Saturday 13 October 2012

Poetry does...some thoughts

Poetry does....

We are often asked 'what is poetry?' What happens if we ask instead, 'what does poetry do?'

I ask because we have reached a point in the history of literature where poetry isn't defined by a universally agreed set of rules. Poetry is what, say, a writer, a publisher and a reader think is poetry. Or perhaps it's someone standing up in a public place and speaking certain kinds of things and everyone in the room is agreed that what's going on is poetry.

It is of course possible to pull together a few elements that most (never all) poems seem to conform to but such definitions will either fall apart because of exceptions, or the opposite: other kinds of writing or speaking will be found to use those elements too. So if we say, for example, that poems are pithy and musical. Well, some are, some aren't. And anyway, so are proverbs. If we say poems say things using the best words in the best order, we can say, so does a really good play, a really good novel, a proverb and a brilliant speech. And so on.

So, I suggest that we can move on from that by looking at what poetry does.

Of course, it 'does' different things in different places. A lot (but not all) of my work is in schools so the list below is about what poetry does (or 'can do' or 'could do') in a school setting. It's really about a set of possibilities rather than a set of closed functions.

If you're a teacher and you need to justify why you're doing poetry then perhaps this list will help you do that.  On the other hand you might wonder yourself what the point of it is, particularly if you were told at some point in your life that you didn't understand a poem or were made to think you weren't good enough to enjoy poetry.

What follows is about enjoying poetry and living with it and in it - in school or out.

1. Participatory - solo

Poetry offers groups, classes and whole schools the possibility of doing stuff in a participatory way. Just as we enjoy sport and music in a collaborative way, so can we enjoy poetry using rhythms, choruses, echo-effects, duets, trios, call and response etc and where this feels non-coercive it can help us feel joined to other people in a good way.

It also offers something almost opposite: we can go solo with poetry. We can, at other times, hunker down in a corner and express something that feels personal, feels as if it just belongs to me, comes from something that 'only I' have experienced. Then, it's up to us whether we share it or not. The benefits of sharing it are that we discover something about ourselves in the reactions of others - maybe it's very strange, (they seem to be saying) or they may be saying that they experienced or thought something similar. The benefits of not sharing it are that it feels as if it's something to do with feeling a bit good or a bit strong about doing something on our own.

2. Puts chunks of language in children's ears

I don't subscribe to 'cultural deficit theory' or 'linguistic deficit theory' which says that there are millions of children who have 'no culture' or 'no language' and variations on that theme. However, when poetry works with children, they will adopt poems and they become part of their linguistic and cultural 'repertoire'. Of course, in certain circumstances, this could be no better than a load of old totalitarian crap about how great  your nation is and how rubbish everyone else is. In other circumstances, where a range of poems from different viewpoints, different cultures are being read and heard, then that's not the issue.

A good deal of poetry is a kind of 'portable philosophy'. That's to say it expresses quite difficult or challenging ideas in ways that can be carried around in your head. Usually, that's because of the musicality of the poem.

3. Suggests as well as tells...

Much of education is about 'telling'. It's about certainties, facts, knowledge etc. However, part of who we are as humans is that we exist with each other through suggestion. We imply, infer, allude to things. We use tone of voice, volume, expression and gesture to indicate what we think. A lot (not all) of poetry occupies this space too. A good deal of it suggests that things are being thought, said or felt without tying it down completely. In an ideal world, we would think and talk about these things without having to tie them down to tests with specific answers to what this or that word of phrase suggested.

4. Doesn't have to tie up a story - leave it hanging

Narrative poems don't have to have endings. Most teaching of story-writing is aimed at children includes ways of winding up, closing and concluding stories. Sometimes this results in forced endings that don't work. I believe that nothing ends in real life. The whole point about life is that it's lived socially which means that when anything ends, something carries on - as carried by other people. So, satisfying as stories are, they don't express that notion. Poems can. They can hang in the air, leaving us as readers to 'carry on', imagine what is implied, or what might have happened next. Or indeed, we are part of the 'carrying on'.

