Friday, 7 October 2011

the poetry thing

two things come thumping into my inbox on national poetry day that remind me why i won't be putting anything up for national poetry day. aside from the fact i'm not fussed for the numbing compulsory nature of these 'days', a bit too contrived, a bit too generic. even burn's night, at least in scotland, seems too much of an excuse to wallow in nationalist sentiment and generally get shit faced.

so, one of the things i got was a poetry give away. the publisher doing this has done it before so i was pleased to see them doing it again. free stuff is free stuff after all! what bothered me more was that they were having a big sale of their other material all available at a mere £2.99. now that's a decent price to buy a bunch of books any day of the week but looking at it i wondered what exactly was happening with their margins when they are to all intents and purposes giving their product away. which leads to that old saw, that people like reading poetry far more than they like buying it. or perhaps i'm wrong and just missing how it's possible to get something printed and sold and still cover your costs for that price!

another thing that arrived was some announcement about something or other, couched in that language that can best be described as poetspeak, complimenting the poet on his or her 'admirable risk taking'. now maybe it's just me but i'm struggling to think of any activity that's more risk free than poetry. even reading such reviews it seems carries inherently more risk as your hold on the book might loosen as you drift into slumber and then hit you in the face. or perhaps there's a movement, of which i'm as yet unaware, of extreme poetry writing, that maybe i can find on the extreme channel, that famously obscure collection 'haiku written while doing a double back flip over a gnarly tabletop'. yes, i'd read that. or maybe there's an as yet unappreciated risk that one can become so absorbed in the poetry world that it's actually possible to absorb oneself. who knows? it could be true. i have an notion to do something like the bad sex prize for bad writing about poetry/literature. i think that could fly....?

talking of which today's the day after the welcome news that tomas transtromer has won the nobel prize for literature. now i kind of like transtromer but i wouldn't claim to be super familiar with his work, beyond an annoying desire to write his name as tomas transformer and evoking an image of the old poet turning into some of sort of mechanised killer robot laying waste and destruction in the streets of central stockholm. and maybe it's just me but i kind of like the idea that transtromer has managed to keep working in the face of really quite disabling ill health. it occurs to me - last time a writer with significant physical disability won a prize?

which is the sort of thinking you can only get from some of the critical response to transtromer's win, as if certain writers have entirely forgotten that any judging process is entirely subjective and will always leave at least some people a bit stunned (i still can't read elfriede jelinek but i'm not, and i'm sure she isn't, losing any sleep over it). this infighting and general cattiness (which really, is nothing compared to the recent poetry shenanigans) seems to cleave to a rather negative image of poetry types and oddly at cross purposes with an activity that seems to me to sublimely engaging and really rather pleasant. whether it's reading or writing it i really rather recommend it!

goodness me, a post about poetry. and here's me who wud neva...!!!! i must get myself a soothing cup of tea. and much while i'd like to claim it for me maybe i'll just set it as a poetry challenge for those who like that sort of thing. tomas transformer, alien giant robot, wins nobel. can you do anything with that? too risky?


Anonymous said...

Very nice poet, I mean post, Swiss!

It got me thinking of the Monty Python sketch with Thomas Hardy writing for a Bank Holiday Crowd. "Oh, it's a doodle. It's a doodle in the top-left hand corner. Oh, and the crowd don't like it."

Risk-taking and writing poetry. Poles apart, I can see your point. Perhaps that's what put Rimbaud off poetry.

Perhaps the lack of risk in poetry encourages its practitioners to seek it out elsewhere.

You point out the paradox yourself: "...a rather negative image of poetry types and oddly at cross purposes with an activity that seems to me to sublimely engaging and really rather pleasant."

Perhaps at times the poet has to take risks in order to be able to pursue his/her craft to his/her satisfaction? Has to risk alienating everyone around him/her by spending time on the stuff? And the actual poetry might reflect this walk over hot coals?

Have you read Roberto Bolano, "The Savage Detectives"? It's a thriller where the main characters are poets.

Rachel Fox said...

Poetry does seem to attract and/or create bollocks even more than other artforms do. And that's saying something.

