What is an editor to do? Poetry is in a state of flux, is at a similar stage to that of early cubism — clumsy, ugly, monochrome structures built on theory…. no song, no beauty, too reliant on the appreciation of a partisan cognoscenti…. And that’s just those few attempting the new. Other poets labour on from the — let’s call it a — pre-cubism past, want their work to be pretty still, that is conventionally attractive, praiseworthy. Or they write solely to entertain, to amuse, and make no attempt to stretch their readers’ imaginations.
Confused? Allow me to attempt a loose categorisation. Though please be aware that in listing these ‘categories’ I am not being dismissive. Indeed at one time or another I have included most of these categories in issues of The Journal.
But let’s start at the beginning of the process. With every submission to The Journal, envelope unsealed, pages unfolded, e-mail opened, and once beyond the author’s paeans of self-praise (really if he/she is that good why are they sending work to the humble Journal?) the swiftest of glances over the poems has the categorising switched on.
Top of the list, of the first 3 instantly recognisable, will be:—
Rhyme – And one can get trapped into rhyme the way one gets trapped into lies, the next one and the next leading one further and further away from the truth.
First Person – The use of ‘I’ in any poem is usually the signal for throat-catching sentimentality; or, with first person plural, teenage angst/strictures.
Linguistics – On the page barely distinguishable from computer spill.
Onomatopoeic – Linguistics gone barmy.
Trash poems – Unworked juxtapositions of the discarded.
Regret – Lines which are one long regret for ever having grown up, the author’s childhood having been oh-so-much clearer.
Post-nostalgia – Close to Regret, but more a wish for having had a better past.
Having got thus far with a submission — poems not yet rejected, still reading — I am then, often subconsciously, deciphering the author’s allegiances — humanist? fogey? religious evangelist? racist? anarchist? Suspicion of a sexist subtext…?
And I have to say here, Beware irony. Irony does not translate, nor does it travel. Irony is completely lost on Gee-whizz Americans, for instance, and every half-wit Australian thinks they’re being ironic every time they open their mouth.
So we come to the Poetry Group/Workshop poem — which is loaded with meaning and which requires an explanation at least twice the length of the poem.
Poem as puzzle – Where one has to find one’s way into the meaning.
Code-breaking poem – As above.
Self poems – Can be mistaken for the above, but are poems written for the writer as opposed to poems written for the reader. Such poems are also not readily comprehensible.
Poems of Boredom are written with no object in mind, and often in the middle of the night, are simply a playing around with words for something to do. Often self-descriptive they ask time-starved readers and busy editors to sympathise with their ennui.
(Having written that I realise that these Poems of Boredom require additional categorisation. In that there can be two kinds of poets writing them — those poets who are seeking to express in some manner their life’s truths, and those who enjoy playing with words and form. Can be the same poet at different times; and occasionally a poet can combine the two in the same poem.)
Nature triumphant poems – But if poetry is the alchemy of truth then any poem that these days presupposes cyclical rebirth is a lie and is therefore not worthy of consideration.
Lyrical – Always tempting, but skating always on the thin ice of whimsy.
Over-exclamatory haiku – Brevity already making of haiku an exclamatory form the addition of a single exclamation mark betrays an attempt to infuse it with drama.
Behold poems – Behold the poet looking into the human soul and crying out in pity.
Posterity posturing – In anticipation of their every phrase and minor eccentricity being dwelt on by acolytes as yet unborn, and with future academics quarrel-quoting their work, these are poems with leaden and signalled nuance.
Suck-up poems – Similar to the above, but which suck up to a single group’s prejudices/dogma, seeking only to elicit sympathetic responses therefrom.
After that it can be a relief to come to current/topical poems and their wry reportage on the day, or
> the self-mocking even the self-mocking doggerel of the stand-up
> contrast poems that try to reconcile newspaper/TV reports of atrocities with the author’s own safe going-on day-by-undifferentiated-day.
> anecdotal poems something really did happen.
> stored experience poems beyond anecdotal, more an examination of the experience, giving it a context.
And so we come to a further categorisation of the poets themselves. Or more accurately of poets as met in that most peculiar of sit-down affairs, poetry readings.
Peculiar I say because what matters post-Chaucer is not the oral tradition, but print. Since the advent of print and latterly of near universal literacy the succinct expression of ideas/narratives (poetry) no longer requires mnemonic devices such as Italian/French rhyme or Saxon alliteration. Poets can express themselves on paper alone, have no need to meet their public in person. (Idris Caffrey, for instance, continues to be one of Original Plus’s most popular poets, by which I mean best-selling, yet he has opened his mouth at a poetry reading but the once.)
Nevertheless it has become accepted wisdom that poets still need to give public readings. Albeit that the ‘public’ at those readings will be 90% other poets. And those other poets will not usually be listening, but mentally rehearsing while waiting their turn to read, or thinking back on what, on how, they have just read.
Now the psychology of performance is that the performer (the reader) tries to win the audience’s approval/applause; and generally audiences have a taste for the new. Not though for the unknown, not for the truly original. The familiar, the singalong, and knowing where to laugh, knowing what is expected of them is a comfort to any audience.
Also to be taken into consideration is that at a poetry reading, in order to keep the audience’s interest, one thing has to quickly follow another, so the audience aren’t given time to puzzle on, to ponder over a poem, let alone a single line. Performance poetry is therefore unlikely to break new ground. Indeed it’s not a surprise that at readings, Slams in particular, the lowest common denominator reigns supreme — doggerel which gets a laugh, rhyming sentimentality which generates a sigh and applause.
Or — a subtle variation — the performers are young college-educated men with floppy hair, or curvaceous round-eyed female students, all of whom have pitched their charms according to an allusive lexicon. Both male and female seem to excite learned editors of a certain age. And both seem to say a lot without saying anything new, anything very much.
A truism these days is that any poet who doesn’t in some way entertain will be neglected. Another truism is that to be a poet, or indeed any kind of creator — given the odds against success and taking success as public recognition if not financial reward — requires naiveté. (Sophisticates do not risk being laughed at, sneered at, mocked.)
Unfortunately not all writers are fetchingly naive. Many are simply deluded to their writing’s worth. And some are so arrogant, think themselves hugely superior to other mortals because they have found themselves under a compulsion to put pen to paper. A consequence of this compulsion, and solely because of this compulsion, being that they call themselves a poet. Leonard Cohen said, ‘Poet is a verdict not an occupation.’
Disregarding the astonishing arrogance of blatantly bad poets we still have at readings the establishment English parading their poems of refined gentility. So very softly spoken, voice dying at line’s end; or that oh-so-polite hesitant drone into a microphone.
With or without microphone, page held before their face, observe their stance. One foot is held flat to the floor, while the ball of the other foot twists and presses down, down, almost wearing a hole. One which readers of their own poetry might yet disappear into.