FEATURE: Get Into…Poetry | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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I’m gauche enough to call myself a Poet. I write poems and they’ve been published in the PN Review, Belleville Park Pages, The Missing Slate and some other places. Much, much less importantly, I did a Masters in Modern Poetry at Oxford. I live and work in Newcastle.

What makes poetry special is that it’s uniquely awful at what it’s trying to do. I think any art-form is only itself because it can’t do something else. Paintings are only paintings because they can’t be epic-narratives; music’s only music because you can’t see it; sculptures are only sculptures because they can’t act. Poetry can’t do anything. Which is because it tries to do everything (narrative, spatial composition, bodied-expression, musicality, fiction and non-fiction simultaneously). I find forms moving when they come smack up against their own limitations, and poetry’s doing that all the time. It’s tense, neurotic, ridiculous, and beautiful.

Difficult to remember, never mind describe, my own process of ‘Getting Into’ poetry. Reading Eliot’s The Waste Land for the first time as a teenager was pretty good, but only because I wanted to look clever. My favourite living writer (except maybe John Ashbery and my friend Rowland Bagnall) is called Ben Lerner. A protagonist in his first novel is really suspicious of people who claim to have had a life-changing “profound experience of art”, especially because he has known people “before and after such experiences, and registered no change”. Maybe I share his suspicions, but reading Lerner’s own poems very nearly ‘changed my life’, especially the last-line of the first poem in his first book, The Lichtenberg Figures:

“This chicken is a little dry and/or you’ve ruined my life”

Its tone expresses a near-total disdain for its own form. That ‘and/or’ does a whole sort of Schrodinger-trick of making two things true at once, and is a really heavy depression – by which I mean both that it depresses the iambic rhythm of the line by pushing down an expected metrical foot on “or”, and that it communicates, I think, a real and proper kind of anhedonic despair. And yet it’s human, it’s moving, it tells a story, it has a voice and a kind of magic. All the things “you” “want” from “poetry”.

Go to Ben Bulben and read Yeats. Go to the Alps and read The Prelude. Go in a church and read Church Going by Larkin. Go and look at how rubbish Men are and read Lady Lazarus by Plath

Two things I think are important for non-poetry readers to do if they want to become poetry readers. First, trust your own fucking judgement. Hate a poem. There are loads of absolutely terrible poems. Way, way more than there are good ones. Read a poem, possibly by a revered poet, and be arrogant enough to say “I understand this, and I don’t think it’s good”.

Secondly, go to a place that is mentioned in a poem and read that poem there. Go to Ben Bulben and read Yeats. Go to the Alps and read The Prelude. Go in a church and read Church Going by Larkin. Go and look at how rubbish Men are and read Lady Lazarus by Plath. I tend to be suspicious of Literary Pilgrimages (OK, you got me, I am currently writing this article from a James Joyce-themed pub in Sandycove, Dublin, but the Guinness and the broth are good enough as an excuse) as they’re nearly always contrived and can get in the way of the actual work. But a lived-experience can properly open up a single poem, and therefore “poetry”, to someone who might otherwise not read poems. So go “there” and read “it”. Just don’t tell anyone about it.

If you want to write poetry, there’s not much more to say than read as much contemporary poetry as humanly possible, like, all the time and also spend absolutely loads of time writing poetry. If you don’t think this is good advice then you probably shouldn’t write poems.

A couple more things, actually: once you get stuck, just write straight-up imitations of your favourite poets until things get going again. Stealing and copying are good ways of beating a block.

Secondly (or thirdly, depending on where you started counting): the famous leather-trousers model Jim Morrison of The Doors once supposedly said “All of my best poems have wolves in them”. Or maybe that was just Val Kilmer in leather trousers. But anyway, all of my best poems have Jurassic Park and/or Crash Bandicoot and/or The Simpsons in them, so I guess some advice would be that nothing is too ‘pop’ to be in a poem.

Written poetry happens to YOU, alone, with a book. So go anywhere you like reading and read poems there.

Jenni Pascoe recently wrote a great piece in these pages about performance poetry (which you can read here), so if you want advice on where to ‘see it live’, look there (to which I would just add that Bang Said the Gun does really good things all over the country to bring good and clever poetry onto the stage). Written poetry happens to YOU, alone, with a book. So go anywhere you like reading and read poems there.

Again, if you want to ‘get going’ with reading, you really just have to will yourself into it. I know a lot of people who would recommend getting a good anthology of poems and starting there: The Norton Anthology of Poetry and the Christopher Ricks-edited Oxford Book of English verse are the classics. Donald Allen’s really game-changing anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960, was very important to me, and everyone likes The Rattle Bag. But I think anthologies tend to feel like grabbing indiscriminate handfuls of pick ‘n’ mix and eating them all at once. It’s like there’s a party in your mouth and too many people have brought a plus-one and you only get a chance to talk to each guest for a couple of minutes. Or something. And, just as a bad party is more about the host’s ego than anything else, an anthology tends to say way more about its editors than its content. I say find a poet you love, and read them totally inside-out. Buy their books rather than a ‘selected’. Read poems in their originally intended forms. Straight-up recommendations for a first collection? OK, buy The Lichtenberg Figures by Ben Lerner. Buy Dart and Falling Awake, both by Alice Oswald. Buy Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara. Buy How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes. Or anything else you like the front-cover of.

If you want to start writing, you could read On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell, which is absolutely brilliant and totally accessible, if a little ‘inflated’ and sort of ‘academic’. Also, remember to keep a straight face about it all. The urge to write poetry is a universal one, I think, but the privilege to be able to read it and write it in the safe zone of ‘aesthetic distance’ is one that you shouldn’t ignore in your own practice. (I’m assuming here that NARC readership doesn’t include anyone writing insurgent poems from warzones. If this is an unfair assumption, I apologise).

Rhythms, metres, and rhymes – all English poetic ‘forms’ actually – were almost certainly originally conceived as mnemonic devices, to help bards and lyric-performers remember the meandering epics of their culture and pass them on. To allow stories to transcend generational boundaries, and endure. In this sense ‘poetry’ was literally designed to confront Time. But if poetry is a weapon against Time, then it’s a gun pointed at a clock. Which is exactly why it’s both useless and absolutely necessary.

Here’s Walter Benjamin telling us about the start of the French Revolution:

                “On the first evening of fighting it turned out that the clocks in the towers were being fired on                                            simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris. An eye-witness, who may have owed his                        insight to the rhyme, wrote as follows:

                Qui le croirait! On dit, qu’irrités contre l’heure

                De nouveaux Josués au pied de chaque tour,

                Tiraient sur les cadrans pour arrêter le jour.


                Who would have believed it! We are told that new Joshuas

                at the foot of every tower, as though irritated with

                time itself, fired at the dials in order to stop the day.”

Without meaning to get saccharine or sentimental, I think it’s properly moving to imagine the doomed heroism of shooting at a clock-face to try and stop the immense and impossible thing it symbolises, always somewhere on the back and behind of the face, which both represents and shields the actual thing, ‘Time’. Also very poignant and important is the idea that people across Paris independently acted in the same way. There’s a vernacular of gesture and emotion that is inherent to the human race, it seems. And though you can’t literally stop time by stopping the clocks, this is an image that is sad enough and moving enough that you will remember it. It will endure, despite time. Because the gesture is useless, it succeeds. Like poetry. It claims to do the impossible. It fails. Therefore the impossible is achieved. Are you with me? Then welcome.

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