There’s Theory and Lit-Crit but How do I Get Started?
In the end it’s you and your poem. You can write about anything you wish. No subject is beyond poetics. No subject is in or out of bounds, too vulgar, lowly or inconsequential for poetry. There have been attempts to ban poetry, even in the England of the nineteen eighties, when the British poet Tony Harrison wrote passionately and condemningly about the useless of war. He did so using very vernacular language, a kind of poetic two-fingered approach to his art.
But if you really want to write poetry then you should be reading it. Lots. You’ll notice if your reading is widespread, that no word is too sacred or inappropriate to be used in a poem. Sometimes in writing groups I meet people (mostly women) who frown on a poet’s need to use Anglo-Saxon words or the way a poet uses terms to do with excretion or sex or both. ‘Why did s/he have to write about that?‘ they puff, disgusted. They often wrongly assume that the poet is trying to draw attention to themselves, attention-seeking. This is usually unfair, and as a judgement on what poets are about demonstrates that some would-be writers are themselves very much in the stranglehold of prurient attitudes. But most poets do not choose to use bad language in the way a child is determined to be naughty. Poets do not want to cause raised eyebrows for the sake of it, but they do of course profoundly wish that their readers might engage in the dialogue a poem sometimes raises. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Act of Imagination is a point in question and I quote from it in full:
Under the Act, the following things may be
Prosecuted for appalling the Imagination.
Ten More Years.
A dog playing Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’.
The pyjamas of Tax Inspectors.
The Beef Tapework (Taenia Saginata).
Picking someone else’s nose.
The Repatriation Charter.
The men. The Crucifix. The nails.
The sound of the neighbours having sex.
The Hanging Lobby.
Bedtime with Nancy and Ron.
The sweet smell of success.
A camel’s jobby.
and on. And on. And on.
Eating the weakest survivor.
A small hard lump.
Going as Lady Godiva.
A parachute jump.
Homeless and down to a fiver.
Here is a space to fill in things you suggest.
Read with an open mind. You may not like certain poetic styles, much in the same way you dislike the personality ‘style’ of certain people you meet. But detachment and objectivity are important when it comes to examining poetic subjects and language. Poetry is not the place to focus moralistic (as opposed to ‘moral’, something in a philosophically different league) judgements. This is important. Furthermore, if you take a look at the essays and reviews contained in most poetry journals, you will see that the critical appraisal of poetry by other practitioners and critics provides a sense of what is happening in poetry right now. It is not the place for intellectual timidity, but a forum for fiercely held discourse, for poetic rivalry (for sure), but mostly this is conducted out of a sense of commitment to poetry and only poetry.
You will also observe how the world of poetry is comprised of little groups and sub-groups and that certain poet-reviewers revel in taking a critical swipe at some other recently published poet who may be a rival. A lot of the rivalry and in-fighting within the world of poetry derives largely from its circumscribed status as a sub-culture of a society where business, commerce and technology are valued by the majority. Some newspapers allow poets from a specific poetry publisher to review other poets from that same publisher. This is, of course, nepotistic and to any such review cannot be taken seriously, because anything a ‘same-house’ poet writes about a fellow poet is automatically disingenuous, if not intellectually corrupt. On the other hand, some poetry journals publish a particular ‘type’ of poem, and it’s fair to say that most journals reflect editorial tastes. Sometimes, you will find that what is rejected by one journal will be accepted by another. This isn’t always the case, of course. Sometimes people submit work which is rubbish and expect editors to be delighted by it. Not so. Most editors are editing poetry journals on a part-time basis. They are hard-working individuals who want to see a number of things when they open submissions: a poem typed and signed, for one thing, with perhaps a brief paragraph of biographical information included, and they refuse to reply to writers who do not include a stamped, addressed envelope. Some journals take e-mail submissions, but many do not. You can enquire.
What I often notice about some beginning writers is how lazy they can be about finding things out for themselves. They want an immediate list of addresses so that they can send their poems or stories straight off. They wonder about where things get published, yet all they have to do is buy a copy of the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook. This is a thick volume of addresses, including the addresses of agents, newspapers, magazines, journals, reviews. It also outlines in a number of erudite articles how to go about submitting material, how to approach agents/publishers/the media in general. It is, as they say, indispensable to anyone who is serious about conducting their own career as a writer. Nobody else is going to work on your poems but you. Nobody else is going to post your work off. You have to be prepared to make the time to do this properly.
You must also make the time to actually write as well. Every time you put aside an hour or two for writing, you are taking a stand in favour of your imaginative processes. This may not matter to some people but it matters enormously to others. If you can, write every day, not just to get the work done, but to keep the processes of poetry alive in your head. Remember, once you begin to write poetry, or indeed anything else of a creative nature, you are allowing the streams of inspiration, creativity, the previously dammed routes between your soul and the world, to surface and flow. If you do not stay in touch, they will become dammed up again. For that reason and that alone, it is important to stay in regular contact with whatever you are working on.
There are periods when it is impossible to write. That’s okay. It really is. Think of it as a period of lying fallow. Even when you are not writing, life is happening to you and around you and in you. Something is happening, even if you are not aware of this.
There’s something to be said about knowing and understanding why you write. Is it to stay sane? To make money? Is it therapy? Is it a hobby which could equally be yoga or scuba-diving, because you have a little time to spare and want to do something new? Or is it because you must? I keep coming back to compulsion. Poetry is a compulsion. The poet writes poetry because there is no other way out of his or her situation. If there was, I suspect s/he would do something else. It amounts to an encounter between the self and the world, it is like an agitation, it is like a stone being ground between two millstones. The poem is the stone, and the millstones are yourself and the world, respectively. How do self and world refine the stone? That’s the question to be answered, but ONLY through the work . . . !