Poets and their practices: the thinking of poets – by Jude Brigley

Jude Brigley has been a teacher, editor, coach, performance poet and a speaker, and she is now writing for the page.  She believes that poetry should be at the heart of the English curriculum and that it can play an important role in everybody’s life.  While being an experienced examiner, inset provider and research student, she still retains her enthusiasm for the classroom. In 2008, she was named as a teaching trailblazer by the Poetry Society (UK) and in January 2011 she was awarded a Doctorate for her thesis which suggested that students can be trained in poetic thinking. In the past, she ran two performance poetry groups,  and she is also the editor of two poetry anthologies, The Poet’s House (Pont, 1998) and Exchanges: Poems by Women in Wales (Honno, 1990), which were created with students in mind.




Poets and their practices: the thinking of poetry

Poetry, like most creative arts, demands a synthesis of all kinds of thinking. However, there is a case for saying that poetry has its own ways of thinking, or, as Oakeshott puts it, ‘a voice of poetry’. All too often an analytical mode of thinking is considered superior by some academics and educationists. Vendler recognizes this tendency:
The Process of Thinking has usually been defined as a chain of
argument, explanation, logical induction or deduction.’

Emily Dickinson attacks this hierarchy of thought when she writes that:
We shall find the cube of the rainbow-
Of that, there is no doubt:
But the arc of a lover’s conjecture
Eludes the finding out.

Dickinson defines the voice of deduction and scientific thinking through the image of a cube, but she suggests that such elements of human life and thinking are not easily contained. By using the lexis of mathematics, cube, arc, conjecture, the poet reveals the poverty of such language when applied to the human heart. Dickinson suggests that a book tells us:
your dreams were true.
He lived where dreams were born.

Thus, Dickinson sees the life of poetry as different from everyday life, but affirms that it should not be undervalued: its idiosyncrasies deal with a particular kind of truth or experience. This is an important part of poetic thinking, recognised by Wallace Stevens when he writes that: ‘What we see in the mind is as real to us as what we see by the eye’. This confirms the idea that poetic thinking is a synthesis of the many thoughts in the human mind, but sometimes such thinking is hard to grasp or to put into words. The poet, according to Hughes, tries to hear and give voice to that ‘inaudible music’.

Deduction, logic and critical thinking all have a place in the lives of poets, but the process involved in the writing of a poem, synthesises characteristics of thought and brings something else to the mix. Oakeshott calls this ‘contemplative imagining’ while David Jones calls it ‘a journey’. Whatever metaphor is employed, there is agreement amongst poets that writing poetry demands special kinds of thinking.

Poets and critics are prone to announcing that the meaning of the poem is the poem and some writers are not prepared to say any more on the subject, asserting that the medium is the message. When questioned about his poem, ‘French and English’, the songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen replied that he could not, ‘go beyond the poem itself’ and refused further commentary. Auden takes this idea further when he writes that:
It has been said that a poem should not mean but be. This is not quite
accurate. In a poem, as distinct from many other kinds of verbal societies
meaning and being are identical.

We cannot tell the singer from the song, the dancer from the dance, the meaning from the form. Both poets suggest that paraphrasing the poem or explaining its meaning could diminish the poem’s power. In that translation, parts of experience would be lost. Cohen makes it clear that the poem is an experience which stands without further explanation so: ‘ it doesn’t need anything else said about it’.
Lowell describes the creation of poetry as a kind of journey. The poem culminates in a moment when the poem is written, although ‘You may not know you have it to say’. The not-knowing-you-have-it-to-say underlines the fact that the writing of a poem can be an exploration and synthesis of thoughts dimly felt, but not truly expressed until the poem takes shape. Boucher suggests:
Poetry of inspiration breaks free from logical control and passionately
rejects the temptation to be understood.

This sense of the mysterious may be one of the reasons why Bob Dylan
has been so adamant about not offering commentary on his own work: ‘The point is not understanding what I write but feeling it’. Poetry can capture what for most of our lives, as Hughes asserts, lies behind doors, which are locked ‘with the keys inside’. The point about poetry is that it is capable of moving us to tears even when we cannot fully understand the poet’s lines some sense of its feeling stretches out and burns us with a truth that we do not fully comprehend in our rational mind.
Form is an essential ingredient of poetry and not a neutral bottle into which the ideas of the poem are poured. On the contrary, despite the ways in which poetry is often taught, form and content are so closely knit as to be indivisible in the experience of the poem. As Tony Curtis neatly summarises: ‘The meaning of poetry is essentially bound up in its form.’ We can see this in its simplest form in a haiku by Kikusha-Ni where a thought is captured in the formality of a chosen structure:
The scarlet leaves of autumn
Pale before the sight
Of waving green rice fields.

