How to Grow Your Own Poem is a title well chosen. It pops the myth of ex nihilo creation, which as Kate Clanchy repeats throughout the book, is not how people write poetry. It invokes Keats – if poetry does not come like leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all – and it puts poetry right in the ecosystem, a breathing and pulsing kingdom of life. If the poet, the title implies, gives words the care and nourishment that a gardener gives their garden, a poem will naturally result.
Clanchy believes in composing poetry as ‘a fundamental human activity…something we need to do and of which, even more than dance and music, we are deprived in the modern world.’ Hence the ‘Permission to Write’ sections, intermittent pages of sedative prose to help the reader/writer bypass their personal ‘shit detector’, as Hemingway called it but Clanchy doesn’t. Generally, though, there is very little holding forth across the book’s seven chapters, which share a broadly similar structure. Here’s a poem; here’s what it’s doing; here’s a prompt; now it’s your turn. The exemplars come from poets alive, dead and undiscovered, as Clanchy’s own students, some of them not yet into their teens, see their work set alongside the Audens, Duffys and Armitages. The comparison is often to their credit.
The cues and exercises in How to Grow Your Own Poem tap into the primal, rhythmic impulse in all of us, the urge to shout and chant while stomping a foot. One of the first tasks revolves around Edwin Morgan’s ‘A View of Things’:
what I love about dormice is their size
what I hate about rain is its smear
what I love about the Bratach Gorm is its unflappability…
When Morgan’s finished, it’s ‘Your Turn’, a fixture in every chapter. Clanchy has her reader use Morgan’s poem as an ‘ion engine’, while ‘making sure that all your details are real and concrete and come from your own experience’. She then shows us how her sixteen-year-old student Han Sun Nkumu responded:
…What I love about long drives is stopping for coffee
What I hate about love is that it is undeniable
What I love about love is that there is no maths involved
After which we might wonder who really should have been the Scottish Makar.
How to Grow Your Own Poem is without doubt the ‘practical book’ that Clanchy wanted. But if she puts admirable trust in the student-poet’s ear, she stakes very little on their boredom threshold, fighting almost pathologically shy of verse mechanics. Her advice generally holds for all poets, whether unestablished or establishment: it is always worth being reminded that ‘poems have plots’. But the poet in love with their craft, the poet who could talk about poetry’s cogs and tunings all day, will be disappointed by a subchapter called ‘Couplet Island’ in which Rumi is translated into distichs without rhyme or repeated rhythm: hardly couplets. When Clanchy does broach the term ‘iambic’ she questionably explains it as ‘limping’, and declines to scan a single iambic line to illustrate her point.
Thus How to Grow Your Own Poem diametrically opposes Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, where poetic form is treated with crusading zeal and bouncing nerdery. Quite apart from delighting verse mechanophiles with the expected Frydian brio, the latter makes for a more recognisable read than Clanchy, who eschews such passé units as the paragraph. This often sinks her into the annoying habit of hitting enter before each new sentence, but sometimes it makes a point. ‘It often helps me to think of the white space as enormous. / As all of time and all of space. / Infinitely big, and very cold. / My sentence is a moon buggy across endless frost’. And so on. It’s another example of Clanchy giving us an example. How to Grow at least makes us think seriously about the difference between poetry and prose, a difference that can be reduced to nothing so facile as formatting.
As a primer, the book is still a little too primary school, appealing to our poetic impulse but to none of our curiosity. It makes no apologies for its classroom origins, however, and in the classroom it will find its true calling. We can riff on Morgan’s listicle at home, finding all sorts of weird reasons behind our loves and hates, but our poem will feel incomplete until we share it with someone else. Composing poetry may be a private activity, but Clanchy never lets us forget that it always demands an audience.