Writing this entry up a day late on a journey north, the train delayed, which is giving me longer to pour forth than expected. The words have flowed. These are quite raw thoughts but sometimes it’s good to just throw the contents of your head out into the world, without too much shaping. I think this has been brewing for a while and was prompted by taking the shot of the device here. It was installed as part of the Stanza Stones project, promoting poetry around the gritstone moors of Yorkshire. It’s set in a shelter with stone benches. The idea is to encourage people to stop and write a poem, post it in at the top, turn a handle, which should in return extrude a poem previously posted from someone else, appearing at the bottom. Sadly, it no longer functions as intended. The mechanism has jammed and all the poetry has got stuck inside.
I realised the other day that I can take it apart with an Allen Key. It might just need clearing out and a quick spray with some WD40. I will give it a try and perhaps curate what I find inside, to start the process off again. I like the idea of trading poems between walkers who have sat and written in the same place, separated in time but not in space.
However, that raises the interesting question of how to decide which poems to keep and which to discard. It’s the kind of thing that’s been occupying my mind a great deal lately. I must admit that I’ve never been much of a reader of poetry. I blame that on having had a mind that’s always been churning over mathematical problems and then programming problems - for over forty years. There’s never been any space in my head for poetry - and poetry needs space. I’m only understanding this now that I actually have some.
I’ve been reading quite a bit of poetry lately and it’s often not at all easy. The fact that these poems have been published, selected by an editor to appear in print, would suggest that they are good poems. But I often struggle to see what’s good about them. My natural inclination is to lay the blame for that on myself, but perhaps the poets in question have to bear some responsibility too.
There is no doubt that much of modern poetry is not particularly accessible to most people, almost to the point, I’m tempted to say, where it delights in its very obscurity. Poems become puzzles to solve, the reader having to decode a meaning that’s deeply enfolded inside. They are a game to be played out between the poet and their inevitably limited and elite audience. Perhaps I could gain entry to that club with enough practice. I’m just not sure I want to.
There seems to be a lot of similarity between reading poetry and listening to music. If a tune is too simple and catchy then there is an immediate appeal but it’s not long lasting. I grow tired of such tunes quickly. They can rapidly become annoying. On the other hand, if a tune is too complex and atonal, there are no hooks upon which I can get a hold. It’s just noise. In between those two extremes lies the sweet spot, music which hooks your attention but with plenty of complexity and subtlety, and even atonality, to keep bringing further rewards the more you listen. This is music of which I never tire.
It’s the same with poetry. There is a sweet spot. And it’s poetry that hits that spot that I enjoy the most and am drawn towards. There is enough on a first reading to encourage me to return, and return again and again. I’m trusting the poet to take me somewhere. My reading of the poem is the poetry. I bring my own context to bear on the poem, my own experience, interpreting its metaphors in my own way. In this way, I think of a poem as a lens, enabling me to see better something that I recognise - a memory, a feeling, a thought - bringing it more sharply into focus - or, if the poet is really clever, allowing me to see it in a whole new, more vivid way.
I heard Wendy Cope read some of her poetry yesterday afternoon. There was an impressive turnout of people. It was a very appreciative audience. She’s a popular poet, and for good reason. Her poems are often funny and pithy and they also - shock, horror - scan and rhyme with a wonderful rhythm. She has endured quite a bit of flak from the poetry ‘establishment’ for not being sufficiently high-brow. Rhyming isn’t fashionable. One has to suspect that the ‘proper’ poets are jealous of her popularity, hard-won though that was. It took many, many years of trying before she finally became published.
Wendy said in a question and answer session that she writes poetry because she cannot not write poetry. She has no choice. I think all writers feel that same raw impulse. We write because there is no choice. It’s how we make sense of ourselves and the world around us.
I’m writing a story at the moment. The central character is a poet. I gave her these lines today. It seems appropriate to give her a platform here. I never quite know where these speeches come from.
“There are people who naturally float on the sea of life, and people who naturally sink. If you’re lucky enough to be a floater then it’s easy. You can drift along and simply have a good time. There’ll be ups and downs, of course, but no real worries. On the other hand, if you’re a sinker, like myself, you have no choice but to keep swimming, to avoid drowning. Stop swimming, and you go under. Swimming is a metaphor, of course. For writing.”
I don’t think it’s ever been clear how to define a poem. As flash fiction - fiction of very short length, sometimes just a hundred words, less even - becomes more and more popular, the distinction between a poem and a short story is breaking down. There often isn’t one other than the way it’s laid out on the page. A story can be presented as a poem. A poem can be presented as a story. It’s odd to think there can be no difference other than the typography.
It seems to me that poetry is no more than storytelling presented in a way that gives space for the words and lines to breathe. And that’s exactly why poetry and storytelling are so important. When we read a poem or a story we are taking a breather from our regular world and trusting a poet or a writer to take us somewhere else, to invite us to imagine and feel things outside our normal sphere of activity, but things that will nonetheless inform our everyday experience, to help us to understand our humanity. A little bit better at least. Hopefully.