Everyone knows the dictum of the mediaeval poet John Lydgate: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” The trouble is, even though it’s impossible, I want to. And sometimes that leads to my ending up pleasing nobody.
I try to juggle page poetry and spoken word, and within each art form, I try to juggle comic and non-comic verse (I say “non-comic”, rather than serious, because I agree with something Wendy Cope once said about it being a mistake to divide poetry into funny and serious, as many funny poems are saying something serious beneath the humour). I am by no means unique in this – several spoken word artists, including Sally Jenkinson, John Osborne and Clare Ferguson-Walker, were published in the more prestigious poetry journals before building performance careers; T.S.Eliot (to whom I am not , of course, trying to compare myself in any other sense) wrote both The Waste Land and Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats. I am, however, finding it increasingly hard.
My biggest problem is that I am far too prone to viewing any success I might achieve with my poetry as a compensation for numerous failures in my personal life. Put simply, I desperately want audiences to love me, because nobody else does. When they don’t love me, or when they appear to love one or more of the other poets I am appearing with much more, I feel crushed. And, as no amount of love is enough to fill the void, I want ALL AUDIENCES to love me, regardless of their age, background or taste in poetry.
When I first came back to poetry after a twenty-year break, I concentrated mainly on traditional, Pam Ayresy-style comic verse and I immediately had a lot of success with it. I won light verse competitions with very little effort; when I performed to middle-aged, grassroots audiences, I was usually their favourite performer of the event. Even then, a nagging sense of dissatisfaction set in – there was often a lover of “serious” poetry in the audience who visibly turned up their nose at my work, refused to clap or said something cuttingly backhanded to me afterwards and, even though I knew they were a lone voice in a sea of love, even though I thought (and still do think) they were a pretentious snob who failed to appreciate the difficulty and skill involved in producing good light verse, it bothered me that I didn’t have their approval. I was already working on “serious” free verse alongside the rhymed comic poetry, but their distaste pushed me to work harder at it.
And then I thought I’d try a young, urban slam and had the shock of my life when my “populist” poetry was not at all popular with the audience there. They had as little love for highbrow page poetry as the middle-aged grassroots audiences I’d been slaying, but they also found traditional light verse embarrassingly trite, amateurish and so last century. They preferred looser, less regular, more rappy rhythm and rhyme schemes, only liked humorous poems if they were surreal, edgy, deeply personal or dark, and sometimes hated all comic poetry – they wanted intense, serious poems about social issues or psychological torment. I started to change the way I wrote to please them.
I had some success on both fronts: I’ve now had poems published in a raft of reputable poetry journals (but have still not managed to graze the most prestigious, a fact which causes me immense pain, even though I don’t even like any of the poetry that some of them publish and I rate the journals that are publishing me higher) and have also won or been placed in major slams and been booked for feature slots at leading spoken word nights in the South West. I know how lucky I have been and am immensely grateful for what success I have had. And you all know there’s a “but” coming….
…because there is. Although I’ve done creditably in both, I’ve not done as well in either page poetry or spoken word as I’d have liked, but I seem to have lost my popular touch with the I-don’t-know-much-about-poetry-but-I-do-know-what-I-like kinds of audiences I used to have in the palm of my hand. I feel that, in trying to please absolutely everybody on the planet, I’ve ended up not really pleasing anybody.
“A-ha!” you’re all saying (and not in the sense of the Norwegian pop band). “That’s because you’re courting success, rather than putting your art first! Audiences can smell a lack of authenticity. Write the kind of poetry you really WANT to write and forget about what audiences want.”
But I’m not actually being as cold-blooded, formulaic and calculating about this as it may sound. I have never attempted to write in a style I didn’t really, really like. I write eclectically because I read/listen eclectically. And I do put myself in my poems – spoken word has got me to open up about my darkest secrets in my poetry in a way I never had the confidence to do before and has consequently had an immeasurably positive effect on my mental health. It’s honestly not the case that I am producing hollow, inauthentic, fashion-driven husks of poems.
I’m not sure if the problem is that I’m now producing a Frankenstein genre of poetry, with elements of all the styles I like, but not close enough to any of them to please real devotees. Or whether the painful truth I am trying hard to avoid here is that I’m just not that good.