The Poetry-Industrial Complex

I like looking at bricks and eating apples. I also enjoy considering the political economy of poetry. Like apples, poetry just happens, but like bricks, its form and use have been industrialised over thousands of years. And come to think of it, apples have come a long way from the fruit forest of Tian Shan to supermarket shelves. All of which got me to asking if the structures in which contemporary poetry is produced and consumed are quite as ‘natural’ as we might believe. Why, for instance, do we privilege the collection by a single author over the anthology or the book produced in collaboration with another artist? And why do we use competition as a means of validating talent? And what do we offer those people who fail to win any of the established laurels?

In trying to answer these questions, I came across the notion of there being a Poetry-Industrial Complex (the PIC, as I believe the kids call it). Naturally, I dropped it into ‘the google-well’ and waited for the dank, distant splash of explanation. But splash came there none. Yes, the Military-Industrial Complex was referenced, which interestingly enough was described as: ‘an informal alliance between a nation’s military and the defense industry that supplies it, seen together as a vested interest which influences public policy’ (ta, Wikipedia), but there was no word about the PIC.

I had no choice but to try to map the one concept onto the other. Swapping ‘publishers’ for ‘military’ and ‘poetry sector’ for ‘defense industry’ began to yield a glimmer of sense, especially if it were ‘commercial poetry publishers’ rather than just (not for profit) publishers, and more so if ‘public policy’ were replaced with ‘how poetry is produced and consumed’. Let’s see how it sounds. Here we go, two, three, four: ‘the Poetry-Industrial Complex is an informal alliance between a nation’s commercial poetry publishers and the poetry sector that supplies it, seen together as a vested interest which influences how poetry is produced and consumed.’ Blimey, that’s a bit strong.

I’m not sure, although it makes an entertaining theory. 

The Military-Industrial Complex is generally thought to be a rather malign thing, ensuring that wars are continually fought not because they need to be for the health and welfare of citizens, but to keep the military and the defence industry paying dividends to shareholders. If we look at poetry through the same lens, an observer might ask: do we get the slim volumes, the poetry competitions, the poetry prizes and the poetry PR for the same reason? Are these things in place because they help select the most profitable lines of investment from which those who have created the market structures, and have the capital to invest in these structures, can extract their dividends? I’m not sure, although it makes an entertaining theory. A political economist would doubtless do a better job of explaining what was going on. 

For such a friendly and naturally convivial artform, a lot of the ‘means of validating talent’ are in fact rather destructive.

However, what I am sure about (because I speak privately with poets) is that many aspects of the poetry sector do not do much good to those individuals who find themselves encouraged to head to the front line. For such a friendly and naturally convivial artform, a lot of the ‘means of validating talent’ are in fact rather destructive. Competitions generate the cannon fodder of the perennially disappointed, while providing the industry with its national heroes. Slim volumes are barely read but are a useful means of stoking the fires of ambition for the unpublished and are also a means of creating value through scarcity, a scarcity that is further inflated through a prize culture. While poetry is easily shared at very low cost, it seems that it must be consumed in the approved manner (and payment) because no (literary) poet will be truly validated if they try to break the rules.

The best poetry will rise to the top through this alliance of late capitalism, state-sponsored largesse and personal sacrifice.

Question: “Does Jonathan not know that it is a divine law that contemporary poetry should be produced by the many, often at great personal cost; that a few will make the grade to add to the value of publishing houses and seats of learning; and, that the whole process should be considered the best possible way of generating the cultural value that keeps the share price of Poetry UK on an upward trajectory? The best poetry will rise to the top through this alliance of late capitalism, state-sponsored largesse and personal sacrifice. And if there are casualties – those who feel wretched about being so unrewarded for their contribution – they will just have to try harder to follow their dreams. Anyone, but not everyone (obviously), can be a winner.”

Answer: “I do not.”

It may not have to be this way. And at the risk of undermining the morale of those in the thick of fighting, I can reveal that privately many of us enjoy poems that have long since lost their economic value (often referred to as ‘previously enjoyed poetry’, i.e. stuff we have read before). And we like a good anthology where the individual names of poets are less important than the commonwealth of the whole. And perhaps we do not want to win if winning means so many friends must lose. And furthermore, we aren’t always entirely convinced, anyway, by the work of those who win the prizes, who grace the plinths, who become of value, lovely people though they always are (and great poets though they often are). 

