Poetry Anxiety

I’ve been praying to St. Anza – the patron saint of poets – to help me write poetry, much in the same way as jockeys pray to St. Ables before a race. Ok, it’s a bad joke, but I do need a patron saint for guidance, as the lines I’m currently choking out are dreadful. My attempts have just begun, and Galway Kinnell (an American poet, of whom I am very fond – that makes him sound like my favourite jug) describes perfectly how I feel: “That’s the way it is with poetry: When it is incomprehensible it seems profound, and when you understand it, it is only ridiculous.” I barely understand my own free-form highly wrought words, and when I follow a more conventional path, I end up sounding – as Galway says – ridiculous.

I wonder if my poetry might be more palatable put to song? Would background music be a more forgiving setting for my words? The ‘Sultans of Ping FC’, an Irish band, were big about 25 years ago, although I’m not sure if they made in-roads anywhere outside of Ireland. If you were a student there in the early nineties you might remember their unparalleled song, “Where’s Me Jumper?” Completely anarchic, catchy, ridiculous, it was based around a now fossilised notion of wearing a jumper to a disco – what self-respecting young person would, these days? In fact, do they even call them ‘discos’ anymore? The song’s refrain is: “Dancing in the disco, bumper to bumper / Wait a minute: where’s me jumper?” When I put pencil to page, I come out with clunky, unliterary lines that aren’t even as good as, “Where’s Me Jumper?” I’ve got it in a compilation CD that I play in the car and its verses always cheer me up:

“My brother knows Karl Marx

He met him eating mushrooms in the public park

He said: ‘What do you think of my manifesto?’

‘I like your manifesto, put it to the testo.’

It’s all right to say things can only get better

If you haven’t just lost your brand new sweater

I know I had it on when I had my tea

And I’m sure I had it on in the lavatory.”

(‘Sultans of Ping FC’, excerpt)

A little rhythm and rhyme I can manage, but when I do, my poetry ends up sounding like a piece of doggerel, written on a napkin five minutes before the groom stands up to speak. In a desperate attempt to deliver Byronic words to his new wife, I’m like the panic-stricken groom who ends up sounding less Byronic and more moronic (see, point proven!)

Rhythm and rhyme were once memory aids, particularly important when poetry was a spoken art, before it became something we read quietly from an anthology of a winter’s evening. The performance poets have taken back these conventions, using a steady beat box delivery style, almost rapping out their rhythm in snappy rhymes to fine effect. I’m no performance poet though. My preference is to read a poem for myself; quietly, taking my time and hopefully learning something, opening my mind to a new feeling. Wandering the streets of Edinburgh, I stay alert to possible inspiration, taking photographs on my phone, jotting things down on scraps of paper, ‘borrowing’ from conversations at adjacent tables. Then I come home and try to weave in half rhymes, internal rhymes, significant words, adding metre and iambic pentameter. I might as well try to knit an Aran jumper (and then wear it to the disco), I might find it less complicated.

Something else Galway Kinnell said was, “Prose is walking, poetry is flying”. Is he right? Sometimes, and sometimes not. For me, some of the most poetic lines I have ever read have come from novels. Take the last line of Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’:So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Pure poetry. I’m going to beat on with this poetry business and, believe me, it’s one strong current.

2 thoughts on “Poetry Anxiety

  1. Was it Emily Dickinson who said ‘tell the truth but tell it slant.’ I think it’s about implying rather than telling.

    Heaney makes it look so simple . And then you go to the Homeplace and discover he made seven handwritten drafts of the wee poem ‘The Schoolbag’ before he was satisfied.

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  2. It’s hard to write well when you’re frightened of how it comes out and it’s hard to write well if you don’t care how it comes out–but the later starts more good poems than the former.

    The other fear thing (which you seem to the good sense to question) is the consideration that poetry has to be great or not at all. The thought that poetry is some kind of sacred thing which human limits and failings profane should be considered more puzzling than it is.If we thought this of music and prose, there’d be no vernacular music at all, and we’d all stay illiterate as a matter of modesty.

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