Today’s guest post is from Fred Johnson, who is an editor for Standout Books, where he helps authors take their manuscripts from good to perfect. He’s had poetry published in Zetetic, Spark: A Creative Anthology, The Incubator, Iota, Belleville Park Pages, Smoke, and Spring 14. His personal blog can be found here and he can be found on Twitter as @FredBobJohn. You can also find out more at the Standout Books Blog.
Poetry is big and confusing and I don’t get it. As a form, it’s remarkably fluid—just when I think I’ve grasped what it is and how it works, I’ll discover some poet who throws the whole thing on its head. Whereas contemporary formalists like Glyn Maxwell argue that poetry without strict form is like a table without legs, the bleeding edge throw words all over the page, dismissing grammar, form, spelling, and linear sequence. How do I know where to stand? It’s all too much to keep up with.
And yet poetry is something I keep coming back to. My formal education is fairly lacking—I looked over the GCSE poetry anthologies as swiftly as the next kid, and it wasn’t until my A-Levels (i.e., when I was 16-18 for those outside the UK) that I started to pay attention to the stuff we were reading. Even then, it was mostly so I could cultivate an image as a cool, sensitive, poetic guy.
We read “pastoral poetry” for my A-Level English course—this broad thematic grouping picked at poets from Virgil to R.S. Thomas to Philip Larkin, but the course didn’t do much to inspire further reading. At home, I read Coleridge, Poe, and Tennyson (what edgy teenager doesn’t love Poe? I think I can still recite most of “The Raven”). From there I found Keats, Shelley, Dylan Thomas—I loved the lyricism, the vivid images, how seriously they all seemed to take it.
Later on while studying at the University of Liverpool, I briefly studied the poets of the English Renaissance. In my second year, I took a module on the poetry of Yeats—this was more like it. I started writing again in my third year when I took a creative writing module, and carried on through my master’s and through the years following.
Now when I write, it is not so much to make sense of the world (as I’ve heard some poets say) so much as it is to shoehorn meaning or significance into my own experiences or, more commonly, observations. Writing a poem about something is, I think, a means of enshrining it—making it legible and meaningful but also manageable, as if I had labelled it and filed it away, its power and baggage contained.
It is almost a means of drawing boundaries or walls around the subject—poetry reifies events, thoughts, or experiences in a way that appeals to the materialist in me. It can also be a surprisingly effective way of establishing distance between the subject and myself. Not quite therapeutic, but certainly cathartic.
That said, I have difficulty writing about my own experiences or emotions in a convincing or engaging way. I’m not one for deep and confessional stuff—I’m too terrified of appearing narcissistic or gushy, both of which are traits I dislike in others. Rather, I prefer finding (or inserting) the remarkable and the coded in the external world. I think my favourite poets reflect this—I love the American poet Larry Levis, who blows apart his quiet rural and domestic memories to find the significance behind certain events, as well as the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, who was imprisoned and tortured by the Chilean dictator Pinochet and who placed his hope and faith in the inscrutable pampas of the Atacama desert.
I think this lack of “self” in my poetry is probably a weakness—writing, whether poetry or fiction, is first and foremost about communicating with the reader, and if I cannot be found in my work, or if I am submerged beneath a contrived façade, that meaningful communication cannot occur.
This is certainly one challenge I (and all poets and authors) face—another is the same difficulty all artists must stare down: self-doubt, the suspicion that what I’m doing is not only pointless but rubbish, that all I can hope for is a contemptuous sneer and some remark about pretentiousness. There’s no easy way past this—you have to smother that part of you. Easier said than done.
But what I find most challenging about writing poetry is the stuff I expressed in the opening paragraph—I don’t understand poetry, I don’t really know why one poem works and another does not. Perhaps it’s this insecurity that drives me away from overly formal and overly experimental work—such poems are intimidating. I don’t want to feel like something’s going way over my head. Really, many of my preferences and aversions are dictated by my fragile, fragile ego.
But despite these reservations, I will keep writing. I think poetry is important—partly because it’s important to me on a personal level, but also because I believe that pathos is a powerful tool that can be brought to bear not only by simplistic appeals to emotions, but through the dressing-up of wisdom in something lovely or lyrical or startling.
But of course, this power is dangerous—read too much Ezra Pound or Yeats and you’re dancing with the devil. Fascism and nationalism can look real pretty when they’re dressed up by those modernist masters.
But beyond pathos, good poetry is powerful for the same reason any art is—it is transfigurative, bold, rebellious, idiosyncratic, and can change how we look at the world. It can inspire empathy in others and can frame things in startling new ways.
There are certainly worse ways to spend your time.