"A poem begins," said Robert Frost, "as a lump in the throat, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words." Among the faltering attempts by poets, and others, to pin down the mystery that is the poetic process, his assertion has weathered well. It is certainly good enough for Seamus Heaney, who quotes it in a piece he wrote for the Poetry Book Society bulletin in 1975. It is one of hundreds of mini essays collected in Don't Ask Me What I Mean: poets in their own words (Picador, £16.99), edited by Don Paterson and Clare Brown and published to coincide with the Poetry Book Society's 50th birthday.
Founded by T S Eliot and Stephen Spender to expand the readership of contemporary poetry, the Poetry Book Society continues to offer its members the discounted books, and thoughts, of poets. "Once," say the editors in their introduction, "when asked what a particular piece meant, Robert Schumann responded by merely playing it again; this would clearly have been the preferred strategy of most poets posed the same question." It's true that the enforced process of "squeezing blood from stones" has produced "remarkable stuff". There are rare and brilliant contributions from Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin and a host of contemporary poets, together with the last piece Louis MacNeice wrote before his death. It is a compelling reminder, in the editors' words, that "the systematic interrogation of one's own unconscious is dangerous and perhaps foolhardy work; but poets have no alternative ..."
If poets are reluctant to talk about their work, or emerge, blinking, into the harsh light of the public and media, they will need to fight their phobia. National Poetry Day, this 10th anniversary year on 9 October, is looming and with it the chance to encounter poetry in a range of surprising places. The Poetry Society is, as usual, offering a proliferation of poetry activities for all tastes. There's a "power breakfast" in the City with Hugo Williams, a lunchtime presentation of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards, a tea-time launch of poet-in-residence Roger McGough's "patchwork poem" and an evening reading, with the Poet Laureate among others, at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden. All this, in addition to hundreds of events around the country, and an interactive "Poetry Landmarks" project on the Society's website (www.poetrysociety.org.uk). I'm glad it's all happening, but exhausted at the thought. In my previous incarnation as the Society's director, I told a packed audience at the end of a long day last year that "at the Poetry Society, every day is National Poetry Day, unfortunately". My Freudian slip was clearly telling me it was time to move on.
For those who still find listening to poetry as exciting a leisure-time pursuit as re-sitting your O-levels, a possible cure awaits. A new website, www.poetryjukebox.com offers anyone with a computer (and sound chip) samples of more than 40 poets reading their own work. You can hear some of the poets in the flesh, too, at venues up and down the country, beginning in London on 2 October.
If you still like your poetry between covers, you could do much worse than Poems of the Year (Bloodaxe, £3.99), edited by Neil Astley. It marks the 25th birthday of a publisher that started at a kitchen table in Newcastle and has done a great deal to revitalise and diversify the poetry scene in this country. Happy Birthday to all those who are celebrating their fight to keep the poetry flame alive.Reuse content