Friday, 21 August 2015

Poetry about poetry

In Hans Christian Anderson's story, "The poet who was born too late", previous poets have used up subjects. The poet goes to a fortune-teller who tells him to try her spectacles. He discovers that potatoes, bees, and passersby all have stories to tell. But when he takes the spectacles off he hears nothing. "Write about poetry and you'll be rich," the fortune-teller says.

"We very rarely publish a poem about poems ... There is a kind of self-absorption which is not very appealing" (Tom Clyde, editor of HU in 1995). This seems to be a common view amongst editors - I received the following on a rejection slip: "in the main I'm not interested in poems about poetry. Let the poem exemplify poetry by its technique & register, & be about something else". Poets and readers often distrust the genre too - "Above all, I am not concerned with poetry" (Wilfred Owen). I think that several factors are involved in this viewpoint

  • an over-reaction to the dreaded "sonnets about sonnets" fad of centuries ago
  • a trend away from "essay poems", especially if they have a didactic component
  • a feeling that people only write about poetry when they have run out of things to say
  • a lack of interest in technique, and a wish to hide devices
  • a wish that poetry could transcend words, escaping from the page into the real world.
  • a trend towards confessional poetry and the lyric

Edna Longley has said that every poem worth its salt is in part about poetry, but I see no harm in occasionally using poetry more blatantly as a subject, writing about what you know. Unlike "Custer" say, or a Biblical event, it's a subject with which an international readership might fairly be expected to be familiar (and be interested in). With so many styles, theories and schools of poetry around there is no shortage of subject matter. If nothing else, at least the poem might be educational.

The "anyone can write" tutors who tell pupils that they can write poetry about anything, anything at all, tend not to suggest that people write about poetry technique, though there's an increase in the amount of poetry about poetry workshops, and poetry about writing poetry (Ted Hughes' "The Thought Fox" for example).

In 2000 I produce 4 issues of Poetry about Poetry. I contributed Closure and started making a list of Poems about poetry.

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1 comment:

  1. My latest novel is all about the writing process. And there will be people who will hate it because of that but I’d rather they hated it because it was badly written. There are chess players out there who do nothing but talk about openings and endgames and surgeons who are happy to prattle on for a whole evening about different kinds of stitches and so what’s so strange about a poet writing poems about poetry or a novelist writing a book about a novelist? I like all kinds of books about writing, the fictional and the nonfictional. No one writes like me—no one I know of—and I find it fascinating to hear about how others do what they do. If editors don’t want to publish certain kinds of poems then so be it. We’re not exactly short of outlets for our work.