Since publishing my poetry memoir On Poetry in April 2018 I’ve had various private, unrecorded conversations about how the poetry world presents itself, and specifically about why my book doesn’t appear to be interested in contemporary poets. Well, of course I am interested in contemporary poets. I’m one myself, but also many poets I admire are still living and writing and some of them I am pleased to say are personal friends and some of these are mentioned in the book. However, having been open to poetry for fifty years – I am fifty three but my Mum certainly read me poems at age two or three – I am able to take a longer view and to think not just about what makes a poem superficially successful on its first release but what keeps it being read decade after decade.
I see the world of contemporary poetry as a series of driverless HGVs trundling up and down the motorways and bye-roads of the globe guided by intrinsically unreliable Satnav systems. And in their capacious containers dozens, hundreds, thousands of poems are bouncing around – badly loaded, badly secured and in a vehicle with doors likely to flap open at any moment – whilst out of sight, on the underframes of the lorries themselves, other poems cling on for grim death desperate to cross whatever borders might be coming up. The poetry HGV trundles on. The poems lose their grip from below or find themselves bounced out the back, through the flapping doors and onto the hard-shoulder. And it is a hard-shoulder, believe me. And they are alone. Forlorn. Lost. Forgive my flight of fancy and I do not mean to underplay the experience of those poor refugees who find themselves travelling by similar means. My point, however, is that contemporary poems very quickly get forgotten but if we are civilised readers of poetry we should have some care for them.
So in On Poetry I talk a bit about poems I have read for twenty or thirty years. And I realise when I talk about this now, that to many poets and even those who read poetry, such an act is extraordinary – to have as a companion a poem for over thirty years, the same few words for the same eyes and heart to follow. Oh but this is the joy. This is slow poetry and I announce the coming, give it time, of the Slow Poetry movement right now, although, inevitably someone will have beaten me to it as I have been far too tardy to lay claim to such an idea. What is extraordinary is the opposite – to read a poem once or twice and then to completely discard it; to have no poems that one returns to with affection year after year; to not be prepared to let a poem really get to work with one’s life. Because, to my mind, we read poems to help us live our lives. We read for the craft and beauty, yes, but also for what a poem may tell us about ourselves and for what a poem may tell us about the rest of humanity and the damned world.
In On Poetry I have wasted no time being sardonic or rueful about the contemporary poetry world. There are some angry fellows out there – mostly fellows – and I enjoy their furious denouncements as much as anyone, but I have found it easier to simply observe across various chapters what pleasure and instruction may be gained by quietly reading and quietly listening and, even, quietly speaking poems that walk without a care in the world along various bridleways and footpaths. A few years ago I virtually gave up television – I watch perhaps an hour a week at the moment and the television is typically off – and what a difference it has made. And although I read widely of that which is contemporary poetry I am as likely to reach out to Ken Smith’s Shed or Catherine Byron’s Samhain or the Collected Poems of Thomas Traherne, and it brings a certain calmness, to know that poems that may be twenty or thirty or four hundred years old still emit light. And what garlands and wreaths any of these poets and their poems may have received are by now, of course, of little value or import.
This article first appeared on The Poetry Business’s forum for new thinking about poetry, The Poets’ Room.