I use poetry a lot in my teaching, but I don’t consider myself a poet and I don’t edit poetry as such (my frequent response to a poem has been, ‘Couldn’t you make it a bit shorter?’). A few things have recently set me to thinking about what I, as an editor and writer, have learned from poets and poetry.
This last week I read posts by Isabel Rogers and Isabel Costello on Isabel C’s Literary Sofa, as well as an article by Trevor Conway on the ways in which we encounter and consume poetry. They interrogate something of an assumption that many of us have inherited: the idea that poetry needs defending, or apologising for, or a gentle easing in. Because poetry is obscure, dense, intimidating. Poetry is hard.
There is a fear of poetry. What’s all that about?!
A lot goes back to how poetry is first encountered in formal settings. Even my beloved English teacher Mrs Blakemore thought poetry might be too much of a challenge for working-class kids from the Black Country studying for their O-level in English Literature, so she schooled us in My Family And Other Animals instead (which remains one of my favourite books EVER, along with two other fantastic texts we studied – Huckleberry Finn and The Woman In White – so I can’t complain).
Maybe never getting that education in poetry at an early age, when understanding can still become instinctive, accounts for why I’m still not great with knowing a dactyl from an anapaest (but then again, I never learned my times tables either). I regret not having strong skills in recitation, though Mrs B did make us learn a couple of monologues from The Merchant of Venice, and I’m still able to summon some of them up today. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained …’
I mostly skipped through/over poetry during my BA in American Studies and an MA in English Literature, and when I worked in-house for a publisher poetry tended to be filed away under ‘Doesn’t Sell’ (along with, back then, vampires and nature writing).
But in my twenty-first century incarnation, I’ve engaged with poetry in more meaningful ways. An early lesson has been deciding that poetry should not be hard. Like Shakespeare (who is, after all, mostly poetry), it’s there to be enjoyed and understood, and if I’m not enjoying and understanding, I can either 1. try to understand, or 2. read something else. Goes for all literature, really.
Another important lesson: ‘poetry’ is a vast definition, so vast it’s almost meaningless. It many ways it is, basically, all of writing as art. It covers verse and prose, story and lyric and incomprehensible gibberish, haiku and epics and limericks. Talking of: limericks makes me think of the first ditty I memorised, via my grandmother:
There was an old lady from Ealing,
Who had a peculiar feeling.
She lay on her back,
And opened her crack,
And piddled all over the ceiling.
See: I had poetry in my blood from the very start.
My greatest gratitude for understanding poets and poetry came from the MFA in Writing & Poetics that I took at Naropa University. I had the opportunity to study at a couple of perfectly respectable and conventional (dull) English departments in Colorado, but I had already done that once before (dull English department); how could I resist a Buddhist university whose English department was founded by Allen Ginsberg and is called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics?
I was in the prose track, but it was probably from the poets that I gained most. I hadn’t quite expected this, but I was immersed in a world where poetry was the dominant form of writing. I had brilliant fiction teachers in Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Laird Hunt, and Keith Abbott, but they all write poetry as well, and in some instances they are/were married to poets. Everyone at Naropa is married to poetry.
I discovered that Gertrude Stein is not difficult to grasp if read aloud or listened to, rather than consumed in silence. I took a semester-long seminar on Ezra Pound in which we read The Cantos in its entirety. I studied William Blake; I treasure the memory of a class discussing Songs of Innocence and Experience during a Boulder snowstorm, gobs of white swirling against a vast black sky.
I also took a seminar in Critical Theory, and one day next to a grade on a response paper received some of the most valuable feedback: ‘An essay is like a poem: every word counts.’ (A blog is like a poem, too, but it doesn’t stop me.)
Poetry remains a living thing for me today. My friend Mary Kite, whose haiku from Santa Fe I read most days on Facebook. Memories of Anne Waldman’s fierce performances at Summer Writing Programs. Jack Collom’s The Old Woods. Workshops where I use Carolyn Forché’s The Colonel (poetry? prose? do we care?). Rereading Patsy Alford’s magical Mrs God poems. (I think Patsy is my favourite poet from my days at Naropa.)
Something else that took me back to Naropa this week was reading a couple of wonderful pieces in the New York Times on Eileen Myles: such a funny and clever contrarian, and a wonderful stylist who writes heartbreakingly beautiful poetry to defy her slightly scary image. I feel very lucky to have seen her read: mesmerising.
The poetry world can be a supportive community; this is often the case in certain circles of genre and YA/children’s writing, too, but there is something quite captivating about the dynamics of eccentrics and weirdos in poetry circles. So I grew excited about the idea Eileen Myles mentions in one of those articles of a tv show about poets, which set me to dreaming of something in the vein of Looking or Transparent. Of course, any tv show about poets could not be written by a poet, hahaha! The poetry world can also be a bitchy clattering of egos (takes one to know one) that might seem best experienced from the fringes, though maybe that’s true for any community when it looks like cliques, and maybe it’s also true that any closed world is best observed from its fringes.
