Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Letting it all hang out
I suffer from a major conflict in my poetry writing, between the in-built compulsion to be neat and tidy - to an almost anal extent - and a desire to stuff all that prissy nonsense and just bloody well write.
I was looking a few nights ago at Vidyan Ravinthiran's excellent article on Ted Hughes and Poetic Embarrassment at Frances Leviston's Verse Palace (over a year old now, I think, but well worth a revisit) and thinking, YES! What the hell am I doing, shaving lines to a bare minimum, fussing over commas and spaces and 'poetic tone' in what must ultimately become heavily engineered poems?
I should be writing poems whose truth and meaning are just as important as their look on the page or their sound on the air - if not more important.
It's easy to forget, when lost in the idea of crafting a poem, of being a poet, of not only publishing each poem you write but actively expecting to publish it, that a poem exists for a reason beyond careerism and craft. Or it should do.
In his article, Vidyan describes what I call just bloody well writing the poem as humiliatingly akin to 'heading out to a party with your flies deliberately left undone, bra straps on show, then doing drunken impressions of David Brent. Not fashionably mussed and crumpled – just wrong, embarrassable, vulnerable.'
He then compares the cringe-making but raw and startling electricity of some of Ted Hughes' wilder work with what we tend to see in the better magazines and on well-bred publishers' lists these days: 'so many finicky, unambitious, slightly self-regarding poems, whose aim seems simply to get from the top of the page to the bottom without tripping up, without using any excess adjectives, without putting themselves on the line, being photographed from their less flattering side.'
Vidyan hits it right on the head. I thought about all this at the TS Eliot Prize readings the other night, where the work on show was beautifully-written, resonant, polished, poetic, yet rarely gave me a glimpse of the sheer urgency and violent poetic drive and power that one gets from even the slightest of Ted Hughes' poems. (With the exception of Brian Turner's work, perhaps - though I'd like to see him achieve that sledgehammer effect without having to use the bodies of unknown civilians to do it.)
So, what does this mean? That I should write poetry with my breasts hanging out and my hair unkempt and a slightly Ancient Mariner look to my eyes? Well, maybe I should.
It can't be any worse than writing poems in the mealy-mouthed, cold-sweat fear of the embarrassment of 'getting it wrong'.