Anonymous said...

Poets and poetry are easy to mock. Just look at the Simpsons cartoons on Facebook at the moment taking the piss out of haiku.

Joseph S. Salemi wrote an interesting essay, "Why Poetry is Dying", where he coined the phrase Portentous Hush:

Part of the poetic process is, I find, about adapting to how poetry is viewed by the world at large. Which means of course there is no fear of poetry ever dying.

swiss said...

i'm uncertain that poetry generates more bollocks just that the bollocks it does generate seems oddly self defeating.

i'm sticking to my contention that poetry, to me, is utterly risk free. taking chances with the form? perhaps the poet might get a paper cut. indictment of society - maybe if they wrap a brick in their work before tossing it at the nearest politician.

i have read roberto bolano, the last thing i think was monsieur pain, which i was unable to see as anything other than mr bread and, for me, about as turgid. not for me but each to their own!

the salemi thing was funny at least until is suspected it might not meant to be. i got a book of artistic manifestoes the other day and this reminds me of them, tho maybe not so entertaining (even if some of his comments about general dullness trike a chord!)

i'm not a fan of mockery but perhaps poetry should be mocked (a poetic pseud's corner?) a wee bit more. but then again, why bother? or maybe it's just that some folk like that sort of thing, bait like the mountain bike world's ultimately going nowhere debate on flats vs clips. to paraphrase jean brodie, for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of they like.

Anonymous said...

Well, Swiss, arse poetica amd all that, there are lots of different ways of keeping one's eye on poetry when the muse is out of town.

Salemi is a provocateur no doubt, and a solid Scottish sensibility is a good antidote to much of the huffing and puffing that comes from the US poetry world.

But I for one wouuld be glad of more public debate about contemporary poetics in the UK. I assume the lack of it is not about poets being afraid to take risks, but more about poets being more tight-lipped in the UK than in the US.

Marion McCready said...

lol, tomas transformer...dear oh dear, I'll never get that out of my head now

re risk taking, don't you think the poetry of say Sharon Olds could be categorised as risk taking? I interpret risk-taking in a personal sense such as confessional or psychologically risky for the poet

swiss said...

oh i don't know about uk poets being tight lipped, they have their particular saw horses as much as anyone i guess.

i've been on about some sort fo different engagement, not necessarily anti-critical, but different from criticism so much of which seems desperately pedestrian, or maybe just desperate! maybe it's about time i started some work on that!

i absolutely don't think that sharon olds takes any risks at all. certainly if the biggest risk taken is being of an autobiographical cant. i struggle to read her these days in the wake of her comments about not having an imagination which is a bit of a shame.

Anonymous said...

Well, maybe UK poets aren't tight-lipped, but there doesn't seem to be much general polemic out there. To me it seems to be reduced to backbiting from a sundry collection of cliques and coteries. The occasional squib gets thrown à la Armitage's “As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of poets: those who want to tell stories and sing songs, and those who want to work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poetry.” People titter about it for a while, and then it's back to business as usual.

I had hoped that with Carol Ann Duffy as the new Laureate poetics would be something people could begin to talk about, but it seems everyone's still busy isolating her, each other, and themselves.

swiss said...

sadly i can't disgree with that. but while i don't think it's fair or accurate to really compare the too what i do like about a good browse of american (english language) poetry (see what i did there?) is it always feels pretty celebratory.

maybe it's a cultural thing and in the uk folk just aren't that way inclined. but that too, seems too much of a generalisation. ppetryland, despite all the voices to the contrary seems in fairly rude health. lots of people writing, lots of outlets for people to get published. okay, maybe not on the traditional model but, to be honest, i'm not super bothered by that.

i'd rather concentrate on who's doing what and where than what they're not. it's easier than it ever has been to, if you're inclined that way and find yourself at odds with something, to make an effort and do something about it.

it may be that these days i'm not so fussed about sharon olds but so what? she's writing and a lot of people get something from her. it may be some people like rhyming and some don't. who cares? so long as they're writing.

despite this thread i'm really not fussed for an approach that seems to focus on talking about the work rather than doing any. in which case comparing like for like i.e. europe with the u.s poetry land is in fairly good health. maybe there's an element in the uk who are too self-focused. and maybe those of us who aren't should see that, move along and do something different!

