The right kind of eyes

I thought it was worth following on from my last post with a couple of things. Firstly – a Guardian article (from October 2016), which talks about the different ways in which cities have inspired a whole range of poets – from Alexander Pope to Eminem.

Secondly, this more recent article in the Guardian, about the Disappear Here project, in which nine artists and nine filmmakers celebrate “the overt orbicular oddness” of Coventry’s ring road and its nine junctions.

Why do these things matter? Well, the first article speaks (I think, better than I managed) to some of the points I was trying to make (Starting to make? Trying to work out?) in my earlier blog post. In particular, it makes the point that:-

Many people’s first formal interaction with poetry – beyond nursery rhymes, at least – tends to be centred on the Romantic-era poets such as Blake, Keats, Wordsworth or Shelley.

It goes on to acknowledge, that having been exposed to poets like the Romantics first, many people go on to found their future understanding and appreciation of poetry on ideas of the ‘natural’ and ‘beautiful’. There’s probably something about the way poetry is taught in schools here – but I’m not an educator and, being half-teacher on my mother’s side, I know better than to try and tell teachers what to do. But the article quotes East-London based poet, Tom Chivers, as saying:-

“The city resists nostalgic forms of poetry that have been handed down to us in various traditions”.

which I think is very true – and, in many ways, this is the point – in the twenty-first century, if/when/where poetry moves forward, it is more likely to do so in an evolving urban environment driven by constant renewal and change. In my recent reading, I’ve been learning about the Post-World War Two abstract expressionist movement in the USA and its links to the New York School of poets from the 1950s onward. It’s no great surprise, to me, that this group which David Lehman called, “The Last Avant-Garde” came together in an urban environment – indeed, that’s the only environment that I can imagine them in.

Having said all that, one thing I disagree with slightly is Chiver’s contention that “There is this energy and aggression and speed in a city that lends itself to poetry“. I’m not convinced that urban poetry has to be built solely on aggression and speed. A lot of it is – and there are obvious links to hip-hop here and slam poetry, both forms which favour pace and dexterity over reflection and contemplation. But my contention will always be that it is just as possible to find moments of quiet beauty in the city as it is in the countryside – you just need to be mindful and possess what Hunter S Thompson would call, “the right kind of eyes“.

Hence, my linking to the article on Coventry’s ring-road. Full disclosure, I was born and raised in Coventry, though all of my family have long since moved away and I haven’t been back to the city for years. So, there is some nostalgia here, for me – which may run slightly counter to ‘proper’ urban poetical practice. But, for me, the work collected in “Disappear Here” reflects, in some ways, the kind of approach and consideration that I’d like to take. It’s a poetry of landscapes and peoples’ relationships with the landscape, of details – in particular, the shared often peripheral details that go one around people in cities – traffic, street signs, advertisements, graffiti – that form as much a part of the environment that plants do on a hillside (but rarely receive the same sort of attention and affection). Somewhere in amongst all of this, there’s a definable, recognisable, co-produced and collective understanding of urban poetics, waiting to be found.

I’ll keep looking.

Poetry should go where the people are

Last Thursday night, I read some poems at Robert Kerr’s monthly night, “Outside the Narrative“, at Tchai Ovna, House of Tea, hidden away at the bottom of Otago Lane in Glasgow’s West End. It’s a lovely little place – sitting there, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve been transported into a tent in the Green Fields at Glastonbury or somewhere even more otherworldly, one of the ‘Soft Places‘ from Neil Gaiman’s  ‘Sandman’.

I had time to spare between finishing work and the start of the evening’s event so I indulged myself in a couple of things – gyros and retsina at the Yiamas Taverna and a wee wander round the West End. Walking’s such a good way to collect your thoughts and find inspiration. If you’ve got a poem on the go, you may often find that the solution to that tricky ending or the two so-so lines that won’t quite knit together will appear, unbidden, in the course of a walk.

On Thursday night, I was thinking about ‘my’ approach to poetry. I wrote a poem once called ‘The Rules’. It was a sort of facetious manifesto for life. (Rule 12, and the last line, was “Make your own rules and obey only those”.) Sadly, it was written on an old iMac G3 and I lost it when that machine gave up its ghost about 10 years ago. I occasionally think I should have a go at re-writing it. Either that, or get the iMac fixed.

Anyway, what was going round in my head on Thursday night, was a version of ‘The Rules’ that set out a personal manifesto, if you like, for writing poetry. As I say, this is my approach and it’s entirely personal to me. Other manifestos are available – write your own, if you want to  – but this is mine, for whatever it’s worth. I’m not going to try and set the whole thing out here because that would probably take more time/space than a single post allows – but I’ll make a start.

Rule 1 – Poetry should go where the people are.

Cities are signifiers, in the Saussurian sense and the things that are signified by every city are the people. So, for me – just as Lowry said, about his matchstick men, that they were – “part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way: as part of a vision.” – it’s people that inspire poetry. For me, this (mostly) means that poetry should have its roots in towns and cities – i.e. the landscapes and the environment in which most people actually live. Commuter poetry. Poetry that recognises that most peoples’ days take them from estates to stations to offices (schools/Unis/other places of employment are also available) and back again.

I have nothing against nature poetry – when it’s done well. (When it’s done badly, I think it becomes the poetic equivalent of the kind of twee, ‘scenic’ watercolour painting that you find in galleries up and down the country.) But I do disagree, strongly, that there is something inherently ‘poetic’ in the description of nature. (Who says there is? Well, I do but also – check out any list of favourite poems and see how many, like Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud‘ or Frost’s ‘Stopping by woods on a snowy evening‘ are set in countryside/natural landscapes rather than urban scenes.)

Yes, poetry should also be a form of escape. Yes, there is value in poetry that transports the reader from one landscape into another. Yes, it’s possible to use the scenery of the countryside to say something about the lived experience of the city and vice versa. All of these things are true. Equally, in this day and age, it’s important to foreground the environmentalist narrative of ‘Green’ politics, which takes as its founding principle, the fact that whatever happens in the countryside impacts on those who live in cities and, again, vice versa.

But to me, there’s nothing that makes a sunrise over Applecross Bay more beautiful than a sunrise over the Kingston Bridge. It’s about the poet’s ability to capture a moment and unlock the magic in the image/vision/idea. Equally, to try and take an egalitarian view – most people don’t spend much of their time soaking up beautiful scenery on the hills and in the countryside. They do, however, spend a lot of time in cars/on trains/on buses on their way to/from work – and I think poetry should acknowledge this, rather than ignoring it.

And this, to me, is the key. Poetry should go where the people are. Poems need people to read them so, by extension, poems need to be interested in people – where they are, where they’re going, what they’re doing. Which is why, I think, the best walks for a poet are ones that wind through city streets, not hillside footpaths. Wander lonely as a cloud. Wander lonely as a recent divorcee, it’s up to you. But, I think, what connects you to the landscape is as much the  experience of others who share it – of being part of that number, of recognising the commonality and the things that binds us and/or separate us – as it is any observation of the landscape itself. And that is where the poetry comes from.