Monday, November 18, 2013

What Is Good Poetry?

I was asked recently if I thought I was a good poet. I replied somewhat facetiously that I was just a working-class oik who liked messing about with words.

But the question of what is good poetry intrigued me. We all sort of know what bad poetry is: clich├ęd, rhythmically inept, sentimental etc etc... but what makes a good poem? It's harder to quantify, isn't it? Especially if your idea of a good poem is, say, a concrete poem by Bob Cobbing. Ok, if your idea of a good poem is something by Shelley or Tennyson; or if you have something by Duffy or Armitage, or Don Patterson, in mind. You've got a whole tradition behind you. There are certain criteria to do with the 'logic' of the poem, whether your rhymes if you have them are not too obvious, whether your underlying metaphors are subtle enough, whether the narrative hangs together or not.

But if you've rejected those 'mainstream' criteria in favour of disjuncture, cut-up, visual appearance on the page, a whole host of different 'modernist' or 'post-modernist' criteria come into play. What makes a good 'flarf' poem? Or even a good 'performance poem' (did people laugh in the right places?)

I've deliberately put all those words like 'modernist' and 'mainstream' in quotation marks because of course their meanings are largely in dispute; but it is nevertheless true that are different value systems running along side each other, and what makes a good 'mainstream' poem doesn't make for a good 'non-mainstream' poem.

By some criteria, even Shakespeare is a 'bad' playwright. He let comedy into his tragedies and vice-versa. This was against the rules of drama in his time; but of course, he was also a great playwright. A lot of very good poets do in some ways break the rules of their discipline. So it's not just about how closely you adhere to the instructions (for, say, making a sonnet...)

Does it all come down to personal choice? What floats my boat won't float yours. But does that make the inspirational verse of Patience Strong as good as TS Eliot? We'd rather not think about that, but a lot of perfectly nice people have found her verse comforting and inspirational. Who's to say they're wrong and we clever-trousers intellectuals are right?

We're no nearing answering the question are we? There are, I'm afraid, different criteria for different communities within poetry, and sometimes these criteria conflict. You can't judge Bob Cobbing in the same way you'd judge Armitage, and vice versa, and we will all have different likes and dislikes among the vast array of poetries there are in the world.

So I come up with the inevitable fudge: poetry is about messing about with words. Of course, there's more to it than that, but how you choose to mess about with words, you'll never really know if it's any good or not.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ventriloquising Tragedy

I've recently begun to wonder about what the bounds of a poetic subject might be. Is it good for a poet, with the best possible intentions, to take on the voice of a holocaust victim or a female suicide bomber, or a victim of sexual abuse?

It's a question really about how far we can ventriloquise the voices of real people. In Charles Reznikoff's Testimony and Holocaust, we get the voices straight: these are transcripts from trials minimally poeticised with line endings etc. The same is true in the work of Elaine Randall, where it seems to me that proper attention is being given to the marginalised people she is writing about.

But to speak 'for' someone is a different matter. To put words into their mouths, thoughts into their heads, is another matter. To write from a privileged Western middle class position in the ventriloquised voice of a victim, or even a perpetrator, of violence, seems morally dubious to me. When I read a Celan poem, I read the poetry of a survivor of the camps. When I read a poem in the voice of either a real or an imagined survivor, all too often I read someone trying to appropriate someone else's tragedy to make art of it. Pretty art, art that is somehow failing to get anywhere near the enormity of the situation it's trying to describe.

The philosopher Adorno said that that there could - or should - not be a lyric poetry after Aushwitz. An extreme position perhaps; but one I think that poets should take seriously. An abiding image for me is the black-and-white footage of the camps coupled with the sonorous voice of Lawrence Olivier in The World at War: it was both horribly fascinating and effective: it's probably the reason my religious beliefs found a home in Quakerism for instance.

But I'm also aware that I cannot imagine what it is like to be a victim of genocide; and that it is presumptious of me to think I could. The same is true of female suicide bombers. Before writing that poem, maybe we should ask ourselves who we think we are. Comfortable Westerners writing from a place of privilege seem to assume too often that they can speak for anyone.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Not All Like That

Not All Like That

Ok - mostly on this blog I don't talk about my religion because I'd hate to come across as wanting to proselytise anyone or being in your face about God and all that. If you're happy with your own spiritual path or lack of spiritual path I'm not going to try and change you.

But for better or worse, I am a Christian -albeit a very liberal, very progressive Christian who is also a member of the Society of Friends. And this is important.

The problem with us liberal progressive types is that we tend to be quiet, non-aggressive, non-confrontational and nice. Unlike the fundamentalists who tend to shout a lot, whether on street corners or in the news, we tend to work quietly behind the scenes trying to change things by reasonableness. We're not as good at standing up for our faith as the haters and homophobes are.

Well, the good news is that this - in America at least - is beginning to change. More people are coming out of the woodwork and publically declaring that we're Not All Like That. Which is great isn't it? It's taken a long time for it to happen, but thanks largely to a man called John Shore, it's beginning to get more and more militant.

