The Poetry School, based in London UK, runs a range of courses. I signed up to one of these: an online course spread over ten weeks. There were five packages of tutor input and five related assignments.
What made this course so enjoyable and useful?
It was something to do with the level of challenge.
There is a development theory around proximal zone of development (Vygotsky) – identifying the next steps and setting opportunities in place to allow person to ‘spread forward’ into that next zone of skills and understanding. This course moved me across a boundary into a new area that I was just ready to move into and explore/hopefully grow within.
It was also to do with having the right balance of input and production, at the right pitch. The tutor was key to that: knowledgeable, willing to share insights, excellent at constructive support – with links that could be followed or not. The amount of background material gave me a real sense of having gained theoretically and practically – and, on my terms, that gave the course high value.
The fortnightly timespan was manageable in terms of reading and absorbing the background material, getting assignment poems put online within a week, then having another week to mull things over or try out other poems etc.
It was about new forms and new ideas – the changing nature of poetry – but was still about poetry
The course focused on contemporary poetry and some of its recent roots. A key idea was the changing nature of poetry – responding to (and contributing to?) wider changes in society. From a challenge to the calming, soul-saving view of poetry, it went back into some of the strands from the past 40-50 years (specifically the work of the New York poets, the work of poets influenced by postmodernism, and some very recent poetry influenced eg by the internet).
The implication, for me, was that we can expect poetry to continue to develop: to change shape, find new forms, explore new topics, draw on new sources, and be put to new purposes.
Although we were urged to leave behind any over-focusing on older ideas, one of the key things I had to keep reminding myself was that, even though we were challenging the form of poems, each bit of what we produced still had to work as poetry. Every word, every line had to hold its own – to justify its inclusion in that way, at that point of the text, in that particular wording/lineage. This pushed me, over and over, to think ‘What is a poem? How is this thing I am writing attempting to be a poem? How would I know if it is being successful in that?’
In a couple of the assignment poems I wrote there were phrases that I couldn’t let go of quickly enough. They insinuated themselves into the poem then kept quiet so that they would be more easily overlooked – but were clearly (going back after a week or so) misplaced additions that jarred. Similarly with the odd bits of overblown imagery; the clinging clichés etc.
How many edits does it take to change a poem?
In my case, very many. It had been relatively straightforward to get to a poem that I thought might be 80% ‘there’. Moving that poem on the last 20% was much more protracted and fiddly – I fact I don’t think I ever got much further than the 80-85% mark and could have continued fiddling and faffing for much longer on a number of the assignments. One assignment poem went through about 7-8 iterations before ending up in its submitted form – even so, immediately it had been put online, a re-reading threw up a few words that I should still have changed. I sensed that I could tinker and tinker forever but there had to be a point at which there was a feeling that the poem worked as well as possible without further change. Having the deadline certainly helped to say ‘that’s it: like it or not’.
Did I come to any conclusions about Bad Poetry?
Yes, but not in any moral sense or because I found some poems hard to relate to– just in the sense that some poems seemed not to work. If I were to write out a checklist of Things To Guard Against it might be something like:
- Sloppily written; not tight enough
- Extraneous words, lines, sections
- Sounds scrappy and disjointed for no real purpose
- Unclear, imprecise (ideas and language) whilst pretending to have clarity
- Lacks any structure in terms of words/sounds
- Rehashes old, tired, overused ideas
- Too ephemeral – no sense of Presence. There being no motivation to reread it
- Dull, no movement in it (compared to being intentionally ‘flat’ for effect)
- Not been worked on sufficiently, not even at the 80% mark
- Hammers points home; overly didactic
- Shifting/uncertain narrator, to no effect
- Feels more of a chore than a puzzle
- Too closed-down: no space for the reader to think for themselves around what has been written
- Overloaded with cliché, adjectives etc
- High on the abstract, no detail at all
Poetry styles that appealed to me
I loved the input on the ideas around the New York Poets for a number of reasons. Partly because I do Urban not Rural; I go for the fragmentary, tentative, conditional nature of things. I go for snapshots not extended scenes; things glimpsed through bus windows on the way into the city centre etc. Partly because my own writing style has always drifted to cut-off sentences; ideas bumped up against each other; notes as much as essays etc. Partly because I enjoyed the juxtaposing of poem formation with ideas from Abstract Expressionist painting – with words being splashed/thrown/dribbled onto the page – and the effect coming from textures/patterns/disorder.
