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.