I think personally I'm not so much a NALT Christian as a Won't Take It Anymore Christian. I won't take the smug triumphalist hateful nonsense of the fundamentalist bad news gospel anymore. I'm fortunate in that the Society of Friends is fully supportive of LGBTQ people, but nobody much notices you in the media unless you shout a lot. So, to misquote Ginsberg, "I'm putting my (un)queer shoulder to the wheel."

I'm sick and tired of the misrepresentation of Christianity by these sorts. If Jesus was about anything, he was about love. True faith does not cast people into the outer darkness for being different; it is welcoming and open and radically inclusive of everyone. True faith doesn't deny the questions, it lives in the tension of those questions.

I know that the atheists among you might want to tell me that I shouldn't be believing in God anyway; and it's complicated by my own rather apophatic (look it up) approach to the traditional creeds and beliefs of Christianity. But I don't want to get into arguments about the existence or non-existence of divine beings; this is too important. People are still being villified for being gay, young men and women are still contemplating suicide because they think they're wrong, and people in Russia and some African countries are still being jailed because of their sexuality. And in the name of Christ, Allah, or any other God you care to name, it has to stop.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Ethics of Collage

There's been a lot of righteous outrage about plagiarism in the poetry world of late. Rightly so: to take someone's work, change a few words and then pretend it's your own is an awful thing to do. Poets, of course, will continue to be influence by other writers and there's nothing wrong with that. Poets will borrow from each other freely, hopefully; but in their own words not the words of the borrowed.

Some have 'justified' their stealing as 'sampling' or 'collage'; and it's true that collage is almost the modernist technique par excellence, seen in the work of Pound and Eliot, for instance . The difference between Pound and Eliot and the average plagariser, however, is that both those poets were very open about what they were doing and they were creating entirely new works from collage, not pale imitations of the original texts, with just a few words change.

So I think, for those of us who do use collage extensively, it might be good to put down on this blog what are my personal 'rules of appropriation.'

1) It must be a completely new work Not an imitation; like a Yellow not a Red Wheelbarrow, but a completely new work. The notes at the back of the Wasteland tell you the sources he used, but they don't tell you anything about what the poem is about, because he is using the sources rather in the way Picasso uses collage: to make a new work.

2) Wherever possible, literary sources should be acknowledged, especially if the person sourced is alive; or pretty darned obvious if not. Not literary sources (I've used signage on shop windows for instance) need not be specifically sourced (in my case, I can't always remember which shop or advert I used) just generally acknowledged.

3) Tributes are ok as long as they're acknowledged. Centos: it would be better if the sources went with the poem, but if that proves awkward, then at least call it a cento.

4) I personally would never use the work of a living poet without their express permission. In the heady world of New York School poetry in the '60's, some poets, Ted Berrigan in particular, often recycled both his own and other peoples' lines; but he was part of a particular scene where that would probably be tolerated among themselves. And what he did with it was always new, often amusing and the original writer probably wouldn't have minded a bit.

5) Do not enter competitions. (That's a personal rule).

6) Make it new. Whatever else you do. If you can't manage that, take up painting by numbers or something.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Major Poet Syndrome

Interesting rather 'mixed' review of Nathan Hamilton's Dear World & Everyone In It anthology in The Wolf magazine. Interesting not so much for its opinion about the book, so much for what it says about what the reviewer (Todd Swift) seems to be looking for. He seems to be rather anxious to find The Next Big Thing. This seems to be a common thing among reviewers and critics: everyone seems to be looking for the next Auden, the next Larkin, maybe in some circles, the next Pound or the next J H Prynne, if that were possible.

In Todd Swift's case, he mentions that some of the poets could be the next Larkin, Plath or Hill. What he doesn't do, and what I suspect the standpoint of the anthology is getting at, is actually question whether we need a next Major Poet at all. Because whether that major poet likes it or not, it is assumed that this or that Major Poet is the way for everyone to write. He or she becomes the influence de jour as it were.

But what if, instead of trying to look for the one who will turn into the next Major Poet, as if there could only be one top dog, we look to value poets for what they are, not as part of some imaginary league table with winners who get to influence everyone else?

Hamilton's anthology betrays a whole panoply of influences in its pages. Prynne, Bunting, Barry MacSweeney - and yes, probably Carol Anne Duffy and Simon Armitage. No-one can deny the influence of Roddy Lumsden on contemporary poetry, but there's also Rupert Loydell and Robert Shepherd there too. There isn't a single set of influences on young British poets anymore.

Is that not a good thing? Do we need another Armitage or Duffy? Not that there won't be poets influenced by other poets; I can already see Luke Kennard as an influence on newer poets even than these; but another stream is going to be influenced by Keston Sutherland. And another stream is going to be influenced by (name your own...)

A lot of people have been grieving over the death of one of the last Major Poets of this age, Seamus Heaney. Though I suspect he's not that much of an influence on younger poets, certainly he was on a lot of poets my age. Not me, however; much as though I like some of his poems, I can't say I ever hung on his every word. My influences were outside the mainstream, at least once I got to Manchester, and often not even English (I even prefer Appollinaire as a war poet to Wilfred Owen.)

