Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Poem / The Poet

I've been thinking about "the poem" and how it relates to "the poet." I'm part of an online poetry exchange with a number of other writers, where we share poems that we like. It's been an extremely enjoyable experience, only the odd poem or poet being one that I already know well. Yet, when it came to my turn last week, I went to a few books that I was considering, and looked through them increasingly in vain for a shareable poem. And these are books, and therefore poets, I like. There was the contemporary first collection which has some highly enjoyable sequences, but nothing smaller; then there was the selected poems by an award-winner now on her fourth or fifth award-winning book, and the poetry seemed flippant, flimsy. Then again the experimental poet, whose work builds up over pages, but doesn't easily reduce to a single poem.

Yet, when I think about poetry, when I think about poets, I think about poems. It is a particular poem that usually draws me to a poet, and makes me read deeper into their work, and it is the particular poem I go back to. As a writer, I've always been uncomfortable with the idea of writing poetry every day, or even regularly. The best poems are compressed (even when they are expansive), an idea explored fully and intensely in a small space. There are highly enjoyable stylists out there, who seem to write for fun, and if I enjoy some aspects of their work I'll probably enjoy it all, yet it is because they have written individual poems that still appear fresh to me, that I give them my time. Writing a poem, after all, always begins with a blank page, always starts "new", even if the tools you use might be well-worn, the ideas familiar tropes being explored by you, or someone else, for the umpteenth time.

It's perhaps why I still prefer to read poetry magazines than collections, as individual poems are likely to attract me, but then you buy the collection by the poet, and what stood out amongst the mass of voices, can sometimes seem quietened when placed amongst similar peers. I've never had to judge a poetry competition, but imagine it's a nightmare. A good poem can be many things, but it can never be generic. Something: the language, the idea, the execution, a turn of phrase, has to stand out, and as the one literary form that can toy with the abstract, the whole thing can be more than the sum of its parts.

The other difficulty I found in choosing a poem to share, was how little poetry is readable on the internet. Even (especially?) well-known poets, have ony a few verses available freely. I can understand the desire to promote the book, and to protect copyright, particularly for those poets taught in schools, but at the same time, the audience for a particular poet is so small, that I do wish more was available. Perhaps we should have an iTunes or online jukebox for poems, with an honest box, for each poem you download, or print a copy of.

Luckily, my turn on the poetry exchange won't come round for a couple more months, so I've time to keep my eye out for poems that I like enough to share.


Jim Murdoch said...

I am much the same, preferring individual poems to poets. In fact after discovering a rare gem I’m often disappointed when I read the rest of their work and rather regret making the effort. A good example of this is the poet William Carlos Williams. The first poem of his I ever read stands completely alone; it is like nothing else her ever wrote. It’s called ‘The Locust Tree in Flower’. There are two versions both of which you can read here. It was the second version I read as part of an essay by the Scottish poet Tom Leonard where he discussed it and opened it up for me. A year or so later I bought Williams’ Selected Poems and was very surprised to a) find that there was another version of the poem and b) that there were no other poems like the one I first read. Don’t get me wrong I don’t hate the rest of Williams’ work but it wasn’t what I expected to find.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I'm not sure I agree that it's so different than some of his other work, but I know what you mean in that we often respond to a particular poem, and then look in vain for the same response elswhere in the poet's work. Most poets have a spectrum of work, however narrow. A few, like Auden, seem to inhabit a whole world - though I've never found an Auden anthology that really draws the different strands together as a whole. There are some eminently competent poets who seem to not have a single memorable poem, or memorable line - but that might just be a matter of taste. Yet, its important, I think, in that we respond to pieces of art - whether poems, music or paintings - rather than to the artist. That might come later, of course.

Tony said...

Thanks for that blog and discussion. I've mentioned it on - and on the question of different versions, I could change my own lines and words for ever, never being totally satisfied. I take comfort from a copy I have of William Blake's effort to find the 'right' words in The Tyger, and even reordering stanzas.- Cheers, Tony

Adrian Slatcher said...

Cheers, Tony. Very interested in versions of things - though publication completes things in some ways, don't you think? Any future versions are then in a dialogue w. the original.

Leevan Banzuelo said...

It happens with most people. They think about a poem, then they think about the poet. Famous poets have started out that way, basically. They wrote a good poem that made everybody remember them.