A newspaper article that I read at the same time, was about Frederick Seidel – a poet writing about inequalities and politics of race – but who, in the interview, was strong on his poems being poems: They come to him as poems and are still poems as he lets them go – rather than being statements of belief. The poems are works – things being worked on – and that work is concerned with language, sound, look (line breaks etc). There is belief and political/social feeling inside the working but that isn’t what he sees as happening within the finished work. For him it is poetry that has to work as poetry.
I also loved the input on postmodernism and poetry. I had come across postmodernism from other angles but never had to apply that thinking to poetry. I found it fascinating: Found poems, incorporating other styles of texts, being playfully serious/seriously playful; caring without showing it too much. My submitted poem for this section was a found poem based on the texts associated with a photographic exhibition I visited; footnotes; ambiguities; disturbing the readers sensibilities re nostalgia, etc.
What did I think of my own poems?
There were poems that I enjoyed writing (whatever the quality of the outcome) and ones that I thought were OK as poems. The assignment on postmodern poetry and the final assignment were the ones I enjoyed most and which (in my opinion) produced my most interesting poems. The one I struggled to find much enjoyment in writing (ie was a task to be got through by the deadline) was also the one that worked least well.
The final assignment – about a man with a boat who used to fish but now gets a living transporting people across from Iraq to Europe gave me a lot of intellectual pleasure. Thinking about this poem put all sorts of ideas in my head around whether people smugglers are evil traders or simple boat-owners put out of the fishing business by war and global forces; there being varieties of people in the smuggling trade (as in any business) including young entrepreneurs with MBA business models willing to see people as units of trade; possible links back to the slave traders and so on. The poem didn’t flow out of me but came in chunks. Arranging such fragments on the page was part of the challenge. In the end the whole thing, set out on the page, unintentionally had something of the outline shape of a boat about it (or my imagination was straining itself by that stage). By the time for submission I couldn’t really judge its quality. It may or may not have worked – I had got too close to it to be able to tell. My feeling that it was interested and good was justified by the tutor’s comments that he was blown away by it, and that I had invented a new poetry form ….
What have I learnt about my own writing?
Certainly that my prose style (to the extent I have one) gets too easily carried over into poems – a cavalier use of colons, dashes, ellipses, lists, lack of any punctuation, etc etc. There is a syntactic laziness there that I need to think more closely about. Certainly there can be a sparseness about the language I use. My background lies in a science training not in any literary training, and in forty years of writing reports that some would consider bureaucratic (in a nice way). Both of these have given me a tendency to be crisp, terse etc. (hence the desire to do more on any poetic instincts lurking inside me).
Does edgy poetry have to be downbeat?
In one poem I tried for humour but it still had an underlying sadness. The street-scene poem captured the buzz of contemporary life but in ways that intentionally hinted at the anxieties and confusions of existence in urban busy contexts. Another poem started off with admiration but ended up saying ‘I might have hated you except you even died before I could get that far’. The nostalgia-undone found poem was sad throughout on a number of levels as was the Boat poem. Either there is an inbuilt tendency for me to generate sad-sounding work or the topics of interest deal with the downsides of modern life or I just haven’t tried hard enough to get into the edginess of humour (or the humour of edginess).
Some thinking points emerged that will buzz around in my mind for some time yet:
- Does it matter if the narrative is clear: if it can be read differently by different people? If the intention of the author no longer determines things? The street scene poem was going to be titled “High Street 3.27pm” and the date – pinning it down as a one-minute observation/snapshot at a unique time (implying that the next minute might well produce a quite different set of impressions, a quite different poem). This afternoon timing would have pinned down the ‘They’ as schoolkids (entangled in their huge schoolbags; entangled in their feelings for each other; entangled in jostlings, appearing to be more legs than arms). Without so specific a title, a different reading might have them as late evening, citycentre youths. Does it matter? Does it change anything? If the poem still has to ‘work’ then does it have to work for all the possibilities that different readers build into their separate readings of it? (And can a poem bear that responsibility??).
- To what extent can a poem do work in the wider world (rather than in the heads of individuals)? Can a poem do anything eg countering fundamentalist thinking because poetry can be subtle, contesting, opening of possible imaginings; or putting some processes in place that work against politically-motivated austerity etc?
I am pleased that I signed up for this course. It did all I hoped in bringing together my interest in ‘contemporary’ with my desire to remotivate some poetry writing. I gained so much from it that I have already signed up for an equivalent course in the autumn (bringing together poetry with another of my key areas of interest ie cities and contemporary urban life).