What should we tell people about our poems? Faced with a poetry reading the poet typically settles for a bit of ‘intel’, a gag or two if they are that way inclined, and the usual abject apology. This much is expected and it works well enough. The poet slips the knife into the poetic bivalve mollusc and eases it open, enough for the public to spy a glint of the pearl within. Its dull glow will be appreciated latter down the line or perhaps never.
Faced with putting together a poetry book the response is normally ‘bugger all’. The assumption is that the reader will have to make do with knowledge gleaned from the back cover – that it is innovative and respectful of tradition, challenging and generous, awe inspiring and full of awe (or just awful). The poems are in effect a series of ‘unseen comprehensions’, as likely to generate misery as pleasure.
I haven’t done an exam since 1982 and my laurels amounted to one solitary A Level (grade C, English Literature, since you ask), so I can’t claim to be an enthusiast for literary flagellation. For this reason, I have so often felt uneasy when faced with the slim volume of verse, concerned that I would fail to fully appreciate the genius therein, would get hold of the wrong end of the stick and then have to submit to a damned good thrashing (with the aforementioned stick) for being a dunce.
Happily this hasn’t stopped me immersing myself in poetry that demanded a fair degree of consideration. I went ‘completist’ with the lad Hill (Geoffrey), for instance, and I enjoyed many of the 1000+ pages of his Collected. And I know there is something of understanding that comes from not immediately understanding. However, generally, I now lean towards a friendlier approach to reading poetry.
Rather than offering an exam paper, in my A Commonplace (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) I have come over all ‘continuous assessment’ by offering a commentary to assist the reader. Metaphorically speaking, when a reader comes knocking at the door of A Commonplace, I put the kettle on and get out the digestives and we settle down for some quiet reading and some comradely conversation. Very likely, in most cases, such hospitality is unnecessary, but it does no harm and at least removes any suggestion that anyone has anything to fear.
To give a little more detail, the commentary is just the stuff I would offer at a poetry reading or when sharing poems with friends, neighbours or fellow travelers (I found this cleared a rush-hour railway carriage in the old days). There might be a bit about the subject, a note or two of explanation of an arcane subject (I acknowledge not all readers are pencil-enthusiasts or are blessed with a knowledge of brick-laying) or just a reminder of what was going on when the poem was written.
Most importantly, the commentary talks about the poems I have included by other poets. I save my real passion when it comes to poetry for the work of others: they got me here and they are damned well going to get me home again. Having said that, it will become clear to anyone reading A Commonplace that my reason for having a commentary is to allow me to dangle from it any number of footnotes and so to enjoy the sweet cacophony as they jangle in the breeze of incredulity.