Which comes first – the chicken or the egg?

How does the formulation of a poem begin? With an idea, an image, a phrase, a subject, a feeling, a memory, a structure? 

I’ve been thinking about this question in relation to my own writing. Unsurprisingly, there is no single answer. On rare occasions a poem plops almost fully formed into my head (inconveniently, this tends to happen in the middle of the night). The trick then is to capture it, to write it down before it flits off and disappears like a migrating bird.

These poems tend to find their own space on the page, with perhaps a little tweaking here and there.

More commonly, a poem begins as a seed planted in the imagination, which must then be nurtured into growth. In my case it takes time and effort to coax the seed into a mature poetic presence – sprawling across the page perhaps, exuberant as honeysuckle, or trained neatly along a trellis of couplets or tercets, or trimmed like a topiary yew into a standard form. There’s an iterative process between initial concept, language and structure, sometimes with a need for ruthless pruning along the way. Not all these seedlings take root and I have consigned a fair few to the poetry compost heap. Some have lain dormant there, to regenerate unexpectedly years later.

Serendipity occurs when form inspires content, content inspires form – chicken and egg simultaneously. I’m particularly fond of the Fibonacci poem, which is defined by a simple mathematical structure that underlies many naturally occurring patterns of growth or decay, as well as having links to the Golden Ratio. I like to play with its conceptual associations, spiralling inwards or unfolding outwards, both in subject matter and appearance of the poem on the page or screen. 

Finally, there are the poems where form or structure provides the starting point. If you’re a poet, you will almost certainly have tried your hand at standard forms such as the sonnet, villanelle or sestina. I confess that although I love sonnets I’ve yet to write a successful one of my own, while my attempts at other well-known forms have an obstinate habit of going their own way (‘Sungrazer’, for example, started life as a villanelle before deciding to deconstruct itself).

Nevertheless, exploring given forms is a great learning experience, like practising scales – honing technique and skills as you note how variations in metre, rhyme and repetition interact with each other. In recent months I’ve been experimenting with some lesser-known poetic forms and constraints, primarily inspired by Paul Brooke’s Poetic Form Challenge and the monthly Scrabblegram themed suggestions that David Cohen posts on Twitter. I find the 100-letter constraint of a Scrabblegram particularly demanding, and my desktop is littered with failed attempts. It’s immensely satisfying though, on the rare occasion when I do succeed in completing one! 

You can browse some of my experiments in form here.

Of course, it’s fun to develop our own poetic forms. In my case, examples include ‘Autumn Sunrise’, which is constructed according to Pascal’s Triangle (I discuss and read this poem here) and ‘Iterations of Emptying’, a Sierpinski carpet fractal poem. Please share any examples of your own; I’d love to read them.