Its a thought, isn’t it? And if one were to follow this line of enquiry to its extreme one might become a conscientious objector, resisting the urge to enter poetry competitions, feeling less inclined to focus all ones creative energies on the solo collection, being happy enough to have some work out there without wanting to be carried through the town on the shoulders of the people, being more interested in the poetry and the process and less interested in the power and the glory, offering what one makes to any who want it, for the general pleasure of all, for the Poetry Commonwealth.

It sounds too good to be true. Or perhaps some of this is already happening. Either way, it will require some thought. I’ll get back to you.

Why this article was written & a declaration of connection

It is only fair that you know something of why I have written this article. I am published (most recently A Commonplace) and I have won some poetry competitions and in the late 1980s (I think it was) I received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. I’received it’ rather than won it, although I know these days people talk about ‘winning’ a Gregory, which is indicative of the way competition has infiltrated all aspects of cultural life. So, although I’ve not won anything big (not the Eliot or the Costa or the National Poetry Competition) I have a lot for which to thank the Poetry Sector.

However, I work closely through my day-job with many poets and I have increasingly felt uncomfortable in recommending they take the traditional route to ‘success’, particularly knowing how many will ‘fail’ and how much that hurts. So this article is me making a start to consider alternative ways of us all enjoying writing, reading, speaking and hearing poetry. And in related news, I’ve just stopped entering poetry competitions and it felt rather a relief. And I have encouraged people who read A Commonplace to record their own audio versions of my poems, which has been very satisfying.

So, everyone’s working an angle, and now you know mine.

The Croft craft – Review of ‘The Sailors of Ulm’

Andy Croft, The Sailors of Ulm, 90pp, 2019, Shoestring Press, Nottingham

The Sailors of Ulm is an unusual book in an age that drifts relentlessly towards conformity. Most strikingly, many of the poems are tightly rhymed. Is this helpful? You bet it is. Chaucer, Pope, Byron and Harrison (not to mention Cope and Ayres) all knew/know that a reader loves a pattern and just the simple – often subliminal – act of searching for the next rhyme keeps the cogs of cognition whirring and the pages turning. So readable this book certainly is. While the tight structure often serves to roll the ideas along, there are moments when the beautiful simplicity of words speaking to each other becomes deeply moving. Let me share one of Croft’s shorter poems in its entirety to show what I mean:

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL

The children are asleep inside the van
And we are sitting underneath the stars,
Too tired to drive, so happy we can’t speak.
If we’re asleep, this dream is ours.

Five minutes more before we hit the road;
We share a can of flat and lukewarm beer.
Five hundred miles before we reach the coast;
But time’s away, and we are here.

Your sleepy hand in mind, the speechless moon,
The warm French night, a last shared cigarette;
No matter what the miles ahead may bring,
This is as good as it can get.

We finish off the beer. Time we were off.
Your turn to get some kip, my turn to drive.
We’ve never felt so tired or so awake
As we are now, or so alive.

Here is a poet using few words, all of them unexceptional in themselves, but setting them in such a pattern – and quietly directing and extracting meaning – that they make this picture of ordinary happiness. I am moved, not just by his recollection of his moment but how it speaks for my own experiences. I could not say this in the way he has, so I am grateful that he has gone to the trouble. That’s the poet’s job: to speak for us. And straight into the commonplace book it goes, in my barely intelligible scrawl.

‘Asleep at the Wheel’ is perhaps atypical of Croft. A more typical poem is likely to spring from a desire to address the wider world, to set things down so they are known, to tell it like it is. A Croft poem is also very likely to be inspired by the writings of others. The title poem, ‘The Sailors of Ulm’ is inspired by MacNeice’s ‘Thalassa’ and Brecht’s poem ‘The Tailor of Ulm’ and to Lucio Magri’s history of the Italian Communist Party, ‘Il Sarto di Ulm’ (so the end notes tell me). I wish I could say I was familiar with all these texts – or even any of them, especially the last – but perhaps I don’t have to be as Croft has done the reading for me. The result is a tight little poem that sets the sardonic tone for much of the book, particularly with its last few lines:

                                    On the quay
The rats are cheering as we sink
Beneath the sands. We’re all at sea.  

