Why Write Poetry?

This is a question which occurs to me often, though perhaps not so often as it occurs to other minds.  What is the point of poetry? they seem to say; or even more damningly, Is poetry even a Thing?  Isn’t it just chopped-up prose?  My acid test for the latter is to suggest they write out a poem in sentences and see if it reads exactly like prose: results have yet to come in on this exercise as I strongly suspect they can’t be arsed.  Once on Thorpe Cloud a man was heard to quote Wordsworth’s Daffodils and bleat: How is that different from ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb?’  How?  In the moment I was stumped because on the surface, it’s not that different; it’s a little like asking how a Joan Miro is different from a child’s daubs: on the surface, they aren’t.

I’m always stumped in the face of such scepticism because to see poetry for what it is demands a degree of openness; it’s not something you can persuade people of by showing evidence.  The earth is flat – no it isn’t, you can see the curvature in a plane, you can see the horizon at sea and you can view the whole sphere from space.  QED.

I’d be the first to admit that Wordsworth’s language is simple; it’s deliberately so because he was emphasising the simplicity of a life lived in harmony with nature.  Some of his ideas seem risible today but he had a strong belief in the tendency of the natural world to produce virtue in human beings.  So given that, let us compare and contrast Daffodils and Mary Had a Little Lamb.

First, the nursery rhyme:

Mary had a little lamb

its fleece was white as snow

and everywhere that Mary went

the lamb was sure to go.

It’s not great poetry and it’s not meant to be; it’s a rhyme for children which according to wikipedia was based on an actual incident:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Had_a_Little_Lamb

The simile is cliched: white as snow offers no surprise or insight and the rest of the rhyme simply tells a story.  I can’t think of anything else to say about it.

Now Daffodils:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

that floats on high o’er vales and hills

when all at once I saw a crowd

a host of golden daffodils

beside the lake, beneath the trees

fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

We are so familiar with this verse that its impact has faded but I would suggest Wordsworth offers us two things here.  If we stop for one minute to consider the image lonely as a cloud it will probably strike us as strong and original; it places the writer (or narrator) as part of the natural scene and yet separate from it.  As a ‘cloud’ he is looking down on the scene below, floating ‘on high o’er vales and hills’: the cloud is also animated, given feelings.  The second idea is the image of daffodils as a ‘crowd, a host’.  Anyone who’s ever looked at great swathes of daffodils swaying in a breeze can’t have failed to notice their resemblance to a crowd of people.  Wordsworth continues with that metaphor in lines to come, so not only is he part of the natural world but the natural world resembles a crowd of people, thus signalling his major theme of connectedness between people and nature.

One may disagree profoundly with Wordsworth’s thesis but I don’t think we can fail to ascribe greatness to his work.

And while we’re on the theme of simplicity, let’s consider another Romantic poet, William Blake.  There’s no tricksiness with words here, no verbal gymnastics or stunning erudition, but consider the power of these couplets:

A robin redbreast in a cage

puts all heaven in a rage.

Or this:

A truth that’s told with bad intent

beats all the lies you can invent.

And we are just as familiar with The Tyger as with Wordsworth’s blooms but I hope no-one would dare compare this to a nursery rhyme:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright

in the forests of the night

what immortal hand or eye

could frame thy fearful symmetry?

And if you can read these lines without a lump in your throat, there’s no hope for you:

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

did, till we loved?  Were we not weaned till then?…

and now good morrow to our waking souls…

My face in thine eye, thine in thine appears

and true plain hearts do in the faces rest…

(from John Donne, The Good Morrow)

 

So much for other people’s poetry: now, for my own.  Why do I write poetry?  Like most people I suspect I do it because I must.  I do it because there are times when prose, much as I love it, just doesn’t cut it.  As C S Lewis wrote in his introduction to the Narnia books, you do it because ‘it is the best art form for something you want to say.’

I also do it because poetry connects strongly to the oral tradition.  When I first started to write I assumed I’d write novels and didn’t see myself as a poet at all.  But having found the novel too huge a thing to begin with, I turned to the short story.  Even these didn’t seem quite right, but I still didn’t think of myself as a poet and it wasn’t until I went to Word! poetry performance group in Leicester that I realised spoken word was what I’d been looking for.  I had to travel all the way back to our oral traditions before I could really discover what I was about as a writer.  This seems to me entirely logical.

The oral tradition is key: nowadays I never write a poem without speaking it.  As soon as I have a rough draft I stand up (poetry must always be spoken standing) and read it aloud.  Inevitably there will be bum notes and often fresh words will occur to me as I speak – and so the editing process goes on, sometimes speaking sometimes writing, until I have the finished poem by heart (though I agree wholeheartedly with Auden’s comment that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.)  To me, writing a poem without speaking it aloud is like writing music without playing it: impossible.

