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'.


Vidyan said...

Thanks for the cite, Jane. I'm so glad you got something out of the essay!


Jane Holland said...

I got a great deal out of your essay, Vidyan, and many thanks for writing it. You never know what sparks may leap out when you light even what appears to be a very small fire.


Rik said...

"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."

This bit. Having stopped bothering with the idea that every poem had to impress an editor/publisher enough to get them to include it in their esteemed tome, my ratio of fun:slog for writing a poem went through the roof.

Though that ratio has dropped in the past year or so as I clunk my way through creative writing courses with the OU. Suddenly I'm back in the realm of having to impress someone and my love of poetry writing has left home.

Chintz35 said...

Yes, I know what you mean. It's like a tide of technique / beauty / carefulness and then splurge / rawness / inyourfaceness, and you have to go with whatever the tide is. But the same poem has to ride both tides. I'm experiencing that on a micro level with translation at the moment - between fidelity to the original poem (impossibly perfectionist but noble) and putting in my own inspirations (bad manners but inevitable).


litrefs said...

It's not just in poetry that this happens. I'm told that Gauss's maths proofs are beautifully elegant, hiding his tracks so that the reader has no clue how Gauss got his ideas. Product. Cooked. Polished. Some poems are lyrical, timeless, unfreighted by history. Others are a logbook, a process, a journey with blind-alleys and erasures, an integration of poem + intro to the poem.

One can of course play it both ways. In a polished novel one can have a loopy character - the jester. Or one can be apophatic - deliver prepared material with hesitations as if it's improvised (I think Michael Donaghy did this). Or one can have more than one version of a poem - a private and a public one, a raw and a rotten one. Or maybe constraints are a solution - "Constraints are interesting interfaces between processes and products" (Cris Cheek)

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

I agree with you. (When do I not?) I have read far too many well-written, well-crafted and well-polished poems that didn't move me a millimetre. Look at Sylvia Plath who wrote most of her best stuff whilst in the throes of a nervous breakdown. I think that you should burn your bra, muss your hair and just get on with it!

Best wishes from Simon

Steven Waling said...

Poetry that is all neat and tidy with no edge to it really is the most boring thing to read in the world. I much prefer the untidiness and the thought-processes to be showing throuh, as well as the passion.

Undigested emotion, of course, can be just as dull; so there has to be some shape to it. But this can be improvised.

Jane Holland said...

Some interesting responses. The consensus seems to be that I should chuck my bra in the bin and let my lines flop where they will.

Not a bad thought on a Friday evening.