5. It can be about a state of mind, how you feel.

Many poems for the last century are not really narrative in the usual sense of the word. They express a state of being. Famously, Adrian Henri wrote 'Love is...' which was a list rather than a narrative. Yes, you could claim each of the 'Love is...' lines is itself a kernel of a narrative but overall, it's about a notion, 'love'. But poems can also be about how you (singly or collectively) might be feeling at a particular moment in a particular place, a fragment of consciousness - a notion in itself first elaborated by Henry James's brother!

6. Can make a statement of belief

Many poems can be statements of what 'I' or what 'we' believe. They can be declamations, or declarations. Think 'Howl' by Ginsberg. So the kind of space that the phrase 'let's write a poem' gives you is also one that can be 'let's write down what we believe about...'. One of the great 'poems' of the 20th century, I believe, is Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech or Pastor Niemoeller's statement 'First they came for...' .

7. It borrows language from everywhere else, so good for
a sense of parody, fun, use of language for many purposes
not just one.

I think many or most poems have been produced by crows. Crows are scavengers and improvisers. They go about hunting for stuff that may well be edible. Poets are like that with language-in-use. It's not just that poets  collect words. I think that's misleading. I think poets keep spotting words-in-use in the signs, notices, cliches, conversations, observations that people make...or also in particular professions' use of language, or 'types' like eg grandmothers. And poets also scavenge all previous poems for shapes and forms of poems to use, sonnets, call and response, question and answer, montage, haiku etc. These are shapes and sounds that can be scavenged and used.

This can make the process of making poetry in schools a way of using, collecting and critiquing the language-use that children and students find around them. This makes it different from most other kinds of language-use in schools which is mostly about learning how to use language in prescribed and received ways eg this is how you write up an experiment, this is how you write an essay, this is how you write a 'recount'. Poetry-writing can be the opposite: look at how that language-use is saying its can we use that, parody it, alter it, change it, criticize it?

8 . Great for giving concentrated activity in story, recount, events...

Life, stories, films, plays, games pass by very quickly. Poems can freeze moments. If we think it's valuable or useful to reflect on life, storeis, films, plays, games etc, then poems can help you do that. They can freeze-frame a moment and ask or tell us things about that moment: what am I thinking? why am I thinking that? what else could I be thinking that would help me get out of that moment? And so on. The most famous 'moment' in action is Shakespeare's 'To be or not to be...' and we can all write poems (musicals do it with songs) which freeze the moment like that. Perhaps it's a way of concentrating thought in the midst of action.

9. Can open up possibilities of other worlds - leading to nonsense
Nonsense is new sense, experiment with things, environments,
state of mind,

Probably all the arts open up possibilites. Nonsense worlds are like alternative worlds, alternative uses of language. This offers up the possibility of experiment, and of not treating the known world as fixed and unchangeable. Nonsense suggests to me that we can shift things around. It's probably an illusion but it's a provocative and interesting place to live in in short bursts. Unpredictability feels good in the midst of highly predictable circumstances like, let's say, in the midst of timetables or itineraries.

10. Can be personal while you're thinking you're talking about someone
or something else. (it 'deflects' while it 'reflects')

A psychological process thought by some as being valuable is to allow ourselves to reflect on things about ourselves even as we think we're not. So, if I reflect on the abandonment of Hansel and Gretel, I might well think I'm exploring those feelings in 'them' and not in 'me'. But really what's happened is that I've been 'deflected' in order that I might 'reflect' freely with less inhibition than if I was asked to reflect on my own feelings. ie 'deflect to reflect'. Poetry reading and writing can help people do this.

That said, it can also offer the opposite, the space to 'confess'. We can use poetry to say the unsayable, the things I can't or won't say or wished I had said, or would say if I could etc.

11. It can be a carrier of culture, the thing that identifies you.
Great for cross-cultural sharing, discovering about others.

All poetry is an expression of who we are culturally. It does this by means of the language it's expressed in and the forms of the poems. They all belong within specific cultures and mixtures of cultures. These can be traced, they have histories. The 'sonnet' has a history and if I write one in a certain way, I'm saying something about the cultures I have inherited and the ones I'm part of.

