Thursday, December 1, 2016

On a Poetry Pamphlet

As I've often mentioned, I work in a university library. One of the committees I sit on is the Library Spotlight committee. The Library Spotlight is a display of books (and other material) taken from our collection, featuring a particular theme that changes every couple of weeks or so. (I named it!)

When the Library Spotlight was set up, I pushed for it to feature some traditional and seasonal themes, such as Halloween and St. Patrick's Day and Christmas. (They were absent from the original calendar, though it did feature gay pride, Chinese New Year, etc. etc. I should add that my suggestion was readily accepted.)

So each year for the last three years I've found myself trying to find Christmas books for our Christmas display. In a library of more than a million volumes, you'd think this would be easy, but there are surprisingly few of them. (Bear in mind that we need books with nice covers. A plain cloth-covered hardback doesn't really do anything for a display, and for years the library put its own cloth covers on most of the books it acquired.)

For three years running, I've included a pamphlet of Christmas-themed poetry which some Irish fellow self-published about thirty-five years ago. It's one of a great number of self-published pamphlets and booklets which we keep in our store-room, and which, in the normal run of things, would most likely remain there undisturbed. (I won't give the author or title.)

Me with the Spotlight display.

Each year, I've found myself browsing the poems. They're not bad, but they're not exactly good. There's a certain wistfulness and sweetness to them, but also a naivety and flatness which makes them seem childish, not necessarily in a good way.

All the same, it gives me pleasure to fish this pamphlet up year after year. (At first, I featured it because I had so little material to work with-- the pamphlet has a crude ink drawing of a nativity scene on the cover, which instantly gives it an edge over all the plain-covered volumes-- and that's the still the case. But even if I had more than enough material, I would keep bringing it up, now it's become a Tradition.)

It gives me pleasure because, as a poet, I know how much poetry means to those who write it. I'm happy to give a fellow poet an airing.

Flicking through the poems also made me think of my own years of writing poetry. From my late teens until my mid-twenties, I thought of myself primarily as a poet. That was my ambition. I thought that it was better to write one sonnet that was remembered, that even had a flickering kind of existence as the one poem of a minor poet, than to found a business empire. (I'm still inclined to this opinion.)

And how much work I put into my poetry! I think the greatest English-language poet of all time, W.B. Yeats, described the labour of writing poetry more eloquently than anyone else ever has (apart from the rather petty, and all-too-Yeatsian, anti-bourgeois and anti-pious outburst at the tend):

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen 

The martyrs call the world.’

W.B. Yeats

Too true! I used to contribute poems to my college newspaper (I'm very glad I did, and I'm very glad I still have the issues). Now and again I would reflect that more effort probably went into the writing of my poems than went into the pages of text that surrounded them-- by orders of magnitude.

Poets are generally all too aware, wretchedly aware, of the world's low opinion of poets and 'poetasters'. In fact, this is the whole point of this post-- I think poets have a greatly exaggerated notion of the world's hostility to them. They are so wounded by every throwaway reference to an over-enthusiastic poet inflicting his poems on whoever is polite enough to listen, that they believe everyone views them like that, all the time. After all, poets are an easy target. I can remember how much I was vexed by Pope's witheringly satirical lines on would-be poets and dramatist who were 'proud of a vast extent of flimsy lines'.

So along with my ardent desire to Become a Poet, there was a kind of crushing shame, a furtiveness which might be expressed by adapting Philip Larkin's description of sexuality:

A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Poetry was my secret vice. Asking someone to read your poetry was hardly less shameful than groping someone, in my mind (though I still did it-- the first one, I mean). And I yearned for the day I could say I had been a success and I no longer had to labour under the description "would-be poet" or "aspiring poet".

I felt a vicarious embarrassment for people who self-published their bad poetry in little pamphlets, and who read it out at writer's groups, and who sold it in the streets. I cringed for them.

As well as this, I felt conflicted about the place of poetry in the world. I thought modern society paid too little attention to poetry. At the same time, I was aware of what a remarkably self-interested assessment this seemed to be, and I felt furtive about that, too.

