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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

17 November 2023

Malcolm Guite answers the question, posed by children: How do you write a poem?

CHILDREN are much more direct than adults when it comes to asking questions, and helpfully so. If I give a poetry reading or talk to a group at a church or university, when it comes to the Q&A, someone will almost always stand up and say something like: “Could you reflect for us on some aspects of your writing process?” When I give a reading or talk at a primary school, one of the children, hand eagerly waving in the air, will ask: “How do you write a poem?”

In a way, the child’s question is easier to answer than the adult’s. I am not sure that I actually have a “writing process”, but, if I did, and I were to reflect on it while I was in the midst of writing, it would kill the nascent poem stone dead.

But, to the child’s question, I can simply say: “Well, it starts when a few words — perhaps a whole line of a possible poem — just arrive in my mind and wave at me. So, I come closer and pay attention. Perhaps I take the line for a walk with me that morning, and mull it over, get to know it a little. I write it down on a nice blank piece of paper and see what it looks like. And then, if no one is looking, I lift the words on my paper up close to me and whisper, ‘Have you got any friends?’ And, more often than not, they have! By the end of our little walk, I find that the words that came first have invited other words to join them, and, by the time we get home, there’s quite a throng of them.

“And then the fun begins. I listen to what the words are saying to each other. I work out who came along with whom. Who’s got a story to tell? Who’s got an important meaning to share? Which are the shy words who might have something special to say, but need a little space to themselves, or else, perhaps, some more encouragement from the others?

“Sometimes, if I put one word next to another, that’s just the right company for it; it suddenly opens up and has so much more to say. If I have any skill as a poet, it’s less like the skill of a drill-sergeant whipping all the words into line, telling them where to go and what to say, and more like a genial host planning a convivial dinner party and arranging the place-cards so as to get the best conversation possible from his guests.”

Then, one day, the words themselves suggested that I put them into this poem:

Hospitality

I turn a certain key within its wards,
Unlock my doors and set them open wide
To entertain a company of words.
Whilst some come early and with eager stride,
Others must be enticed and coaxed a little;
The shy and rare, unused to company,
Who’ll need some time to feel at home and settle.
I bid them welcome all, I make them free
Of all that’s mine, and they are good to me.
I set them in the order they like best
And listen for their wisdom, try to learn
As each unfolds the other’s mystery,
And though we know each word is my free guest,
They sometimes leave a poem in return.

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