Because the elite culture  of, say, Britain, is invisible to those who participate in it, it's become customary to treat eg Caribbean poetry as if it alone carries culture, while poems of the elite in Britain are just poems or 'literature'. This is really just a con.

Poetry offers us the possibility of sharing cultures in quite explicit and co-operative ways. Poems often draw attention to this through specific uses of language or mention of beloved objects, descriptions of places, memories of historical events.

12. With 'figurative language' (metaphors, similes, personification etc)
it can invite children to think what things in the world around them
are 'like' each other, even when  you think they're not.

Metaphors and the rest are really a form of philosophy. They are each invitations to find similarities and differences in things. Part of the struggle of being human is to find and understand what is similar what is different in the things and people around us. Human beings are constantly trying to spot, understand and learn from patterns. Making metaphors (similes and the rest) is one way we do that. I read the opening of 'Dulce et Decorum est'  ('Bent double like old beggars...') as a plea by Wilfred Owen to get us to see the degradation being experienced by the men in the trenches. He seems to be saying to me, 'Look, the young men you saw leave Britain have been turned into old men, and instead of being feisty guys with guns, they are now begging, stooped, pleading...'  You can say that in a speech but metaphorical language can be a plea that you see things in a particular kind of way, because this or that is 'similar' or 'different' from what you thought it was.

13. Makes familiar things unfamiliar, unfamiliar things familiar
(shakes up the world as you know it, challenges, surprises)

These are sometimes taken as the essence of poetry. Poets make the things we know unfamiliar (often but not always through metaphor, simile, personification etc). Poets also find unfamiliar things and tell us about them in ways that we come to know them, feel them or understand them.

You could argue that if education just did this, it would have done a good job.

14. Offers great talking points...(but must have open-ended questions or no questions!)
a mini-circle time.

I can't speak for all poets, but I know that the main reason why I write poems is that I would hope that for many readers any poem I write offers readers something to think and talk about. They are a way of opening a conversation. If a teacher is looking for ways of helping children talk about things then poems are as good a way as any of starting conversations. However, this will only happen if teachers don't ask questions they already know answers to.

15. Great for 'sampling' or 'anthologising' or 'displaying' and diy dealing with texts.
Making it your own, investigating, collecting, browsing.

Poems are great for doing all of the above - chopping up, collecting, sampling, quoting, performing in sequences, in contrast with each other and so on. This can be a very free sort of activity. Again, if education is to do important things, I can think of nothing more important than passing on the talent of good browsing. Browsing, after all, is the business of scanning and surfing, choosing and ordering 'text', passages, pages, chapters, books, so that you can use them for your own purposes. Poems offer very pleasurable ways of doing this.

16. Mysterious eg in its musicality, evocation of other worlds.
Not everything in the world is obvious.

Most of education is concerned with certainties. However, behind a lot of the certainties are uncertainties. So we can describe scientifically how and why leaves fall off deciduous trees and how and why evergreen trees do that differently but it's much harder to explain why there are deciduous and evergreen trees. We can of course just say, 'well there just are' and that's part of 'variation' in the universe. But there is an element of mystery to it. Because poems don't have to be certain (they can be) then they're good at mystery. Sometimes this is an interesting place to be.

17. Poems often work by placing one picture or image or event next to another without giving cause and effect. In, say, a historical account, we tend to do the opposite. One picture of event is linked by causal words like 'because' or 'the reason why' or 'the consequence' and so on. In poetry, you don't  have to do that. You can leave that to readers to speculate about. This grants a lot of power to readers, provided we give readers (children, students) the space to do the speculating without worrying that they've got the right answer.

18. Though we often talk about poetry being dense, difficult, full of conundrums etc. It can also be amazingly accessible, not daunting. It can offer ready access to the written language, to complex ideas in very accessible ways. This is the proverbial, populist side of poetry expressed through eg folk poetry, folk song, proverb and those poets how inherit those traditions.