. There are always more details to find, more trees to obscure our view of the woods. Yet we are scared to get away from it all. Walking in the countryside, we take along our binoculars, our mobile phones and Sunday papers. Even if we notice hosts of daffodils we would no longer describe them as golden - in truth they aren't. Yet facts are often no more than props for poets to feel their way into a poem, scaffolding. Like an actor's false nose, they are as much for the performer as the listener. Like experimental findings, they are useful only for what we can derive from them. We are becoming obsessed by the fine print and the appendices, forgetting the abstracts. Too many writers play safe by giving us everything on the principle that more is better, betraying a lack of self-confidence, an inability to select. The law of diminishing returns applies, further details becoming exhausting rather than exhaustive, obscuring rather than illuminating the original, squeezing the reader out of the text. Picasso was right when he said that it takes a master to know when to stop.

Art ranges from Pure Abstraction to hyper-realism. Poetry too has abstract forms (Schwitters' sound poetry for instance) but its range (excepting perhaps dialogue) doesn't extend to the reproduction of the real world. Poetry has to accept that it can present appearance little better than it can smells, that because the natural world has to be translated into words, all aspects of reality are equally available, equally distant. Poetry needs to combine the untouched abstraction of "flower" and "summer" with the selective power of adjectives, the pinpoint precision of quotation, and especially of proper nouns. The blanket-bombing of Millais is absent. Instead, details are pruned back to let the spaces speak, and lines define not just area but volume. Under magnification the phrases and words may look mundane or even careless but the pieces aren't meant to be observed in isolation. Each word is modified by its context. Meaning is distributed, oblivious to word boundaries and even the boundaries of the work. When a modern poet writes "golden daffodils" the extra meaning isn't discovered by zooming in on the individual words, but by panning out to take in Wordsworth's poem and our response to the Romantics. The measure of a poem's precision is not the amount of detail it contains, but how well it targets the factories of knowledge in the hinterlands of the reader's mind, where the details are best left.

When I began researching to complete this article I discovered (not for the first time) that Jim Murdoch had already dealt with the topic in more depth than I can manage. He too points out that people often meant "concise" when they use "precise". The term was perhaps imported into literature when there was a trend for borrowing from technology - Futurism, Bauhaus, etc - but without the extremism of Minimalism. He also quotes Marianne Moore's "What is more precise than precision? Illusion". Magritte's train coming out of the fire-place needn't be any more realistically depicted than it is. Too much detail would distract. I think that even fuzziness has its uses -

  • One way to make something into art is to remove its purpose. A potter makes a cup so that someone may drink from it. Take away that use and viewers will look for other types of meaning. An instruction manual or a recipe can have its purpose and detail blurred so that only the rhetoric remains.
  • A blurred image can be more potent than a "precise" one because the details may be irrelevant to the effect, and the audience can fill in details themselves if they need to, personalised. A dark object at night is more scary if you can't see that it's a bush rather than a hunched figure. A photograph of Christopher Lee playing Dracula may be more effective if blurred so that you can't identify the actor, only the identifying characteristics of Dracula.

And the content may not be the most significant aspect of an intricate passage. It's sometimes useful to give a sense of precision in order to vary the texture - sweeping from grand abstracts to miniaturist detail can be effective, like jerking a microscope slide into focus.