A Plea for Poetry

A Plea for Poetry

The first piece of creative writing that I can recall anything about which had a memorable effect on others was a poem I wrote aged around six or seven. It was about the colour blue, then my favourite colour, and it ended with the immortal stanza, “Blue, blue, beautiful blue. Blue, blue, wonderful blue.” Hardly Wordsworth, I know, but it caused a fairly large stir in my infants’ school among the teachers. I was a bit shocked at the effect but I guess that while teachers wanted their students to have a try at poetry, at that age, they weren’t expecting terribly much. The poem is long gone but I recall that I used imagery and metaphors, about which I knew nothing consciously.
There is a hesitation, a fear and a loathing around poetry that has long puzzled me. People say they can’t see the point of poetry or that it bores them, or it’s all insufferable navel gazing and narcissism. I know relatively few people who read poetry who are not themselves also poets, and I pick up a general feeling that to most, poetry is an irrelevance.
This saddens me. I studied poetry to an almost industrial level at university, in two languages. Shakespeare is the most widely known poet in the English speaking world, and his language infuses modern English to such an extent that it’s hard to find idioms and expressions without roots in old Will’s works and we use his words usually without knowing what we owe to him for enriching our native tongue. I studied Anglo-Saxon verse, and Beowulf, and then everything from then on up until the twentieth century. I have my favourites, that speak to me, that have become my go-to poets and poems for all sorts of emotional needs. Sometimes a poet expresses a personal truth so well that it becomes almost a universal truth.
A poem can encompass in a few short lines a vast story, yet that story is dependent on our interpreting it (unless it’s a narrative poem or an epic saga in which case it’s a bit more straight forward). A few short words can be enough to convey directly to the heart what it might otherwise take a long novel. For example, in a Wilfred Owen poem from the First World War, he uses the phrase “blood-shod” and in that, he tells a powerful tale of shortages, political incompetencies that delay vital supplies, of the pain of boots disintegrating in foul mud, of feet so sore they lose feeling, coated in blood and filth, that has taken me four lines to explain in merely in passing. (http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owen1.html).
The effects of such a poem are immediate, and stunning. You can read it out and see the faces of those listening become lost in thought. You don’t even need to be good at reading aloud for it to have a dramatic effect.
It’s not just for the difficult things, either. Love poetry has been a staple for thousands of years; you can say things in poetry you can say no other way. Lovers from Sappho to Shakespeare and onwards have been extolling the virtues, vices and beauty of their beloveds. Catullus wrote some of the wickedest, wittiest and most humorous of ditties to his beloved; they still hold the power to amuse, shock and entertain. (Do look him up in translation and be prepared for some smut and some laughs and some shocks.)
Words are things endued with power. I’ve read of research where subjects being viewed via an MRI machine have had words flashed in front of them and their brains have lit up in the same places that experiencing that event would provoke. So reading about love makes the brain experience the same feelings as being in love, or experiencing pleasure. We can enjoy vicariously the experiences of others, and thereby become more empathetic. This is one of the uses of poetry(and of story, too, but poetry to me is a form of story telling that bypasses acres of words)
And don’t forget that poetry is also FUN. Who has not giggled over the odd limerick? Who has not sung nursery rhymes to their children? Who has not at some stage felt the words surge through them when a poem set to music sets off a moment of nostalgia?
I write this both as a poet and as a lover of poetry. Give it a chance. No one demands any more that you learn a long poem, stanza by stanza, threatening detention or a rap on the knuckles if you fail. You have the option to choose what to read, what to enjoy. There ought be no snobbery in poetry. Pam Ayres’ light, entertaining (but thoughtful) verses have as much value as T.S. Eliot’s labyrinthine and often impenetrable poetry. I’m at the very brink of releasing a first book of my own poems, just a slim volume of twenty poems. I don’t expect it to sell well, to be honest, but nonetheless I am going ahead and publishing because put simply: poetry is important. It’s important to me and whether we recognise it or not, it is vital to civilisation and human development.

Society does not value its artists ~ an examination of systemic contempt


Society does not value its artists ~ an examination of systemic contempt


I made myself quite unwell over the last four days, gnawing at a festering sore of an issue without really understanding why it bothered me so much. If it had been on my skin, you’d have thought I was merely picking at a tiny scab and making it worse. But that tiny scab hid something much deeper, just as skin cancer lesions can seem unimpressive and fail to convey the threat they pose to health. I thrashed around, snarling a lot and feeling incapable of articulating quite why I was in such distress over what many other saw as a small thing, barely worth noticing.

To backtrack, I’d discovered that a project I had thought both nurturing of writers and of spiritual awareness had turned out to be nothing more than a run-of-the-mill attempt to make some money off the backs of writers and poets. No law had been broken as far as I know, but it reduced the whole thing down to yet another “send us your writing so we can publish it and you can buy your own work back from us as part of a book” scheme. Many poetry contests use this format and unless it’s for a well-known and prestigious prize, it is seldom worth bothering with; I got caught with one a few years back, and needless to say, I never bought the book they offered me at some exorbitant price. If you want to see your work in print, fine. I am aware that many of those who took part in this initiative are delighted with it and have bought multiple copies of the offered book, which had the merit of not being overpriced. But I would be willing to bet that very few people will buy the book who are not somehow connected to the project in some way either by virtue of having work in it or knowing someone who does.

There was something deeper at work in my obsessional worrying at this; there always is and troublesome as it may be to others to see me go through this process and deeply distressing as it is to me to do it, I do eventually dig my way through to the truth at the heart of the matter and this time it is a very ugly truth indeed.

