Thursday, 28 September 2017

What has poetry taught me?

It’s National Poetry Day 2017, and I’ve not written a blog post for way too long. So, I thought I’d share my musings on a poetry-related topic, on how poetry has changed my life…

I’ll admit that I wasn’t always a fan of poetry, and even now it can irk me. I distinctly remember using the old “I just don’t GET it” line at school, and the true reason I came to write poetry is that it was short - I was applying to university courses fresh out of college, thought Creative Writing sounded fun, so bashed out a poem to send with my application. My first poem was about a cardboard box getting mushy in the rain. (Now I think about it, that could be a metaphor for… oh, let’s not.)

Skip to the end. I’ve since published 1 full poetry collection, 3 pamphlets, edited two poetry anthologies and am poetry editor of a magazine. With more to follow. So, what changed? Well, any poet will tell you that we’re in it for the huge wads of money (sigh, I’ve heard that joke a dozen times at poetry readings, and here I am regurgitating it). No, poetry must do something else for me, but what is it?

I like lists. Sometimes I make lists of lists. I’m not even joking. So, here’s a list of things which I think poetry has taught me. If you’re a writer, or reader, or just a fellow human being, maybe you’ll see some worth in giving poetry a second chance. It can be a cruel mistress, but also a kind one when it’s in the right mood…

1. ‘Success’ is overrated
First off, I’m not saying “I’M A MASSIVE FUCKING SUCCESS, BOW DOWN TO ME” at all. There, that’s out of the way…

Even the most well regarded, widely published, prize-winning poets, don’t really make a living exclusively from poetry (book sales and readings). They usually have to do other things, such as funding applications, or teaching, or butchery. So, if anyone out there is thinking of trying poetry for financial gains, you’re in the wrong game.

That said, I think in some respects this financial fissure keeps poetry somewhat “honest”. Of course, there’s the allure of an audience, of cooing reviews and prize wins, but on the whole I think the lack of financial investment encourages most poets to write what they want to write. There’s no big marketing team asking you to change a line or stanza because “teenage girls just won’t get it” or “sonnets aren’t in trend right now.”

There are other demons to battle, though. It’s easy, I think, to become swept up in other poets’ apparent success. They’ve had 10 trillion hits on Youtube, for a poem about How War is Bad, which you think is terrible. They’ve won a residency or a prize, but they’re just not so damned talented as you or your poetry pals. It isn’t fair! Waah. I’ve been there, I think any writer has been there. It’s a demon I still tackle, but on the whole I think poetry has taught me that the bells and whistles of ‘success’ aren’t all that important. I can be a little happy (and jaded, and jealous) about other writers’ successes, but ultimately it has zero affect on my own work. “Just keep truckin’,” I tell myself, trying to climb away from that abyss as the rocks tumble beneath my feet.

No, the real lesson from poetry to me has been: success takes many forms. Ultimately, none of them say very much about you, success is flippant, just keep trying to make good art. Keep on truckin’.

2. Work hard
Writing a crap poem is relatively easy. I do it a lot. Once upon a time, only around 10-20% of the poems I wrote ever ended up being half decent or publishable (not always the same thing). Now it’s more like 50%, but it’s because I write fewer poems. Potentially because I sort of know what I’m doing, so take fewer shots in the dark, but also because I have less time and inclination to write so many poems. I don’t think a half-baked poem is worth much now, other than the experiment.

Poetry has taught me the importance of refining my writing. One of my biggest tips to writing students is a pretty basic one, but I whole-heartedly stick by it: DELETE.

I’d say 9 out of 10 times, a piece of writing is improved if you start deleting things. Not sure if some image is quite working? DELETE. Is that phrase really pulling its weight? DELETE. It’s a brutal method, but (much like an Army Commander might break down their troops to rebuild them, or Gordon Ramsay might shout profanities at sobbing chefs), what you’re left with are the bones of something decent. From there, maybe you add or adjust a bit, but cutting out the waste is a great start.

I’d say that almost no poem I’ve written has been particularly good from the outset. This is true of prose, and – I imagine – any art. It takes craft, effort, refinement. Poetry taught me that, from the feel of an entire collection, to the appearance of a single poem on a page, to the concept of a stanza, to the point at which a line breaks, to each word, to each comma, to each sound and beat. For me, writing is a form of manipulation, trying to present something, or to evoke something in a reader, and you have to pull the strings very carefully to get it right.

And, I learned that becoming a published (in a book or on a stage) poet is hard. Editors have their own tastes, books and magazines are fighting for space, audiences are picky, poets can be good friends and terrible enemies (what kind of person wants to share their inner thoughts with the world? Maniacs, that’s who). I quickly learned that rejection would be a big part of my life as a writer, and I think that’s been a great lesson. A lot of the time, life throws you a turd sandwich. Sometimes you’ve got to just eat it down, and move on. That’s a good lesson for anyone to learn, I think, because (unless you’re some kind of prophet) life doesn’t always go to plan. In short: poetry taught me life’s not always fair, but that’s okay as long as you don’t get stuck on it.

3. It’s just a fucking poem
Love. Cancer. Friendship. Break-ups. Travel… there are so many more important things than poetry. Even in terms of artistic interest, the general public really doesn’t care about poetry very much. But as artists we pour and craft and worry. We think what we do is much more important than it actually is.

I don’t mean to belittle poets (that would be easy, and unkind) but poetry has taught me a very important lesson: it’s just a fucking poem.

What I mean is, it’s taught me to realise that most things aren’t all that important, I just misjudged their importance. I thought, “Oh if I get this poem/book published, it’ll make me happy.” It did, for a bit (literally a week, at most) but I was pretty foolish to stake so much on something which was actually relatively out of my control.

Honestly, I’m not entirely over this one. Poetry-wise, I feel less invested because I can’t make a living from it anyway. But prose? Well, the rejections still sting. Then poetry comes and grabs me by the wrist and says, “You’ll be no worse off than you are now. In fact, you’re better off because at least now you have a bit of art you’re proud of. And what’s that lump under your arm?” (I don’t have a lump my under arm – thanks poetry, you sly bastard!)


Poetry has taught me craft, to think of words and their contexts, to consider sound and image and blah blah. That’s all really useful to writers, and I do carry poems with me (in my head); they taint and colour things. But really, poetry taught me to “cut out the waste”, refocus the lens, to keep on truckin’. Beep beep.  

Russell Jones