Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Conceit

Gilding the Acrobats
Paul Cadmus, Gilding the Acrobats(Metropolitan Museum)

I'm pleased to announce that participants can now sign up here for my first on-line workshop with The Poetry School, on the subject of 'The Conceit'.

Some poetry takes everyday reality as its starting-point in order to reveal something about the world we know. But poetry can equally begin with a ‘what if?’ – it can create unreal or unlikely situations and then, by exploring the consequences of those situations, lead us to unexpected ideas and images.

These ‘what if?’ situations could be described as ‘conceits’ – extended metaphors that bring together disparate ideas, making the poem a kind of literary test-tube.

In this workshop, I'll be helping participants to explore how conceits can be used to open up our writing to new ways of imagining, while still remaining rooted in a concern for our human experience of the world. We will think about how the use of conceits can draw in the reader, hold their attention, and keep surprising them until the very end of the poem.

The workshop is free, but places are limited -- so sign up soon if you are interested. The workshop begins on 1 February 2016, and there will be a live chat on 12 February. I'm intrigued to see what people will create!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Why Do People Hate Poetry?

The recent controversy over the coverage of Sarah Howe's T. S. Eliot prize win has highlighted again the problems the British press has in discussing poetry. Katy Evans-Bush has analysed the sexism of much of the coverage in an article for the Guardian here, and that is clearly the central issue which needs addressing in this context.
However, apart from Howe's having dared to be young, female and of Chinese heritage, the portrait of her in The Sunday Times also chimes in with that strain of cultural journalism which turns a defensive attitude to poetry into a kind of passive aggression, with cliches about difficulty, elitism and lack of commercial viability to the fore. Poets will be familiar with these assertions, which are offered to them all too readily when they are outed as practitioners of the art in polite company. 'Oh, I've never really got poetry. All too clever for me. And I don't suppose you can make a living out of it, can you.' Sometimes, this is prefaced with a sorry, as if not liking poetry was a mild personal fault; at other times the tone is defiant, as if the very fact of appreciating and even creating poetry was an implicit criticism of all of those who don't.
Imagine substituting poetry for some other minority art in these exchanges. Would your first reaction on meeting a person training for the ballet be to tell them that you don't really get it, that you found it too elitist, that the dancer was never going to make a living out of it? I'm guessing that this would not be the case. Some polite questions about how it was all going and what the dancer's prospects were, perhaps, but nobody would feel it necessary to issue a statement on their own personal distaste for what is, after all, an art which only a small proportion of the population appreciate.
Ben Lerner has written very interestingly here and in a recent book about what he calls 'the hatred of poetry'. His argument, however, focuses very much on poets themselves and intellectuals of various stripes, exploring the notion that, compared to what it ideally wants to achieve, poetry is always to some extent a failure. His argument is a fascinating one and picks up on a neglected strain in thinking about poetry in order to launch a defense of what poetry can do. However, I'm not sure he helps us to understand the widespread hostility towards poetry in a society largely made up of people who do not think about it very much at all. Why is it that it is fine to mention going to the opera or an exhibition of video installations, but any hint of a visit to a poetry reading invites an open declaration of hostility. Most people aren't that bothered about opera or video installations, either (you certainly won't fine me sitting through the Ring Cycle) but nobody feels the need to feel defensive about their lack of engagement in those cases.
My own personal explanation is that other minority arts are not encumbered with the perception that they are educational. Poetry never lost its place on the school curriculum, despite a decline in its public profile, a situation which some poets have benefited from in terms of royalties and paid work with schools. However, when school is the only forum in which young people encounter poetry, the individual poem becomes a kind of test, a sort of overly-complex crossword clue which has to be decoded in order (literally) to make the grade. The novel arguably suffers from this treatment, too. But the young people are exposed to novels in other ways -- they can read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games for pleasure of their own accord and separate that pleasure from the grim accumulation of points in a school test. This, I think, is the reason for the defensiveness many people feel. Not only might you read poetry at them, they might well have to answer questions later about what it all meant. The idea that you might enjoy a piece of art without being able to discuss its deeper meaning in the appropriate academic terms -- as we manage to do every day reading novels, watching movies and listening to music -- does not seem to be extended to poetry.
Reading at a TableThis is clearly a shame. Contrary to many of the authors discussed by Lerner, I actually enjoy poetry. Reading it gives me genuine pleasure, and is certainly easier than writing it.
I don't always know exactly why I enjoy it, either. Reading Matthew Caley's new collection, Rake, recently, I was struck by just how much joy it brought me. Not necessarily because of anything Caley was saying, but because of its wit, its euphony, its ability to surprise, because of all of those things which, put into the dry language of criticism, are not adequately communicated. Let's just say that, on reading (and re-reading), I smiled. I probably couldn't write a decent exam answer on any of the poems (thank heavens I don't have to), but that's not what the poems are there for.
My experience has been that, when exposed to good poetry without the threat of a written test, most intelligent people enjoy what they hear. And most people I have met are certainly intelligent enough to experience that enjoyment. Yes, perhaps our education system could do more to allow people to engage with poetry, so that they could experience that enjoyment for themselves, but until you can get an A+ for having a good time, poetry might well benefit from being taken off the curriculum.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Two readings for February

Poetry people are hardy, resilient folk, so I'm sure some of them won't mind braving the plummeting temperatures and the dark nights of February to enjoy these two forthcoming events.

Firstly, on the evening of Thursday 4th February, I'll be reading with Angela France and Daniel Sluman to support the launch of Daniel's second collection, The Terrible, from Nine Arches Press. His first collection, Absence Has a Weight of Its Own, which I reviewed earlier on this blog, promises much for this new book -- expect passionate honesty and imagery wielded with astonishing precision. Tickets for the event, which is hosted by the Institute for Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University, can be had for free here.

Then, on Tuesday 16th February, I'll be reading as part of the Polari Literary Salon hosted by Paul Burston at the South Bank Centre, where the headline readers will be Jonathan Harvey and Chris Green. It will be an interesting experience to be the only poet on the bill.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

This week I'm looking forward to reading at Cheltenham's Poetry Cafe - Refreshed in the retro atmosphere of Smokey Joe's dinner. Apart from the poetry (there is always an excellent open mic) you can enjoy their lovely food, including some indulgent milkshakes.

Thanks to Roger Turner and Sharon Larkin for inviting me and producing this great poster!