Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Forget technique, forget impressing us: write from the heart, write with your own voice

I won't embarrass the poets by naming them, but at a London poetry reading the other night I really did want to leave before the end. Which is rare for me, someone who has sat through some of the most excruciatingly bad poetry ever produced on this planet. But it really was almost more than I could bear.

Sitting at the back, where a hurried exit would have been spotted by friends, including some of the poets themselves, there were moments when I felt like an animal caught in a trap, desperate enough to consider gnawing my own leg off in order to escape.

The poets whose work particularly offended me were introduced to us as brilliant, innovative, talented, highly thought of, the best young ... etc.

And then they stood up and read reams of tiresome poetry clotted with pointlessly arcane references, foreign words they embarrassingly couldn't pronounce correctly, Latinate phrases for the simplest thoughts - 'ambulate' was used instead of 'walk' at one stage - and all of it in tones of such grave, deliberative pretention, I feared they were in fact eighty-year-old retired church wardens trapped in the bodies of healthy twenty-somethings.

For pity's sake, I wanted to say, write from the heart. Forget technique, forget Greek prosody, forget trying to impress us with your erudition. Life is what impresses us. Give us life in your poetry, raw and beautiful and - above all - honest, and we will forgive you any number of faults.

The voice you need is your own. So use it; not someone else's, least of all poets who have been dead for hundreds or even thousands of years.

But of course, they wouldn't have listened even if I'd stood up there and then to tell them. Because other teachers had been there before me, well-meaning but not up to the task teachers, and poisoned their minds and their talent, to the extent that their poetry has - not surprisingly - died. All that's left is the fossilised husk they read out to us that night, and the instinct to bolster their own work with the words of other, more dynamic, long-dead poets.

I hope to hear them again in the future and be proved wrong.


Rachel Fox said...

Is this a trap? All of the poor suckers who write comments saying 'yay for poetry from the heart'...are we going to be named and shamed in the next Horizon Review? Oh well, no one knows who I am anyway...YAY FOR POETRY FROM THE HEART...not from everybody, every time...then it would get just as tiresome as pretentious, over-erudite poems...but still....YAY, YAY, YAY. When you set up the poetry from the heart cult keep me a post in the communications dept. please.

Jane Holland said...

No trap. But I'm not talking about a desire for simplistic work. I just find all this focus on erudition and self-congratulatory over-complication both tedious and ultimately sterile. I suspect much of it comes from the American universities' continuing drive towards the avant in their creative writing programmes which, as our own CW programmes grow here in the UK, is spilling over into British poetry. And is being encouraged to do so by people who really ought to know better (but presumably don't).

After too much exposure to it in recent years, I now loathe Slam poetry and find most open mic work toe-curlingly bad. But to go to the opposite extreme and drip with Latinate phrases and arcane references last seen in some obscure literary journal at the turn of the last century is equally tedious.

Why can't poets just be themselves?

Rachel Fox said...

No, I'm not talking about simplistic work least not always. Some poets will always tend more towards the simplistic, I suppose, and some in the opposite direction. We all find our place on the spectrum.

I'm with you on Slams and poetry open mics. I want to like them and enjoy them but I don't much. I find the time limit thing with Slams (well, the one I tried) just bizarre as a writer (though maybe it makes it fun for audiences...). I tend to stick to music nights and sneak poems in there instead, when possible. It's what suits wouldn't be for everyone...but I find that away from the various poetry scenes I, personally, feel less constrained - like I don't have to be EITHER erudite OR light and funny because a music audience will often let you try a bit of both, a mixture, and some poems they'll like more than others but they won't necessarily be the poems you expect them to like. Maybe it's partly because they're not all poets (though there may be a few lurking somewhere).

Colin Will said...

You've got me wondering which reading, which group of poets, and who their 'teacher' might be, but I'm far too polite to ask. We seem to be lucky in Scotland just now - there are some very passionate and talented young poets around.

Jane Holland said...

I probably wouldn't have said anything if it wasn't so depressing. Also, in the interval, I got talking to the people sitting around me - none of whom I knew - and we all agreed that the atmosphere was so Parnassian and grandiose, it was faintly comic.

One woman, clearly a regular at the venue, said the audience wasn't as relaxed as usual; stunned into silence perhaps, she thought. Bludgeoned, more like.

If I'd wanted to be direct about which reading, I would have been, trust me. But since there's no profit in being direct and very possibly a hefty dose of hurt feelings for those concerned if I am, let's just pass over the awkward who, what and where questions, and be grateful for those passionate young poets in Scotland!

Women Rule Writer said...

It's a funny one, isn't it? I like a Greek reference, for example, as much as the next poet, but not when it is obscure and delivered in a 'we all know Greek mythology like the back of our hands' kind of way; by someone who only just learnt about the reference ten minutes ago and now acts as if they wrote the myth. Sigh.
I'm all for learning but I get the feeling at some readings (and as a teacher) that many of the new poets don't ever read poetry for pleasure, especially their contemporaries. And yet they want to be taken seriously as poets.

Jane Holland said...

Yes, there's a grimness about it, as though all the pleasure and vitality of poetry - in particular, the private joys of discovering and writing it for yourself - have been stripped away by the corrosive desire to be Noticed.