Last night I sat in a semi-deserted cinema in Sarajevo watching ‘Paterson’. It’s a film by Jim Jarmush about a poet who drives a bus in suburban New Jersey. It’s very Jarmush: off-beat, slow, full of staged wondering. It’s also very beautiful. What I particularly liked about it was how it showcased, in a cinematic way, the process of writing poetry, in a way that seemed very honest. The words came stumbling out across the screen, as the poet sat writing a first draft. Some of the words were clumsy, some sentences didn’t scan, some images didn’t hit their target.
By the time of the second draft, things had been tightened. The viewer was privy to the notebook with its jottings and crossings-out. The cadence of the sentences had improved. There was a strong opening and a strong final image. And so the poet goes on, trimming, adjusting, re-writing. Until at some stage he or she decides it’s done. Which is possibly the hardest part of all.
I find it incredibly difficult to know when a poem is finished. Some poems I’m revising for years. Some you can just feel that they haven’t quite hit the target you want, and they sit in draft, way down the list, waiting for that final touch, or a complete re-write. The film portrayed that very well. And also – without giving too much away – the utter despair you feel when your work is lost, or the idea just won’t fly.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months working on prose rather than poetry. But poetry is always there, it finds you at unexpected moments: 4am while wide awake, in the shower, in the back of a cab as you round a corner into a street you haven’t seen before. A few months back, I sat with the windows open as a big rainstorm blew up the long valley. From the veranda I could see out over the city as the storm hit, as the rain came down very suddenly, the pause between the whipcrack of lightning, and the long rolling thunder. And equally suddenly it was over – just like that. So I sat there and wrote something, and – like it does sometimes – it just came straight out. It was one of the very few poems that didn’t need a second draft. I’m very pleased to say that The London Magazine picked it up, and it will feature in their April/May issue, out soon.
With all the rest of the poetry that I’ve written in the last few months though, it has been a question of writing and re-writing. Perhaps that struggle is normal. Having seen Jarmush’s film last night, I comfort myself that it is. But it is still rather wonderful when something appears complete, and flows off the pen as if it were already composed. Without all that drafting and re-drafting. Makes you wonder where creativity comes from, and how quickly ideas come and go. Rather like that thunderstorm. Or a man sitting writing on a bus, as the credits roll.