I started writing poems 20 years ago on my first creative writing course at the Continuing Education Department of Oxford University. Up to then I had never attempted to write a poem. I read poems but only occasionally. A few I could recall from memory, no doubt having had to learn them at school. If it had not been required of me I doubt if I would have written a single poem.
On the course I was told to write a sonnet. I had a week. It seemed an impossibility. Until I discovered something important: when you write a poem in a particular form, the structure helps. A Shakespearian or English sonnet has 14 lines of iambic pentameter [10 syllables], three quatrains of “abab cdcd efef” followed by a rhyming couplet. I knew what I had to do. I produced a sonnet and although it was pretty awful, it did meet the requirements. Subsequently, I have written better sonnets and experimented with other poetic forms, haiku, villanelle and terza rima. Those poets who have never written in anything but free form miss out on the challenge of writing within a structure. Philip Gross, my poetry tutor when I attended my second creative writing course at Bath Spa University College, showed me how much fun there could be in meeting various poetic challenges. There were only four of us doing the poetry option and that included Philip. Because of an acute shortage of rooms we were housed in a science lab, sitting at a long bench with bunsen burners and surrounded by retorts, beakers and all the other paraphernalia of practical science. People in white coats looked in at us from the door in what I imagined was awe though mild amusement may have been nearer the mark. Philip set us the challenges and we submitted our attempts. How great it was to have such an accomplished poet who revelled in poetry and whose gentle criticism honed our meagre attempts, turning something raw into something more accomplished.