Saturday, May 14, 2005

Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me...

I got a mention in Neil Astley's Stanza diatribe the other week, for daring to say something not very complimentary about his "Being Alive" anthology. The fact that anyone would actually want to take notice of something I said was a bit of a shock; most of the time, one presumes that the only people listening are one person and his dog...

But it made me think. The problem I had with the anthology was as much to do with the way it was being sold as the content. Although, frankly, the content wasn't that great; it was full of those anecdotal story-poem where someone tells you of their last Significant Moment and I think you're supposed to nod sagely and say, "yes that happened to me too!" A lot of the poetry was just dull, like that: nothing surprising, nothing to make you scratch your head, nothing to scare the horses. So far so what.

But it was being sold like - I think I said - lavender bath oil - as a kind of balm for the soul, as it were, and I didn't like that. Funnily enough, I wouldn't mind if it was sold like cans of beans; most books are (57 varieties: lad-lit, chick-lit, police proceedural, horror etc...) But I objected I think to the idea that poetry is "good for you."

On the other hand, if someone finds comfort in a poem, why should I object? If someone finds comfort in Patience Strong or Helen Steiner Rice, there's nothing wrong with that. If someone reads Auden at a funeral, it's because they find something in the poem that connects with the way they feel at that moment. And that's fine. But now it's being sold like that, as in "All the poems you need to say hello/goodbye", I think there's something of the feel-good therapy culture creeping in and it bothers me.

I have to read some poems to a service dedicated to conscientious objectors tomorrow. As a dedicated Quaker peacenik, you'd think I'd have a whole raft of peace poems to read. I don't; I'm hard put to make up 10 minutes' worth. I never sit down and think, I'm going to write a poem about peace, or I'm going to write a poem for this or that. Not usually anyway, though I have done the odd commissions. I don't think writers write to comfort people, or to offend people. They write because of some inner compulsion to get stuff down on paper, and they write to give themselves and others the pleasure of language well-used. Sometimes, people find something they can identify with directly in their own lives, and it touches them in a way the writer never imagined, but it's a by-product, not the main product.

I think it's great when people find something that helps them in the words of a poem, don't get me wrong. But I don't think, unless you're Patience Strong, it's actually what you're trying to do. You're trying to explore some idea, some feeling, some situation as truthfully and as well as you can, not write homilies for the edification of your reader.

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