The whole point of that thought is that it hangs in the space of the page in that particular way, chosen by the poet, each line coming to us at a line’s space and pace so that the meaning and its form are as one. Curtis puts this aptly when he writes that:
In poetry, the line is the unit of significance as well as the sentence,
and the tension between these two controls allows the poet to
control the fourth dimension of time.

Thoughts and words are ordered into specific shapes on the page, and indeed the shape dictates the type of writing, like a mould in cooking. This supports the view of Plath, who describes the poet as ‘an expert packer of suitcases’, and, in that equally homely image, gives a suggestion of the shaping compactness of the poet’s task. So powerful is the mould of form that the writer can upset our expectations and startle us by using form differently, as in Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’ or Wordsworth’s contributions to the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ where using forms unexpectedly revitalises older more established patterns and makes the reader look with fresh eyes. Similarly, comedy, parody and criticism can stem from the seemingly inappropriateness of a form chosen, such as Wendy Cope’s limericks based on Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ or Auden using blues rhythms for a Roman Soldier, or Duffy’s conversational monologues for ‘The World’s Wife’. In poetry, words and forms are the means of creating new expressions and experiences. ‘Experience’ is a better word than the traditional lexis of ‘expression’ which suggests that a message is placed in the poem as liquid in a bottle when the form is not the carrier but part of the message itself.
The metaphor is one of the most powerful tools of thinking that people possess and the ability to make metaphor lies at the heart of poetic thinking. Morley asserts that ‘Metaphor has power and permutation, almost like a magic force.’ He ‘sees metaphor as ‘the art of defamiliarisation’ and its function is ‘no less than an act of revivification’. Metaphors are part of everyone’s experience of the world and endemic to every sphere of life from politics to journalism, but Morley is right when he pinpoints metaphor in poetry as having a special role in making us see the world we live in with different and less tarnished eyes.
In her poem, No.7, Emily Dickinson uses the metaphor of a nosegay for her own poetry, thus demonstrating both what a poem can be and how a poem is constructed. She compares her poems to a nosegay taken to captives as a present from a visitor. The word ‘captives’ suggests prisoners, and patients with time on their hands, and no chance of escape. Dickinson’s modest image of her poetry as a present suggests that it sweetens life and acts as a touchstone for a wider vista. This demonstrates the power of metaphor to capture the poet’s manifesto in a visual and memorable way. Her poems offer glimpses of freedom and a gentle reminder of past aspirations: longings for denied beauties or pleasures. The homely image of an ‘errand’ and the seriousness of the ‘prayer’ root the poem in the real world where the poet’s words are used to explore ideas that are expressed through poetry and become pedestrian if we seek to transpose meaning to another form.

Dylan Thomas emphasises the thinking of the craftsman who treats words like wood or stone, carving and moulding in order to reach ‘some dimly-realised truth.’ The idea of the poet as craftsman is part of a Welsh tradition which David Jones refers to as poets seeing themselves as ‘carpenters of song’, a metaphor that appealed to a visual artist.
Auden rejects carpentry as a metaphor, asserting that a poem has a life that emerges only when it is finished. He stresses that a carpenter is following a pattern but the poet does not know how the process of writing will take shape until the poem is finalised. Auden would agree with Thomas’s vision of the poet as risk-taker who continues his quest for an end of which he is not fully aware, a journey with vague destination, a process with no pre-determined consummation. However, the risk of creation is counterbalanced for Thomas by curiosity, wonder and, most of all, joy:
Poets have to enjoy themselves sometimes, and the twisting
and convolutions of words, the inventions and contrivances, are
all part of the joy that is part of the painful voluntary work.

In the writing of poems, then, is a special kind of problem-solving which is concerned with complex patterns of meaning and which evokes willingness, indeed delight, in delving into intricate decisions about alternative choices. The poet is willing to be inquisitive about word meanings, to toy with ideas and to be open to puzzling choices and demands. These characteristics are part of what we mean when we talk about creative thinking.

