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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future