I have a funny relationship with poetry. I appreciate many aspects of it – the well-turned phrase, the rise and swell of a finely constructed rhythm – and absolutely adore the simplicity and directness of its cruder cousin, verse, but there’s also an awful lot about poetry that leaves me, frankly, cold. Take ‘The Romantics’, for example, and all that self-indulgent, self-aggrandising bolleaux about the poets ‘soul’ and ‘a higher state of consciousness’ and it all starts to get a bit too wanky and up itself for my liking. I mean, it’s just words, isn’t it, and the purpose of words is communication, so why, other than for fun, in the form of a riddle perhaps, do so many poets – classic and modern – go out of their way to make the comprehendible incomprehensible and the obvious obscure?
There’s a line in one of J D Salinger’s books where one of the wise children of the Glass family observes that a real poet should just say what they mean, leave something beautiful and then just get the hell off the page (or somesuch – I’m paraphrasing ‘cos I’m too lazy to get up and go riffle through Franny & Zooey and Seymour or climb the high roof beam to dig out the proper quote), and that, for me, is the essence of what poetry should be about. Not that I’m claiming any of the things I laughingly call my poems ‘leave something beautiful’, of course, but they do, for the most part, say what they mean, and this – as far as I can tell – is precisely why most ‘poets’ would turn their noses up at them.
What most readers of poetry seem to want is layers. They talk about onions or Russian dolls, winkling out obscure and coded intertextual messages concealed in the hidden depths while seemingly remaining completely indifferent to the vast array of other vegetables available in their local greengrocers (including sprouts – which are equally layered but presumably a bit low rent on account of the associations with farting at the Christmas dinner table) or the assortment of equally entertaining non-Russian and doll-like playthings you could find in any children’s store. They look upon anything (with the possible exception of Haiku) that just says what it means and gets the hell off the page with disdain, preferring instead some kind of instructionless literary Airfix kit that needs to be puzzled over and disassembled and reassembled for hours on end before you can see what it’s meant to be. And I don’t mind that, really – each to their own I say – it’s just the bloody snobbery and snittiness associated with it all that gets up my nose.
That snittiness has been around for a long time now, pretty much since Wordsworth and co went off on one claiming all sorts of divine inspiration and intercession for their scribblings, and I think it’s a huge shame. Rewind a couple of centuries to consider that greatest of literary Williams (Shakespeare), and his poetry – however incomprehensible it might appear for GCSE students today – managed to speak across all social and intellectual divides in a way that Wordworth’s up themselves epics never could. And as for divine intervention – well I don’t know where the almighty was looking when Wordsworth penned the immortal couplet ‘I’ve measured it from side to side / ‘Tis three feet long and two feet wide’ to describe a pond in his poem The Thorn, but guess the Almighty sometimes needs a day off even from his BFF. Or perhaps God just has a better sense of humour than Willy (who amended that stanza in later editions, presumably after having the piss ripped out of him by Blake and Keats et al), and had whipped off, as Gods can, through space and time to offer a helping hand to that McGonagall chap up in Edinburgh?
Anyhoo, after all that moaning, the reason I’m talking about poetry is because the writing group I attend has a couple of poetry projects underway, and it’s also that time of year when I submit a few scribbles to a local poetry society for their annual folio competition. I’d kind of decided not to bother with the latter this year, but having sifted through my hard drive looking for potential performance poems for the former I realised that I’ve probably got four passable ‘serious’ poems I haven’t done anything with, so I will probably give them a polish after all in the hope they’ll pass muster. They’re not multilayered and they’re not deliberately obscure; they’re just mental snapshots of places, times, emotions, events and ideas that preoccupy me from time to time and that I occasionally like to revisit. They’re like faded prints from a box of old family photographs, and while it may just be that ‘proper’ poetry puts no value on that kind of simplicity and clarity of meaning I think it’s kind of nice.
Here’s a snapshot I took a few years ago. It’s of a lake I like walking around, and it’s chocolate-box pretty on a sunny day when the swans are out:
DAYS LIKE THESE
There’s music in my ears
Tiny wires chase across my chest
Entwine and wind as one
To the snow-white packet of chords and crotchets
Held soft in the folds of my hand.
The sunlight makes haze of the horizon
Shimmering heat above shimmering grass
Stirred by the gentlest of breezes
Leaving the leaves in the trees untouched
The warm water unruffled.
Chocolate box pictures of swans on lakes
And nervous sunburnt children
Throwing bread at over-eager geese
Who bicker and fight and lunge and feint
Making haste against all reason.
On days like these it’s easy to forget
The losses and heartbreaks marking the path
That brought us to this place.
On days like these, chocolate box pictures
Of swans on lakes and shimmering grass
Can make us whole again.