The end notes are important as they remind us that Croft is not pretending to be some lonely genius looking into his heart (although he can do this) but a person of letters, concerned with the history that is being made now as well as the recent history that we are all encouraged to forget. His ‘Paul Robeson Sings in Mudfog Town Hall’ is a proper tub-thumper, skewering the great and the good’s lack of greatness and goodness and reminding us that sometimes a single man or woman can speak for us all. And it is witty and playful and memorable.

‘Don and Donna’ is this volume’s masterpiece – not necessarily the first poem to approach but the one that shows how much of a master Croft is of thought released by the constraint of form. Rather than taking swipes at hypocrisy it punches it cleanly on the snozzle. Here’s just one example, (and you should know these poems were written while Croft was a writer in residence – voluntarily – in one of Her Majesty’s prisons):  

We send them out to Helmand and Iraq
            Just like when half the globe was coloured red,
Then guiltily we fly the bodies back;
            Not quite a hero’s welcome, but instead
A coffin wrapped inside a Union Jack.
            We call them heroes when they’re safely dead,
But there’s now twice as many in the can
           As there are serving in Afghanistan.

Yep. Nailed it. So here is more unusual-ness from Croft, to write wittily and memorably about contemporary issues but all the time neatly side-stepping one’s own ego. We don’t get much of Croft (that first poem I quoted being an exception) but that’s ok, there’s plenty of other poets happy to bare their souls. What we do get – and this is going to sound distinctly unpoetic – is knowledge. I didn’t know about Chris Hani, the South African communist murdered in 1993, but thanks to the penultimate poem in this collection, ‘Doodgeskeit’, I now do and I shan’t be forgetting him in a hurry. Poetry is memory and Croft won’t let us forget it. 

Why this review was written & a declaration of connection

I know Andy Croft as a correspondent, once by letter in the mid-1980s and over the last two years by letters and e-mails. We are friendly because we have much in common, and perhaps because we like each others style – I certainly like his. In 2020 he gave me – prompted only by my sending him an early version – a very positive few words about my book A Commonplace which are now featured on its cover. My drafting of this review is to some extent tipping my cap back at him, but it is also wanting to go through the process of working out for myself why I liked his work so much. Readers should, obviously, use the above information to judge how reasonable my views are regarding his work. Everyone’s working an angle, and now you know mine.

Sorting out my angle…

Image: Brian Robert Marshall

…the worst national shortage of papyrus in the history of small-press publishing…

My book, A Commonplace – Apples, Bricks and Other People’s Poems (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) was published today, although you’ll not be seeing it immediately as all the physical copies have been impounded by the authorities and are languishing on pallets in a nondescript warehouse on an industrial estate near Sheffield. Yeah, right… The truth is that a combination of furloughing, tardy proof-reading on my part and the worst national shortage of papyrus in the history of small-press publishing has caused a few delays. They’ll be with us soon enough. Please feel free to read other books while you wait. 

First rule of the poetry racket is get yourself an angle.



This delay gives me a chance to ruminate on what my poems in this book say collectively. I emphasise my poems as the book includes a dozen by other poets, which are all very good and say lots of things. Of course you don’t need to know what my poems say collectively, but I do. These days a poetry books needs an angle and it transpires that over the ten years I’ve been writing this book I have failed to identify a proper angle. I’m a bloody amateur, I am, really. First rule of the poetry racket is get yourself an angle. It’s no good saying here’s a selection of my least worst poems of the last decade covering subjects all and sundry. If you’re off to hustle this poetry gear you need to know what’s on your stall and to whom to tip the wink.
  
Er… so, here’s my angle, here’s what I’m hustling, here’s what on my stall.

I write about my family, about my mum and dad and my granddad and my daughter. My son had poems in previous collections, so he features less, although I love him dearly. And actually some poems for my daughter didn’t make the final cut as no daughter wants her dad to publish such stuff. My sister is mentioned in poems too. She knows about lichens you know, and takes wonderful photographs of butterflies. I write about my relationship with my partner, Lisa, but again, modestly and discreetly. I write about those I loved in my late teens and about my dear friend Tony Whitehead who died far too young. In all these poems perhaps I am also writing about myself, but I can deny that if I wish. So, not much of an angle so far… come on, Jonathan, get with the project.
 

