John Glenday on Poetry

I came across this, that you may like. It’s John Glenday talking about writing poetry: It’s all good advice. Of course it is.

However, what really struck me is that if you were to take many prominent examples of modern poetry that are ‘good’ in the eyes of the arbiters of taste (magazines, presses, a couple of critics, prize panels, creative writing tutors) there are poems that clearly follow these very sensible principles and their criteria for quality is beyond the ken of some other poem writers to actually see. Poems are such slight, brittle things, and so much about the decision making of a poem is only evidenced by what’s NOT there, that successful poems are almost always underwritten. You can go to an open mic night and you have only to listen for a couple of lines of a person’s keenly-felt 10 minute masterpiece to know that it isn’t very good. And this is because of what IS there. They are at great pains to show you what IS THERE. They hammer into their poem like a football pundit’s programme structure: they first tell you what they are going to say (even if they haven’t delighted you with a five minute introduction). Then they say it. More than once, if you’re really lucky. And then they tell you what they have told you. I’ve done it. I may well again. You’ve done it. And there is something more in this analogy: football punditry is based on hyperbole. Graphic metaphor. Adjectival pile-up. Everything taken to an nth degree. And you are being told, told told. I suspect that the truth is that many people who go to open mic nights don’t read any contemporary poetry (contemporary poetry, I’m saying). And so, by comparison, they will look at something highly crafted and ‘underwritten’ and not credit it with anything. And, in fact, I have seen some really good poets tank live. Not because the material was bad, but because the audience couldn’t ‘see’ what was being put in front of them (I suppose I am being playful with the word ‘see’ here: sometimes if audiences could see the words the readings would benefit).

So, what IS there is the thing that rules a poem out. And what could be there is the thing that keeps us coming back to something. So, John Glenday’s words have me thinking. And a great indicator of where you stand is if you read this poem: Can you ‘see’ it in the poem? Maybe the poem is never in the poem itself. Bad writers look at good writing and can’t see the ‘writing’.

And so we… you… I… we labour desperate (maybe it’s just me) for a gap to open so that someone gives us the chance to do more of it, or to a larger audience. So the temptation to overwrite is there in everyone: we want the poem to be noticed.

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