One of the books I use most when teaching is Strong Words, edited by Matthew Hollis and W.N.Herbert. It’s a wonderful compendium of poets writing about poetry: statements, manifestos and musings. Frank O’Hara introduces ‘Personism’, Plath explains why she’d never put a toothbrush in a poem, and Michael Donaghy gives us a glimpse of his report card. Now Salt are putting out a similar volume this week – In Their Own Words, edited by Helen Ivory and George Szirtes – which asks more recent and emerging poets to try and articulate their poetics. Although my copy hasn’t arrived yet, I’ve seen the proofs and it’s full of juicy stuff. Some great poets are involved: Ian Duhig, Julia Copus, Tim Turnbull, Polly Clark, Luke Kennard, David Morley, Tim Wells, Matthew Sweeney, Luke Wright, Sam Riviere, Mimi Khalvati… And with such a mixture there is plenty to disagree with as well as inspire. For me the highlights include Jen Hadfield’s essay on how clams are her current muse, and Antony Dunn’s discomforting piece on poetics and posturing.
Anyway, do buy it. As a taster, here’s my contribution – having written it speedily for a deadline I’m aware it’s just the first fumblings of an idea, but it was good to be encouraged to articulate some thoughts about poetry that have been in the back of my mind for a while.
Note on Poetry and Thought
When the philosopher Hannah Arendt learnt of the Holocaust it was: ‘really as if an abyss had opened.’ She instinctively felt it was ‘something completely different’ from those evils that had come before and her writings suggest the difference was in that most ‘unbearable pain’ when human particularity is rendered unnecessary. This year I visited Dachau, and after walking through the gate with its brazen lie, Arbeit macht frei, simply the scale of the yard where the prisoners lined-up for roll-call – the vast field of stones – gave me a cold, sick feeling. As the academic Kimberley Curtis has explained: ‘The point here is not that totalitarian politics was the first time genocide was practised, but that for the first time making human particularity superfluous became a political ideal.‘ And how did such a terrible system occur? One strand of this question that Arendt pursued was the relationship between evil and thought, famously asking in Eichmann in Jerusalem whether the ‘habit of examining whatever comes to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content’ could actually prevent ‘evil-doing’. Was the condition for the rise of Nazism an outbreak of thoughtlessness?
For Arendt, on the simplest level, ‘thinking means that each time you are confronted with some difficulty in life you have to make up your mind anew,’ and thus is the antithesis of ‘the total explanation of an ideology’ that totalitarianism sought to impose. To think is to look at the particulars of each situation as it occurs – and as such is an anarchic force, resisting all regulation.
In The Life of the Mind, Arendt articulates the dangers of not thinking. ‘What people get used to is less the content of rules, a close examination of which would always lead them into perplexity, than the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars’. Because of this, inverted new values are taken on most easily by those who supported old ones – in Nazi Germany ‘thou shalt not kill’ was reversed. And Arendt points out that the ease with which the ‘reversal of the reversal’ occurred after the war ‘should not console us either. It was actually the same phenomenon.’ Arendt goes further in her report on Eichmann’s trial. Eichmann, who managed the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, used the defence that he was simply following orders, and admitted that: ‘officialese is my only language’, leading Arendt to observe that he seemed ‘genuinely incapable of uttering a sentence that was not a cliché.’ The staleness of his statements, with his utter obedience to tired language ‘rules’, both revealed and suggested the cause of his brutal lack of thought.
I believe that poetry is the opposite of propaganda. The Nazis explicitly declared war on thought, saying: Wer Denkt, Zweifelt Schon: ‘he who thinks has already doubted’. In the current global crisis the propagandists are more sophisticated, but bankers, politicians, corporations and the military still assert rather than explain; manage appearances, rather than give us the facts. Our language is corrupted by spin, euphemism, sound-bites and untruths. Opinions are dressed up as fact and fact dismissed as opinion. The language of the powerful almost always seeks to short-circuit thought. As such it can lead us into ‘evil-doing’ – complicity with injustice, greed, war, environmental devastation, exploitation.
Poetry can help us to be what Arendt calls: ‘fully alive’. It can teach us to think – that is, to react to each moment afresh. When we begin a poem, we should always be ‘making up our mind anew.’ We must avoid the mental laziness of cliché – received phrases, diction, narratives, images or conclusions – and instead respond in a way that is specific. In doing this, poetry can clear a space for language in which nuance and human particularity can flourish. And it creates room for the individual reader to think too – a poem should provoke examination and interpretation, not a stock response.
Though there is an obligation to be original, we should not claim that poetry has any rules. After all, the assertion ‘never use full rhymes’ is only the reversal of ‘always use full rhymes’, and just as unthinking. Form should be an alert, improvised response to the subject. True poetry is anarchic.