For Meet the Bar we sometimes work with new forms, at other times we work with one specific method or tool that we can use to make our writing better and more interesting.
Today I would like us to use negation in poetry. I have often found that this is one of the strongest tools in poems I like, and when I attended a workshop on poetry a few weeks ago our teacher attributed a term for this:
Via Negativa, a term which originally comes from Apophatic Theology and says that the divine can only be approached in terms of saying what a perfect God is not.
For anything abstract or emotional you can define it with everything that it’s not. It can often be combined with examples what it is.
Consider for instance the first quartet of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet 17:
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul….
To me, this moves the love of someone from something cliche like (a rose or a gem) to something earthly and real.
Negations can be subtle and layered into the poem as in The Tyre by Simon Armitage
… not curled like a cat in the graveyard, not
cornered in the playground like a reptile,
or found and kept like a giant fossil….
It can start the poem like in Pablo Neruda’s poem above, or end it like in e.e. cumming’s somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond:
…nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
Or listen to master Will in his sonnet 130 as read by Alan Rickman
I have tried to work this into my own poetry from time to time, for instance in my quadrille Laburnum and rain where I tried the negation as part of a description of jealousy, or the negation I used to describe bullying of my youth in Never the Flowers.
As you can see from the examples negations is most powerful when you develop metaphors. It is a great way to avoid cliches, and remember that looking at everything that it’s not can be a good way to write positive. Maybe focusing on the empty part of a full glass can make you see how you can fill it.
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