I don’t want Venice to sink below the waves but I’d like more of us to rise above them.


There are poems about things in which I am interested – about the eponymous Apples and Bricks – but these are really poems about love or politics. I think we’ve said enough about love so let’s talk about politics. When I write about bricks in the poem ‘Brickwork’ I am writing about the generations of workers who built ordinary Britain and who are not much remarked upon. And when I write about Venice in ‘Without Venice’ I am writing about the privileging of the culture of rulers over the lives of the rest of us. I don’t want Venice to sink below the waves but I’d like more of us to rise above them. And in ‘Utopia’, prompted by coming across a brick in a wall (there’s a novelty), I am just plain angry with how things are turning out. And the poems about the English Revolution (that followed/overlapped with the English Civil War) are about the anger that has not gone away. So, here’s an angle: poems about things that are really about the need for progressive politics. Hardly unique and a bit of a mouthful, but we’re getting there.

‘I will now read a long sonnet sequence about myself’


 
I also write poems about poems and other writers. Could there be a worse sentence in the English language? (Yes, there can be, for instance, ‘I will now read a long sonnet sequence about myself’). But I like poems and I am interested in writers, particularly the ones gone before us or forgotten. And I am interested in how poems work on us, so I have written about how Walter de la Mare’s poem ‘Won’t’ was still able to make my mum nearly cry fifty years after she first read it to me, and how Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘Why Brownlee Left’ caught me unawares thirty five years ago and changed my life. And I’ve written obliquely about the writers of Kyiv, because I was moved and interested in how they worked through such terrible times. So let’s say, a sub-angle is I write poems about how poetry has done its work.

And the blue, blue sky of my childhood.



Mentioning Kyiv brings me back to what perhaps holds so many poems in place, which is place. It’s not capriciousness that drove me to include a Gazetteer: I wanted to not only name places but to locate them exactly (with a grid reference if need be). I am of Didcot, my home town. And I am of the Downs (the Berkshire Downs which became the South Oxfordshire Downs in the local government re-organisation of 1974, as you doubtless already knew). I am of the Vale of the White Horse and the River Thames and Wittenham Clumps and the view of Oxford from the Ridgeway. I am certainly of the Ridgeway, England’s oldest road. These physical places become metaphorical, of course, and also place me in terms of my class (I was brought up in a working class household) and my position in my country. Which is why A Commonplace has as its cover art the wonderful painting, The Industrial Henge by Anna Dillon of the late Didcot Power Station (may it rest in peace), the Downs above it and the Vale beyond. And the blue, blue sky of my childhood. 

So here’s my angle: I come from a Common Place.   

Universal Place-Makers: Mick North & Catherine Byron

These reviews first appeared in The North (No. 63, Winter 2019), a subscription to which is recommended.

Observant readers will note that the books reviewed below were originally published several decades ago. Do not be afraid, for these are books that have ‘come through’. And although they are currently (inexplicably) unavailable, the hunt for second-hand copies will sharpen the appetite and, worse comes to worse, you can get in touch and I’ll negotiate with the authors for digital release of facsimiles.

The Pheasant Plucker’s Son, Mick North, 45pp, £5, 1990, Littlewood + Arc (available from Arc Publications), Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Road, Todmorden, OL14 6DA

Settlements, Catherine Byron, 47pp, £3.75, 1985 (Second Edition, 1987), Taxus Press (out of print).

Mick North’s The Pheasant Plucker’s Son is predominantly a book about place and his relationship with it. It happens to be the north, his home city of Lancaster and its environs, but it could have been anywhere. He doesn’t claim any exceptionalism about his home country. He could have found much of the same material if he’d grown up in other parts of the world. As an example, the opening poem, ‘Jinny Greenteeth’, which purports to be about how children are given a very local canal-side health and safety warning c/o a legend, is actually about the gloomier waters of impending adulthood. Place, of course, is so often people and there are a number of sharp poems about the islands people are. Here’s the opening to ‘Bob’:

Silly bugger slid off the barn roof once
and dropped in the midden-heap.
Simple as a smack on the head –
head a mess of coal-black curls,
a beard like a rook’s nest,
his voice a squeeze-box with a hole in:
Mi mam’s asleep on the floor,
she a’nt unbolted the door yet …

The biography is completed in the remaining stanzas and makes for a poignant but also angry story. In fact, his poems are so often half-way to becoming the sort of stories carried by folk songs; finding us the original character who inspired the verse and chorus.