It’s so ugly you may not be able to bear it. I know I can hardly bear to look at it now I have unearthed it.

It’s simply that not only do I see that my work with words is not valued by society, but that all the work with words by writers dead, alive, published and unpublished are viewed with a contempt that runs so deep that we are seldom even aware of it.

Do a straw poll today and ask people to think of the names of writers. Chances are the names you get will be Dan Brown and Katie Price unless you have a fairly literary set of acquaintances. Do the same for poets and I suspect you may find a dead silence and a scratching of heads before someone says, “Oh yeah, Shakespeare. Oh and Wordsworth.” Great results hey? Two beach read purveyors and two very dead poets.

The contempt goes into the industry; anyone who has ever submitted(now there’s a suitably bondage-orientated word to set your hackles rising) work to a publisher knows about the slush pile. Note the choice of word: slush, that half-melted mucky stuff you see piled at the sides of roads after a long period of snow, filthy and useless. If you’ve ever got rejected, the first ones you tend to get are without any sort of personalisation, a stock slip without reference to you as a person or the work you sent them. I have plenty of letters back praising me and telling me to keep going because I was good; they just didn’t have a niche, or they didn’t love it quite enough to take a risk or whatever reason they chose to give. Each time, it sawed at my soul and in the end, I’d had enough. Enough of being considered but rejected. I may have got further than many do, but it wasn’t far enough and the damage it did me was incalculable. That’s why I think this recent brush with more contempt hurt worse, because I’d begun to hope for better, especially among writers (the organisers of this were supposedly both writers and spiritual)

As a society we consume the work of artists (the words of writers) without paying any attention to the artist. We feel ourselves qualified to critique art without knowing anything about the process. Listen in at a gallery sometime, especially somewhere like Tate Modern; the sentence you will hear most is usually, “I may not know anything about art but I know what I like.” I’ve said it myself, which is a lie, because I do know something about art (but there’s another story) and while I understand that appreciation of the finished product is subjective, the understanding of the process of creation is not.

When it comes to writing, any moderately literate person can write. But to write well, that is another matter entirely. I think it may be this accessibility to the basics of the art that means that society has long since lost any sense of appreciation of it. We consume it without tasting it, without tasting the work that went into it. Writers are the milch cows of the media; if one withdraws there are thousands of others to take their place. If you buy books from Amazon, you get suggestions of what to buy next on the basis of what you have already bought. “If you liked Dan Brown, then why not try…” I’m sure you’ve seen this sort of thing. If the Dan Browns and the Katie Prices vanished, there’d be more of the same homogenised and sanitised crap to buy from the pen of someone else. There always is, and for good reason: the desire of the writers ourselves to have stab at immortality through our writing. Most of us know that the chances of winning the Lottery are better than the Best-sellers’ Sweepstakes, but we think, hey, buy a ticket, you never know. It could be me, it could be you. Yeah, well, I have never even bought a Lottery ticket. I’m not a gambler and hoping to make it big through writing is probably the biggest gamble ever, short of throwing yourself off Beachy Head and gambling on the rapid evolution of wings.

I’m not sure where this systemic contempt for writers and artists originated but it goes deep and I have no idea of how to reverse it. For myself, it may involve a giving up of hope for myself and my work. Because perhaps what holds me back is that hope that one day I may be up there in the panoply of literary gods, like Dan Brown and Katie Price (OK, so I was joking there but you know what I mean) and that hoping against hope in a market place so massive that ten years ago I wouldn’t have imagined it could exist outside of science fiction I might have a hope of being noticed. WordPress alone has over 400k blogs; hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. I am a speck of dust in the universe.

But even a speck of dust in the right place can be the start of a whole new world. Just look at the Big Bang.

Cry Havoc

“Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.”

That’s what’s going on in my head right now: war, of sorts. The dogs of war are great snarling beasts, all white flashing teeth and raging red eyes, straining at the leashes, the deep, spiked collars digging into the heavyset necks. You can hear them growling; the low angry rumble of anger, rising slowly into as close to a roar as a dog can make. You could imagine this is the sound  the soul of a volcano makes before it blows its stack.

Can you smell their fetid breath, feel the sprays of spittle as they shake their heads in an attempt to slip their collars?

I can.

Those who think being creative is NICE should meet my dogs some time. The temptation to really let them loose is huge right now. What havoc they would cause if I did. What wanton destruction and violence….

I’m a Viking really. No horned helmet or sword or armour but a Viking all the same. A Berserker, one who gave in to the battle madness and would slay friend and foe alike without caring who they killed while the fierce battle joy flooded their veins with its power, laughing as they cut a bloody path through anyone and anything that stood in their way and weeping just as madly when they came to themselves later and saw what they had done.

That’s who I am.

One part of me anyway. The part I keep safe and silent and chained up. My Hyde side. That’s the side that comes out and rattles her chains when I write. It’s not that I mind as such, in the writing, but it does sometimes threaten to spill over into what we stupidly call real life. I go into a sort of trance, become a berserker with a pen, and I lose track of who I am and what I am doing. I mutter when I walk, I react as if I am in the story and I stop seeing people as real physical beings. 

Pain anchors me. The pain I suffer as a result of illness may be a gift from God to keep me from going wild completely. When it isn’t enough, I chose to create it; the feeling of knuckles bruised and bloody from hitting a wall reminds me that I live in both worlds, but one world collects the rent and that is the physical one. Everything we do, we pay for. Everything I write has cost me, in blood sometimes.  

This is my gift to the world.

Nice doggy.