Between Me and You came out exactly eight months ago.
Bringing out a poetry collection has been a fascinating experience in all sorts of ways. This blog post is not an attempt to reflect on all the degrees of engagement, intensity, playfulness, intellect, emotion and humanity that readers and writers bring to poetry. It is a brief answer to some interesting questions that came up in a recent reading to a creative writing group, coupled with an example of the sort of things that might be going on in a poem.
Who is a poetry collection, a.k.a. Slim Volume, aimed at?
First there is the potentially wide readership of reasonably literate people. Some will like poetry, some will be open to broadening their reading horizons, and some will have had limited experience of reading poetry and may even be a little suspicious of it. Unless you are a writer with a ‘name’ in the media and the literary circuit, this means that your first category of reader will be friends; friends of friends; family members; friends of family members; and maybe some curious acquaintances.
There is a huge quantity of poetry out there in printed form and online. Very few readers will pick up a poetry collection by someone they have no connection with “cold” from a shelf and buy it.
Secondly, there is the peer group readership. This mainly consists of the folk who are in writing groups, who attend live readings, who read poetry regularly, and who might well write poetry themselves.
I would add to this a third group: any human being with a pulse.
What kind of poetry do you write?
Some people in categories one and three above will come to poetry with preconceived ideas, usually based on how poetry was “taught” to them at school, or on exposure to occasional media initiatives such as ‘The Nation’s Hundred Best Poems’ or ‘Poems on the Underground’. The most common preconception is that poems should rhyme in very regular schemes. The absence of rhyme in Classical literature, centuries of blank verse and over a century of free verse have failed to shift this notion for some people.
Rhyme is just one of many tools of the poetic trade. I use it sometimes, occasionally in a tight scheme, but more often in a less limited way. There are many subtleties to rhymes and half-rhymes. The main thing is the ‘sound’ quality, and many other devices contribute to this.
Just as important is rhythm. Again this can be tied to a severe pattern or achieved in a freer, more open way.
There is room for all kinds of verse and I would not put down any form, whether it is a Pam Ayres-type comic monologue or an obscure, ultra-complex epic.
Novels are routinely slapped with labels that assign them to a particular genre (fantasy, crime, literary fiction, romance, sci-fi, historical etc). Poetry is a bit less burdened by this tendency. The poetry I choose to write draws on various influences, and I am up front about the idea that it has literary ambitions.
But what does that mean?
It means that I like the thought of my poems being read aloud, but that I also like to think they can be read and re-read to good effect on the printed page (or screen).
What effect would you like your poems to have on listeners and readers?
A thorough answer would include: to touch on and stimulate feelings we might have in common; to express things in ways that provoke thought, that may surprise and challenge; to make people laugh, or at least smile; to open up experiences of being human that might relate to childhood, or place, or adult relationships, or political values, or ‘spiritual’ growth; to create a pattern of words that is good enough to give both enjoyment and meaning.
And, in taking the step to share poems with the world in the form of a book, I would like readers and listeners to buy it for themselves and their friends, and eagerly anticipate the next one. I can’t duck that one…there’s no money in poetry but it’s nice to break even!
Should the meaning of a poem be clear and obvious at a first reading?
There are no “shoulds”.
For some purposes there are poems that need to be understood at a first reading. They may well resonate beyond that as well.
Here’s one example.
Heads in the Sand
High on belief the killer stands,
face well hidden, but not his hands:
imagination’s such a curse,
the mind’s eye only makes things worse.
Jihad? Crusade? What’s in a word?
Each severed throat can still be heard.
The act of killing is now proud,
film it, cut it, proclaim it loud.
We kid ourselves we’ve left the mud
but still it’s either bread or blood.
To live is to feel Power’s burn,
pass on that pain, and never learn.
It is pretty obviously about the ISIS beheadings of kidnapped victims. The feeling behind it needs to be up front and unambiguous. The reader/listener might want to reflect further on the last four lines, but there is no mystery to unravel in the words.
Now an example of a poem that may need a re-reading.
The experience that prompted this poem could be written as: “I walked up a steep hill early one morning when I knew that there would be cloud in the valley and clear sunlight on the peak; I was really pleased to get to the top in time for the sun to throw my shadow onto the clouds…this is called a Brocken Spectre after a place in the Alps where the phenomenon was first recorded”.
Instead, I chose to write it in the form of a poem.
Early morning slog up steepness
mantled in mist, moist droplets
dripping from our brows, our noses.
Breathless lest we are too slow,
too late for our own lives.
Cloud-vapour thins as we ascend,
like dry-ice after the show begins,
until we are in clear crystal light,
a low tow-maned sun behind us
as we stand on the cliff-edge peak.
Islands of hill tops bob above
each valley’s ocean of dense whiteness
where tendril waves end at our toes.
And there are our shadowed selves,
long-legged giants projected out
and away for mile upon mile,
stretched and flung across this sea
by broad prismatic sun-shafts.
We hold hands, leap, shadow-box.
We wave like welcoming children.
Brocken Spectres! It sounds like
some Gothic novel alpine fantasia.
But there are our rainbow haloes,
there our aura-throbbing glories.
Raggedy crows fly up from the brume,
disappearing slowly down again
like shiny black fish rising for food.
Our shadows are still huge, needle-sharp,
on time, punctual for this moment
as hand-in-hand we move together,
from broken to mended. Joined.
I don’t want to take the poem to pieces and re-assemble it here, but by writing the experience as a poem I am hoping to do the following, amongst other things.
- Create a vision of the day concerned, a picture augmented by the senses of sound and touch.
- Convey the idea that there are special events in life that depend on a triangle of the time, the place and the persons.
- Suggest the notion that there is hope in life: that whole relationship with another human can be repaired after fracture if the desire for that is mutual.
- Or, suggest the notion that wholeness is possible in the inner self after breakage i.e. the writer might be uniting with her or his own shadow (it’s the advantage of using the shadow image).
- Or both of those last two points at once.
Does it matter that a reader might have to look up the term Brocken Spectre, or the word “brume”? No. The words can hopefully be understood intuitively, and it might be interesting to find out about Brocken Spectres anyway. The poem tries to get good value from the term by playing with the idea of ghosts and shadows, and by the use of “broken” in the final line.
That’s it for now. Writing about writing is good as long as you don’t do it too often.
This post is dedicated to my brother-in-law, who would be the first to say that he never reads books. However, he has pored over every poem in the book and has made lots of insightful comments and posed lots of stimulating questions. A big thank you to everyone who has supported my writing so far, in whatever form.
Between Me and You has been reprinted and is available via messaging me on here, or at email@example.com or private Facebook message. It’s £7 (plus £1.50 p/p UK or £2.50 p/p outside UK). Reductions for multiples!