So here’s the thing about poetry: who cares?
The poet cares, naturally. Every word, every line-break, every metaphor, every dot and tittle of the work gets a proper, careful mauling.
But who else cares about poetry? And does it matter?
The good news is that poetry sales had been bullish at least up to the lockdown of spring this year, though why that should be isn’t clear. Nielsen BookScan’s statistics suggest the recent boom is most powerful among young readers. Many poems are brief, and can be read on a phone, which is tight with the lifestyle of young readers in the twenty-first century.
And yet, I, who am no longer young, recently suffered a fresh attack of poetry, not just reading poems on my phone, but writing them. Rewriting, reworking them, over and over. Taking a break for coffee, or sitting on a train, I skim through one poem, two, a dozen, winkling out the awkward word, the redundant line, the tired expression (beyond the one glimpsed in the phone’s accidentally-reversed camera). Change its tense, change the perspective — first person, second person, third person. Honing each piece to a razor-sharp edge of flinty observation.
Those poems that submit to honing, that is. First lines only — I get a lot of those:
I never wanted to leave China, until they said I couldn’t. Bury me under these stones, she said. So far the frost is by far the worst.
I don’t remember that last one. Open it up. Nothing. Just that one line; a poetry stump. A pump, in fact. Possibly, a dud. My phone’s notebook charts the effect: These are the poems, and those, there, they are just stumps or pumps or duds. Nascent verse is always in my hand or clouding my head — like a bottomless glass of dubious red wine.
A long time ago, I wrote poetry for performance. They call it ‘spoken word’ now. This was poetry designed to engage a live audience, more like stand-up than literature. The lines could look terrible on the page, but on the stage, the rhymes and rhythm, the well-timed blows, the jokes hit home. I was, I think, quite good in performance. I knew I could work a room, a bar — I could face the hecklers down, win people over with words. It was gladiatorial work: Gladiatorial – noun: a combative but happy editorial – offered on life, the universe and all.
This latest, mid-life attack of poetry is different gravy. Since my father died, since Brexit, since plastic filled the oceans, while Australia burns, while Mum’s slide into dementia gathers speed, and while China – ah, China – having been locked in mortal combat with the coronavirus is closely followed by the rest of the globe, poetry feels necessary. I still assume an audience, but this time round it’s an audience of listeners and readers. I assume that they are interested, too, and do not have to be wrestled, merely tickled, like trout — which I did once, literally:
On a hot childhood-summer day we spilled out of cars on the long drive from Derbyshire to Wales, and found ourselves by a trout stream. Leaning over the bank, hand in the shadows, I rubbed my fingertips gently along the bellies of speckled brown trout, which in theory become stunned by the stroking. In fact they swam away. I have genuinely never been happier than I was on that balmy, timeless, completely unproductive afternoon. A writer was landed that day, no doubt.
Like trout, poems are tricky to tickle. The same is true of happiness.
I never tired of China till they said, You cannot leave.
My other current creative outlet, anxiety dreams, have, interestingly, not been quashed by my poetry gush. Since returning from a fortnight’s visit to China at the very end of January 2020, my sleeping hours have been stricken with terrors. We flew to China to visit the eldest son, who had been working there. All went well for a week of sightseeing in Beijing: beautiful wintry sunshine, frozen lakes, steaming bowls of beef noodles slurped to quell the cold. Everyone eagerly anticipated the New Year celebrations. And then the coronavirus struck. We returned to Boy 1’s adopted home city and found ourselves in a dystopian scene, a city of twelve million people, and no one on the street, as though a vast army had been ordered back to barracks, leaving the battlefield a gaping mouth of uncertainty.
Getting my son on a flight home – as airline after airline cancelled their flights – was, for a few, tense hours, the only thought we had. Despite this, I consider I stayed pretty calm in my waking hours. On the other hand, several times since our return – and we’ve been home a month at time of writing – I have woken myself in the night, shrieking. First, I dreamed I was teaching our new puppy to sit — and succeeded, but was then told I had to achieve it all again, this time in Mandarin.(Readers less monoglottal than myself must imagine the extent of this horror.) In last night’s nightmare, my mother had shrunk to the size of a toddler. As I held her in my arms, I opened the door to an enormous black hound — which somehow I knew to be from China.
I apologise to all Chinese readers for the stupidity of my subconscious. While in China, the people we met were polite, friendly and helpful, as curious about us, and our life, as we were about them — and they seemed to have a keen sense of fun, too. I was stunned to see that even soldiers practice-marching around Tiananmen Square were smiling and joking in the late afternoon sun. Then came the closed shops and restaurants, the empty trains and streets, the universal facemasks and the cancelled fireworks — and the struggle to get ourselves home.
There have been poems about this experience too, of course. But poetry, even this time around, is not all about therapy.
Recently I’ve been teaching a creative writing class, and poetry felt like a subject I shouldn’t shirk. I discovered – or rediscovered – the sonnet, and thought teaching it might be fun. As a former comprehensive-school boy, I often feel cowed by the technicalities of literature. As an RLF Fellow, it’s a terror I’ve had to quell. That’s how I dealt with the sonnet. I set about facing it down, all fourteen iambic pentametered lines of it — the four lines, and the four lines, and the four lines, and the two. Abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
(The well-educated will recognise I am talking about a Shakespearean sonnet here; other varieties are available.)
Most important in this campaign to grapple with form – to overcome, and not succumb to complexity – was (besides writing my sonnet on a phone) the permission I gave myself to write rubbish. Hemingway said ‘I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit.’ But that’s not the kind of rubbish I’m talking about.
I mean rubbish as in nonsense, in the spirit of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. ‘In your first attempt at a sonnet’, I told myself, ‘foist on yourself no obligation to meaning; let your only duty be to metre and to rhyme scheme’. This way, I found, it’s possible to have fun, while internalising the sonnet’s structure. The time for making sense, will – if I am spared – come later.
I have yet to throw down the ‘sonnet gauntlet’ to the creative writing class. And though I have honed and honed my own efforts, I make no claims for them, beyond their power to teach me an important lesson. A sonnet becomes successful when the metre is observed, and yet the voice of the poet emerges clear and loud from the thick forest of iambic pentameter, like a shipwrecked captain; over-bearded, over-tanned, a little distracted maybe, but recognisable as the poor sap who first fell upon that island’s forbidding shore.
The other people who care about poetry, besides the emotionally distraught (like me), and beside the screen-rapt reader toting their quicklit on the tube, and apart from the student – and teacher – of creative writing, are those strange people who run poetry competitions.
Imagine wishing upon yourself a deluge of words from people like me.
And perhaps there is one more category of people who care about poetry: the normal, non-writing humans, struggling to express things bigger than themselves. Wit, all those lines on gravestones, sympathy cards, and in the pages of parish magazines or sprayed onto motorway bridges.
I suppose there’s something ironic about this, though such outpourings are nothing if not sincere. When words fail us, so many of us turn to verse.
A gift, to see him thrive in China; how hard we strove to bring him home.
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