critiquing poetry in a time of covid

It’s been nearly a year since we held our last monthly poetry group meeting in the light and airy music room in Bristol’s Folk House, before the first lockdown was implemented. I don’t believe even the most pessimistic of us there that day imagined that we would still be living and writing in varying degrees of isolation all this time later.

We’ve kept our poetry groups going by email and Facebook group, with the occasional Zoom meeting for good measure. When we first came up with the idea of weekly prompts and feedback for the duration of our exile, again I don’t think we anticipated the situation lasting to the point where we have now received and critiqued several hundred poems. But it has kept us and our poets busy and out of mischief.

In the summer I had a rush of blood to the head and have now embarked on an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Writing School, and one of the modules requires us to … yes, critique each other’s poems. And because you can never have too much practice, here’s one written just for fun.

Hi Bob

Thank you for sending us your poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. We think this is a promising early draft.

You set the scene well. The narrator is making a journey, accompanied by a horse pulling a sleigh. It is evening and there is snow. Nearby there are woods, and at a distance a village. The narrator pauses and then considers continuing his journey.

You capture this opening scene with such precision that it is a surprise to the reader when the poem fails to progress beyond it. We wonder if you have been struck by writer’s block or had a particularly busy week? Have you considered having something happen in the poem? Maybe there could be an attack by a highwayman, or a chance encounter with a young man and his heavily pregnant girlfriend, who are from out of town and need a lift to a nearby inn? Who knows where the story could go from there.

We have a few specifics to draw to your attention.

First, the title. We don’t think it’s working hard enough for you. You could use it to locate your poem more precisely, as in ’Stopping by Michael Wood just outside Thornbury on the M5 northbound on a Snowy Evening’, or add an air of mystery by calling it ‘The Numinous Snow’.

In the opening line, the inversion feels very archaic to us. It would sound far more natural if it read ‘I think I know whose woods these are’. Of course, you would then have to alter the entire rhyme scheme of the poem, but it needs attention anyway, as ‘though’ at the end of the second line is clearly there just to rhyme with ‘know’. In fact, end rhymes are rather old-fashioned, as is the tum-ti-tum metre of the poem. You could really add interest by breaking the poem up with some enjambment and the addition of internal and half-rhymes.

In line 1, stanza 2, ‘queer’ is a somewhat problematic choice of word. At best, you risk wrong-footing your reader; at worst, it’s cultural appropriation. And of course, making assumptions about what the horse is or isn’t thinking is an example of anthropomorphism and best avoided.

Lines 3 and 4 of this stanza are superfluous. You have already mentioned the woods, and the frozen lake is irrelevant to the action of the poem as it stands currently.

It is frustrating that although you return to the horse in stanza 3, its potential is not fully explored. The harness bells add a picturesque, almost whimsical touch, but we know nothing of the animal itself. What colour is it? Does it have a name? There is so much more interest that could be added at this point.

In the final stanza, the repetition of the last two lines makes for a slightly weak finish. We suggest you substitute line 4 with something like ‘in a Berni Inn that’s clean and cheap’.

Finally, Bob, we hope you don’t mind if we point out that you’ve been writing rather a lot of these little New Englander poems lately. They can only ever be of local interest. Have you thought of writing something more culturally appealing, such as a riff on Love Island? Or a poem on a theme everyone can relate to, like picking up a prescription on a Saturday with the kids in tow when they’d rather be flying their kite? You could call it ‘Shopping in Boots on a Blowy Morning’.

All the best with it, Bob. We think you have the makings of an interesting poem here, and look forward to seeing a much later draft.

Warm regards

Colin and Deb

Anticipating ‘Earthworks’ by Stewart Carswell

We’re absolutely delighted that a collection by Stewart Carswell, who used to workshop his poems with The Leaping Word while studying for his PhD in Bristol, is to be published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2021.

Entitled ‘Earthworks’, the collection explores the connection between human relationships and British landscapes, and how these are influenced by a greater backdrop of history and politics. In particular, the poems draw upon locations and  heritage from across the West Country, including West Kennet long barrow in Wiltshire, Offa’s Dyke in Gloucestershire, and the industrial heritage of the poet’s native Forest of Dean. 

