Friday, October 26, 2007

Fashionable Poems

In a spin-off from talks on the Poets on Fire forum recently, I wanted to write something briefly here about fashions in poetry. I mean mainstream poetry in general (since I have precious little experience of other sorts) where fashions often seem to dictate the entire tone of a collection or a magazine.

It's hard to pinpoint what I mean by a 'fashionable' poem. Reading an individual collection, you can feel you're in the presence of a real poem, but then maybe you spot another one close-by that's uncannily similar in style or even content, and you start feeling uncomfortable. I wish I could remember Joe Dunthorne's hilarious performance poem - using a whiteboard presentation - which details the various elements of 'fashionable' poems. Highly tongue-in-cheek, but too close to the truth to be dismissed as a joke.

We all know the particular tricks you can use to make sure your poem sounds like a poem: a sententious title, references to age-old 'poetic' themes or objects (I think Dunthorne suggests water or the sea, or maybe even the stars, as ideal for this purpose), and a neat aphoristic ending - usually two or possibly three lines - in which you explain the moral of the poem, and end on a memorable image. And all this in fewer than 40 lines, in order to qualify for entry to most poetry competitions.

If you can turn 'em out like that, time and again, you're practically guaranteed publication in most small poetry magazines. Higher up the career ladder, these techniques are still in place but have become more sophisticated, disguised as knowing eloquence.

These basic techniques stem, I suspect, from the late mediaeval short lyric as made famous in this country by the likes of Petrarch via Thomas Wyatt, those beautiful love songs of the Tudor poets, with the lyrical line stretching right into this new century. But what was once fresh and exciting is now in danger of sounding jaded in all but the most skilled and experienced hands.

Yet still we cling on to the old ways. There was a brief flurry of activity a few years back, with suggestions of a return to popularity for the epic form. The modern age favours the sound-bite, however, not the epic. I myself love epic narrative poetry, but even so I tend to prefer it broken up in some way into more easily digestible segments: the poem sequence, for instance.

Of course, I'm not immune to these problems of acceptable 'fashions' choking our poetry at birth. I too find pleasure in the short telling lyric. And have suffered for it, feeling lost at times, unsure whether a poem has really come from me or from some sort of vast poem-bank in the contemporary psyche.

The awareness of an accepted and fashionable way to write poetry may make things easier for beginning poets, but once you start looking for your own 'theme', those same methods act as an obstruction to your thought processes. And when that happens, you have to start 'unlearning' those traditional techniques and questioning every choice you make, none of which is conducive to writing freely and with passion.

To some poets, of course, such techniques are the life-blood of their work. And done well, they can be hugely effective. But I'm getting bored with them in my own poems. What next, though? Where do you go after you leave fashion behind? To the dole-queue or somewhere more interesting and - hopefully - worthwhile?


Rob said...

I relate very much to what you're saying here, Jane. I've made a conscious decision recently only to read new poetry collections which seem to come at things from a different angle to the norm. I don't enjoy the more extreme forms of the avant-garde, but I have been enjoying recent collections by Claire Crowther, Steven Waling, and Richard Price.

Other than those, I've been reading Wallace Stevens, Tomas Transtromer, Denis Johnson, W.S. Graham, James Schuyler - unfashionable or not, these make much recent stuff look average at best, and I think immersing myself in them has had a beneficial effect on what I've been writing.

Where do you go after leaving fashion behind? To whatever needs to be written.

Jane Holland said...

I'm not convinced that anything needs to be written. Writing - poetry, at least - is always a luxury, so that 'needs' represents a personal angle on the work rather than a definition. But I know what you mean. What you feel is most essential to be written, to be achieved.

I heard Jorie Graham and Robert Bringhurst read last night, followed by Geoffrey Hill. The first two, while they may be considered by many to be at the top of their game, left me either bored, bewildered or amused (i.e. by the first two reactions). But when Geoffrey Hill stood up to read, I was engaged by the vitality and seeming necessity of his voice and work.

That may be a cultural thing, of course. But for me, his direction is one which, while not remotely fashionable, is at least dynamic and charged.

So where do you go after you leave fashion behind? Off on your own for a while, I would suggest, and into the wilderness.

And why not? It worked for Jesus.