If we can away from the frantic search for the next Major Poet, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to acknowledge the presence of various streams in British poetry that have always existed but haven't fitted into this singular narrative where there always has to be a Top Dog, a capo di capo of poetry, and start to be able to look over at what the other people are doing as simple another part of the rich tapestry that we're all making together.

Friday, September 06, 2013

My Objection to Competitions And Other Thoughts

I'm not a big fan of competitions. Competitions encourage the idea that there are winners. And if there's winners, there's losers. Especially in poetry, the idea that you can win competitions with a certain kind of poem means that the conservative notion of poetry as a kind of compressed narrative which doesn't rock the boat or challenge expectations is preserved. The same is true of slams as far as 'spoken word' is concerned. It's not necessarily the crowd-pleaser that wins, but the judge pleaser.

Then again, competitiveness encourages poets to compete with one another rather than exist as a supportive community. It's a form of capitalism, whichever way you put it: and slams are even more so, poets competing in a kind of bear-pit of 'verbal dexterity'. Not that it doesn't produce good poets; but that it produces lots of losers, who with a helping hand might find their own poetic stream to swim. Like capitalism, it produces conformity not diversity. Poetic revolution it is not.

Which brings us to another thing. A friend of mine came to a poetry workshop with a poem written in the shape of a square. A 'shape poem' as it were. Not unusual in the world of poetry; but I suspect rather unusual in the common or garden poetry meeting. What would happen if someone came to your writing group with a shape poem? Who would be the first to say 'that's not a poem'? There is a whole tradition - dating from as early as the beginning of last century - of concrete poetry, 'sound poetry' and experiments with the look of poetry on the page. How many people are even aware of this history, much less have an opinion on it?

Fortunately, that person met me: because I myself know about this history I can say to someone who brings something like that. "actually, you're not an aberration, you're not completely out on a limb, you're not mad, have a look at this, and there's that, and you might be interested in this..."

Sometimes, it's not about 'good' poetry or 'bad' poetry; and while standards exist for each type of poetry, they are never entirely objective. A good competition poem would make a bad experimental poem etc. That's why I think categories matter; not as a way of dividing one poet from another, but so that those who do things in a different way, are not totally isolated and made to feel 'mad.' Going to poetry events where everybody is telling you how wonderful Carol Anne Duffy is, while you're reading Robert Creeley, can feel terribly isolating.

Poetry is the glory of "things being various"; and ought to be a community not a bearpit. Which might be terribly utopian and naive of me; but I can't help but dream.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

My Debt To New York

I just posted on my Facebook page a video of Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan reading their historic collaboration, Memorial Day, and I thought I'd try to express a few thoughts about what it is that the New York School means to me as a poet in 21st century Manchester.

Firstly, they are for me the great enablers. Every poet needs enablers: poets whose work you read and identify with immediately, who make it possible for them to write the poems they want to write. For many, it might be Thomas Hardy, or Philip Larkin, or even Simon Armitage. Thomas Hardy, however, never struck me as someone who spoke my language. I have no complaint with anything he wrote; I just never got struck by its lightning the way I did when I first read Frank O'Hara. For awhile, I wanted to be O'Hara: a gay man in New York, meeting great artists and going to lots of parties. Of course, I'm neither gay nor do I work for the Museum of Modern Art; but I learnt more than I know from him about how to structure a poem, about how to hold several thoughts into one line and how to go on your nerve.

Secondly, and I see it in the performance of Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan, there is a seriousness about the New York School that is leavened with humour, irony and a deep awareness of the world around them. I say humour; but it's not 'comic verse'; although Koch for instance can be hilarious, he's also intensely aware of language, of love, of despair. These poets are not putting on an act; but neither are they taking themselves so seriously that they fall over into bathos.

Thirdly, there's a freedom in their verse that I think we can all learn from. They're not constrained by the thought-policeman that says that you can't put that in a poem. Take Ron Padgett's silly little poem:

I will sleep
in my little cup

- that's the whole poem. Just that. No attempt at making some poetic epiphany, or "myself am hell" self-dramatising. Just a little daft quip; and instead of hiding it in his notes, he puts it in a book. It's in his Selected Poems along with a whole bunch of more 'serious' verse that is much more involving and deep! Daftness is OK! And sometimes I like to be daft.

I spent an awful lot of my writing life trying to be something I'm not. the New York poets stopped me from trying to be whatever that was. They opened up the world of urban writing to me. I live in a city, not the rural England of Thomas Hardy; and the New York poets showed how it was possible to be a poet in the city. Not simply by 'writing about it'; but by hearing the energy and the music of the city. Or wherever you are; it's about being in the 'now' not the 'then'.

Hardy, for me, is all about 'then'. O'Hara was about the 'now'. The New York poets made it possible for me to escape the lure of 'then' and write about my 'now.'