Dominic Rivron said...

Nice to know someone else suffers from the mental tic of wanting to call the man "transformer".

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking a bit more about this risk-taking aspect in poetry.

In some countries poets risk death by actually writing their poems. In more liberal countries poets don't normally risk death by writing their poems, but they could risk losing their jobs or their friends or both.

Poets risk facing ridicule or contempt by writing poems that others consider puerile or gimmicky or politically incorrect or whatever.

In some circles writing poetry is seen as being girly, in others old-fashioned, in others left-wing, in others anti-social. I've heard people say they don't like revealing the fact that they write poetry when they're out as it's a conversation stopper. Poets are often met with suspicion. My dad has mocked me for years about my writing poetry. When I tell him I've had some poem published, his response has often been: "How much did you get paid?"

At the age of 21 I dropped out of uni and went busking around Europe for two years. That was seen by many as a risky thing to do.

Flaunting your arse poetica can be risky.


swiss said...

obviously i'm being a bit english language centric in my attitude to risk taking. i've never quite understood those dictatorial powers attitudes to poets who they feel threaten them in some way. there's a great tradition of such people. how many of us i wonder would do a stretch in pokey for our words? precious few i think.

but si suppose one person's risk taking is another self indulgence. got something you need to say? fear of ridicule doesn't strike me as particularly risky. your parents don't like it (the 'risk' that's fuelled a thousand yelpy metal bands!) - that'll be those parents who provided that odd matrix that grew up a poet. good for them i say. perhaps poets from such environments should be a tad more grateful! or poetry takes you for a holiday? i call that research, not risk! lol

humour aside i guess what i'm saying at is that most of the artistic risks you find being talked about in the uk are, i would venture, the risks of the privileged or, if one is kind, a sort of transgressive iconoclasm that exists sure in its own security. so vast, so all encompassing is our sense of entitlement that talk of rosk seems somewhat disingenuous.

and maybe it's my age but this trangressive business just sets my teeth on edge. i've never found being confrontational gets you that far. making a difference to folks' days tho, that certainly does. all across my artistic life i've been fortunate enough to have received support, encouragement (with a few glaring exceptions which only make the rest more...flavourful!) and general interest. and where not, it's mostly been at least in part down to me getting on my high horse!

maybe these days i'm getting in touch with my inner joy rather than my inner girn! i'm reading transtromer today (with his transformer incarnation firmly in the back of my head) and, frankly, i'm astonished by some of the comments in the links above. i like a bit of criticism but this seems too much like polemic at best and dogma at worst. don;t like transtromer, fine, find someone they do and write about them. and in doing so add something to the collective existence.

it doesn't mean we have to be all happy, clappy and hallmark (tho for some this has their place) but i like to see critical engagement that...well... accentuates the lovely!

you never know, somebody might take that risk! ; )

swiss said...

and then, somewhat ironically, i read this in the guardian

wiht that in mind - an illustrative story.

back in the day, i hated folk music. and not just a little bit. even the sight of an acoustic guitar was enough to have me off on one about jersey clad howlers with their fingers in their ear pretending to be irish or some sort of sailing jolly lad. i hated ot so much that for a long while iu refused to listen to anything that had actual instruments in it, far less a voice. i didn;t, i hasten to add, actually shout at folk musicians (i reserved that for shouting at people with badly set up bikes) but i avoided them wiht a proper passion.

then i moved house and found myself somewhere where there was a real tradition of making music, a wee bit like where i grew up. various shenanigans happened and i found myself in the possession of a piano and then, frighteningly, a guitar. but why asked one of my oldest friends (guitar player and folk aficionado). because if i'm going to hate folk music i'm going to learn to hate it properly i said. ah, what a tool.

but if there's one thing i almost always enjoy, it's having my own bullshit exposed. of course i loved the music. these days i even take lessons, just for a laugh.

i like all that laughter. there should be more!

swiss said...

dominic - tomas the transformer will appear, watch this space!