Mick North has a wonderful eye and ear for unadorned detail and for what such detail represents. The final lines of ‘Dogs and Bitches’ are very funny:

                                    Dog’s not so true
to mi whistle, dog’ll not jump through
a gate – guz round. Bitch’ll skip er arse
through nice as you like, but dog’s too
feared e’ll catch iz dooins on them bars.

But mostly the detail is edged with, if not bitterness then, at least ruefulness. Here’s an example from a poem in a sequence about his father:

2. The Finger

You were always your shift’s First-Aider:
St John’s Ambulance classes every year
to keep your hand in, Rescue Team member
(formed after the chimney fell), blood-donor –
hardly a day off sick yourself until
the hollow bone of your finger-end cracked
like a shell, caught between two barrels.

The poem finishes, of course, rightly and brilliantly, with a reference to what working people physically gave to earn their daily bread. Class is clear and important and dangerous.

The title poem, knots together the dependency of the land-less rural poor with the sometime brutality of factory life and finishes with a masterly echo of the First World War:

Between Stott’s Wood and the river
the guns staked out. Beaters crackle
in the thicket on the first drive.

The poem ‘Land’ is this book’s masterpiece. It is all about who owns the ground we stand on. And who exploits the resources. And who’s paying the price. It is as powerful and angry now as it was when it was written probably 35 years ago. It asks a series of questions about the state of the very local world of north Lancashire and offers tart, universal replies. Here’s an example:

Who taught the fox
to prowl the rusty bracken
where dusk draws fire from his pelt?

Who gave the leather
for the tackle, boots and belt?

They will answer you
with unbridled market forces
and a fine tradition of breeding horses.

Its final stanza breaks the fourth wall:

Do not listen to their answers.
Do not accept their judgement of a sod’s worth.
Do not let the wicked inherit the earth.

Mick North’s collection, The Pheasant Plucker’s Son, was until a recent surge in interest still available from a descendent of its original publishers and at the original price. It’s worth a lot more.

There is a register of language in Catherine Byron’s Settlements, first published in 1985, that still feels all her own. The cover illustration – a drawing by Catherine of an ancient Irish passage grave – is neutral in its exactness, but taken at a slight distance looks almost gynaecological and certainly redolent of what’s at work beneath the surface. An early poem in the collection, ‘GRAVE SONG’, [caps as per publication] picks up the theme. Here are the first two of its three verses:

GRAVE SONG

They are going to tidy the burial mounds
some day soon, say when I’m into
my second century. All that felting
of stem and leaf they’ll cut away,
those alleys for small creatures, stringy
cloches for coaxing seeds of tare.

My own seeds continue to ripen.
They fall through red juices slowly.
Shoots and persistent fibres split
my intent closure, they are expectant
always, always pressing their future
into and through my buried core.

The poet is the poem, in this instance, and to link thousand-year-old graves with the possibility of making new life is a bold act of imagination, underpinned by detail.

So much of her work comes from not only precise observation of detail – and by gum she has looked at things and listened and enquired – but an ability, or the nerve, to inhabit that detail. This from ‘BEACHCOMBING’, for instance:

On the blanched strand I await
the rite of the tide’s contraction
and its delivery. Among
the jetsam placing cold
feet with care on the tideline
I span the liquid confluence
            of sand and sea.

What it is to be a woman, particularly coming from a country with an uncomfortable relationship with feminism, occupies so many of these poems. When they were written particularly, this must have come as a very healthy corrective to a largely male Irish literary tradition.

And it is so much about Ireland, particularly Galway. In a sequence called ‘GALWAY’, a series of stories are simply told. Here’s the opening to her poem ‘The Black and Tans deliver her cousin’s son. Galway 1921’:

Didn’t she step out into the yard
God love her
and see her own son’s brains
scattered like mash about the flags?

Again, it’s the detail, the cold-stored detail that holds our heads under the water, ‘like mash’: so everyday, so apt, so awful.

