Don't write poems about poems. I've heard this or read this more than once. It's frowned on in the same way as writing a novel about a novelist writing a novel is frowned on. I'll be honest, I don't get either of them. I like to read poems about poems and novels about novelists.
I can understand why … up to a point. I expect a lot of these kinds of poems will be odes to their muse or alternatively epics about their nightly struggle with the anti-muse, writer's block. A lot of very bad poetry must have been written covering each of these topics but then a lot of very bad poetry has been written about the wonders of nature, for idealised mothers and to girls who won't put out. It does not take a great imagination to work out how a 'rule' like this came into existence though.
The reason I constantly find myself drifting back to this topic is the difficulty prose has coping with poetry. A while back, just for the fun of it, I tried to define a poem and I ended up with a whole mess o' words because poetry – these days at least – is a very fluid thing. I've always been led to believe that a definition that includes the word which it is trying to define is a bad definition but I don't think trying to define or describe aspects of poetic experience – be it writing it, struggling to write it or simply reading it – using poetry, is a bad thing. How do you describe dance, for God's sake?
In the concluding paragraph to her essay Writing Poems about Writing Poems: Why (Not)? Wendy Bishop has this to say:
Poems about poems are just that. An interesting type of poetry. A location for exploration and discussion. A fairly popular student genre. A sometimes dreaded object for writing teachers. A place of some tension and much promise. A place to explore, understand, savour, and then leave, better informed, as we go on to other poetic tasks.
I am not sure I necessarily agree with her. I can see how her experience of this kind of poem might have engendered this opinion and she is perfectly entitled to it. I think that it is a hard thing to write a decent poem about poetry. But if we gave up when things looked as if things were going to get a bit rough where would we be? Everest wouldn't have been scaled, the four minute mile broken or Niagara Falls survived in a barrel.
I've been fortunate enough to have five poems accepted for publication in Gloom Cupboard, a journal with a name far too cool not to submit to; four will be appearing in their forthcoming print edition (#3) and one, 'As Is', is in this month's on-line issue (#36). To have a clue what I'm going on about next you'd better have a look at the poem here. I'll wait.
(tum-ta-tum-ta-tum ta-ta-tum-tidly-tum-te-tum ta-ta-tidly- tidly- tum-te-tum)
Okay? Done? Right.
The poem is about something that has annoyed me for years. It's the instruction you find in the submission guidelines of virtually every magazine NOT to submit poetry that has appeared elsewhere. I have perfectly decent poems that appeared in tiny print magazines back in the nineteen-seventies that I can't submit elsewhere because someone, somewhere, somewhen has read them. Poetry doesn't go off. It can date but then so do furniture and hairstyles and mobile phones it seems.
So I thought I'd be up front with this poem. It has been read before. You were not the first person to read it. My wife read it, my daughter, Richard from Gloom Cupboard – which means you were at least the fourth person to read this poem – oh, wait, I posted it on the critique bit of Zoetrope and thirty people read it there (of which only nine people could be bothered to review it but I got and overall 82.2%) – and can you imagine if this was a novel that thirty-four people had read before you did? It would be all tatty and dog-eared. That is assuming you were the first person to read it today and what about all the people who will have read it on Gloom Cupboard since it's been posted?
I think I should get an A for that poem:
Basic skills mastered
Originality, Creativity, Depth of Analysis
Sees beyond the obvious, looks for relationships and connections.
The poem is, of course, being presented as merchandise, it is being offered to you "as is" or "as seen" – caveat emptor – buyer beware so you need to examine it carefully because you can't return it for a refund.
The third stanza is of particular interest. When do poems lose meaning? From the moment I finish the poem, give it a number, get the nod from my wife that it's not crap and put it in my great big red folder? It's up to the reader then to make it mean something. (I'll come back to that in my next post).
All the poet hands over are words, no notes, no hand signals. It is the reader who works with those words and makes something of them. Every poem comes that way, no user's manual and batteries not included. One of the poems that will appear in the print edition is 'Your Statutory Rights are not Affected' during which the reader is asked to insert 'a moment of meaningful silence' into the poem. In other words, they need to contribute to the poem for it to work properly.
I had a look through my folder and one of my earliest poems about poetry is this one:
Poems are near
naked thoughts: for
we will not take
off our clothes since
we are ashamed
of our bodies.
7 January 1979
It's not the greatest poem I've ever written but I still have a fondness for it. It's perhaps more subtle than some of my later work where I state outright that poets are liars. All I'm saying here is that it's human nature not to tell the whole truth so if you're reading poetry looking for truth you need to bear in mind who it is that writes poems, people like you and me.
A year later I wrote this one:
Do not analyse
They will not conform
Neither stare into
and expect your image
to give up
any truths or secrets.
8 December 1979
God, I was young and angry. I sometimes forget how passionate I was back then. Here's the next one I found:
Poems disappearing in words –
nothing there but voices.
Excerpts from other people's lives –
empty as a found photograph.
25 June 1980
I love the image of a found photograph. I have several. I even carry one in my wallet of a girl I've never met, a little passport photo I found while waiting for the lights to change early one morning. I think it's a good metaphor for the problems readers have with poems. They want to make sense out of them. They see familiar things but there's also missing stuff that they need to provide.
Of course I'm not the only poet writing poems about poetry. Wendy Bishop lists a pile of them in her article but no hyperlinks. Here are the ones I've managed to find – most of them actually. Am I not good to you?
Rita Dove, 'Ars Poetica'
Archibald MacLeish, 'Ars Poetica'
Ars Poetica, Vicente Huidobro translated from the Spanish
Linda Pastan, 'Ars Poetica'
Larry Levis, 'The Poem You Asked For'
Donald Justice, 'An Elegy Is Preparing Itself' (you'll have to scroll down for it)
Agha Shahid Ali, 'Ghazal'
Basho, 'To a prospective student'
Desmond Skirrow, 'Ode on a Grecian Urn Summarized'
David Lee, 'Loading a Boar'
Ted Hughes, 'The Thought-Fox'
Ronald Wallace, 'The Bad Sonnet'
Peter Meinke, 'The Heart's Location'
Hayden Carruth, 'Saturday at the Border'
I don't care what people say, I have no intention of stopping writing about writing. I believe poems like 'As Is' are important because they help readers understand how they should look at all poetry.
I'll leave you with one last poem of mine, the last one I've written as a matter of fact, and, as another matter of fact, my first honest-to-goodness haiku. I'm blaming Dave King.
floating in white space
a receding bird
14th April 2008