What does poetry do that other types of writing can’t?
Jamie: I don’t know that it’s a question of “can” and “can’t”. Eavan Boland has a book called ‘Object Lessons’. Strictly defined, it’s prose non-fiction. But she says the book is “put together, not as a prose narrative is usually constructed, but as a poem might be. In turnings and returnings. In parts which find and repeat themselves and re-state the argument until it loses its reasonable edge and hopefully becomes a sort of cadence.” Poetry, unlike other writing, often deliberately sets out to re-state the argument until it becomes a force of its own, but it’s possible in any form of writing. I think that’s one reason TMS publishes all kinds of writing.
Afshan: I think in reading poetry one has the advantage of having several worlds at one’s disposal in a condensed space. Some poems might make sense to the instinct alone, like music, while others garner emotions that are haunting, nameless. I think that the most successful poems elicit that kind of supernal recognition within a reader, that wonderful eeriness, which prose rarely evokes.
What do you look for in a poetry submission? Or what speaks to you?
Jamie: Not the most exciting or encouraging feature, perhaps, but I do admire restraint. A good poem has to be constructed with care. It’s not so much that less is more; it’s that the poet has to know when to release a poem from themselves and not to impose. In that sense, restraint is the opposite of control, and it’s perhaps especially true in the most forceful poems. A poem that release its forcefulness from the poet’s personal control is a masterpiece.
Jacob: I’d hate to think there was a formula we looked for in our submissions, but I do admire nuance and a certain degree of subtlety. A good poem is a house with many rooms, at least some of which should be beneath ground level. I’m torn between loyalty to MacLeish’s dictum that “A poem should not mean/ But be” and Czesław Miłosz’s passionate demand for poetry with a purpose:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment
Ultimately, I think I’m looking for a poem good enough to be an exception to all my personal rules.
Afshan: I am always drawn to strong imagery and poems that are overtly ‘themselves’. I look for a dismantling of traditional ‘sense’ and for poems that owe much to a submersion in language and an effort to play with form.
When a poem is translated, is it the same poem? Or something new?
Jamie: A poem is always something new. I remember one of the poets of Metropoetica, a project that is all about translation (and which includes TMS contributor Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese) writing something to the effect that a poem can be from almost infinite perspectives all at once: from the perspectives of the poet, of the audience, of the inhabitants of the poem, even of the poem itself. Plus the past and future versions of all of these perspectives. That multi-dimensionality is what makes translation possible and also what makes it impossible exactly to reconstruct a poem.
Then there’s those lines from Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Utter’ — “After all this hiding, no surprise / it’s like a thing in translation, / eggshell-shy”. Translation is at once a hiding and a revelation; it’s a fragile hatching.
Audrey: Adding to that, in one of our interviews, poet and translator Jan Wagner described a formula for good translations: “Ideally, what is lost and what is gained remain in equilibrium”. It’s a subtle weighing of language and content. A sensitive translator understands the core of a metaphor: it’s symbolism, it’s cultural context, it’s web of associations. A good translator is skilled in empathy.
It seems that poetry often rebels against its own genres. Do you think poets are naturally rebellious?
Afshan: I think poets are of course naturally contrary, or should be. Much of that alterity perhaps does not find expression in acts of outright extroversion, but is instead communicated in verse. Poets are often fraught with various kinds of anxiety and I think their relationship to this ‘malaise’, if you will, is many-sided. I think this innate kinship to ‘trouble’ is how creativity and the will to ‘make’ is spurred, enlivened, furthered.
Jacob: “No artist tolerates reality.” Camus refined that Nietzschean aphorism into “Art disputes reality, but does not hide from it.” I’m not sure whether I see poets as being inherently more rebellious than novelists, or painters, or film-makers, but it seems important to realise that the inclination to rebel is a form of privilege.
