(Avoiding) Poetic Ecological Collapse

The concept of poetic ecological collapse has been widely discussed, and so I add here only a few additional notes of personal reflection. Readers will know that an intensive use of the land for cultivation and a constant extraction by way of yields can lead to a collapse in fertility. Can this concern be transposed to poetry, individually or collectively?

Poems are, of course, rather different from fruit or vegetables or even livestock. They are, today, easy to duplicate in digital form with virtually no use of finite resources. And even before digital became the common platform for poetry, it was simple enough to write out a poem or commit it to memory. Repeatedly reading, speaking or hearing a poem does not reduce the fertility of the poem or of poetry as a whole.

So, we have established in only two paragraphs, that there is nothing to worry about, that poems once created are many little lights that will never dim, so long as there are folk to read, hear, speak or remember them. Blimey, this makes them both extremely valuable and, from the point of view of those looking to make a bob or two from the poetry writin’ racket, virtually useless.

In a future blogpost I may ruminate on how exactly value is extracted from the production of poetry – unless someone pays me not to. But for now, let’s look at the other aspect of the poetry ecology, the soil from which such bounty is extracted, in which such largesse is planted, propagated and eventually harvested. I mean, of course, the poets.

Many years ago, whilst in her cups, an aged poet suggested to me that the world of letters was fertilised by the bones of generations of writers, ground up and applied to the literary soil, season after season. At the time, fool that I was, I longed to be laid to rest in pastures green when my writing days were done and be part of this cycle. But, alas, I had misunderstood.

What my aged pal was actually suggesting, was that I would need to allow my own creative fertility to be applied to the processes of the poetry industry, whether I liked it not. This is a rather bold statement, but perhaps she was not entirely wrong. I come to this view after having spent a period of time reflecting on how I have engaged with poetry over many decades.

I don’t have time – and you, dear reader, do not have the patience to allow me – to describe in detail that engagement. But briefly, as an infant poetry was offered to me simply for the pleasure of the hearing and speaking and later for the pleasure of memorising and reading. At some point, writing my own poetry came along, and that too was initially a delightful occupation.

‘Into this Eden stole the serpent of self’. Or rather, I was encouraged to see myself as beyond the ordinary and therefore to use my poetry writing as a means of both exploring myself but more importantly claiming my place in the poetry world. The first is well enough and the second is not of course inherently bad.

Less benign was the assumption that to claim that place in the poetry world, I should at all costs – whatever the cost – compete for the finite resource of other people’s time and appreciation. Coincidentally – I think not – presented to me, were many ways of doing this which would, should I be strong and deserving, make me king of the world with a slim volume or two from one of our commercial publishers.

And so, gradually I began to privilege the writing of poetry over all other forms of engagement with poetry. Gradually I found myself marching to the drum of writing to win. Gradually I saw myself not as a carrier of the poetry of all the ages but a producer of only my own poetry, that to be given value through the approbation of prizes, publications and awards.

How, you might ask, does this connect with the notion of ‘poetic ecological collapse’ of which you speak, Jonathan? Well, let me eat a small apple that I find upon my desk and get back to you. [A small apple is eaten, pips an’ all, but not the stalk]. Mmm, that was a nice apple. Would you like one? They grow on trees, you know; I’m growing an Ashmead Colonel in the hope of proving this ere long.

Well, I found myself engaged with the poetry world in ways that demanded considerable energy, not to mention time and some money. I won enough to keep me hungry for more, but increasingly I found myself feeling out of sorts with poetry. Where reading or hearing a good poem by another had been enough, I found myself wanting only to win… win something, anything. If I felt like this, then perhaps others did too.

My personal poetic ecology had over the years moved from a sustainable relationship with all and any poetry, through hearing, speaking, reading, memorising and occasionally writing, to a desperate race to extract more poetry from myself that could be used to further establish and demand my place in the poetry world. As a result I was in danger of a permanent collapse; all fertility regarding poetry would have been lost.

And so, I reflected on my situation. And so, I changed my ways. And more, I kept a record of how I engaged with poetry across the weeks and now months, noting down what I had contributed selflessly and what I had extracted. I noted also, what I genuinely enjoyed and whether this pleasure came at a cost to anyone else – was my pleasure in poetry denying someone else their pleasure?

It transpires that I gain most pleasure from that which treads lightest upon poetry pastures. Listening to a good reading of a previously enjoyed poem, sharing a favourite verse with friends and strangers alike, challenging myself, of a winter afternoon, to make a little poem to delight (or at least divert) only myself, these were all things I enjoyed.

I have to confess, that given my great age (I have fewer poetry years left than I have endured), I take more pleasure in the consolation rather than the competition of art. For instance, when I read to my very elderly mother a loved verse by another, while she thinks she has written it, I imagine that I have, such is the closeness we both feel to the poem. You don’t get prizes for that feeling, but it is to be prized.

Let me suggest simply that stepping back from whatever version of the poetry world with which you engage, can be a useful way of avoiding your own version of poetic ecological collapse. Make no assumptions about what is right, but simply ask yourself: what am I giving and taking from poetry and what am I sharing and receiving? How am I carrying poetry into the future, all poetry, not just my own?

There is so much more to be written about how the poetry world can transition from the rather (personally) destructive model that we are generally offered, to something more sustainable. While any poem can be a contribution to the commonwealth of poetry, the ways in which we engage with that poem are not without importance, for ourselves and for all people. I look forward to more talk of this, no really, I do.

Why this article was written & a declaration of connection:

Of course, I like nothing better than to hear the sound of my own voice. But also, I do like to think – by writing – about how the poetry world really is and what it does to us, to me and to all others. Although I have been well treated by the poetry world – and as you’ll know I set out my stall and sell my wares often enough – I can’t resist having a nibble at the hand that feeds me. Oh, and I like sometimes to have people tell me how great/stupid I am, although I don’t really like to be told I’m stupid, to be honest. That’s it.

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