Saturday 12 March 2005

No idea

In old movies, a cut to pounding waves means Sex. I've been looking through Next Generation poetry to see what images represent Ideas. "Show not Tell" seems the order of the day. Emotion-related concepts like (e.g.) "Longing" can be depicted by a stare, and even some rather abstract notions can be illustrated by Escher. But anyone who's played party games like Pictionary or Rapidough will appreciate that some concepts are harder than others to depict, which is why a vocabulary has been developed over millennia to discuss Ideas.

Of Stand magazine in about 1997, Andrew Duncan wrote "A phobia about ideas leads to unnatural numbers of Things held to embody virtue, a kind of gift shop at the folk museum poetry". Carlos Williams said "No Ideas but in Things" and wheeled on his Red Wheelbarrow. Since then the stage becomes crowded with props and teaching aids. "Things" have become imbued with significance, overloaded with inexpressible meaning - inexpressible because the poet has censored naked Ideas.

In the Eastern Block censorship encouraged some forms of creativity - allegory, etc - though it also led to obscurity. It's been said of avant-garde that it's written as if sense were censored. In NextGen poetry there's seeming censorship against the academic, the abstract, which might in turn account for the limited range of genres. It's mostly anecdotal in nature, its diction educated but rarely intellectual. It's strange that though the poets "explore issues" like Race, Beauty, etc, they shy away from any connection with experts in Sociology, Aesthetics, etc, prefering to present an incident at a bus-stop or the Tate's canteen.

You might object that poetry's not supposed to be sociology or philosophy. I'd reply by saying that there's no reason why poetry shouldn't call upon the expertise of those in other fields. By not doing so it risks marginalising itself even more. I think the rule of thumb should be to show what can be shown, and tell the rest, rather than restricting what you write about to what can be shown. Poetry's not philosophy, but equally it's not Pictionary either.


  1. No, poetry is not philosophy but that doesn’t mean it can’t be philosophical. And I’d like to think that mine is. The same goes for sociology or psychology. Poetry to my mind is at its best when it’s talking about people. It might be using sleepy mountains or the sea changing into something else when we’re not watching but people are endlessly fascinating. I’m not sure what more one can say about Nature that’s not already been said frankly. Even Williams’s ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ is about people: who is it that feels that way about the wheelbarrow and why? Poetry’s metaphorical nature lends itself to projection, to say one thing when you mean something else. I do sometimes wonder why more poets don’t say what they’re really thinking or are they afraid that would turn their poems into chopped-up prose? As if most people would notice. I wrote a poem about a week ago where an old codger—that was the title of the poem—wakes up in the early hours, checks to see if his wife is still alive beside him, goes to the loo (pees sitting down) and then climbs back into bed where he checks his wife again. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written in a while and my wife even hugged me after reading it. She got the point; it was a love poem stripped of all clich├ęs and platitudes. Philosophy? Pop psychology? No, poetry, plain and simple, as plain and simple as poetry can get and still be poetry and perfectly suited to the material.

  2. "simple and strong" poetry can sometimes get crowded out by noisier pieces. It risks being seen in comparison as "simple". I think it helps if they're published alongside the author's pieces in other styles - Don Paterson does this, I think.
    An editor in a rejection letter described a piece of mine as an essay poem. I do some pieces where people barely get a look-in. They're not very popular.