Poets and Politics

January 31, 2012 § 8 Comments

Our discussions about narrative in the previous post has got me thinking about the social role of poetry.  There has been lots around about this lately, mainly at the social control end of the spectrum (Michael Gove and Vladimir Putin each having a go at that old chestnut the ‘canon’).

How does the poet respond to all this?  How does his or her political stance in relation to the world influence what he or she produces?  I ask because I’ve just read an old essay about Lorca which asks the same question – albeit in a different, more dangerous, setting to current education agendas.*  In it, Manuel Duran argues that Lorca – unlike Mayakovsky or Steinbeck – ‘does not depend on social movements for his place in history’, but instead tries ‘to hold himself aloof from history, or to encompass all of history, which amounts to the same thing.’  This, Duran says, is not an abrogation of social responsibility: Lorca wishes to describe, to bear witness, to suffering.  ‘It is this breadth of sympathy and imagination that makes Lorca a “democratic” poet, a universal poet, rather than any determined historical commitment on his part’.

I think poets are the products of their social as well as their personal experiences; and that, as a result, the poetry they produce is all political in some sense or another.  Poetry isn’t a polemical form of writing: it observes.  Equally, though, it chooses (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) the camera angle, the lighting, and who gets the best lines.

*Manuel Duran, Lorca: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice-Hall, 1962), p13.



January 19, 2012 § 8 Comments

In a workshop I went to a couple of years ago, Michael Schmidt was asked about the role of narrative in contemporary poetry.  He made it pretty clear that, in his view, it didn’t have one – at least, as an organising principle.  Form and image were at the centre of poetry.

As someone who considers narrative as an important, vitalising element of poetry, this was unsettling.  A lot of my work was – and is – organised around ‘stories’: the Sheffield Flood, the second Iraq War, the death of Lorca.

The problem with narrative, I think, derives from the belief that its role in poetry represents a response to the world which has long been recognised as inadequate – that is, unable to express or engage with our modern, fractured experience.  Making sense of the world, in other words, imposes meaning and definition and is therefore necessarily reductive.

This indicates certain assumptions.  Firstly, that narrative defines a certain, irrevocable trajectory: two roads diverging in a wood and all that; and secondly, that this assemblage of experience into meaning is simplistic.

Which brings me back to what I think, in retrospect, is a strange dichotomy: that of form and image against narrative: the moment or the motive.   Perhaps Frost’s subject in ‘The Road Not Taken’ can be seen as the limitation of narrative in poetry (as much as an exploration of his own predicaments); but it might equally affirm that narrative can work centrifugally, opening up and out: the speaker encourages us to consider alternative paths, even as they are put out of reach.

Just as there might be alternative paths away from a moment, so narrative structures might offer a plurality of ways into a subject.  I am thinking here of the sequence or series – each of which provides opportunities to come at a theme or subject from several angles through an approach in which linearity is subsumed by composition.  Heaney’s ‘Singing School’, for example, travels in all directions.  There is a linear structure; but moving out and back, with the sequence form both allowing for and emphasising difference (in form and subject), it creates a composition, multilayered but allusive, as the speaker tracks his development as a poet within the social, cultural and political contexts of Ulster.  What emerges is a telling which is as rich and resonant as it is full of mutter and ‘act[s] of stealth’.  Significantly, he refers to Joyce, whose work surely compels us to recognise narrative as a relevant device – not only for prose, but also for poetry.  Ulysses, in my view, remains the pre-eminent poem in contemporary literature.

Not PC

January 5, 2012 § 4 Comments

Here’s a sobering admission.  When my computer bombed on Christmas Eve, any thoughts about the ensuing calm (after all, too much of my working life is spent shackled to the machine) were drowned out by the insistent feeling that what I’d hoped would be a spell of creativity depended on access to a keyboard.

Well, it wasn’t that bad.  I read a bit more: Mahon, Lorca, George Mackay Brown; The North; even got through a couple of things in the LRB…

But as to the job of writing poetry, it simply confirmed my suspicions: having written (and developed my writing) for several years on screen, I lack the ability to produce anything much at all on paper.

This seems at odds with the idea of the poet as maker – the notion that the physical production of language ‘drawn’ by hand onto a resistant surface is an integral part of the process.  Certainly, the mechanics of this has been for many  an important element in creating poetry – the rhythm of the hand, and the limitations on production, supporting the cadences of uttered language and encouraging an emphasis on process and deliberation.

Mechanics, however, is partly where I come unstuck.  Handwriting over the years, I have developed repetitive stress to the extent that, when writing, my forefinger forces itself up and away from my pen, leaving a barely legible clump of words and a pain in my elbow which keeps me awake at night.

This affects all aspects of the process: in inhibiting the physical action of writing (indeed, in making it painful), it also undermines the associated benefits of eliciting rhythm; and while it certainly allows for deliberation, it leads too often to frustration.  Revision and editing requires not only care and attention; it also depends on access to a ready way of replacing old marks with new ones.

For me, this is where the keyboard comes in.  There are inherent dangers.  The ability (improving every year) to produce clear, elegant script in Helvetica or Calibri is seductive; and simply organising words into lines of a certain length can produce something that looks like poetry.

This is when the importance of reading out loud – always key to creating poetry – becomes crucial.  Making poetry starts with sound, not on page or screen.  Whichever way we choose to write, we have to create first with the voice and the ear.

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