Stewart adds: “‘Earthworks’ features poems I have been working on over the last five years, since my first pamphlet ‘Knots and Branches’ (Eyewear publishing) appeared, such as ‘Silver Turn’, which is influenced by the Roman temple in Littledean, Gloucestershire, overlooking a large meander in the River Severn.”

‘Silver turn’ is available to read on Stewart’s website.

The hand of stars

We’re very proud to share a film made by one of our poets, Hazel Hammond, who is recovering from aphasia, following a stroke in 2019. (Aphasia is an impairment of language, which affects both active and passive language, as well as the ability to read and write, after an injury.)

Hazel says she’s no longer a poet as she struggles to find the words, but having worked with poets who use British Sign Language, we believe that poetry has a wider definition than many people think. We’re really looking forward to seeing Hazel progress along on this different poetry path, using her wonderful art.

Making something of the situation

Poets are natural hoarders. They understand the importance of memories to the process of writing, and stockpile them for when a future poem might demand the inclusion of, say, a complicit glance, an unexpected gift, or the fall of sunlight through a woodland glade thirty years earlier.

The restrictions placed upon outdoor activity by COVID-19 means that everyone will now be ransacking their reserves, falling back on memories of loved ones, favourite walks and landscapes, past holidays in distant places, to get through these lean times.

And once we’ve exhausted the highlights, it will be the mundane that sustains us. The memory of a bottle of glue in a Christmas stocking, the luxury of using it for sticking pictures in your scrapbook. Carefully stabbing open the slit on the red rubber top with the sharp point of a pair of scissors. Turning it upside down and dabbing it hard on a bit of paper to get the glue flowing. And when it was all used up, the disappointment of going back to the gloop of your mother’s homemade flour and water paste – its squidginess between the stuck down picture and the page, the inevitable damp wrinkles, the speed with which it congealed in its jam jar.

We all have the wherewithal to get through this time. It starts between our ears. It turns into words on a page, a drawing filling a blank piece of paper, the rise and fall of notes on suddenly cleaner, quieter air. Don’t say you can’t make something of this situation. You can.

A Perfect Circle

A Perfect Circle is from Deborah’s fourth poetry collection, The Shadow Factory. More poems from this collection can be read here on the Indigo Dreams website.

This blog was first published on The Red Dress of Poetry.

 

Poets, Poetry and Politics: Some thoughts on the writing of political poetry

peacock

‘Politicians deal with issues; poets deal with epiphanies.’ John Agard

 What can we do – in these times of political, social and environmental crisis on both a national and an international scale – to address the urgent issues before us? ‘It is the duty of all poets, everywhere and at all times, to be dissident members of the permanent opposition,’ says Cork Poet, Theo Dorgan, and indeed, there are many poets who feel they have no choice but to embrace the political in their poetry, to take a side in the conflicts between the powerful and the powerless, the oppressor and the oppressed, and to raise a voice in and against a culture of silence.

Some poets see no division between poetry and politics. Power is generally reactionary and dehumanising and the poet, seeking to be fully human and writing for the just cause, is always on the other side. Chinua Achebe, who wrote extensively about the Nigerian Biafran war, pointed out that language itself is riddled with politics, prejudices and privilege: ‘Language is not neutral. It’s very much a political tool. It’s charged with prejudices. So, a poet who says “I’m not in politics” is not being realistic’. And for the Malawian poet, Jack Mapanje, there is no separating poetry and politics except from a position of privilege: ‘I consider the division often made between politics and poetry to be thin and contrived … Separating them is a luxury. Literature is about life.’

However, politics holds many temptations and traps for the unwary poet. Indeed, some find the relationship between poets, poetry and politics problematic or even dangerous. They might claim that political poetry is boring, or a contradiction in terms; that it’s propaganda, not poetry; that poets shouldn’t write what they don’t feel as their own; or that it attracts poets who lack self-awareness, whose motives are suspect.

The first objection is certainly familiar to anyone who goes to poetry and spoken word nights. One problem is that all too often poets start by stating the obvious and fail to deviate from that position. We’ve all seen the poet who gets up on the stage, adopts a declamatory tone and stance, says how much he or she hates a particular political figure, for example, often to a laugh of recognition, and then continues, for another three minutes, to say the same thing over and over again. He or she isn’t really engaging with poetry at all. No insightful or unusual connections are made and nothing new is being created in the mind of the audience members, who are merely listening to an iteration of their own conviction. Yet the American poet James Tate said ‘What we want from poetry is to be moved, to be moved from where we now stand. We don’t just want to have our ideas or emotions confirmed.’