I’m going to get on my hobby-horse here because one of my bugbears is poets who kill their work in the reading of it.  Of course not every poet is able to read well, I understand that, but what offends me is the all-too-common attitude that it’s the page which matters and the reading aloud is just some throwaway act; something writers do.  It’s as if the very fact of it being the author’s voice gives some authority and mesmerism to the reading.  It doesn’t.

I don’t get this.  It shows a disrespect for the oral tradition, for a start, and for another thing why would you?  Why would you spend all that time and effort getting the right words in the right order on the page and then destroy them in the reading?  It really bugs me.  I work on my poems all the time, honing each word and phrase in the speaking just as I do in the writing.  I work on my voice too – but now I think I’ve wandered long enough o’er the vales and hills of poetry so I shall come to rest and tell you about that another day.

Kirk out

 

 

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Pervasive poets

Now, you don’t often get a blog posting out of me at this time of night, but, dammit, I’m wired!  A great night at Word! in the company of the scintillating Mike Brewer (thanks for the lift home Mike); the fascinating Jan Robertson and the elusive Tabby Wood, inter alia.  Many alia, as it turned out, all from different places and plugging different events – it is great to see poetry being so pervasive.  The main act was – well, different: rather too short and ending with a series of burst balloons – I liked the ‘Asian-American’ take on life (Asian meaning Chinese or Hong Kong in this context) but the poem ended with a rather too long blowing up of a balloon during which people started to eye each other uneasily and think ‘where is she going with this?’; we were then each handed our own balloon with a cocktail stick to burst it with, and instructed to blow all our negativity into it.  This, while fun, was more therapy than poetry, I thought.

Not terribly keen on tonight’s compere, who forgot the name of the main act: Lydia Towsey may not know how to spell my surname but I’m sure she would have remembered that.  But generally a great night.

Oh!  And Jonathan’s friend Steve did a brilliant poem about McDonalds:

‘And I McLaugh!  And I McLaugh!  I’m so McHappy’

Terrific!  Steve, if you’re reading can we please have the poem?

So I just wanted to put that down.  I shall probably save this as a draft now and post it in the morning.  Goodnight all!

It is now morning and I didn’t post this last night as you will have gathered.  A rather wet one here in Leicester – hope it proves drier in Sussex where we are going on Friday.  What more to tell you?  I am writing a lot of flash fiction lately – this was not a form which previously attracted me – I had thought it symptomatic of the desire of our age to have everything over and done with as quickly as possible – but now I find myself drawn to it and have written several based on members of my family (now deceased).

The trouble with starting this post last night is that I have now said everything.  And it’s only half-past seven.  Let’s see if there’s anything on Facebook.

Nope.

Kirk out.

PS Mary should be in Mexico now!

Half past What?????

http://www.flickr.com/photos/3200pictures/5690303476/in/set-72157626652587840  This is a link to the Word! website and a photo of me last month – can’t remember what I was doing – oh yes, some short poems.  Did three slightly longer ones last night, all about global warming, to fit in with Sing for Water.  I am happy to report that more people have donated on-line now: if you want to join this growing band of very special people go to http://www.justgiving.com/Liz-Gray0 and leave me a message to let me know it was you.  Any amount, large or small, appreciated.

Here’s one of the poems I did last night:

Flood

The rain is rushing down

the road a river

the grasses wave and drown

the Ford E driver

the four-wheel drive turns up

a turtle floating

striving to catch up

the lorry boating

reflected overhead

the jet flying

angel of our dread

in transport

dying.

The tea is rather too strong this morning (my fault, not Mark’s) but I can’t be bothered to go and fetch the milk.  Mark is still asleep as it’s now TEN TO SIX!!!!  I woke at four thirty and felt very awake so I decided just to go with it.

There is a poetry thing tonight but I may stay in.  There are two more things on this month which I do intend to go to, and you can have too much of a good thing.  My head is feeling fine which doesn’t say much for the rather overpriced and only just drinkable bottled Tiger which is all the Y has to offer in the way of beer.  I won’t even tell you what they had on tap.

So – it looks like being another early day.  I expect I’ll have an early day motion soon (lol).  You know, when it started I utterly deplored all this lolling that people do; I went to great lengths to avoid it, writing such comments as ‘that’s really amusing’ or ‘a totally comical anecdote’ – and quickly realised that, ugly though it is, lolling has its uses.  So I am now a fully-paid-up lollard.

