Day Six: Judging Torbay

If a poem is telling the truth, it will ring true…

but only if its author really listens to what the poem wants to say.

Three momentous events are featuring quite regularly in the Torbay submissions pile. The First World War, unsurprisingly, since we are currently living through the years of its centenary.  The migrant crisis whose insoluble heart-searching presence is never far from our television screens. And the European Holocaust, in particular the events in the Nazi  extermination camps. 

Some  poets are simply underestimating how hard it is to write convincingly about other people’s truth when that truth is part of the weave of well known public history. But there are also some poets  who appear to be  mining other people’s tragedies without having the empathy and tact which these massive subjects really do demand.  There are poems among the submissions which are not failures of expertise, but failures of the heart. 

I have been thinking about this over the past few days when I have been sadly and slowly reducing my pile of nine hundred Torbay poems by three fifths. Despite their huge variety of subject matter and approach, many of the poems I have set aside have this  in common: they are essentially programmatic.  They knew exactly where they wanted to make landfall before they cast off the boat.

Paul Klee’s idea about taking a line for a walk ( brilliant as an account of how to draw) needs a bit of adapting when it comes to poetry. It  seems to suggest that the poet will be in charge of the line, whereas in many of the best poems, of course, it is the line which is in charge.  The best poets step off the known when they start to write and allow themselves to discover the previously unknown places where their line is leading them. The spaces of the heart open up when you listen to your line and tend to remain closed shut if you do not. Poems written to  preset programmes  are often limited and predictable, with language predictable and  limited to match. Even more damaging, the preset poem often reveals serious failures of sympathy because the poet’s imagination has never really been receptive to what the subject wants to say.

If you know exactly what you are going to say about a subject, before you begin your poem,  it is probably better to say that thing in prose.    

Strangely, it is often poems where sympathy is most necessary that are imaginatively and emotionally shackled by their programmes being too strong.  Poems about very old people. About people who are soon to die. About people with addictions. About people without countries, without homes.  About victims of violence.  About victims of abuse. About doomed soldiers.  About the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Subjects often so harrowing that you are surprised a poet would chose to tackle them unless he or she was willing to live for a while inside the spaces of these devastated lives and find out, by allowing the line to lead them,  what was really going on.

Two poems came into my mind while I was trying to catch this thought. One is Robin Robertson’s astonishing  ‘The Park Drunk’ which you can download from the Poetry Archive site. The poem opens his collection 2006 Swithering.  Who would ever have expected such a subject could begin like this?

He opens his eyes to a hard frost / The morning’s soft amnesia of snow

Soft amnesia of snow….the low pulse of blood orange riding in the eastern trees…here is the intricate arresting beauty of natural things, seen with an agonised intensity of loss by someone who knows he  has fallen off the edge of the safe and familiar world. It is easy to shrink from an urban alcoholic. Robin Robertson’s line leads  away from judgment into the heart of the individual  human tragedy.  The other poem I kept remembering, as I read and re-read Torbay submissions where the heart was not engaged, was Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Last Post’, the poet laureate’s compassionate poem about the First World War with its poignant final line

If poetry could tell it backwards, then it would.

The poet steps off the edge of her own world and goes where the line wants her to go, which is not to any of the places you might expect in a poem about the War. If you haven’t heard Carol Ann Duffy read her poem, or even if you have, listen to it again.  Here is the link.

3 thoughts on “Day Six: Judging Torbay

  1. It sounds as if you are saying poetry is unpremeditated but prose is premeditated. Have I got that right? It seems to me there is no defining line between poetry and prose but maybe you could polish prose and remove a word or two but not so with poetry. What do you think ?

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    1. What intriguing questions and suggestions. I wonder what your own answers are? I certainly wouldn’t want to make this particular distinction between ALL poetry and ALL prose and I agree with you entirely that there is no preset dividing line. (There may have been once, when poetry was more confined inside its own formal traditions, but today this does not apply.) My point in the Torbay piece was that, IF you know exactly what you want to say before you even begin to write, which is another way of saying IF your mind is already closed, prose may be a more suitable medium. But if your approach to a subject is exploratory, tentative, delicate and responsive – if in fact you are willing to let ‘the line take you for a walk’ – then I think you are just as likely to be able to make your journey in prose as in poetry. Perhaps you won’t even decide which medium works best for a particular piece until you are far into the process of writing it? This is a huge discussion. Thank you for starting it.

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      1. Thanks for a helpful reply. I don’t think the mind is closed when it seeks to frame its concepts simply and without flourishes; the idea is complete but its execution is where the struggle lies. I have heard it said that some novelists allow the plot to unfold in their own minds as they write , that with the execution the story unfolds, often a surprise to the author. Perhaps we aught to separate poetry that tells a story from poetry that makes a comment on life. Should poetry stick in the mind ? it seem to do that far more than prose. I’m 75 and some lines have been good company for many years. Can we have too much ? as we can with food ? does the brain need a rest ? Many poets and writers need inspiration from all that maze of events they are exposed to, and yet Emily Dickinson was a recluse who never saw the ocean and very few people. I like your ‘the line take you for a walk ‘ it reminds me to slow up and pause.

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