Don't Ask Me What I Mean

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Thursday, 15 March 2007

A few weeks ago, and I met an old friend who’d come up to see myself and others in Sheffield (for some reason, a lot of our Sixth Form decided to head off to either Sheffield Uni or Sheffield Hallam for their degree studies – a mixture of proximity and the uniqueness of the city, I imagine). After a group of us had gone out, caught up, and drunk until the early hours of the morning, the two of us started talking about various things. She headed back home the following day, and we carried on chatting over email, and at her request (seriously, did you know what you were letting yourself in for?) I emailed over a few poems, which she responded to with her feelings and opinions about them. The strange thing (or at least it seemed that way until I’d finished writing in a sudden stream of, I suppose, defensiveness), was the response her genuine comments drew from me. I wrote the email below, then, without even properly thinking: it seemed talking openly and honestly (albeit via email) about the stuff I write had helped me to access some messy ‘literary manifesto’* that’d been buried inside of me for some time.

The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations has an interesting section on what it means, to the wider world and in the mind of anyone who might dare to consider themselves as being, ‘a poet’. The most interesting is the development through the years of the quotation I associate with Don Paterson, its most recent exponent: that is, if anyone asks you what you do, you mention the Inland Revenue and they end the conversation for you. And, of course, this sense of embarrassment filters out, to a large extent, into feeling a fair bit uncomfortable when talking about writing the stuff. Poets don’t want to come across as out of touch, aloof, or worse, in meaningless dialogue with themselves, while a possible friend sits across from them, their silence screaming ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ And though they are especial suffers from it (poor, poor things), this feeling of awkwardness in discussing your own writing doesn’t solely affect poets: its something that seems to plague most artists. I thought, for example, that I knew exactly what the word ‘poet’ conjured in most peoples’ minds: think a mixture of Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ with the negativity of John Stuart Mill’s ‘Thoughts on Poetry’. But sometimes you’re wrong. You show a contemporary poem to someone who reads hardly any (or no) contemporary poetry, and they find something that clicks, or fits, or sparks off ideas. You show your poems to someone who doesn’t read much contemporary poetry and they respond to it with something thoughtful, interesting, and ultimately helpful. In my case, this caused a random outpouring that’s helped me to get a clearer idea of where my writing’s been heading. Use your intuition: if you don’t already, take your writing and show it to people you think’ll be interested; outside of writing groups and strictly literary conversations. You might just surprise yourself.

Dear _______ ,

I think my poems feature a lot of tension between freedom and conformity; two seemingly binary oppositions that, like so many things, are subject to fluctuations in meaning, and to merging and blurring with one another. As you rightly point out, the ‘hope’ in my poems is, admittedly, a bit difficult to detect, largely due to the fact that it figures itself as underlying, a potential that isn’t always overtly evident in the world, or at least not as I often encounter it, anyway. Mick Imlah once said that ‘poetry is a way of talking about things that scare you’, and Don Paterson echoed his thought by saying that a good poem leaves the world a scarier and less stable place. I subscribe to those ideas in my writing: you used the adjectives ‘consumerist’, ‘individualistic’, and ‘controlled’ as snapshots of aspects of our society; the many contradictory and difficult elements that go up to make our civilization and, more generally, the world. I suppose, then, my poems are about recognising these ‘in-betweens’; I'm trying to signal the fact that people search for stability and unity in themselves and in the world, and instead find multiplicities and haziness in the sheer possibility of human action and emotion. For that reason, my poems are probably influenced to some extent by the work of Helene Cixous, who’s one of the most important literary theorists of the 20th century, in my opinion. In ‘Coming to Writing’, she talks of her initial intuition that writing was about capturing Truth (something encouraged up until the mid-20th century), and then her empowering realisation that it’s rather in search of the (possibly limitless) limits of potentiality and possibility: something that’s both emancipating and also, quite frequently, a little terrifying. I suppose at first glance, then, ‘The Quiet’** figures silence as something restrictive and uncomfortable, but I like to think that the thunderstorms and the stillness of prayer in the poem hint at something more; at it being a chance to reflect and take things in. If it doesn’t do that, perhaps it needs fixing. The other poems I sent links to probably do (need fixing, that is); but then it’s a lot more exciting (not to mention easier, at least for me) to write about fears and uncertainties than about moments of happiness. After all, real happiness is pretty straightforward (feeling it, that is, not achieving it), which is probably why we all search for it in life as the ultimate goal. I think my poems are probably trying to reach out for happiness, then, but they have to go about doing so in the same way we all come to find it in our lives: through weighing things up and assessing them, through introspection and revelation, and through making a shed load of mistakes. The new Bloc Party album’s got a lovely line from the song ‘Waiting for the 7:18’, actually, where Kele sings: ‘If I could do it again / I’d make more mistakes’. That pretty much sums up everything, I reckon.

I’m also aware, now, that not only have I written a quasi-essay in part-explanation and part-defence of my poems, I’ve also, in the process, talked in depth about my poems, a topic I’m normally averse to discussing at all. So thank you, and at the same time, my apologies, as this has been quite an epic little email. Incidentally, I should say there’s a big gap between the poet and the person, so don’t think I’m severely depressed if my poems come across that way! My poems are doing something (as I attempted to explain above), but whatever that something is, it doesn’t merge too much with my own outlook on life. For starters, it’d be way too much effort to keep that mindset up, and a mixture of my less than brilliant memory and general routine helps to swallow up most negative feelings. Atwood? Yes. Orwell? No. I do think Orwell’s a brilliant thinker, but what I concern myself with isn’t in line with Orwell’s outlook on society and humanity. Atwood’s got a lot of interesting things to say: her novels seem like most dystopia to begin with, but what I’ve realised since A Level is that Atwood is a writer deeply engaged in exploring characters and individuals in all their shifting and contradictory brilliance. Nothing is pindownable with her; emotion and action constantly flow in and out of one another, which isn’t something that dominates the ur novels of the dystopia canon. Anyhow, I have far too many things to say on this topic, so I’ll cut it short here. There’s a short poem attached that might convince you I’m capable of writing slightly less ‘troubled’ poetry, anyway: probably in testament to the lack of conviction I have in my argument. Either way, my poems have only a proportion of themselves devoted to me: they’re more refractive than reflective. Maybe that’s just an excuse, or a massive literary projection or something. Either way, the psychiatrists can work that one out. I will keep in touch. And I’d be glad to send you poems: some when they’re done, and perhaps some when I want helpful advice. Good luck with your mountain of dissertation work: I avoided mine, in part, by writing this.

* I couldn’t think of a better phrase, so this will have to do. It’s way too confused to constitute something as cohesive (not to mention, pretentious) as a manifesto.

** This poem appears in the latest issue of the Frogmore Papers, issue 69.