This pitfall isn’t just confined to poems about politicians. The American poet, professor and critic Mark Halliday wrote: ‘I would never tell students “Don’t write about a political issue, or a disaster in the world, or evil.” But I would say let’s be aware that everyone in this room is against torture, everyone in this room is against the molestation of children – so to write expressing that moral view is going to be very boring.’

The American poets, W S Merwin and Robert Wrigley, both take issue with the danger of straying into the realm of dogma. Merwin was firmly of the opinion that the poet’s political conviction would not lead to the writing of poetry. ‘You start from the wrong place with political poetry,’ he said, ‘because you start by knowing too much, and so what you’re likely to write is propaganda.’  His fellow American poet and educator, Robert Wrigley, went into more detail: ‘My sense of poems, be they anti-war or pro-diversity, is that the poem’s motive is not something I can often know in advance, if it’s going to be any good. The poem needs to find its own way, it needs to take me along toward where it wants to go.’

With regard to poets not writing about what they don’t feel as their own, we would do well to heed Seamus Heaney, who was determined not to be used by any side during the Troubles, but to write the real as he understood it. In doing so, he kept safe not only his own integrity but the heart and the meaning of poetry: ‘There is no use coming to poets, either in Soviet Russia or northern Ireland, and expecting or ordering them to deliver a certain product to fit a certain agenda, for although they must feel answerable to the world they inhabit, poets, if they are to do their proper work, must also feel free.’ And if you think there’s not much difference between writing a good or a poor political poem than there is between writing any other good or poor poem, Michael Longley has this for you: ‘A bad poem is bad enough, but a bad poem about something as big as the [Ulster] Troubles is an impertinence and an offence.’

As for the final objection to political poetry, Judith Kitchen cautioned against the dangers of confusing cause with self. ‘It’s all too typical for contemporary poets to write as if they assume that the social importance of what they advocate – justice for women, the environment, the poor, etc. – gives importance to the self-identity of the poet, as if suffering can be borrowed.’ And Jayanta Mahapatra warned of the peril for the poet of the loss of humility: ‘A great danger we encounter, as poets away from direct participation in the affairs of the community, is that we take ourselves easily as the guardians of moral purity. I can always proclaim: Politics is dirty and the government is corrupt, but I as a poet am clean; my aims are beyond reproach. This… leads to a sort of vanity in the poet, an arrogance.’

So, is it possible to write political poetry that’s more than propaganda, more than the banging of a tired old drum? That’s not just a gobby, shallow, second cousin to another kind of cliché? The poet, David Constantine, says it is: ‘Poetry has in it, in its rhythms, its variousness, its contradictoriness, indeed in its beauty, an intrinsic power of revolt’ but then adds, ‘which the poet forfeits if he reduces the poem to the expression of a cause.’ A poet, then, reducing a poem to the expression of a cause has forgotten who she is and all she knows, forgotten her art and her craft, forgotten the power of poetry, what poetry can do, its possibilities.

We can agree that a good poem sits well on the page, and that its form is appropriate to its content. When you read it out loud, you’ll want to read it again because it sounds so good and it’s a pleasure to read. And it affects you emotionally, and at the same time it makes you think. And it gets physical with you. It’s well-crafted but subtly so, it doesn’t stink of craft, the different elements don’t detract from the whole but sing in unison, seductively. And it’s not an exercise in making a poem that works but is a bit dull really. There’ll be lines you’ll want to share and talk about with your friends, images that bring your imagination to life, you’ll take pleasure in its rhythms, you’ll want to copy it out, you’ll want to learn it by heart. It will fascinate you. It will feel like the mothership calling you home. It will make you want to go home, quickly, to write.

With a political poem the biggest problem, arguably, is the militant tendency of knowing before you begin what you think, and what you feel, and how (or why) that doesn’t change by the time you believe the poem’s written. As Nick Laird said: ‘You can’t write a political poem if it’s just about politics.’ So the main challenge for poets writing political poetry would seem to be to write about more than politics. This might include writing poems in which the politics is located not so much in the surface content but in the deeper meaning of the poem and the effect it has on the reader and audience.

