What we are about when we are about poetry

I have just finished running a five-session course on the writing and publishing (in various forms) of poetry. I have on a very few occasions over the last thirty years run short poetry workshops, but never anything approaching a course. I have learned a lot, but it has thrown me into one of my existential ‘tizzies’ about what it is we are about when we are about poetry. I ask you, what is it we are about when we are about poetry?

I met the nine poets on the course through their images crowded onto my computer screen, and also through their poetry. They wrote many pieces and they wrote quickly, in response to my suggestions and knowing that they would be invited to share lines only just written. It is a good way of getting to know people in double quick time. It demands attention from everyone. One of the things we are about when we are about poetry is getting to know each other.

These are concerns of the self.

I suspect that the nine poets felt a range of emotions as the course went on. I know from my own experiences at workshops and courses, that there is a hope that one will produce great work and a fear that one will be weighed, measured and found wanting. These are concerns of the self. What I have also experienced, and the nine poets may have also felt this, is a subtle change in the centre of gravity, an almost involuntary growing of concern as the course proceeds for the work and welfare of one’s peers.

Without betraying any confidences, I can say that it was a tiny four-line piece shared by one of the nine in the last fifteen minutes of our last session that brought this home to me. It was simply about missing someone. That is all you need to know. And its importance to the poet was such that they struggled to speak the lines. We were suddenly no longer observers, for I believe we all of us shared something of the loss. One of the things we are about when we are about poetry is sharing the joys and sorrows of others.

As I write this piece I am listening to a collection, The Song of the Severn by the composer Ian Venables (sung by Roderick Williams with pianist Graham J Lloyd), and at this very moment I am listening to his setting of Harold Monro’s poem Midnight Lamentation. Although it is a fine example of a poem of its time, I humbly suggest it achieves more through its musical setting. It will not be to everyone’s taste – what art is? – but there are moments when the four artists – poet, composer, pianist and singer – create a desperate beauty.

I have, by mentioning Midnight Lamentation, given myself a moment, which I have used to compose (excuse the pun) myself and to again attend to my purpose. But it has also provided me with the phrase to describe better the moment which I mentioned a paragraph ago. There was a ‘desperate beauty’ in the sharing of the short, four-line poem, which had much to do with who had written it but much more to do with the commonwealth of creativity in which we were for that moment living.

I began this piece because I had caused myself to be troubled by asking what we are about when we are about poetry. Even with my best efforts – and believe me I did my preparation with diligence – I was concerned that far from helping the nine poets write and have their writing received, I had raised many questions about what the poetry world expected of poets and how poets could best use their undoubted talents within that world. As I have written I have realised – and you will have got there before me, I suspect – that poetry is not about that at all.

It is not war but it is not peace.

Poetry is not about a series of transactions and negotiations between entities, although for many of us it is always in danger of being so. The production and reception of our works are – perhaps increasingly – presented as series of treaties and skirmishes, as those with little or no agency manoeuvre themselves to become successful. It is not war but it is not peace. I was, I hope, full of good advice to the nine poets about planning their campaigns, but I hope I offered something else. 

I hope I suggested that they should at all times be respectful of their own creativity. They could draw their own lines and they didn’t have to cross them. I hope I demonstrated that those who are least known as poets, may have most to give. They might find a poem by an Iranian construction worker is the one that works for them. I hope I gave them permission to keep agency, to decide for themselves what manner of poet they were and how they wished their work to be received. They should make their own way in the world, aspiring to be neither a follower nor a leader.

Most importantly, I hope they took heart from the simple richness of the work they produced. Unheralded, un-vouched for, un-promoted, without the approbation of the great and the good, without the shrill clamour of the dangerous crowd, without the glittering prizes or the dutiful awards, without the squealing machinery of commerce, without the power or the glory, they succeeded in making pieces of art and in doing so at a stroke reduced me to what all poets surely aspire to engender, a fulfilled silence.

Why this review was written & a declaration of connection:

It is only fair that you know something of why I have written this article. To pretend that is comes unladen with influences would be unfair. So, here we go. Well, I am a novice poetry workshop facilitator, learning my craft – if it is such – by reflecting on what I have experienced over a five-session short course I ran for a literature development agency (Literature Works). I hope, of course, that I will be asked by them or others to do more, but I’m stoical. This piece may help me sell myself. Perhaps. Having said that, I’m for hire but I’m not hungry. I have a book about poetry I’m keen to flog, but this piece doesn’t particularly connect to that.

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