“So how is that different from prose?” a poetry friend of mine often whispers to me at readings, with a mixture of bafflement and indignation. Although appreciative of both rhymed and unrhymed verse, he laments the decline of set rhythm and formal structures in poetry. For him, the rhythmic quality of poetry is its defining feature: remove that, and you might as well call anything – a short story, your diary entry, your shopping list – a “poem”.
I don’t always entirely agree with him, either about the particular poem we have just heard lacking rhythm (I often quote T.S. Eliot’s dictum about the importance of writing “in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”, but he doesn’t like Eliot much, either, so that doesn’t help) or about rhythm in general being the touchstone of poetry, but I do think he’s got a point. In both spoken word and “literary” poetry, while the removal of the straitjacket of established form has enabled a pioneering of new structures and an unfettered creativity in the best poets, it has also ushered in a certain amount of laziness and self-indulgence among their less talented peers (including, probably, me). I admire people who regularly submit to the discipline of a set formal structure and do it well, as I think it’s a lot harder than let-it-all-hang-out, anything-goes vers libre. I also value his contribution to that age-old debate: how do you define poetry?
When asked how I define it, I usually go for a fuzzy cop-out, along the lines of “a form of writing where how it has been said matters even more than the subject matter or where the language choices and devices form an integral part of the work’s meaning. If you can paraphrase it without losing something, it’s not a poem.” Mind you, even by that, you would have thought, catch-all standard, a lot of “poems” fall through the net. My two pet peeves at the moment are (1) piss-poor spoken word “poems” which are actually prosaic sociopolitical speeches or personal misery memoirs in disguise and which seem to attract an unmeritedly enthusiastic response from audiences because they sympathise with the subject matter, not because of the way it has been said, which isn’t interesting, at all. (2) “poems” in literary journals which are actually flash fiction pieces, randomly broken into short lines. There seems to be a craze at present in some quarters for pieces which have a strong narrative, told very concisely, with a surprising twisty-twist at the end. And those, apparently, are the only requirements. You can use the most banal, clicheed, tediously monoguous language you like, because it doesn’t matter – certain editors will still be all over your piece.
And, yes, I know I’m probably missing something in both these cases – possibly the primacy of performance skills, emotional impact and forging a relationship with your audience, in the former, and the narrative control and skill involved in what is not said in the latter.
People frequently tell me I am too wordy, that I work the language too much and that I stuff my poems to the seams with extravagant puns and (often mixed) metaphors like an embargo is about to come in and I have to create a stash while I can (see what I mean?). The watchwords for a lot of modern poetry are concision and precision. People who have been on proper creative writing courses keep telling me to “distil” or “condense”, “cut it right back”. Or, as that poem by Gösta Ågren (or perhaps it’s Tomas Transtromer???) that I can’t quite remember sort of says, scour off everything that’s extraneous, then the poem is finished. And I do see the value in that – a lot of modern poetry has the clean, minimalist elegance of sushi or expensive Scandinavian furniture and I can definitely admire that. I just can’t write it myself. And it makes me feel like I’m 15 again, back in my ‘O’ level English class, being made to do a boring precis, when I’d rather be doing “creative writing” or reading a book. I embroider, rather than whittle down. Does that make me a bad poet? Or is there room for fussy Victorian puddings, as well as sushi, on the poetic dinner table? Overstuffed fauteuils, as well as Carl Hansen chairs, in poetry’s front room?
I think, though, that we all have our own favourite Spice Girls in the poetic devices pop group. Hip-hop poets admire clever puns, ingenious multiple rhymes and fast rhythms; Craig Raine’s thing always used to be defamiliarisation (before he started writing embarrassing poems about how not being allowed to grope airline staff anymore is political correctness gone mad).
I have a particular weakness for ambiguity and I must admit, when I hear or read a poem which says one thing and one thing only, in utterly opaque language, without even the merest whiff of double entendre, subtext or symbolic alternative reading, I do sometimes think, “How is that different from prose?”