The South African poet Gabeba Baderoon once told me that during Apartheid, poets in South African were united in writing poetry rooted in the political struggle for liberation. After the fall of Apartheid an argument developed about the future direction of poetry in the country. Some felt that the ending of Apartheid  was just one stage in the struggle and that the straight down the line approach to poetry for liberation should be maintained; others, meanwhile, argued for a broadening of the definition of ‘politics’ and ‘struggle’ and the role of poetry, to include, in particular, the personal.

Gabeba Baderoon was in the latter camp and went to work with Palestinian women, collecting and writing with them poems about their love lives. She said that before someone can define another as an enemy, and before they can kill, rape, torture and rob, etc, they must first dehumanise the other, turn people into things. But if they know someone’s love stories, it’s not possible to deny their humanity; they have to acknowledge that the harm they are doing they are doing to people, to human beings.

I recently heard Frome-based poet Shauna Robertson read a poem titled: Baking, & Aleppo that inventively and skilfully intercuts lines from an article in The Guardian about the war in Syria with a BBC website recipe for gingerbread men. It’s a striking and original poem. It sounded to me, as she read it, like someone cooking and following a recipe whilst listening to the news report on the radio. The interplay of the news and the recipe works effectively on a number of different levels; not least, it continually surprises the reader/audience and breaks up the familiar expectation that would be experienced were you listening to only the war report. This cuts through our (unconscious) defences and restores to the report its capacity to shock. It also captures the sadness and impotence we feel, safe in our kitchens, about wars so many miles away.

syria

Baking, & Aleppo

Shauna Robertson

 

Shops were shuttered. Twisted tanks

and toppled buses blocked intersections.

The few people left on the city’s empty streets

sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda.

 

These were the first days of August 2012.

Cinnamon and two teaspoons of ground ginger

scurried past with their heads down

and pour into the bowl of a food processor.

 

A heat haze shimmered over the road ahead,

add the butter, shrouding first an abandoned

army barracks then ransacked, smouldering factories

and blend until the mix looks like breadcrumbs.

 

The Syrian flags had been machine-gunned.

Copper bullet casings stir in the sugar.

Families had fled the area just hours before,

like confetti on rubbish-strewn pavements.

We drove past a hospital that rebel groups

were busy commandeering, lightly beat the egg.

The crackle of rifle fire, the thump of artillery

mix in the golden syrup and add to the food processor.

 

Troops and rebels gouged holes in the walls

of narrow-packed homes to use as rat-runs.

Pulse until the mixture clumps together.

Dressed in dishdashas with ammunition belts

 

strapped across their chests, a small number

of Islamic fighters had come to tip out the dough.

Knead briefly, wrap in cling-film and leave to chill.

As the ranks of the jihadists grew, line two baking trays

 

with greaseproof paper. Preheat the oven to 180C.

The rebels slowly thinned on a lightly floured surface.

Scud missiles rained down on the city, roll the dough out flat

and using cutters, press out the gingerbread men shapes.

 

As we stepped through the remains, cooking pots – some

full of food – sat on stove tops and laundry hung on rails.

The intimate worlds of communities once going about their days

and place on the baking tray, leaving a gap between them.

 

Husbands, fathers, sons and cousins bake until lightly golden-brown.

Islamic State was now in charge. Move to a wire rack to cool.

The front of the eye hospital was painted black. On a small ledge,

a dead infant girl. Add icing, edible glitter. Hundreds and thousands.

.

 

Note: Baking, & Aleppo is a collaged, found poem using text borrowed from two sources: A news article, Ground down by savagery – the agony of Aleppo, by Martin Chulov, The Guardian, 12 October 2016; and a recipe: Gingerbread men, BBC Food. Both are freely available in the public domain at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/12/ground-down-by-savagery-the-agony-of-aleppo and https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/gingerbread_men_99096 respectively

Political poetry quotes: Curtis, T. (ed) (1997) AS THE POET SAID… Poetry Pickings and Choosings from Dennis O’Driscoll’s Poetry Ireland Review Column. Poetry Ireland, Ltd. Dublin

This article, by Colin Brown and Deborah Harvey, was first published in issue 8 of the poetry magazine Raceme, autumn/winter 2019

Illustrations © Dru Marland

mine at last