Monday, January 02, 2012

Some Myths

1) That we can do without 'labels' in poetry. Even the word 'poet' is a label we put on ourselves to distinguish ourselves from, say, prose-writers. The word 'writers' distinguishes us from 'non-writers', musicians, artists, etc... and from people who don't do 'creative' activities at all. Labels like 'avant garde', 'lingusitically innovative," "neo-formalist", "modernist" etc are often annoying and divisive when thrown around as weapons to put other poets down but help to understand where a poet is coming, and how the poem should be read (eg, if you know it's a "surrealist" poem, you won't be looking for the kind of logical sense you'd expect in a "movement" poet.)

2) That mainstream poetry is not in itself a style of poetry - that it is 'just poetry'. There is no such thing as 'just poetry', just as there is no such thing as 'just jazz': there is trad, be-bop, post-bop, free, modal,  hard bop, swing, 'm-base', fusion, indo- and several others that I've left out. Again, it's a matter of expectation: though it can be restrictive. A musician who moves from one style to another (like Miles Davis) may be in danger of being pigeon-holed, so the boundaries between styles ought always to be in flux. The same is true of poetry: John Kinsella, for instance, moves between avant-garde and more mainstream with ease.

3) That 'accessibility' is the first thing a poet should think of when looking at his/her poetry: perhaps "is it in some way honest in feeling, does it do something unexpected, does it make the reader think?" are more important questions. Nevertheless, a poet ought to be able to explain to somebody unfamiliar with the style they're working with, approximately what it is they're trying to do.

4) That the poet should always have something to say. A poem is not a message, though it may contain a message if the poet chooses or if the poem arrives at one. Poetry can be as much about discovery as about, say, the poet telling us of an experience that has already happened.

5) That young poets have to 'find their voice' and then stick with it. Poetry is at least partly a form of ventriloquism. But it's not a bad thing to find a style and stick with it. Some poets make a career out of being many voices. Edwin Morgan comes to mind. A poet who only has one voice might end up being very boring; or they might end up being Norman MacCaig. In any case, your 'voice' will find you: Edwin Morgan never sounded anything other than himself, whether he was the Loch Ness Monster or a Mercurian.

6) That any anthology representation of a country's poetry can ever be complete. I'd recommend getting several anthologies of writing from all sides if you want to get a fuller picture, and remembering always that something is always left out. How many anthologies of British poetry, for instance, include visual poetry as one of its components? I can only think of one: the Oxford Anthology of British & Irish poetry ed. Keith Tuma has Bob Cobbing next to Philip Larkin. But that's only one poet.

Happy New Year, dear readers!