Poetry workshop with Ron Pretty

Ron Pretty is a poet who has many decades experience writing and promoting the form. He was part of the South Coast Writers Centre and had a role founding Five Islands Press and the Australian Poetry Foundation. Ron has also taught writing at the University of Woolongong and the University of Melbourne.

There were a number of exercises that he led at Narrandera, starting with asking us to write a final line for the poem Madonna and Child by Craig Powell:

An image of silence: fine dust falling on hair
where two of them sit motionless the light
glides with a rhythmic stillness out of sight
yet leaves a kind of radiance upon
mother and child asleep in armchair

Many in the class interpreted the poem as describing a Renaissance painting but I thought I’d be a bit cheeky and think of it as a photograph of Madonna bringing home a child adopted from a third world country. My line was:

as they journey to a new life beyond the night

As it turned out, Powell’s final line was surprising and powerful:

rags stuffed under the door, the gas turned on

Ron said he has a routine for writing, including pouring a glass of wine and lighting a candle at a regular time each week regardless of inspiration. So the next exercise was to write non-stop for 10 minutes and I was surprised how quickly a piece began to take shape. I’m tempted to work on this prose further:

Hold on to that thought
The cats shriek, it could be murder but more likely carnal
Shut up, I think as they’re distracting me from work
The thought has left than and I’m forced to step back
Seek space so that my idea may re-emerge, seek a stimulant:
a cup of tea

The kettle squeals, it be a train but more likely an alarm
Stop it, I think as the children are sleeping and not distracting me
The thought hasn’t returned and then I’m forced to step back
Seek a spark so that it may return, seek an inducement:
a glass of wine

The creaks, it could be an old window but more likely a door
Spill it, I think as the glass fills with liquid seduction
The thought returns that space is still needed
Seek fresh air to clear my head, seek a moment:
a quiet garden

The distractions are calling me, might be important but more likely not
Stay out, I think as the light escapes and the subject darkens
The thought now has company
Seek space to coax it into the present
And give birth to an idea

This exercise demonstrated a couple of things for me, that inspiration isn’t always needed and that writing can be surprising. I really love those times words flow onto the page and inspire their own direction.

Ron continued the workshop by discussing technical aspects of writing, such as line breaks and stanzas. In a traditional poem line breaks are determined by rhythm and the challenge is to keep the lines fresh as “English is not rich in rhymes”. Another challenge is metre as “it must sound like natural speech”.

In the organic form of free verse “your job is to find the best form the poem can go into. Every poem you write should be in a different form because it is a different poem.”

The line is “the most fundamental unit of the poem” and Ron encouraged experimenting with variations to see what works best. He offered a quote that “poetry is not so much a profession as a predicament” as the writer tries to make the form suit the message and intent of the content. Is each line a sentence? Is there a rhythm or pattern and is it conveyed through beats or syllables?

“There’s a lot of playing in poetry to see what works and you don’t try to do it all in one sitting.” Allow time to come back with fresh eyes and remember other people will read your work differently than how you read it yourself.

The last word of a poem “carries more significance than any other in the poem”.

At the other end, a title is an opportunity to create a reference outside of the work, offering “another way of looking at the poem”.

A question was asked about the difference between poetry and prose. Ron said there was much overlap but poetry uses heightened imagery. Imagery used should be consistent.

He quoted a Melbourne poet who thought “accessibility is a dirty” which is an attitude that makes me despair. Ron was of the opinion that “the best poets write work that speaks to people” but countered this with the view that “if you want to tell people things, give a lecture. You write for yourself because you want to explore.”

Ron promoted creative use of language. He offered a sentence and then rephrased it as a way of showing how to control the flow of words:
a) The cathedral stands on the least frequented, sunniest square in the city.
b) One the least frequented, sunniest square in the city stands the cathedral.

“One of the things poets do is experiment with usual ways for exception effect”. As an example, Dylan Thomas wrote “a grief ago” rather than a day ago. “Look at stock phrases and ask how might you show the reader a different view? It’s important to ask what the reader is going to see, hear and feel.”

“One thing that deadens a poem is too many abstractions,” said Ron. “Words like love have a lot of baggage” and he started a final exercise. In one column we wrote abstractions (or concepts, it seemed to me), in the next we wrote contrasting descriptions (long/short, hot/cold, strong/weak), and in the final we joined them together.

For example, the concept love was joined with descriptions: ‘love is sweet, young, wet and hard’. This seemed a bit too ribald to me, so I experimented: ‘love is weak, fat, brittle and old’. This proved to be a challenge when Ron asked us to think of an image for this line. I settled on ‘like a spoilt pet’ then put it together into a haiku:

Love is like a spoilt pet
that’s weak, fat, brittle and old
indulged for too long

Ron said the image line can be useful as the title of a work. So I tried a different approach:

Like a spoilt pet
hidden in my heart of hearts
a truth carefully crafted
concealed with care
this love I bear

In closing Ron shared some things to avoid. “These are things that usually stand out for me in poetry that doesn’t work”:
  • forced, artificial structures
  • polysyllables, flat rhythms
  • abstractions
  • confusing, self-contradicting images
  • cliches
The workshop was stimulating for me. It’s been many years since I learned anything about poetry, so that helped, but Ron shared a palpable sense of enthusiasm for the form. It was great that Booranga Writers Centre shared him with the ‘From Pen to Paper’ group in Narrandera.