Saturday, March 30, 2013

Poetry = No Rules

National Poetry Competition season has been upon us. Nick Laird, one of the judges - and an admirable poet himself - has added to what must now, I think, be considered a sub-genre of poetry crit: the 'how not to do it' guide.
These sorts of interventions have something of a tradition, one of the most famous being Ezra Pound's 1913 essay 'A Few Don'ts by an Imagist'. There are even poems by disgruntled competition judges and editors dedicated to the things you should never do if you want to get your work published, for example by Todd Swift, Michael Mackmin of The Rialto, and Fleur Adcock. I also regularly come across blogposts with lists of 'what not to dos' by established authors.
When this advice relates to how to deal with editors and others who have a say over whether your work gets published, much of it seems to be sound. I'd certainly agree that making demands or even threats is a bad way to go. It's just plain rude, for a start.
But then there is the advice about how the poetry itself should be. Don't use commas at the end of lines. Don't use cliché. Never repeat a word in same poem. Never repeat a significant word within a collection or sequence of poems. Never write 'shards'. Never write 'gossamer'. Never use a rhyming dictionary. Write simply. Only use everyday language. Use footnotes if you are making obscure references. Never make obscure references. Never use adjectives. Never use more than one adjective in the same line. Never use semi-colons. Never use dashes. Never ask questions in poems...
All of these pieces of advice (and there are plenty more where those came from) are things I have read in guides to poetry writing or heard repeated by fellow poets, in the latter case quite often with the (frankly infuriating) rider that 'my poetry tutor said...'
Well, it's all guff. Total and utter guff. I have read excellent contemporary poems that do all of those forbidden things (although not usually all at the same time) and bravely fail to follow the accepted wisdom. No doubt such wisdom is helpful in some ways, if only to make us question what we are doing and pull us up when we are writing lazily, but there also comes a point where we have to have the courage of our convictions and say, 'I know that isn't supposed to work - but it does.'
Another problem with the don't-ers, is that they limit poetry. Pound was pushing an aesthetic agenda, and this is true of any maker of prohibitions in art. On some level, they want poetry in general to be like the kind of thing they like. But isn't that a strange thing to wish for? Would it make sense for someone to say, 'music should be like this, and only like this', when music as an art form is so immensely diverse? That 'a painting can be like this and only like this'? Then why do so for poetry?
I'm more than happy for there to be poetry I don't like, since nobody yet has forced me to keep reading it, and I can see when I am reading something I don't care for how I would do it differently. But to suggest that there is a way to 'get it right' turns poetry into something akin to a sport, like diving or synchronised swimming, where the reproduction of an ideal set of moves is what counts, not the testing of the boundaries.
So let's have an end to these supposed rules of poetry. They are snake oil. And the excellent winner of this year's National Poetry Competition is proof of that, since it marvellously contravenes one of my own personal (and vehemently espoused) don'ts - 'don't write poems about World War One'.

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