It would be pointless to paraphrase a poem such as Raymond Carver’s ‘Drinking While Driving’ as what happens is clear and it needs no such translation. And yet the poem captures moments in time that seem to have a greater significance. It is reminiscent of Robert Lowell’s description of the process of poetic thinking when:
Some little image, some detail you’ve noticed – you’re writing about a
little country shop, just describing it, and your poem ends up with an
existentialist account of your experience.

Carver’s poem captures a moment in life. It is not significant in the way that a key event in one’s life is significant and memorable. It is only a space before ‘something will happen.’ Nonetheless, it has its own kind of significance as it is a happy moment, spent with his brother and where intellectual achievements (‘I have not/ read a book in six months’) are not seen as the source of that happiness, which appears as a surprise to the writer as he uses the word ‘Nevertheless’. At this moment, captured in the poem, life is directionless and perhaps without pressure as the brothers are ‘just driving’ with no clear direction, with responsibilities put aside and the sense of being lost appears both literal and metaphorical. There appears to be almost permission on such a day to ‘sleep forever’ without consequence, apart from the brother’s nudge, which breaks the moment and brings us all back to the real world where events happen.
The poem is reminiscent of Ted Hughes’s suggestion that poetry often deals with human experiences that have significance because they are ours. However, they are hard to put into words. He would contend that much of poetry is about an attempt to give a voice to our inner experiences so that:
Words… express something of the deep complexity that makes us
precisely the way we are….Something of the duplicity and the
relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this. Something
of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter

Something of this is captured in Carver’s poem where he has found words for a fleeting and ordinary moment.
Poetry dictates a type of thinking fed by creative and critical thinking patterns. It is a thinking facility for making links between objects through the creation of analogies. It chooses language to explore a range of experiences that are expressed in a structured way. This process is a creative process, dynamic and divergent, often playful and sometimes intuitive. But, once ideas are generated, it is a process of conscious, critical thinking which seeks to shape the initial thoughts into a poetic form in such a way that form and meaning become one. In the past, and still within the world of education, there has been a bias towards more logical forms of thinking, but this hierarchy of thinking modes needs to be challenged in the twenty first century.


Auden, W.H. (2000) ‘The virgin and the dynamo’, in Herbert W.N.& Hollis. M. (ed.) Strong Words. Northumberland: Bloodaxe. pp 67-71.

Boucher, D. (2004) Dylan and Cohen: poets of rock, New York: Continuum. P.159

Carver, R. (1996) All of us: collected poems. London: Harvill. P.3
Curtis, T. (1996) How poets work. Bridgend: Seren. P.13-22
Dickinson, E. (2000) Selected poems. London: Heinemann. P.94

Dylan, B. (1990) quoted in Taylor, F. ‘Dylan disowns his protest songs’ in ed. McGregor, C. Bob Dylan :the early years, a retrospective, New York: Da Capo Press. P.97
Hughes, T. (2000) ‘Words and Experience 1967’ in Herbert, W.N. & Hollis, M. (ed.) Strong Words. Northumberland: Bloodaxe. pp. 152-157
Jones, D. (1973) ‘The Preface to The Anathemata’in Modern poets on modern poetry. Scully, J. (ed.) London: Fontana. pp.203-236.
Lowell, R. (2000) ‘An interview’ in Scully, J. (ed.) Modern poets on modern poetry. London: Fontana.pp.239-269.
Morley, D. (2007) Cambridge guide to creative writing. Cambridge: Cambridge. P.9.
Oakeshott, M (1991) ‘The voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind’, in Rationalism in politics and other essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. P.497-516.
Plath, S (2002) ‘A comparison’, in Herbert, W.N.& Hollis. M. (ed.) Strong words. Northumberland: Bloodaxe.pp.145-147.
Stevens, W (2000) ‘from Adagio’ in Herbert, W.N.& Hollis. M.(ed.) Strong Words. Northumberland: Bloodaxe. pp.56-66.
Thomas, D (1973) ‘Notes on the art of poetry’, Scully, J. (ed.) Modern poets on modern poetry. London: Fontana.pp193-202.
Vendler, H (2004) Poets thinking. Harvard: Harvard. P.3




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