Honk If You Write Sestinas

The craze of poetry ‘bumper stickers’ (or similar items displayed in car rear windows) has surely reached its peak. On Friday last, the reverie I normally allow myself during the short car journey to a well-known purveyor of croissants (and much else besides) was spoilt by a cacophony of honking horns as fellow drivers sought to make public their passion for that most muddle-headed of forms, the Sestina. The noise of drivers drawing attention to themselves was such that I was unable to hear the frenzied yapping of the little puppy dog whose lead had inexplicably been caught in my near-side rear door and who had therefore been trotting along just behind my vehicle in some vexation. The journey was short and the puppy was not harmed, although I cannot say the same for myself. Before I had left the carpark at the Winson Green branch of Lidl with the aforementioned pastries (and so much else besides) I had switched message to the less engaging, ‘My Other Form’s a Villanelle’, thus ensuring a much quieter return journey to my estate at Hockley Parva.

a terrible darkness

A serious point, however, is made, being that the desire to not only ‘do poetry’ but to be seen to be ‘doing poetry’ is making a lot of people rather unhappy. I naturally look back wistfully at previous eras, when a poet of whatever quality or status (two distinct measures) could happily plod along for several decades not publishing any poems at all, often as not not even writing them, and still be catalogued in the minds of the few who cared as ‘a poet’ or ‘the poet’. A slim volume once every ten years was considered sufficient and anything else was rather frowned upon by those who had taste and deportment. Youngsters who find themselves unhappily reading this account must naturally jump to the conclusion that a terrible darkness was cast upon the land, with the chances of stumbling across a new book of poetry as likely as anyone caring about poetry at all.

“Do not expect applause.”

W.S. Graham

Well, in many ways these were dark times. Poetry was not easy to come by and much good work (and a very small amount of great work – there is never much great work) simply didn’t see the light of day. On the other side of the Faustian pact, however, was the knowledge that for both readers of poetry (and such folk existed, those who read poetry and didn’t write it) and writers of poetry, there was no rush, it was not a race, and even if it was a race you wouldn’t know you’d won it because you’d need to be dead a hundred years before the results were declared. Oh, happy days! Those of us old enough to remember such times remember also that so much of the conversation of poetry was about what to read and how to enjoy it and that our own poetry writing was treated kindly as a good thing but not made the centre of our or anyone’s existence. We didn’t talk about it much. It was as if we wrote or read poetry to commune with an art that gave us consolation rather than to enjoy the thrill of adulation. We heeded W S Graham in the last line of his poem ‘Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons’: “Do not expect applause”.

Do you not enjoy writing poetry?

As poets have always done, I look back in admiration at the past, although I’m bloody glad I don’t live there now, for I fear my lust for cheap but good quality croissants would not so easily be sated as it is today. And I also observe that some things have not changed, and foremost of these, I tell myself, is the speed at which we both read and hear language. There may well be studies that suggest we thoroughly modern human beings speak more quickly and hear and even understand language more quickly, but to my blunt mind a typical poem takes as much time to understand and appreciate now as it did thirty or three hundred years ago. And we may hope that the time taken to write the same has also not appreciably shortened – why ever would it? (Why do you want to write poetry quickly? Do you not enjoy writing poetry? Why are you reading that poetry book so quickly? Do you not enjoy reading poetry?) While the processes of distribution, consumption and reaction in which so much poetry finds itself enmeshed have become ever more rapid, the still, dark moments of writing and the still, bright moments of reading take up just as many heart beats as they ever did. Or to put it another way, it takes me just as long to not write a poem now as it did forty years ago when I started not writing poetry.

we are drowning

This should remind us that the making and experiencing of poetry – and perhaps other artforms, although I cannot speak for them – is not subject to the continual ‘improvement’ that is the lot of, say, agriculture or journalism. More poetry is written each year and more is potentially read or heard, but the moments of emotional fusion that most of us are drawn to are as rare and laborious as they ever were. Given that I hope these very words will flash across the digital world in seconds, it would be a bit cheap if I were to denounce Gutenburg and his ilk for spoiling our very slow fun. I do not. More is better if the more is equitably distributed amongst the people (although faster is often not better). But I do suggest, in a way that befits a slow-witted person such as myself, that we would do well to remind ourselves that whatever the poetry world is encouraging and enticing us to do next – and we are drowning in a sea of encouragement and enticement – we do not need to do that thing if we wish only to take pleasure or solace from poetry. The consolation of art never did come from buying and selling nor from relentlessly making or consuming, and certainly not from hearing our voice rise above the shouting crowd. The poetry, as ever, is in the silence after the shouting is over.

And for this reason, my new ‘in-car notification of what I am about’ reads: ‘Be Kind To Puppy Dogs’.

Why this article was written & a declaration of connection:

Now and then I like to have my say, for my voice to rise above the shouting crowd. My poems generally don’t cut the mustard and writing so few words is very hard. A little piece like this satisfies my desire to at least write.

Also, I am about to start leading a poetry short course and I am anxious about how to make the people coming on the short course happy. Many want their work to be read. I understand this but also I want them to look at the bigger picture. This piece was about marshalling some of my thoughts.

I am, of course, a beneficiary of some of what I criticise. I have encouraged and enticed people to pay good money to attend poetry short courses and similar. But I try to offset that with caring about people who write poetry and trying to find ways to lighten their travail.

And even with the stability of age, or perhaps especially with time running out, I need every now and then to remind myself of why poetry is important to me.

So, the usual mixture of high-minded intent, base ambition and general fear has driven me to write this article.

The bit about the puppy dog… it didn’t really happen. But I do recommend Lidl croissants.

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