When I first started writing poetry, I had really no idea how to do it (I’m still not totally sure). We had covered poetry in high school (or secondary school as it’s called in Ireland), mostly the works of English poets like Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley and a bit of Yeats, but after high school most of my exposure was through reading anthologies or Irish poets like Heaney, Muldoon, Durcan.
So when I started writing, my only technique was to try out lines and see how they sounded and this is pretty much how I write today, although occasionally I will switch to a form as a way of compressing the language. Lately. I have been looking more closely, but always in retrospect, at why a particular line works and another doesn’t.
Recently, I saw in the newspaper, an obituary for Daniel Berrigan, the activist priest, who was a controversial figure in the late sixties and early seventies and at one time spent time in prison for burning draft records in a protest. I immediately thought of a line from a Paul Simon song “Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard”. Initially, I remembered the line as “when the activist priest came to get us released/ we were all on the cover of Newsweek”, but that didn’t sound right. Then, I realized that it was “radical priest” not “activist priest”. Why does that sound better? Music, the ‘r’ in ‘radical’ is repeated in both ‘priest’ and ‘released’; the ‘d’ and ‘l’ in ‘radical are repeated in ‘released’. Without music, it’s prose!
(By the way, Berrigan is the priest that Paul Simon is referring to in the song.)