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.