This morning I found myself simultaneously emptying the dishwasher, waiting for an insurance company to answer the phone and thinking about poetry. I will not pretend this is my life. (OK, it is, apart from the poetry bit.) I was trying to mentally compose an introduction worthy of the Literary Sofa’s first visit by a guest poet, a task and a half. Isabel Rogers was awarded the prestigious Cardiff International Poetry Prize in 2014 and has just been appointed Hampshire Poet 2016. She has become a good friend to me and I have her to thank for changing the way I think and feel about the form – to the extent that next week I am going to follow this post with one of my own, called Why I stopped being afraid of poetry (or something better).
Isabel Rogers’ poetry springs from intellectual curiosity, profound humanity and an extraordinary understanding of the breadth and potential of the English language. (I cannot think of her poem The Cost of Living without welling up.) She’s not paying me to say this – I’ve had my reward many times over in the form of stimulating conversations real and virtual and everything that she, as a poet, has taught me as a novelist. This is yours:
Do you think poets can teach novelists anything? Isabel C has given me free rein to plump the Literary Sofa cushions and loll about, pontificating. (It won’t be rigorous or academic, I warn you.) We met on twitter because we both write novels, but I also transform into a poet. My work has been published, I’ve won the odd prize, and as of 1st January I can call myself Hampshire Poet 2016. I only boast so you’ll think I know what I’m talking about.
Poems are older than novels. We’ve told ourselves stories since we’ve been human, across camp fires before anyone could write. Don Paterson says a poem is ‘a little machine for remembering itself’, and it’s true. We needed rhythm, rhyme and alliteration to pass on our great sagas.
So far so obvious, but I have questions. Are poetry and prose really so different? We use the same words, after all. Who defines each genre? What’s in it for them? Why is it that people generally turn to poetry, not prose, to mark major life and death events? Why aren’t there any poet multimillionaires?
Does poetry have more intrinsic weight? Shakespeare used formal, rhymed lines for his serious stuff and loosened up with a freer style when feathering in a funny subplot, but the most popular modern poems are often funny ones. They certainly sell. Pam Ayres is not poor.
What defines a poem? If you don’t know any poets, let me reveal a world riven with envy, rivalry, hopeless lust, barely disguised hatred, alcohol and incomprehension. And that’s just your average open mic night. My opinions will be controversial because there are more poetry factions than anti-Roman groups in Life of Brian, but here goes:
You can’t shove random words higgledy-piggledy on a page and call it a poem. Especially the higgledy-piggledy ones.
- Just because you call it a poem doesn’t mean it is. We are not Humpty Dumpty.
- There are certain technical specifications defining some poetical forms. Ignore those and you simply have not written, for example, a pantoum, a sestina or a haiku. You just haven’t. Bog off with your heartfelt, non-scanned*, non-rhyming nonsense.
- Some non-scanning, non-rhyming words put together with care are the most beautiful poems I know.
- There is a thin line between obscure-but-definitely-worth-it and plain ridiculous. I know when I cross it.
- I reserve the right to call out rubbish.
I suppose what I’m trying to get at here is my belief in hard work. The level of attention when writing a poem can approach zen-like stillness, when you are attuned to the rhythm and cadence of a line. When that line sings, you feel it. It’s like music. I’m not dissing modern, freer styles of writing (either in poetry or prose), but carelessness shows. Hurrying something out before it’s ready shows. There are fewer places to hide in a poem than in a novel.
Poetry exposure makes me read differently. I trip over glitches and bumps that stop me enjoying something I might if I relaxed a bit. I remember thinking The Time Traveler’s Wife was an amazing story while hating the clunky writing. I once picked up a Jeffrey Archer novel in a (former) friend’s spare room and shut it pretty damn quickly. I may have thrown it across the carpet. No insomnia excuses that kind of writing.
I was lucky enough to read Isabel C’s latest novel Paris Mon Amour at an early stage; she asked me because she trusts my close reading. We talked about how ends of chapters and stanzas correlate. When you choose, as a poet, to use a certain word or phrase to end a stanza, or indeed the whole poem, you weight that phrase simply because of the space you leave after it.
Line ends have a similar emphasis. White space on the page is powerful stuff: misuse it at your peril. A lot of novice poets don’t trust their words enough to stand without the buffer of space around them
and what comes across
is often a stilted emphasis
the cumulative effect of something
than a simple phrase sure
of its own
Novels need contrast. Reading Hardy, I wonder at the marvel of his prose as he spreads it with sure hands over the page, and then I hit a phrase he puts in deliberately to be harder, like a rock under the water. But if he wrote with that viscosity all the time, you’d never get on. It would be too spiky. He was wise enough to know we need both.
Some writers are novelists and poets, of course: Hardy being one of the finest. See also Helen Dunmore, Alice Walker, Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these people wrote some of my favourite novels. Shakespeare was known to bash out a bit of doggerel when not writing plays. Is there a link?
The divide between prose and poetry is more blurred today than ever: Max Porter’s Grief is the thing with feathers has been defined as a novella and was shortlisted as prose. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen won the 2015 Forward Prize for best poetry collection. They are both outstanding literary works. Looking at their pages, I can’t easily see the difference. If anything, some of Rankine’s pages are more ‘prosey’ than Porter’s.
My closing theory is this *clears throat* (it’s not about dinosaurs): writing is a continuum, meandering from highly stylised formal poetry through loose modern stuff, prose poems, flash fiction and short stories, arriving at some of our current prose that ignores traditional grammar. It runs from the finest single malt whisky to clear water you can drink by the gallon. Thirst dictates taste.
So, is that all clear? I haven’t even answered all my questions: it’s so subjective. One man’s poetry is another woman’s Bad Sex Award. Discuss.
* Scansion in poetry is (basically) showing how you can divide it up rhythmically into feet: used in the kind of poem that Bertie Wooster can’t remember but recites as ‘ti-tum-ti-tum, ti-tumpty tum’.
Many thanks from one Isabel to another – I’m sure you’ll agree this piece offers some fascinating and valuable insights, doubly so if you’re a novelist!
How do YOU feel about poetry?
The response to my Fiction Hot Picks 2016 was absolutely amazing. I thought it was the strongest selection so far and it seems you agreed! Thank you so much for the appreciation, for sharing it and to all those who entered the competition (now ended). The most frequent comment was that it’s ‘not the same books as everywhere else’, closely followed by ‘most of these are new to me.’ I can’t think of a better reason to keep doing it and look forward to welcoming a fair few of the authors to the blog in the coming weeks and months.