Total Poetry

The concept of ‘total poetry’ is based, so I am told, on that of totaalvoetbal, as developed to such effect by the the Dutch football club Ajax in the 1970s, and also the Dutch national football team. Surprised though I was by the use of a tactical system from the game of association football in the far more demanding arena of poetry, it does have some merit. Let us explore the idea, or perhaps hoof it down the pitch in a desperate attempt to get an injury time equaliser.

…hoof it down the pitch in a desperate attempt to get an injury time equaliser.

To be brief, the ‘total poetry’ system for engaging with poetry asks that to ensure maximum happiness a ‘poetry person’ must be able to engage with poetry in, as it were, all the various ‘outfield positions’. At first it looks almost too obvious. Surely anyone who aspires to write poems would also have read or heard some by other poets? And equally, anyone who wants to lead poetry workshops, will have participated in a few themselves. And finally, anyone who wishes to speak their own poems aloud will have spoken other people’s poems aloud. The first two examples given are probably pretty certain; the final one less so. Perhaps the speaking aloud of others’ poems is not considered as valuable as speaking ones own. How curious.

Perhaps the speaking aloud of others’ poems is not considered as valuable as speaking ones own.

This brings us to the essence of the ‘total poetry’ system. This is the notion that there will be more happiness if the ‘poetry person’ has experience of being involved in all or many forms of engagement with poetry and treats all these forms of engagement as equally valuable, equally rewarding and equally worthy of endeavour. Here the football analogy rather kicks its ball into the carpark, as while the totaalvoetbal of Ajax was accounted very entertaining for the fans, the immediate goal was, well… goals. To carry that into the poetry world, we might suggest that the only devoutly to be wished outcome for a ‘poetry person’ is to ‘score’ a poem, by which we mean getting published, win a prize, bag an award, do anything to get the famously partisan home crowd up on their feet. And for some that may well be their only motivation, but…

And for some that may well be their only motivation, but…

But… to have ‘scoring’ as the only goal offers not very much to those who for various reasons aren’t going to do this or, amazingly, enjoy other aspects of poetry. So we’ll leave Ajax and their ilk to scurry up and down the verdant sward. ‘Total poetry’, it transpires, proposes that there is no privileging of any particular skill or aptitude in ‘poetry’. It avers that, yes, while those who write their own poems should be respected for the work, respect should also be given to those who read (to themselves) the poems of others (and by extension, buy the books, etc.). Going further, ‘total poetry’ requests that the speaking of poems (by whoever) and the listening to poetry being spoken, are also worthy of respect. These roles – speaker and listener, and also attender, but also teacher, editor, organiser, publisher – are all aspects of the buoyancy of attention necessary for poetry to keep its head above water.

…all aspects of the buoyancy of attention necessary for poetry to keep its head above water.

To return to the totaalvoetbal tactical system, a ‘poetry person’ may, indeed, be one who can play in any position – they can dash off a fine verse and speak it aloud, they can read and listen to poems by others with appreciation (and read them aloud), they can perhaps edit and teach, they may be able to select and promote, they are a dab hand at writing poems out by hand in billets doux or spraying them on the walls and overbridges of our civic realm; in fact, they carry poetry through the world in all manner of ways, not privileging one ‘position’ over another, but recollecting that as there is a time to write poetry, so there is a time to share another’s poem, or to start a small press, or to review a pamphlet, or to organise a reading, or to set-up a secret poetry-sect and design a suitably fetching uniform and rousing anthem.

…organise a reading, or to set-up a secret poetry-sect and design a suitably fetching uniform and rousing anthem.

There is happiness in knowing that even to read a poem – a poem by another – is a vital part of keeping the poetry ball in play. The scoring of a goal, well that is as nothing to the beauty of it curling and pinging between players and the oohs and aahs of spectators. And as it happens, reading the programme at half-time and trudging home disconsolate is also important. Last week, at a gathering of one of the aforementioned secret poetry-sects, a translation of a poem from the Irish which I had not before come across was shared. It was a smashing poem. It was bloody wonderful. And equally wonderful was the service that a pal did by sharing the poem authored by we know not who, and by speaking it to those who were present and by letting us speak it too. The crowd did not rise to their feet, but there were oohs and aahs, and to be honest in the long run it was probably better than a goal in the final minute, for with poetry there is no final minute.

More news on ‘total poetry’ just as soon as it becomes available.

Why this article was written & a declaration of connection:

It was during an online poetry workshop that the idea of ‘total poetry’ was mentioned and it got me thinking. As readers of my occasional essays will know, I do love an inappropriate extended metaphor. I also like doing a bit of research into a potentially arcane subject.

I’ve increasingly come across people who love poetry but don’t love the poetry sector. They feel they’re contribution isn’t wanted (rejection doesn’t help). They also feel that what they like to do – perhaps just reading poetry – isn’t considered of any value. I’m interested in making poetry a happier place.

But also I like hearing the sound of my own voice, or rather reading the evidence of my own keystrokes. And boy to I like it when I think other people are listening in…

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