Saturday, February 07, 2015

Still Appeal of Writing Poetry

As someone who writes I occasionally find myself wondering why I write a particular way or in a particular format. As a lyric poet, poetry causes me some particular challenges. Whereas with fiction I feel able to pull out of the hat a ventriloquism if the story demands it, apart from a few "voiced" pieces, poetry needs to sit with, and sing in your own head and voice. "Finding your voice" is what young poets are told, especially if they are too influenced by a particular model writer. We all have a voice, but it would be absurd to think that each of us can create something unique and lasting. Our fragments come together and more often than not are an accumulation of what we have been reading, or of how we think.

We find our own ancestors of course - and in some ways that's been a little bit of the problem for me with the favourted sons and daughters of contemporary British poetry. There's no Celtic in me, despite red hair, and neither have I ever been particularly entranced by rural England, or the sentimentalised past, or even the present nature. Part of this, probably comes from having a background - in the industrial Midlands - where my grandparents were tenant farmers. There's little sentimentality from me for that life. Besides, born in the 1960s, from an early age I was promised modernities - whether it was gleaming new toys, colour television, the VHS tape or CD, or - as a teenager - new films and music. My world is one different than a generation that had folk memories (or real memories) of a bucolic countryside.

Yet take away nature poetry, take away sentimentality, take away elegy, and a lyric poet isn't left with all that much. I never succumbed too much to the anecdotalism of the New Generation poets either - it seemed a thin gruel (at least in my own seeing, my own life) to write about. A fantasist in my fiction, in the more rarified world of the poem, the temptation is to use the language to dig around your own life, confessionally at first a la Plath, but afterwards, I think, writing a poetry that is from yourself even if not about yourself. It's why discovering "For the Union Dead" by Lowell was so important to me - this was a mini-film; a public poem; a history poem. The American voice - the American line - is one I've been taken with ever since reading Prufrock, or slightly afterwards, Cummings. It doesn't always easily sit with a working class vernacular voice like the one I grew up with. The cadences of the Black Country remain in my thoughts even where they haven't remained in my speech. (And because I was such a constant reader, I don't think I ever read in my head in a parody of Black Country vernacular, my brain was being retaught from the inside.) That said, the demotic voice is one that appeals to me time and again in poetry, whether its the Metaphysicals, Wordsworth and Keats, Louis MacNiece, or Americans like C.K. Williams. Older poets, of course. Partially because its hard to find my "contemporary". Armitage is a couple of years older than me, some of the emerging poets are much younger; those who are at least a decade older than me that make up so much of the poetry establishment, don't seem to be ones I have much time for - like your older brother's Slade records, you probably had to be there at the time.

But I've strayed a bit from what I was wanting to write - which was less about the "fit" but more about the "why?" I sometimes think I write poetry because else where would all that thought and writing that doesn't easily fit into fictional prose go? In other words its a creative medium vast and wide and untravelled enough to always bring me back to it, however lame my particular crossings have made me. I suspect the glitteriness of a good poem is what appeals - whereas a good sentence or a nice story or a powerful piece of prose can be enlightening and invigorating, they can't encapsulate in the same way - they are partial art, to a greater good, a greater aim. This writer, at least, even though I probably share my time (and my gifts) between prose and poetry, continues with the latter because of the possibility in the latter. Probably why I'm never very good at workshopping my poems (whereas I'm happy to workshop prose), there's something unknowable I'm working at: the sense-making of the poetry workshop can sometimes be antithetical to my my effort (though I will probably aim to solve the same problems that they bring up, albeit in my own way.)

For a good poem seems to have a lot going for it, but a lot that needs doing to it. How to come up with an idea that hasn't been expressed before? At least not by me.... How then to find the cadence that will suit the words? How to muddle between the lazy assumptions of an easy lyricism, and the extra mile required to stretch out the line? (I'm not Whitman, I'm not C.K. Williams, neither am I Emily Dickinson or Emily Bronte). The form, then, like a template that you can tweak endlessly, like the three minute pop song, or the  Knock Knock joke. Yet we want to transcend the limitations of the latter - even if we're writing another sonnet. Its a complex recipe, worthy of an Ottolenghi cookbook, and its not surprising that sometimes I find I've not the ingredients, the tools or even the technique. Poetry though is more like a classic dish than something newly minted, and we put our own regional tastes on it. I wrote a poem last year where I compared nationalities via their different types of meatballs - faggots, albondigas, kofte etc. - the House of Babel may have many different languages, but we have a surprising propensity to share variants of our peasant food.

I think the demotic in this instance allows us to pull in the words of now, and has to. An American novel will be packed with brand names, as part of that daily mythologising they do; I distrust a plain poem that has only words that could have equally sat in a 19th century describing, just as I distrust those poetic words that the workshop is so keen on tossing out. I've just got the new biography "Young Eliot" and I look forward to retreading Prufrock and those other early poems, yet reading it as an 18 year old in 1985, it felt like a bygone age, even though I recognised the impulses. Perhaps that unwieldy name? Whatever, our formalism - not just in poetry but in life - separates us out. As I head into my late forties and the poems I write that people prefer are using a type of pseudocode, a knowing appropriation of language (Facebook LIKEs etc.) that I know will as likely be faded into memory in five years as any contemporary references - but these are just sprinkles of coconut on a seventies sweet, that will then brim with nostalgia at some later point.

For sitting down, with an idea, a line, a faithful nine syllable opener "Of course I never sailed to Europe..." I feel the old excitement again: and this poem, this tiny thing, suddenly seems a vast but honourable project. The second verse has already lost the magic of the first, I've already distrusted my poetic instinct in terms of making literal sense, but I'll keep at it... something more than a crossword, less than a cure for cancer, but in a still appealing place in the middle.


Jim Murdoch said...

On my site at the moment I’ve been publishing poems I wrote in my late teens which is when I started to find my own voice. It’s an interesting experience looking back and trying to remember not only what was going through my mind when I wrote these particular pieces but also where my mind was in general as well as my life which was very much in a state of flux. I can see in the poems I’ve posted so far early influences but I really never was one who tried to mimic my heroes even though all my life my one goal was to write ‘Mr Bleaney’ which I did finally manage to do here.

I, too, cannot for the life of me imagine workshopping a poem. I struggle even to share a poem that isn’t finished and can literally count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have and usually when I do I lose interest no matter what anyone has to say about it. Prose is different up to a point but I still never share anything until the story’s complete and the only things I’m up to change are the usual copyediting stuff.

I read a lot of poetry in my late teens and early twenties. It was then that I discovered that I didn’t like most of the poetry I was reading. I still don’t. Which is why it was easy to not copy because there were very few poets out there I wanted to emulate. I tried techniques on for size but most gimmicks I rejected. Not associating with my peers also helped—or didn’t help as the case may be—because I kept working away at my own thing and the only person I was looking to please was me. As to whether anything you or I or the thousands of other poets working around us writes will last, well, probably not. Most of it doesn’t deserve to last but that doesn’t mean what will persevere deserves to either. It’s the luck of the draw mostly.

Gwil W said...

Jim's poem #467 posted today on his blog his a hit with me and I don't mind saying so. In its brevity lies its strength.