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Poetry is not a clique

Friday 5 February 2010

I don’t know anyone who reads poetry, except people i’ve met through poetry. It is a bit of a rarified community. If you’re not within it, poets look like neurobiologists or nuns, initiates into mysteries that have no connection with the rest of us.

For me, this is easier to understand than it is for many poets. I was well into adulthood before i began to ‘get’ poetry or even to want to. Let me tell you how it came about.


I always saw myself as a writer, yes. Words were my oxygen and my clay. But poems, nah. I blame this on a rather unimaginative English teacher who had a reasonable grasp of rules but not much sense of art; but when i think about it, i’d have noticed what was lacking at school if poetry had been part of the nutritional mix at home. So i can blame it on my parents’ esteem for music, travel and theatre, if you like. As crimes of neglect go, a low dose of T S Eliot isn’t up there with the greats.

In accordance with the fantasy of Being A Writer, i started taking Writers News (and still do). It’s a great magazine, though i prefer Writing Magazine which nowadays comes with it to subscribers. A monthly serving of the techniques and business of writing, author interviews, analyses of published works, competitions, and market news. I used to read each issue cover to cover, leaving out the poetry bits, which didn’t have anything to do with me. After a few years i started reading every page for the sake of it, to make it last longer. Including the poetry bits.


Writers News and Writing Magazine have taught me more about how fiction works – its anatomy, things like plot structure, characterisation, style – than seven years at a ‘good academic school’ and another four writing essay for a degree that was three-eighths literature. Several years after graduating i suddenly began to see what the lit crits were doing. It was by no means the fault of the teaching. My natural bent is towards sciency thinking, analysing and organising abstract concepts, so physics and Latin grammar came more easily. (What is odd is that this sciency mind ended up so committedly artsy, but i now know many people straddle that divide.)

Anyway, poetry. Some of those articles were very technical, and i already knew a lot of the jargon: what an iamb is, for instance. Now, give me a how-to and my response is to give it a go. Whether it’s a knitting pattern, guidelines for public speaking or how to raise orchids (or your kids! (say it in tempo and you’ll hear the joke)), seconds into reading/hearing it i want to begin; i suppose the imperative, rather than the descriptive, rouses me. (I have to ration my eHow time.) And there i was reading piece after piece about how to write poems. How could i not have a go?


I’d never realised that selecting a word was about the sound of it as much as the meaning – or that selecting a poetic form was about relating the form’s character to the poem’s theme. Yes, i knew the urban myth (is it?) about Virgil spending three weeks perfecting a single line – none of us could get our heads round that, how many years would it therefore take to write the Aeneid?! – and even i could see, if i’d thought about it, that e e cummings was doing more than just talking about his feelings. But i’d never grasped what was going on and it had never seemed relevant to me. As an undergrad i’d scribbled my share of ‘poems’ but only now was i finding out (1) that angst-with-linebreaks isn’t poetry and (2) why it isn’t.


I take pleasure in the way words do several jobs – beyond double meanings, they’re also contributing to rhythm and the aural texture of the poem; touching emotions and manipulating a mood, whether of wistfulness, outrage or amusement; surprising or lulling the reader. Altering a single comma sometimes makes as big a difference to the ‘feel’ of the read-through as inviting Brian Blessed to your dinner party would to your evening.

I took to this medium – gradually – as a way of communicating not only the facts but the truth (my truth, of course) of a situation. I discovered, and later became comfortable with the fact, that you don’t have to make literal sense and in fact can convey more by leaving the sense open to the interpretation of other people, all of whom will experience (and, if you’ve done it well, remember) different content.

So here i am, by perhaps an unusual route, an enjoyer of poetry. And yes, though it still seems presumptuous to say so, a poet.

And if that can happen to me, it can work for anyone. 🙂

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday 9 February 2010 2.05 pm

    Jim, sorry i have taken so long to respond but i had to wait for this house to be quiet enough to listen to that video! I’m glad i found the eighty minutes for it. I was expecting a talk from one person but it’s dozens of poets speaking on ‘Poetry Is’. I think i’ll loop it in the background, allow different voices phrases and definitions to gleam through my working day. Of course there is some high-faluting’ twaddle in there as well but what could we expect? Hey, let’s get techie and embed it here:

    poetry is [vol. I] from George Quasha on Vimeo.

    … Actually i followed the embedding instructions, but WordPress is translating Vimeo’s code to just a link. Never mind.

    I was interested to hear Wittgenstein’s writings described as poetry, since i read and wrote about his thinking long before i ‘found poetry’ (which is less dramatic than finding God, of course 😉 ). And yes, the part of me that was trained to use language with the specificity that philosophy demands is the part that deals in making a word work hard in a poem to carry precision of literal meaning and emotional sense at the same time.

    Many of these people talk about the use of language, and many talk about a response of the body, and many talk about ineffability, and many about a fresh or non-everyday way of looking at the world. I’m not ready to compose my own essay on what poetry is, but i believe all of these come into it. Ideas still gelling…

    Far easier to say what poetry is not (eg a clique) than to say what it is. What prompted this blogpost was the impression it gives, to non-poets, of being exclusive. I don’t like anyone to feel left out.

  2. Saturday 6 February 2010 9.41 am

    Schoolteachers have a lot to answer for. In my case I will be forever grateful to Miss Williamson for introducing me to Philip Larkin’s poetry and in particular his poem ‘Mr. Bleaney’ the reading of which was one of those scales-dropping-from-eyes moments. Up until then I had had a steady diet of the I-must-go-down-to-the-sea-again school of poetry and couldn’t connect with it. I used to kick the heads off daffodils not glorify them in verse. And then here came this drab, colourless, bleak poem which if formatted differently could have passed for prose, and it suddenly dawned on me that poetry was more than technique. All these other poems were like the Centre Pompidou in Paris with all its working on the outside. I would be about fourteen then and had already been writing crappy stuff for a couple of years but I was nineteen before I found my own voice (by which time I’d left school and discovered William Carlos Williams).

    There’s an interesting video on Ron Silliman’s blog called Poetry Is which you might find interesting.

    After watching the Poetry is video I came away with this thought: Poetry is a metaphorical form that can only be explained metaphorically. Of course metaphors don’t explain anything, they suggest, and so the nearest anyone can get to an explanation of what poetry is is actually a suggestion of what poetry may well be.

    I don’t think that poetry is a clique. But I do think that poets are cliquey. It’s the same with all art forms. Take music, how many rap musicians hang out with classical composers? Not a lot.

    Enjoyed your post a lot though.

    • Saturday 6 February 2010 1.59 pm

      Great to see you here on the Travel Hopefully Blog, Jim.

      Some poets are cliquey; i’m not sure all are. I’m not, of course. ;0) You’ve got me thinking now about the nature of cliques. Hm… a future blogpost, perhaps. I love your simile – we could have a term ‘Pompidou poems’ for those that let it show how hard they’re trying to be poems. Technique in my view is essential, but without the meat of the message, is also pitiful.

      Thanx for the pointer to Ron Silliman’s blog, but the link didn’t get past the WordPress defences and i can’t find that video.

      And after complaining about my main English teacher, i have to add that in my O Level year suddenly i had one who made it all relevant, even Shakespeare. First time his plays had felt like plays intended for acting, rather than text intended for translation. What a priceless thing a good teacher is.

      • Saturday 6 February 2010 2.33 pm

        Try this direct link:

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