Well, all of that is in the past. I no longer think of myself as a poet first and foremost. I hardly think of myself as a poet at all. I don't have any more poetic ambitions. I would like to write a hymn (at least one) that actually gets sung and has a life of its own, but my heart isn't set on it, as my heart used to be entirely set on the idea of becoming a poet.

Yesterday, when I once again fished out this pamphlet of poems, and found myself flicking through it, I felt twenty years of shame and furtiveness dropping away from me. Now that I could view things with more objectivity, I realised that I didn't feel any sense of scorn or disparagement towards this little pamphlet-- even if the poems were mediocre, and even if nobody would ever read them. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The world would be a poorer place without little pamphlets like this, I realised. It would be a poorer place without private poetry readings, and poet's circles, and poet's corners in school magazines and college newspapers and family magazines (if such things still exist), or swains writing love poems to their sweethearts, or poems written as a form of therapy, and so forth.

Not only that, but I no longer feel that there is any strict demarcation between Proper Poetry, written for the ages and for the benefit of humankind, and 'writing for your own pleasure'. Why should there be? Many a poem written purely for self-expression or consolation has become a classic.

I guess I would have said all this once, but not really have felt it. It was quite a relief to feel it; to see myself, all through my late teens and early twenties, not the ridiculous figure I feared I was, but striving for something worthy in itself.

Poetry feeds into other activities, anyway. In a biography of C.S. Lewis, the biographer made the point that his ultimately frustrated efforts to become a Poet (which he, also, had set his heart on) may not have achieved the intended result, but had an appreciable benefit on his prose. All those hours labouring over poems very few people would read (and having read them, I can confirm they are forgettable) ultimately bore fruit in Narnia and his other classics.

This often happens. The Bob Dylan song "Like a Rolling Stone", which has sometimes been proclaimed the greatest rock song ever, began as a poem. The recently deceased Leonard Cohen became a musician because he couldn't make a living as a poet.

It's very hard to call anything completely wasted effort, or to settle a definitive value (or, more to the point) lack of value on anything.

I think that there is often a false dichotomy posited between elitism and democracy, in this and many other fields. The striving for excellence and the recognition of objective standards are perfectly compatible with populism and folksiness. In fact, I think the striving for excellence benefits from a realisation that there are different sorts of excellence. (Which is not to say that "everything is excellent in its own way".)

There are objective standards, but the fact that they can't be reduced to a science is part of the fun.

I also realise, now I don't have any dog in the fight, that I still feel society should pay more attention to poetry, and that it is undervalued. I think that attention to poetry (pretty much any kind of poetry) has an elevating, deepening effect on social and cultural life.

But, more than anything else, flicking through that poetry pamphlet made me realise how much harder we are on ourselves, in many ways, than the world is. People say it's a big, bad world. I am more often surprised by the tolerance and kindness of the world, than I am surprised at its hostility or cruelty. Since I have given up thinking of myself as a (failed) poet, I realised how selective my perceptions really were, and that people generally didn't think of poets, or even aspiring poets, as ridiculous figures. And the ones who did, I realised, were asses.


  1. Poetry means -many things. Here is one (of many) songs by Cat Stevens that I like, however simple "pop song poem" it might seem compared to the high poets in literature!

  2. "Poetry means many things"...absolutely, I couldn't agree more! Many thanks for the link!

  3. Thanks for this article. There is much in it with which I agree wholeheartedly, as you might imagine:
    ‘The striving for excellence and the recognition of objective standards are perfectly compatible with populism and folksiness.’ ‘There are objective standards, but the fact that they can't be reduced to a science is part of the fun’. Hear, hear!

    I wonder if poetry’s rewards and problems all lie in balance: not only in the art (between form and meaning, simplicity and ornament, elevation and realism) but also in attitude. Apart from all the word-threading, a poet has to steer a course between timelessness and speaking to the age, between heart and mind, between feeling and reason, between accessibility and sophistication, between universality and particularity, between humility and ambition. It’s very difficult to get right, and it depends on wisdom, I suppose.

    But it sounds as if you don’t regard yourself any longer as a poet, even secondarily? May I ask why not?

  4. I, in turn, agree with everything you say here! There are so many factors to take into account.

    I suppose I'll always write poetry but if, somehow, I never wrote another poem, I wouldn't be too sad. I'm more excited about writing other things.

    I'm so glad you liked the article!