Can’t remember who the original lollards were.  Some kind of religious movement I expect.  Hang on…  Yes, political and religious, apparently, dating from the 14th century.  It seems to have been some kind of rebellion against the Catholic church.  And then there were the dullards – who were they?  Oh, right, just a bunch of idiots.  And don’t get me started on the bollards…

Did some research on Google Earth, looking at our area with Daniel as an alternative to going for a walk as it was raining.  Yes, raining!  It actually rained yesterday!  Not persistently but vigorously.  Which brings me to Mr Pepper.

And who was Mr Pepper? I hear you cry.  Well, Mr Pepper was a very annoying bloke who ran a wholefood shop in Clarendon Park which is now – oh, god, what’s it called?  Mark used to work there and I can’t remember the name of it.  Anyway, one morning Andy came back having got his lunch from Mr Pepper and said that as it was raining Mr Pepper had made a little joke.  ‘It’s persisting it down,’ he was heard to say.  Andy obligingly smiled.  ‘It’s persisting it down,’ Mr Pepper said again.  Andy smiled again, a little more thinly.  Mr Pepper wrapped his sausage roll (veggie) and handed it to him.  ‘It’s persisting it down,’ he said again.  Andy’s smile took on a fixed quality and he exited the shop to one more cry of ‘It’s persisting it down’.  ‘Well, he certainly persisted with that joke,’ I said.

I think it was Andy who once took a sausage roll back there as it was mouldy in the middle – the guy cut the mould out and gave it back to him.  No wonder he was taken over by Jill.  Green and Pleasant!  That’s what it’s called now.  And a very good shop it is too – not a mouldy sausage roll in sight.

OK that’s quite enough mould and rather too much in the way of movements.

Kirk out.

Ratae!  Get your arse in gear!

 

 

 

But is he dead?

It all seems a bit fishy to me, though I’m not wedded to the view that the whole thing is a conspiracy; it’s just that the whole ‘war on terror’ thing has not seemed right from the beginning – in the sense that I don’t buy anything the authorities have said on the subject.  Undoubtedly there are terrorists ‘out there’ who hate the US (and by extension, us) and what we stand for.  The thing is, it is hard to definitively prove that someone is dead, beyond all suspicion, particularly when you are a government who has lied in the past, has a vested interest in killing a particular person, and has tortured suspects in an illegal and immoral prison camp.

Don’t get me started.  Oh, wait – I already have started.  Anyway, great Word! last night.  Steve, where were you?  I arrived at eleven minutes past seven, by which time the queue for slots was practically round the block – a mixed blessing because you get a sizeable audience but have to wait for your slot, in my case until practically the end of the evening.  But I was really pleased with my performance – for once I did it like I wanted to, like I’d planned it in my head.  And going next to last meant that I wasn’t worried about taking up too much time.  The main act was a Pakistani woman who I’d seen before – she was very good at silence.  That isn’t sarcasm – what I mean is that she was good at getting people to listen by the judicious use of long silences, pregnant with almost speaking.

I’m not being very coherent this morning.  Other highlights included the always entertaining Rob Gee, and a woman who did a poem about the ‘blood-line’ of the Central Tube line in London.  I’m not so keen on the ‘rap’ -type stuff.  I sat next to a newbie, a rather posh-sounding but very pleasant bloke from Oxford who had practised medicine at the Royal: he was going to do a couple of sonnets.  I was looking forward to those, but he left half-way through: perhaps he bottled it – or maybe he had an urgent call.

Anyway, a good evening and a couple of bottles of Newcastle Brown to boot.

Today I shall be mostly… writing my radio play, doing stuff with Daniel (we have made his summer timetable but I can’t remember what we’re doing today – yesterday we played frisbee and ball-games in the park) and, erm –

that’s it.

Kirk out

topless waitresses

Hope you haven’t clicked on this hoping to see any because all you’re going to see are my comments on how much I think this sucks. I can’t express it in prose as well as I can in verse, so here are two verses of a poem I wrote and performed in Leicester.

I’m an ugly lesbian with no sense of humour

why else would I object to this topless rumour

cos anyone who hits out

at women with their tits out

just has to have a wart face or tits like a tumour


I’m a retro-feminist who can’t take a joke

why else would I be bothered by these “Carry-On” folk?

Maybe I’m just too frigid

Perhaps I’m bored when men are rigid

It’s only Barbara Windsor but it makes me choke

If you want to read more you can go to my website- when I’ve created it! That’s a job for another day. If you want to protest you can email the bar on b-a-m-b-u@hotmail.com. If you want to go and check it out, ask yourself why you find it so hard to accept women as equals and prefer to look on us as objects of titillation.

word leicester

but I have to put in a plug for Word, leicester’s premier spoken word event, which even though it takes place in the above bar, is a great evening for performers and audience alike. To find out more, go to leicesterbooknews.wordpress.com