When I was (a student) at Naropa I used to joke with a few (fiction-writing) friends that poets were wankers (this was behind the poets’ backs, of course, and I contained myself when I became a teacher there). Maybe it was the fact that poets are writing in a shorter form (sometimes …) that they seem to have so many words left over for talking, and so often those so many words are about themselves?! Oh my – the introductions at poetry readings! We used to take bets on how long they’d run. Many of them were longer than the poems, and the a/c in the Performing Arts Centre was chilly when we were on the fifth slot of the night (plus intervals). I also never forget the gulping noises that came from a handbag the night its owner brought her pet guinea pig to a reading. Or the night a friend wanked her boyfriend off in the back row: now, did that really happen? Yes, I’m sure it did. That’s what I meant by wankers (too).
Some self-described experimental poetry – or maybe I mean experimental poets – can, for me, shift into the pretentious a little too quickly. I find a lot of the chatter about, e.g., language poetry or new narrative dry and reedy. Shut up with the theory, and transport me with the spell of your words, or tell me a story, okay? Just don’t theorise about it yourself. Or use the word body in your poems … nooooooo, total turn-off. Though I try to be kind, I think I’ve probably heard more than my share of what Isabel R calls ‘heartfelt, non-scanned, non-rhyming nonsense’. I know that poetry often needs to be unpicked and deciphered, and maybe I just don’t get it. But I also know that I don’t need to be patronised by gibberish.
I do find a lot of the contemporary British poetry I’ve been exposed to thin, stiff, and dull, though maybe I just need to get out more. When I studied poetry at a prestigious English department, most of the discussion was thin, stiff, and dull, even when we were talking about my favourite poet-to-be, Elizabeth Bishop. Maybe it’s a British thing. But then I read someone like Toby Martinez de las Rivas, and I remember poetry is a broad church, and I probably do need to get out more.
But the Isabels’ pieces made me think about other lessons. There are lessons in sound: rhythm, rhyme, the music of words. Lessons in precision (again: every word counts).
There are also lessons in mood. Not everything has to be explained in every sort of writing; a significant weakness in a lot of the prose I read is that it tries to explain too much, at the expense of suggestion and impression. Fiction isn’t like academic writing, or technical writing, or journalism, which needs to clarify and ass-cover comprehensively. Much in writing – and reading – can and should work through the act of interpretation.
Poetry also helps you see the world anew, as in the inadvertent yet compelling performance poetry of Sarah Palin. Poetry keeps us on our toes.
The greatest lesson I take from poets, though, is not so much from their work but from their ethos. They are writing it for the love of it. Poets embark on their writing fully aware that their writing is unlikely to sell. It might deserve wider circulation, but they know it’s highly unlikely they can make a living or even a pittance from it. But they write their poems anyway.
I guess writers in other genres write their writing anyway, but sometimes I wonder if beginning writers of fiction are grasping towards the idea of publishing a little too, um, prematurely, and the very idea of publishing is getting in the way. And the hard facts of our material economy mean that unless you are writing something that other people will want to read (and that really is a gamble), it’s going to be tough to make a living selling your own books. And there are plenty of other things out there vying for our readers’ time: gym memberships, Netflix, Pizza Express, blogs. Some of us do our best to help writers do their best to get their work out there, but no one owes you a living, and even an agent or a publisher will only owe you what you agreed with them when you signed on the dotted line. And I am sure most agents and publishers are only hoping for the best too.
Meanwhile the poets are there, in the coffeeshops, at the microphones, in the libraries, on the bus, scratching out their poems regardless.
Lesson: Write because you love it. That sounds corny and simple, but sometimes I think that core idea gets lost. And we always have to come back to that thing we love, because that is probably where the writing will come alive, free of anxieties (about pitching our books, about Amazon rankings). And maybe, maybe that is the writing that will attract readers, and get published, and then attract more readers …
Part of me is slightly embarrassed that I wrote this post, because it might be read by some of my poet friends. You’re not all wankers! And also because it seems a bit silly to behold poets as objects, and explain why poetry is good for writers. But then I tell myself that many writers do in fact resist the idea of poetry, and there is much to be gained from it. So go on: make the next book you read a work of poetry.
Two of the three books I’ve finished so far this year (with many others in progress …) are works of poetry: Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Physical by Andrew McMillan. And this set me to deciding on a belated new year resolution of reading or rereading a book of poetry a week. My third is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island Of The Mind. My fourth will come from the stack in the photo above.
It’s a good resolution, because it’s probably one of the easiest to stick to if you love books and reading. There are plenty of short poetry books, after all, and maybe, maybe you can also fit in someone’s Complete Works, or some Homer too? (God knows I tried and failed with Moby-Dick – again – last year.)
Poetry is not just a means, but an end in itself.
Here are a few resources for writing as well as reading poetry, should you want to explore some more. Lot of free poems too – poets are generous souls.
* Poetry For Dummies – a fun intro, especially for the fearful and the uninitiated, and the people who wrote it from the San Francisco Poetry Center are certainly not dummies
* Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe, Poetry Everywhere – a super book for establishing a poetry practice using different forms
* Jack Collom’s brilliant Ecosystem of Writing Ideas
* Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments