Thoughts about poetry and fiction.

Now there’s a grand title!  I’ve re-activated this blog because I want to have a rant about what’s wrong, and occasionally right about modern poetry in my not so humble opinion.  This could take some time.

First some background – I hated poetry at school because

1. It was all about England (I was in Australia)

2. It was all written by men (I’m a woman, in case you hadn’t noticed)

3. It was hard to understand, and even harder to think of things to write about it, and most scary of all, I was afraid of getting it wrong when I did have to interpret a poem.

4.  We had to learn some ‘off by heart’ – a feat I never managed to accomplish.  I just don’t seem to have that sort of mind – give me logic, scientific reasoning, mathematical deduction any day, but ask me to learn something by heart and my brain freezes.

So, poetry was remote, scary, useless stuff as far as I was concerned.

Fiction, on the other hand, was wonderful – I spent most of my childhood, whenever I could get away with it, lying on my bed lost in the worlds of  fiction.  I gobbled up everything the local library and my parents bookshelves could supply, and enjoyed all the novels I had to study at school.  I lived in my head in the magical worlds of The secret garden, Little Women (identifying with Beth, not Jo, oops!).  And not just the female characters, I loved adventure too – The thirty-nine steps, etc.  And for about a year aged 14 I WAS Jane Eyre.  In late teens it was Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, D H Lawrence.  While studying Maths and science and becoming a Maths teacher, I continued reading voraciously – detective stories, adventure stories, thrillers, romances, women’s fiction, feminist fiction, great literature and airport novels, chic lit and aga sagas – I read the lot and love it.  With my children I enjoyed re-discovering much loved books from childhood too, and am currently hooked on Harry Potter read by Stephen Fry on CD’s as my companion to fall asleep at night to.

I confess I’m not particularly into sci fi. or fantasy, or dystopias, and often struggle with ‘modernism’ which makes reading difficult for the sake of it.  For a while I bought/borrowed the 6 short listed books for the Booker prize each year, and enjoyed some, but increasingly found myself out of step.  Too many times I gave up in weariness with overwritten, pretentious writing with too little story and no interesting characters, no interesting character development – or characters I simply didn’t want to spend time with.

Now that I’m retired and have time to read a lot, I find myself less and less inclined to plough on with books I’m not enjoying – for example I gave up on Wolf Hall (too many characters, too confusingly written, odd time skips, etc ) and The Finkler Question (self obsessed maunderings of a self pitying bore); Cloud Atlas (skipped the modern futuristic bits and irritated by the structure).

This outpouring has been prompted by a terrific article in The New Statesman that reflects my views – Ed Smith’s Left Field 24-30 April 2015 headed ‘Clever novelists know how to write a story.  It’s the clever-clever ones who don’t’.  Great stuff.  He’s a lit critic of many years experience who’s just read his first Agatha Christie and loved it!  He’s found out what he’s been missing out on in all his years of wading through modernist stuff.

Which brings me back to poetry.  I’ve fallen almost accidentally into the world of reading and writing poetry in the last 5 years or so, triggered by creative writing courses with the Open University taken after early retirement to occupy my mind.  I thought at the start of this big adventure that I was going to learn to write a novel – I’d already written half a (very bad) novel one summer while still teaching.  I discovered I enjoyed trying to write poetry – I like playing with words, rhythms, rhymes, poetry forms (sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, limerick etc) – all very unfashionable in modern poetry.  I also discovered I simply don’t have the stamina for writing long fiction.  And I’ve discovered a community of people doing on-line courses in poetry writing with The Poetry School with poet tutors and tasks etc, so that’s my current creative stimulus.  I’m not good at it, but I love the process.

As part of this process, I’ve been reading lots of modern poetry – I’ve subscribed to assorted small press poetry magazines, discovered poems I liked an bought slim volumes by their writers(mostly disappointing), bought anthologies of both modern poetry and earlier stuff, joined The Poetry Society, read prize winning p0ems, done a couple of free on-line courses about poetry etc etc.  In other words I’ve immersed myself in the worlds of old and modern, mostly British poetry, though in a rather random, idiosyncratic undisciplined way.

Whenever I read a poem in a book or magazine I own, I score the poem out of 10 next to the poem in the contents list – this means I can pick up a book or magazine again and glance through to find my favourites, I can also score a magazine over a year and decide whether to subscribe again (I rarely do).

The result of all this is mostly huge disappointment.  Most poems being published today seem to me to fit into one of several categories:

1.  Trite – eg simple description of a scene or event or person with no interesting insight, imagery, use of language, perspective or anything the least bit memorable.

2. Incomprehensible – often the result of modernist experiments eg cutting lines from different articles in a magazine and leaving the reader to try to make connections that don’t exist.

3.  Incomprehensible without specialist knowledge – references to ancient mythology, obscure bits of literature, and chucks in other languages are favourites.

4. Badly written English – ungrammatical awkwardness that doesn’t flow, sentences whose subject is unclear etc etc.

5.  Apparently randomly chosen adjectives, verbs, metaphors that are so unconnected with the image/subject as to merely jolt without illuminating.

6. Rambling ‘stream of consciousness’ that hasn’t been edited at all.

7. So personal I can’t connect with it – the writer seems to have forgotten the reader.

I could go on.

I want a poem to make me look at something differently, get to the kernel of an idea, emotion or scene, make unexpected and interesting connections of ideas and/or images, use language in interesting ways, encapsulate the essence of a person, scene, moment, event, interaction, make me smile with an unexpected image, capture a precious moment etc.

I read somewhere (I should look it up) that most poems are what poets write while they are waiting for a good poem to come along.

I’ve almost finished reading ‘The Best British Poetry 2014’ published by Salt.  This is a selection from the last year’s poetry magazines in the UK.  As usual I’ve marked the poems out of 10.  So far out of the 64 poems I’ve read, I’ve scored two 7’s and seven 6/7’s.  The rest range from 3 to 6, ie one’s I don’t want to read again.  No 8’s or 9’s which I give to poems I definitely want to keep to read again.

A fascinating insight is gained into these poems from the section at the back of the book where each poet is given a paragraph to tell their poetry writing history, and another paragraph to talk about the poem – how it was written, what it means to them etc.  The thing that strikes me most is how many of these poets are doing PhDs in creative writing or are lecturers/professors of creative writing.  The ones doing PhD’s tend to be the ones who write what to me seems to be pretentious drivel.  I do wonder whether the creation of Creative writing departments in universities has been a mistake – creating a career structure for poets justifying their ‘work’ by academicising it, and a market of readers mostly drawn from other aspiring poets.  It would be interesting to research the subscribers to poetry magazines and find out what proportion aspire to be published in those same magazines.  Are there any readers of modern poetry out there who don’t write the stuff?  And is this why poetry competitions all seem to be judged by other poets?  Can they not find any other readers?  Is this an enclosed little world that rarely speaks to the outside world?  What would we think of fiction prizes if they were always judged by other writers of fiction?  And does this matter?

This is not about sour grapes that my own poems haven’t been published.  I haven’t submitted them for publication.  I’m not at all sure I want to play their game.  I really enjoy my poetry school classes, writing to a task, sharing my efforts with a dozen or so others, reading my fellow student’s efforts, seeing what the tutor says, learning all the time.  I do it for fun.  I don’t regard myself as a poet.

Oh dear, I’ve just seen that I’ve written over 1500 words.  Ah well, I’ve got that off my chest.

Maybe another day I’ll tell you what poems I do like, and maybe even share some of my own efforts.


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8 Responses to Thoughts about poetry and fiction.

  1. E.E. Nobbs says:

    Lots to think about, Trish. I will probably never get as systematic with my ratings systems when I read poems (ie 0-10) but I think I’ll try to spruce it up a bit – maybe a L-M-H to help me think more clearly about my responses & poems that I definitely want to re-read in the future (fav’s). Glad you have reinstated your blog & look forward to future posts.

  2. Marilyn says:

    Wow, Trish, great thoughts here and I’m struck by the similarities between your story and my own way into poetry … not only because of the parallels but because the way folk get into poetry fascinates me. I used to do numbers, teach physics, and ended up doing ethnographic research and now writing poetry. Maybe, no probably, thats why I write what I write … and why I react to others’ poems as I do, often like you asking why, what’s the point etc. Now I’m retired I miss the chance for discussions like the one you’ve started here … thank you. Now following by the way ..

  3. Vee Freir says:

    Hey Trish
    I really liked what you had to say and I wish I’d done a rating system like yours ages ago, but there’s no time like the present so will instigate it as soon as.
    I also came into poetry late (started in 2008) … tho I did write some when I was a teen, but stopped then too.
    Like you I read voraciously and loved all kinds of books (my fav as a child was Myths of Greece and Rome) and still do.
    I also did OU Creative Writing (2010)… so much in common… except maths. I’m maths phobic, due to cruel teachers way back in the 1950’s.
    Anyway, just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading what you wrote and I couldn’t agree more re most of the poetry I read nowadays, so thanks for putting my thoughts into words!

  4. Oswald says:

    We have a lot in common. Thank you for so articulately expressing my views. I’ve studied and loved poetry and literature for a long time. Recently I decided to try to understand and appreciate postmodern poetry (after about 1970). Most of it I read and forget instantaneously, but at least now I’m beginning to understand why. Clive James explains in Poetry Notebook why and how the most memorable poems work. Like you, I enjoy poetry that I can read over and over and still tease out more meanings and memorable lines that stay with me. If it’s too simple, it’s not poetry. For example, I recently read an article about Mary Oliver’s poetry that said it was more like liturgy than poetry. Oliver hands you a moral answer on a plate; you don’t have to search. She writes good liturgy and everybody loves her but it’s not poetry. Emily Dickinson defined poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” I try to evaluate poems now and to figure out how many phrases or lines they have that stay with me or take the top of my head off. With a poet such as Robert Frost, nearly every line is like that. Please read Poetry Notebook and see for yourself why contemporary poetry isn’t poetry. I have also been reading Josephine Hart’s book on what she loves about poetry.

  5. trishrhymes says:

    Thanks Oswald, I’m glad you get what I’m trying to say here. And thanks for recommending the Clive James book – I’ve just ordered myself a copy.

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