The book closes with a sequence, ‘DRIVING INTO THE PAST’, which hones-in on Catherine’s autobiography. These feel like companion pieces or alternatives to some of Seamus Heaney’s work (and there is some work to be done about the contrast about how these two poets wrote in response to Ireland), particularly the title poem of the sequence set on a road going west. Here’s the final stanzas:

… lost for the moment
on the skinned levels
of granite hills

sunk in the moss
of stiffened summers gone
I gaze finally west

on the haze that is ocean.
I gaze on a backlit dawn.

Catherine’s work may be back-lit but it still speaks very clearly to contemporary minds. And beyond everything else, these are raw, sharp, beautiful poems that will give pleasure and instruction to the thoughtful reader.

Settlements has long been out of print, although there are previously enjoyed copies available ‘out there’. You’ll just have to hunt them down. It will be fun. Recordings of some of these poems are available from The Poetry Archive.

Why this review was written & a declaration of connection

I met Catherine Byron in the 1980s when she was running a poetry writing course for the Workers’ Education Association in Leicester. She both encouraged me to write and introduced me to many interesting poets. We lost contact for a while but I got back in touch a few years ago and we have have exchanged letters and e-mails. Mick North I also met in the 1980s when I heard him read his poetry. I didn’t see or hear of him for years then bumped into him in Carlisle through some research I was doing into literature activity in the area. Then I lost track of him again but we have been in contact in the last year. In both cases, these are poets who inspired and encouraged me when I was young. I have had cause to re-read their early work and I like it very much and I want others to notice how good it is and for it to be remembered. I have included a poem each by Catherine and Mick in my book A Commonplace. I offered them money for the rights. They said no thanks, you’re alright. And so we are, we are alright.

Putting the kettle on…

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. 

The poems are in effect a series of ‘unseen comprehensions’, as likely to generate misery as pleasure.


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. 

I put the kettle on and get out the digestives and we settle down for some quiet reading and some comradely conversation.


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.  

Linking Arms

I have been thinking about how poetry is presented, and in particular how books are composed and assembled. I have a new collection coming out (A Commonplace, Smith|Doorstop, August 2020), and I’ve spent the last two years putting it together. But I’ve done things differently this time. One of the major changes from previous books is that the poems featured are not just my own. I took a look at how I lived with poetry and concluded that as my writing was a product of my reading it made sense to include some poems by poets I admired and that I had been inspired by, alongside my own poems. There are a dozen, including two translations. 

It is going to be confusing, particularly for any reviewer who likes to review the poet as much as the poetry.


The downside of including other people’s poems is that this rules me out of most book prizes (which are typically for collections by a single author) but I comfort myself with the knowledge that on past performance I would be very unlikely to win anything anyway. And reviewers, if there are any, will have to review not just my poems but those by others and, indeed, might need to consider which poems I have selected and how I have placed them in the book. It is going to be confusing, particularly for any reviewer who likes to review the poet as much as the poetry. The upside is readers have more than just my voice to entertain them, and if we are concerned for poetry readers – the silent minority – then this might be a good idea. It has cost me a bob or two in some cases to buy the rights, but this has been money well spent, and many of the poems have been given gratis for which I am grateful.

 
Considering the wider implications, it strikes me that to offer a work of literature that is predominately by one individual but accompanied by others is pushing against orthodoxy. The orthodox view, as you will know, is that poetry is about an individual writing poems and sharing them with the world and being praised, criticised or ignored. The sum of all they receive – the praise, criticism or silence – is then considered a measure of the individual’s worth. As a result, for all the friendliness of the poetry world – and things rarely get sorted out in the car-park – it is an art-form that offers many opportunities for people to be weighed, measured and found wanting. Competitions have winners (and a few runners up); reviews praise – or sometimes criticise – a few, while ignoring most; magazines reject far more poems than they accept.

 
Well, many will say this is how the best poetry must find its place in the firmament, and I certainly do need mechanisms to help me choose the poems I spend my disposable time reading. And creating a limited supply of poems deemed to be ‘the best’ and releasing them into the market place for their worth to be further increased certainly helps with monetisation of the product, a necessity if the ‘poetry-industrial complex’ is to continue as the dark throbbing heart of the sector… At its best good poets receive due reward, but at its worst other good poets find themselves at the receiving end of silence, not quite having the combination of vim and vigour to be taken up by the market.

