I have been thinking about how poetry is presented, and in particular how books are composed and assembled. I have a new collection coming out (A Commonplace, Smith|Doorstop, August 2020), and I’ve spent the last two years putting it together. But I’ve done things differently this time. One of the major changes from previous books is that the poems featured are not just my own. I took a look at how I lived with poetry and concluded that as my writing was a product of my reading it made sense to include some poems by poets I admired and that I had been inspired by, alongside my own poems. There are a dozen, including two translations.
The downside of including other people’s poems is that this rules me out of most book prizes (which are typically for collections by a single author) but I comfort myself with the knowledge that on past performance I would be very unlikely to win anything anyway. And reviewers, if there are any, will have to review not just my poems but those by others and, indeed, might need to consider which poems I have selected and how I have placed them in the book. It is going to be confusing, particularly for any reviewer who likes to review the poet as much as the poetry. The upside is readers have more than just my voice to entertain them, and if we are concerned for poetry readers – the silent minority – then this might be a good idea. It has cost me a bob or two in some cases to buy the rights, but this has been money well spent, and many of the poems have been given gratis for which I am grateful.
Considering the wider implications, it strikes me that to offer a work of literature that is predominately by one individual but accompanied by others is pushing against orthodoxy. The orthodox view, as you will know, is that poetry is about an individual writing poems and sharing them with the world and being praised, criticised or ignored. The sum of all they receive – the praise, criticism or silence – is then considered a measure of the individual’s worth. As a result, for all the friendliness of the poetry world – and things rarely get sorted out in the car-park – it is an art-form that offers many opportunities for people to be weighed, measured and found wanting. Competitions have winners (and a few runners up); reviews praise – or sometimes criticise – a few, while ignoring most; magazines reject far more poems than they accept.
Well, many will say this is how the best poetry must find its place in the firmament, and I certainly do need mechanisms to help me choose the poems I spend my disposable time reading. And creating a limited supply of poems deemed to be ‘the best’ and releasing them into the market place for their worth to be further increased certainly helps with monetisation of the product, a necessity if the ‘poetry-industrial complex’ is to continue as the dark throbbing heart of the sector… At its best good poets receive due reward, but at its worst other good poets find themselves at the receiving end of silence, not quite having the combination of vim and vigour to be taken up by the market.
Perhaps we should focus slightly less on individual excellence and should more frequently declare that it takes a whole poetry community to write a poem (or a collection of poems). By community I mean all poets who have come before us (from whatever age and culture) and that we have read, as well as those with whom we are presently bonded. The increasing amounts of space devoted to ‘thanks’ at the backs of poetry books suggests I am not alone in thinking this. But giving thanks to friends and neighbours only goes so far. I hope that those of us fortunate enough to be published (and publication is a scarce resource: the space I take is thus denied to others) will increasingly look around and ask if there are poets with whom we should link arms as we cross the finish line of publication.
In A Commonplace I am linking arms with some poets who are old friends and some who are new friends. I am linking arms with some who are ‘high-profile’ and some who will have been almost entirely forgotten. I am linking arms with poets who have died and with poets who are only available to me in translation. Many of the poets I link arms with have no connection with me other than that their poetry has become part of the ‘poetry commonwealth’ by which I get inspired. I came to them by reading widely and by reading particularly those whose names were not often mentioned in dispatches. In A Commonplace they get mentioned, thanked and some of their poems get (re-)published. It is the least I can do. So, whatever success the book might have, sadly/happily, I will not be able to claim it as only my own, but at least I will not be on my own.
Image credit: Family with Ten Children (1955), Jacques Stevens, Gooi & Vecht Historical Museum, reproduced under the Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 4.0)