“Poetry isn’t a branch of art, but something much more. If that which distinguishes us from other species is the use of words and language – then poetry, the supreme linguistic operation, constitutes our anthropological and, de facto, genetic goal. So anyone who thinks of poetry as a mere pastime, a common reading, commits an anthropological crime, which is, first of all, against himself” – Joseph Brodsky
Before we answer the question, let’s look at some things we know about poets and poetry.
Poets, through necessity, often find themselves stranded in what is commonly termed ‘The Real World’. Poets, generally, tend to spend a good deal of their time either alone or in the company of other poets; so it sometimes comes as a shock when they discover that most of the general population pay as much attention to our collective endeavour as they would to new developments in Norwegian embroidery. Maybe less – there are embroidery magazines on the shelves in newsagents and supermarkets but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a poetry magazine nestled between the jazz mags and TV guides. In general then, people might actually care less about the activities of poets than Scandinavian crochet. Bear with me.
While it is astonishingly easy for any poet without a Nobel Prize, and who is not Paul Durcan, to move about Dublin without fear of being accosted by hordes of admirers, every now and then someone finds out what you’ve been doing scratching away in your Moleskins and hammering on your laptop for the last decade. I say ‘finds out’ because it is mostly regarded as surreptitious. It can seem at times as if people think you are writing poetry against your own volition and that, god willing, you’ll be free of it soon enough.
A few years ago a colleague where I was working came over to my desk and, in hushed tones, noted he had read a review in the paper of record of a book of mine.
‘I never knew you wrote poetry’ he said.
‘Well, you’re not alone in that but, by the way, there’s no need to whisper’
‘Okay’, he whispered.
So, although your work might be published and might have been reviewed here and there, it is assumed that really you hope to keep it a secret and people will go out of their way to help you in this matter. We all know, however, that keeping poetry books secret is not very difficult. In fact, shortly after being published most poetry books become very secret indeed.
As a rule, when someone asks about / compliments / derides your latest volume, they will ask you where they can get a copy. Having fielded this question for close to 10 years, I’ve decided it is because a) they find the idea that bookshops might stock poetry books, particularly your poetry book, outrageous and they need to check with you what sort of retailer would actually clog up the shelves with them or b) they’re fishing for a free copy.
If someone you hardly know happens to compliment you on your book just thank them sincerely and be on your way. To avoid the embarrassment of awkward silences, do not ask them what their favourite poem was or whether they liked this book as much as your last one. They may have only read the blurb on the back at the launch which they went to because a man or a woman they are infatuated with told them they were going and that there would be wine and when they have wine they lose all their inhibitions.
In The. Real. World. (especially in offices and at suburban dinner parties) you will often encounter the ‘know-it-all’, someone who tells you that knowledge is king but what they really mean is their knowledge is king and everyone else is wrong. They will use phrases like ‘grow some balls’, ‘bust their ass / fire their ass / something something asses’ and, of course, ‘keep it simple stupid’, because in the playground, if you call someone else stupid how can you possibly be? They dislike poets because poets are constantly finding things out but still claim not to know much at all.
Furthermore, you might be lucky enough to learn, as I once did, that you shouldn’t bother because ‘all poetry is shite’. The logic behind this statement, made in all seriousness (I checked), by someone with an MBA or something like it, was that it was inefficient, a waste of resources, to read something you don’t immediately understand. (Ipso facto much bad poetry is not necessarily shite. Now you know). Aside from the fact that it shows people can gain a post-grad qualification in Ireland and still remain wilfully ignorant, it inadvertently answers the question: What good is poetry?
I can’t recall ever encountering someone who has even a slight appreciation of literature, art or music who would reduce the world and all its complications to something as simplistic as whether or not it is efficient. Poetry is room to think, to consider things and to maybe – if we’re lucky – understand our condition a little more than we did before.
Why do we do it? It’s not for financial reward or celebrity. It surely doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that you won’t live off the proceeds of publishing 40-50 poems every few years. And the longer you do it, the older you get and the more people and places you know, you will, perversely, find yourself relatively less well known than when you started out. But like understudies in Waiting for Godot, we carry on.
We need it to locate – emotionally and intellectually – where we have been and we need it to help us find out where we are going, without having someone proscribe it to us. We need to know that there is a cohort out there scraping away in the margins, arriving at new ways of looking at things using the same language and the same words as everyone else. At its best, poetry can be a manifest of the possible available to everyone.
While a stint in the Writers’ Centre might not give you a qualification, you will definitely learn something. Back when I was studying political science, when Post-Soviet Studies was a relatively new discipline, our lecturer was asked a question about the usefulness of the subject by a student who had to take the course as an elective. His answer was simple and brilliant: ‘We don’t train you to do anything, we train you to think. Then you can do what you want’. I mention it here because it reminds me of the function poetry can have: it both trains us to think about things and is also the product of that thought. Reaching the end of poems is sometimes like finding answers to questions we didn’t know anyone had asked.
In these days of panic and hyperbole, waves of information from a media often wielded like bludgeons to see how much we’ll take, poetry – literature as a whole I suppose – can allow us to better communicate with ourselves, know more about ourselves and just as importantly, more about the person next to us. Poetry, while it can be collective, is never groupthink; while it can be a comfort it is not a therapy; and while often born out of one form or other of isolation, at its best it is liberating and inclusive.
Alan’s course runs at the Centre from 28th January: Mondays 6.30pm-8.30pm: it is an eight-week course that focuses on the workshop; it will concentrate on writing, editing and reading poetry. During the course, participants’ will be given constructive advice on their poetry. They will also focus on creating new work, applying what they learn each week to their writing.
Alan is the author of three collections of poetry, Black State Cars (Salmon Poetry, 2004), Lost Republics (Salmon Poetry, 2008) and Strasbourg (Salmon Poetry, 2010). His work is widely published in journals and magazines including: Poetry Ireland Review, Cyphers, The Stinging Fly, Poetry Salzburg Review, Iota (UK), and Kestrel (USA). His poetry has also been published in Italian and Russian. He has been short-listed twice for the Hennessy Literary Award for New Irish Writing for his short stories. Black State Cars was the recipient of a Salmon Poetry Publication Prize for a first collection. He holds a degree in political science from Trinity College Dublin and his first publication was in the TCD literary magazine Icarus. He has since been published across Europe and North America and has given readings in Ireland, Italy, Russia, and the USA. In 2007 he was a featured poet at the Riflessidiversi cultural festival in Umbria.