By community I mean all poets who have come before us (from whatever age) and that we have read, as well as those with whom we live in close quarter.


Perhaps we should focus slightly less on individual excellence and should more frequently declare that it takes a whole poetry community to write a poem (or a collection of poems). By community I mean all poets who have come before us (from whatever age and culture) and that we have read, as well as those with whom we are presently bonded. The increasing amounts of space devoted to ‘thanks’ at the backs of poetry books suggests I am not alone in thinking this. But giving thanks to friends and neighbours only goes so far. I hope that those of us fortunate enough to be published (and publication is a scarce resource: the space I take is thus denied to others) will increasingly look around and ask if there are poets with whom we should link arms as we cross the finish line of publication.

  
In A Commonplace I am linking arms with some poets who are old friends and some who are new friends. I am linking arms with some who are ‘high-profile’ and some who will have been almost entirely forgotten. I am linking arms with poets who have died and with poets who are only available to me in translation. Many of the poets I link arms with have no connection with me other than that their poetry has become part of the ‘poetry commonwealth’ by which I get inspired. I came to them by reading widely and by reading particularly those whose names were not often mentioned in dispatches. In A Commonplace they get mentioned, thanked and some of their poems get (re-)published. It is the least I can do. So, whatever success the book might have, sadly/happily, I will not be able to claim it as only my own, but at least I will not be on my own.  

Image credit: Family with Ten Children (1955), Jacques Stevens, Gooi & Vecht Historical Museum, reproduced under the Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hearing Voices

I don’t usually ask friends and neighbours – and even my daughter – to make audio recordings of my poems, but I was sick of the sound of my own voice. I thought it would be fun to hear what other people made of my work and I would at least have proof that someone had actually read these rather lonely poems. It was fun, but it was also rather unnerving. A poem spoken out loud, without a master or mistress to guide it, is alone in the world and in want of friends. It is likely to be judged only for what it is, a decorated ribbon of sound flung into the silence.

I did it anyway, or they did, more than half a dozen of them so far. The results are oddly moving, for me at least. It turns out that the self-directed reader looks simply to find sense and sound to guide their reading. The poems that were best understood seemed to be those read with the greatest relish, although all the – more than twenty – recordings made so far are full of energy. And the poems that had a shape in terms of sound – perhaps a pattern on the page that could become a pattern in the air – found themselves placed with most confidence into the ether.

Naturally enough, each reader found their own version of my voice, which was – not surprisingly – their voice. Perhaps influenced by a turn of phrase or a register of language, they channelled my wry irony or sad joy through their own voice. They made my poem their poem, just as I had made so many poems by other poets my own through speaking them. And where a line was delivered with a little uncertainty, this came across not as an imperfection but a gorgeous affirmation that these were words in the mouths of people.

“The poems had had no choice but to simply present themselves as they were, words as naked as the day they were written.”

Despite having misgivings about my own choice of words or even about a poem in its entirety – what was I thinking of, who on earth would find this of value – I grew to properly know and at times even quite like the words I heard. How strange, to have to give them to others to properly appreciate them myself. And without my duplicitous performance style, the poems had had no choice but to simply present themselves as they were, words as naked as the day they were written.  

Some poems worked better than I had imagined, the reader hitting just the right note in their delivery and finding what I had hardly known was there. Other poems revealed themselves, at least for the moment, to be not quite robust enough to withstand a reading, by me or anyone. Readers who noticed the line endings and punctuation but also sensed the underlying structure had the easiest time of it, but if these were missed then I only had myself to blame.

Surprisingly, the greatest satisfaction was to hear pleasure in a reader’s voice as they waltzed, ambled or strode through my lines. Certainly, the concentration was so much greater, I would suggest, than that of a reader pouring silently over a page, head nodding, eyelids heavy. They released my words as if they were important, and perhaps for those few minutes and for those readers important they were.   

Recordings of some of my poems from A Commonplace (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) are in The Everyday Reader section of this website. My grateful thanks to all those who so kindly gave their time to make my words their own.

If you fancy recording any of the poems of mine in A Commonplace then I would be very pleased to include them in the project. You’ll have purchased a copy of the book by now, of course…

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