Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Poetries Not Poetry

I've come slightly reluctantly to the conclusion that there isn't a single species called poetry. There is instead a whole genus of poetry. The most obvious ' species division' has always been seen to be that between 'non-mainstream' and 'mainstream', or 'avant garde' and 'conservative', or 'linguistically innovative' and... what exactly? Lowell saw it as the 'raw' and the 'cooked' - and he, as a premier 'cooked' poet, coveted something of the 'wildness' he saw in Ginsberg et al, hence the freer rhythms of 'Life Studies' and after.

But that seems these days to be too binary; and I was thinking of this whilst reading the magazine Department, edited by Richard Barret, and the chapbook by Adrian Slatcher, Playing Solitaire for Money, new out from Salt.

Adrian Slatcher's book is, without being too disparaging, fairly mainstream. All the poems are well-written, often with a darkly reflective and apocalyptic edge. I really liked a lot of them, especially The Monster with its vision of urban menace symbolised by the monster seemingly made of detritus and abandoned hopes; and The Death of the Grand Gesture, about how small life seems to have come. It's an excellent pamphlet, well-worth £6.50 of your hard-earned cash.

But then we turn to Department, a magazine of innovative writing edited by one of Manchester's foremost innovative poets. Here we have poems that do not hold to the left-hand margin, but spread across the page; poems which are using language as a medium rather as an artist would, making associative leaps and including a visual element. There are poems in prose by Bill Drennan and Karen Sandhu; and the associative poetry of Stephen Emmerson and Nat Raha. Unlike Adrian's chapbook, it doesn't all make strict logical sense. But again excellent.

So far so binary; but even here we have a couple of different poetries being presented: James Davies' review of David Berridge's Knives Forks & Spoons Press chapbook is an argument for 'minimalist' poetry. There is no strictly visual poetry (though Becky Cremin's work contains an element of that) but there is another poetry.

So we have 'mainstream' poetry, 'innovative' poetry, 'minimalist' poetry, 'visual' poetry: each with their arguments for and against, and I haven't even mentioned 'formalist' poetry, which still continues over at Eratosphere, for instance. Each with their entrenched positions - and traditions. Do they have much to do with one another? And should they?

I do like the idea of poets crossing boundaries, stepping out of their safety zones and trying things; that's why I like visual poetry, where the writer is stepping into the territory of the visual artist; and 'sound poetry' which crosses the border into 'sound art' and even music.

But I doubt that anyone can like everything in poetry; I have to say that, despite being intrigued by it, 'minimalist' poetry does no more for me than most 'minimalist' art; I was always more of a maximalist in my taste. I like colour and noise and mess.

So 'genus' isn't probably the right word, as poets frequently like to cross the species barrier and borders are porous as sieves. So maybe it's more like bacteria: frequently mutating into new species and new shapes. And long may that be the case.


angelatopping said...

I hate labels, don't see why we need them and don't even understand most of them. Poetry is a very broad term and I like it that way. I think every poet should be writing their own brand, not fitting into these crazy mad labels. And I speak as someone who once was given a negative review (ok it was only in New Hope International) complaining that my poetry was 'too well crafted'. For what? Maybe I just didn't fit their labels.

Steven Waling said...

Angela - I hate labels too if they're proscriptive - but they are helpful if they stay as descriptive of certain trends. For instance, 'visual poetry' would include Bob Cobbing and some of Edwin Morgan, but not Carol Anne Duffy and Morgan's Sonnets From Scotland, for instance. That's not to say that that all poetry doesn't have some visual aspect to it, but it's not the major part of it. And there are times when one can read two poems side by side and wonder if they exist side by side, and they can both in their own way be good.

annie clarkson said...

I like the idea of poetry being like bacteria. Or maybe viruses. So, instead of genus, it could be strains? Ha. Good to see you Monday, sorry I disappeared before you read, too many c***s for my liking! Let me know when your jazz trio is playing...

Rik said...

Welcome home, Steven. Mutations and gene swapping sums it all up very nicely.

Mark Granier said...

I love minimalist poetry IF it works (and a lot of it doesn't of course). From T.E. Hulme's IMAGE to Ian Hamilton Finlay's One-Word Poems. I manages a one line poem (or 'monostitch') myself in my recent collection. I wrote about my own ideas on what makes, or does not make, a short poem here: