Making toast for Dirk Bogarde

HOW POETRY WORKS ed Tony Curtis, Seren pounds 6.95

Asking poets to expatiate on their techniques is a bit like asking actors on to a chat show. At best you get some rib-tickling anecdotes, at worst the naked ego strutting without benefit of script or rehearsal. Ask them to yield up drafts of their masterpieces too (Don Paterson says he writes up to 80), and you may get enough preening to put you off poetry for life.

If the literary interview is the most overrated of all critical pastimes, the literary come-into-my-workshop runs it a close second, unless it happens to be the home of a Yeats or a Hopkins. Poetry doesn't really lend itself to guides, manuals and confessions, any more than sex does. It says eat me and drink me. Alice didn't need any further instructions, and nor should we.

Tony Curtis has assembled nine poets, ranging from seniors (Abse, Clarke, Longley, Stevenson) to juniors (Armitage, Paterson). "I'd ... be deeply suspicious of any poet who claims to understand ... the `process'," says Paterson, but within a few lines he's off: "God dispersed after the Big Bang, or after the Fall, and shattered into a million pieces, like a great glass hologram. The pieces are us. A poem is the literary analogue, a highly polished shard of the Great Epic ... the whole point of the exercise is to blow the reader's mind."

Paterson, for all his talent, swings between the grandiose and a cut- the-crap demotic that clogs up his diction. Simon Armitage also feels obliged to kit out the mystery in verbal Doc Martens: "My criterion for knowing or feeling that I have taken a poem as far as I can is to sit back, read through, and wait for that bloody-hell-I-wrote-that feeling." Both agree that "form can be a very slippery customer, like Dirk Bogarde in The Servant ... before you know it you're buttering its toast and ironing its shirts." That's Armitage, nippy as ever with a metaphor. Paterson's version of a related point is: "I ... find that the subconscious can operate a lot more freely if I throw the left side of my brain some indigestible intellectual doggy- chew to shut it up and prevent it from interrupting ... form is like the honey-cake you throw to Cerberus to placate him while you nip into Hades to steal Euridice back again."

What we end up with is words about words, little poetic flourishes designed to explicate little poetic flourishes, which is rather like Ptolemy's idea of putting circles on circles to explain the motions of the planets. What they did, you see, was to circle. What poetry does is to ... make things poetic.

Helen Dunmore worries about gender and the "hidden voices of women", which probably keeps both sides of the brain distracted, but finds consolation in her word-processor, "something as meltingly lateral as thought itself". Anne Stevenson disarmingly confesses, "I am hardly a more competent poet today than I was 30 years ago" but then tends to refute this modesty with an outline of the genesis of her fine poem "A Sepia Garden". Dannie Abse recalls the wartime boom in poetry sales which got him his post-war acceptance by Hutchinson. He goes on to bewail his early untutoredness, "unaware of literary criticism, mixing with [medical] students who owned no knowledge or theories about the craft of poetry". Nowadays the boom has transferred itself from sales to poets, thousands of them, bounding out of the creative writing schools and queueing up to appear in books like this one, with enough theory up their sleeves to secure tenure and power a thousand seminars.

Vicki Feaver, like Dunmore, felt done down by men, and liberated by Adrienne Rich, "who had been taught, as I had, that poetry should be `universal' which meant, of course, non-female". Harold Bloom has named this the School of Resentment. It transposes real (social, economic, psychological) injustice into an unreal aesthetics, riddled with the sort of logic that makes art responsible for oppressing women, just as it stamps on the face of the working class and privileges neurosis over a healthy game of rugby.

How Poets Work might be said to belong to the school of handy hints and post facto ruminations, useful for those just starting out, perhaps, or in need of solidarity - something you don't get much of at your desk, except when you pick up one of those dead white writers, of either sex.

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy