He was an elderly man and he had queued up with the people who were waiting for me to sign their books. When his turn came, he announced unapologetically, “I don’t read poetry. I write it. I’ve brought you a copy of my book.” If he had been younger, I might not have been so polite. I smiled, took the book and thanked him. Later on a quick glance through the self-published volume confirmed what I already knew: the poems were no good. People who never read poetry don’t write poems that are worth reading.
Wow. You know who else used to never read poetry. Someone who really hated reading poetry – especially recent poetry – and who writes poems? Me.
Woops. I’ve done something wrong. Apparently my poems aren’t worth reading. Damn! And I thought I was doing so well. That I was getting somewhere. I wish I’d never found that little article by Wendy Cope, from which the above text is taken, maybe then I could have continued on in ignorance.
Nevertheless, when I’d finished the article the first thing I thought was, ‘who is this Wendy Cope?’ I didn’t know… and perhaps I should be embarrassed; two degrees in Creative Writing and I don’t know who Wendy Cope is? A quick Wiki-ing rewards me with some interesting information; she’s an award winning poet with an OBE, she appears to have done very well for herself (bit of an understatement, that), but I have to disagree with her. I think there are poets out there that rarely read poetry and are worth reading, I’d even dare to say that some of those that never read poetry are more than readable – just that they move in a different circle to that of the traditional, or poet-centric poet.
What do I mean? I mean that when we get involved with something we immerse ourselves in it. If we decide we love pop music then we lust after it, we lunge, we grasp, we buy buy buy – but – the immersion is itself it’s own undoing. We start to compare and contrast the artists we like until a kind of hierarchy forms. I like Vengaboys more than Lady Gaga (for the record I don’t like either, I like Bieber (I don’t like Bieber either)), and so Vengaboys will sit at the top of the CD collection. We become specific in our interests to the point where we start differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pop music, which isn’t bad; but it is a sign that we’ve forgotten how it all began. That first taste of ABBA that lead us into this now dark, segregated cave of good and bad, happy, sad, energetic categorised pop music.
I still think there’s good and bad poetry, certainly, but I’m not so ready to pin down my opinion to something as concrete as ‘people who never read poetry don’t write poems that are worth reading.’ There’s poetry I’m happy reading, there’s poetry that’s not to my taste, and then there’s poetry I think could be improved in some way and when I say improved, I say it fully comprehending that my ‘improvement’ on the poem is only justified according to what I have read previously, or what I’ve written previously. Someone else could quite equally come along and argue the opposite. Fair is fair after all. The only time this really becomes problematic is if you’re aiming to get published, in which case I think having an awareness of the publication you want to be in can be helpful. As much as magazines want to put on a varied show, similar things tend to shine through, which is why some magazines constantly shift editors. Keeps it super fresh, always on edge.
Yes, reading other poets will be helpful to your work. It’ll whet your whistle, get you bubbling away and potentially open up something inside of you. You might try experimenting with a new form or decide to write a poem on a certain theme, or experiment with layout or rhyme. Anything goes, and the more you write (I think) the better you’ll get.
So I’ll do the autobiographical bit. I’ve never set this down in print but have told many people the story of how I came to write poetry.
It was funny, really. I never liked the anthology work in high school. The poems felt a little too telling, and I really didn’t enjoy them. I’ve forgotten why, but what I do remember is how me and the other students would talk excitedly about burning the anthologies when the whole thing is over. We loathed those books, and I didn’t read poetry again until A-Level where we were once again forced to read it (the difference then was that there were some poets I enjoyed), in the period between GCSE and mid-A-Level I had developed a taste for poetry. How? And how come I was writing poetry before that taste for reading poetry really began?
Music. No, not lyrics. Music. I picked up guitar at a young age, in Primary, but ditched it for a number of years because I was a tiny lad and didn’t have the finger strength to push down on the strings. Rubbish really, I would have developed the strength had I continued, but I was learning on an old slightly warped acoustic that had sat up in the loft for years. It belonged to my Dad and he’d bought it off some guy for a tenner with a guitar book thrown in. It was a heavy book, not too thick, but dog eared and dusty. It taught you all those tunes you never wanted to play as a kid, like Yankee Doodle Dandy or something. Old hits you’d never heard of. In Primary school my history teacher taught me the basics which I attempted to carry on at home, but failed somewhat. Then, at fifteen, I picked up the guitar again and just started fiddling with it. I followed the book for a bit but got bored with the Yankee Doodles, so I turned to tabs on the internet. Started with your standards; Deep Purple, White Stripes, Red Hot Chili’s then moved into Razorlight, then heavier rock – all the while wishing I could burn my anthology.
At sixteen, or seventeen I started hearing word about diaries. Everyone was keeping one, for some reason or another, and I decided I’d go in for that. I hated it. ‘Dear diary’ – no. ‘Hello’ – no. I couldn’t face addressing myself, and writing all that personal stuff inside a book that could be found? Stupid, if you’d asked me at the time. So instead I took notes. Traced the shape of a shell I found on the beach into words. Described the way a man’s hat flew off in the wind, and rolled down the high street. I tried to find words for how I felt in those times and how the world seemed to feel in turn. It was like taking photographs but I was somehow in them. Then came my teenage angst and I started writing more fully – not really knowing what I was doing. I started with rhymes and patterns, but eventually tired of them. I started trying to tear the words in the poems apart as if, by doing so, I could represent their inner tension. The poem itself became the sum of it’s concept; it became, it was.
Then came A-Levels and John Clare. Ohhhh John Clare! And how could I forget Larkin! I loved Larkin perhaps all the more… but it didn’t continue for long. At the time I was still playing guitar more than reading poetry. I read novels far, far more often. Poetry was a school affair still, not for pleasure. Didn’t stop me writing poems though. I wrote hundreds and saved them on my computer. Mostly unpublishable – but there was something in them, something I was trying to say. I remember writing a poem about the words ‘chair’ and ‘table’ – how the ‘h’ of ‘chair’ was shaped like a chair, but that there was dissonance – the word and the object were not the same; they didn’t appear the same, a chair didn’t sound like the word for chair… I had no idea what semiotics was back then, I was just exploring through words. Building them up and knocking them down.
Later, in the second year of uni. That was probably the time it really hit me. Keats. I don’t need to justify it anymore than that. Keats. Meanwhile I read Auster, Pynchon, Borges, Philip K. Dick. I consumed those novels faster than a flame could. Then Keats. I started reading a little more poetry after that, but still not loads. Some Bukowski, and then a great deal of Carver’s work, some of Auster’s poems. Not a great deal more. I am not a well read poet, not of poetry at least… but musically? I was neck deep in Pink Floyd at a young age. Things just seemed to get passed to me after that.
Neutral Milk Hotel:
And at the desktop there’s crying sounds
For all the projects due
And no-one else is around
And the sprinklers that come on at 3 am
Sound like crowds of people asking
‘Are you happy what you’re doing?’
Tenuous at best was all he had to say
When pressed about the rest of it, the world that is,
From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to Porto-centric Lisboans
Greek Cypriots and harbor sorts who hand around in ports a lot.
This was gold dust to me. This and novels, walking, cycling, listening to people, watching people, feeling the air against your ears, climbing trees, tasting grass. Living itself was a kind of poetry – brought forth initially, for me, by music. One of Don Paterson‘s influences is Jazz. One of mine is music…
So what am I trying to say, really? I agree with Cope that the voice in it [a poem] has to sound like the real voice of a real person, but I don’t think that in order to find a voice we have to read a great deal of other poets. Read them, by all means – I know I am trying to now. I’m not sure if it’s helping me at the moment but I’m sure it could help others.
Perhaps Cope was just trying to shift a few copies of her books to aspiring poets. Buy my book! Read it! It’ll make you a better poet because you’ve read another poet’s work!
Yeah yeah… go and read Keats, or listen to music instead, or climb a tree – they all probably cost less.