MA Creative Writing, Week One: I Need To Understand Poetry

It’s 4.10, Sunday afternoon, and I’m finishing the work I have set for my first proper seminars of the course. I have one chapter left to read (I thought I’d finished all the reading for this week, but a quick check of my schedule yesterday revealed that was not the case), and two small tasks for my first workshop.

I’m not too worried about the reading. I’ve been sitting in cafés and the university library making diligent notes on Marianne Moore (‘i think i get this – no what’) and Plato (‘is this ironic???’), and I think I’m getting the hand of it. The problem is those two little tasks for the workshop. Task the first, I need to find a recent poem that I have written which could be considered ‘representative of my style of writing’. I spent a fair while yesterday opening and closing poems on my computer, and eventually put the task off until today. I am mortified by the thought of showing my writing to a class of poets, especially as the ones I’ve heard read so far are really, really good. I’m aware that I’m going to have to get over this fairly soon, but at the moment it feels like a bit of a hurdle. I’m puppy-natured; I always want to please, and if I think someone is displeased with me, I have to resist the urge to hide. At the moment, I’m veering between a kind of extreme, out-going confidence and this sheer terror, meaning I have spent half the week socialising, showing off and dancing around campus, and the other half lying in dead silence on my bed, waiting for my landlady to go out so that I can make a cup of tea without another human seeing me. This is probably not normal.

Task the second, I have to write a short paragraph (I’m thinking three sentences) answering the question, ‘What can poetry do?’ The original aim of this blog post was to answer this question (and so trick myself into doing the task). I seem to have got sidetracked.

So. What can poetry do?

This feels like a trick question.

It feels like the answer should be clever. It should talk about metaphors and language, about form and structure, about syntax and connection between reader/writer and verse through history. It’s a miniature ars poetica.

During the second year of my degree, our poetry class had to look at a whole load of statements from poets about what poetry meant to them, or what they thought poetry could do, and most of those statements went along the lines of ‘Poetry is the whirlwind eye of the vortex, that concentrates nebulas of verbs along the paradigm shift of historical thinking.’ And this really irritated me. You needed degree-level reading experience to get all the meaning and flavour out of these quotes, but basically it boiled down to ‘poetry is clever and beautiful’. If I was at a conference, I know which of those sentences would make me sit up and listen to the speaker. The irritant, however, was not that I thought the longer, wordier sentence pretentious or convoluted (even if I did), but that I found it exclusionary. We talk about poetry in this special language reserved for lit critics and academics. Not just poetry: anything we class as ‘high-brow literature’. And it creates this barricade between people who have had the advantage of education – which often comes from a background of advantage of ethnicity, gender, class or physical ability – and people who haven’t. Then we compound the problem by teaching poetry badly in schools, so young people are unable to access poetry itself, let alone get far enough with it to realise that there’s a huge chunk of academia which will look down on them and set impossibly high barriers for entry in order to keep poetry and other ‘high-brow’ arts exclusive.

I’m not saying this is the standard across academia; there is a lot of good education and good educators out there; there are changing attitudes and progressive thinkers. But this is the stuff we have to push through, this is the attitude behind half the articles I have to read and, frankly, a lot of the poetry I have to read too.

And this brings me back to the question of what poetry can ‘do’. to do: the ultimate active word; the word implying change and motion and achievement. If an art or a discipline or any thinking, creative space is boxed in and made exclusive it is out of fear of what that art can DO – how it can change and challenge the Establishment, perhaps even itself.

So here are some things that poetry does.

  • It is a social marker and a vehicle for our cultural memories and identity. It is You’ll Be a Man and the Song of Solomon and Footprints in the Sand and For the Fallen and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Verse, as far as I’m aware, pre-dates any other form of literature; it certain pre-dates the novel, and studies of isolated cultures suggest that oral traditions, including songs and poems, have been a core part of community life and heritage since the dawn of civilisation. It binds together what is important to us and preserves it, and even as it disintegrates in time it leaves words and phrases and ideas lodged in our language and our beliefs.
  • It makes ‘deep stuff’ accessible and acceptable. Poetry has a weird and complex relationship with emotion – at some points in history, anything less that complete objectivity (ha) would have seemed a misuse of its Masculine Nobleness etc – but at this point, 21st century, poetry seems to be associated with sentiment, and intimacy. Plato might not have approved, but it makes poetry a useful tool for therapy and personal development. Poetry workshops are taught in schools and pupil referral units, festivals and prisons, youth clubs and care homes. It can enable people to confront issues they are otherwise unable to talk about; it can help build group bonds; it can encourage mental well-being and activity. Although this aspect of poetry isn’t talked about in the classrooms, poetry is and has always been a pragmatic art. Intriguingly, although most poets and teachers of poetry have to make their living by engaging with this kind of education, there seems to be a separation between this ‘pragmatic poetry’ and our kind of poetry: we talk about the first in Guardian health columns, and the second between the sheets of Poetry Review, and it’s a shame, because the work done for the former is so, so good.
  • It gives voices to the voiceless – and more importantly, provides a really good excuse to get their voices heard. There are books of poetry, often self-published or from small presses, which celebrate minorities, underprivileged groups, and causes which aren’t fashionable enough to break into the mainstream media. With its ability to stir emotion as well as thought, this is a game changing activity. There are some amazing collections out there; I have found writing about bereavement, about sexuality, about drug addiction, about the importance of father hood, about Jeremy Corbyn and why he should win the election. Every time I find something like this my heart skips. I use this argument to remind myself why I’m doing a master’s in writing instead of trying to solve world poverty (as in. use the field you’re good at to do some good). I also use this argument to explain why I’m not working in finance. 

I suspect this is not the answer I am meant to give, because this week’s reading has been about finding truth within poetry, and so I am probably meant to talk about the ‘insides’ of poetry – the forms, the content, the language. I have a back-up answer based on rhyming couplets for this scenario. But maybe I’ll talk about poetry as social action anyway, because even if it turns out that poetry doesn’t have some instinctive structural relationship with truth, it does for the young offenders who participated in this projector the dementia sufferers working with the Living Words projectPoetry lets the scared and wordless and shy and sick share the truth of their lives. 

And that is definitely worth talking about.