As Primo Levi points out in one of the greatest books on Auschwitz, “People in rags do not revolt.” In order to rebel, it helps to have a room of one’s own. Returning to Camus’ rebel, “The demands of rebellion are really, in part, aesthetic demands. All rebel thought… is either expressed in rhetoric or in a closed universe. The convents and isolated castles of Sade, the island or the lonely rock of the romantics, the solitary heights of Nietzsche…”
Those “aesthetic demands” are never a product of true powerlessness or extreme suffering: “…it is an established fact that extreme suffering takes away the taste for literature.” Rather gloomily, I’d suggest that only people who already have some degree of privilege or power would believe that creating art is the most effective way to rebel.
Why do we need poetry?
Afshan: I think poetry is where the intellect encounters its antagonists for mutual interest — all sorts of angst, hope, indecision are transformed, galvanized. I think poetry can be the expression of the greatest kindness, it can also encompass the profane, the belittled, the revolutionary. I think poetry slakes a kind of thirst that is identified purely in the act of reading. Poets give rhythm to chaos, to the natural disorder of our lives. I’m not sure if any other art form can interrogate the imagination as exhaustively as poetry does and that is perhaps where its cruciality lies.
Audrey: I’m going to borrow Amanda Palmer’s (rock musician, artist, writer, blogger, human statue…) metaphor of “the blender” for this question. Amanda explains that for her creative process she takes an idea, puts it into her creative blender, chooses the setting according to the intensity to which she wants to abstract the idea and pushes the button. Sometimes she gets a clumped soup and you can still discern chunks of the original ingredients, sometimes it is so pureed that you can only appreciate the complexity of the final flavour. For me, poetry is a wonderful type of creative blender because it is such a diverse medium. Some poems are potent because they are simple, strong and clear with distinct flavors and hearty ingredients, some are beautiful and subtle and mystifying and sophisticatedly gourmet.
Why should a curious reader seek out poetry from different countries? What is to be gained? Or lost?
Afshan: As a Pakistani poet writing in English, I have subsisted almost entirely on poetry from countries other than my own, so I would say there is no question of any accrual of ‘loss’ here. Even if one is referring to literature in translation, then I would still reiterate the benefits of such an exercise. Borges has said that “The original is unfaithful to the translation,” which really underscores the advantageous aspects of translation, rather than the obverse. The benefits to a reader are both particular and universal, for the act of seeking out literature for pleasure is of course an inherently positive notion.
Jacob: To me, it seems almost unimaginable that a curious reader wouldn’t seek out poetry from different countries. Ask something along the lines of “Why should we bother travelling to different countries?” and most people would greet you with incomprehension and/or accusations of xenophobia.
What is to be gained? Almost an entire world. What is to be lost? For an incurious English reader, everyone from Dante to Borges to the various authors of the Bible. Having mentioned the Bible, perhaps it’s worth reflecting that the best-selling book of all-time (sections of which certainly deserve to be classed as poetry) is the product of a vastly different culture, recorded in languages few Christian communities have ever spoken (for example, the New Testament — written in Koine Greek — would have been completely incomprehensible to Jesus of Nazareth, who spoke Aramaic). Imagine how different — for better or worse — the last two millennia of human history would have been if curious readers hadn’t sought out that particular set of translations.
How did you find your favourite poets? Who introduced you? And how have you thanked him or her?
Afshan: I think most poets are autodidacts in this regard. I think one comes upon poetry to one’s taste, through a process of diligent and unappeasable reading. I came across the work of the inimitable Mina Loy through pure chance though. The amazingly talented British poet Frances Leviston introduced me to the work of Geoffrey Hill and Ange Mlinko, when I was being mentored by her, and of course she really helped me to see the possibilities of the language and the plurality of the voices out there.
Camille: My favourites were dropped into my life by all sorts of people, from friends and teachers to my grandad (who can recite ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, among other poems, from memory). More recently, my girlfriend introduced me properly to works by Sharon Olds and Anne Carson, which have had a huge effect on the way I look at my own writing.
I think the best way to thank someone for introducing you to a poet is to ‘pay it forward’, as they say. As soon as I get excited about a poet, I start shouting about them a lot, because I want everyone else to see how great they are — the further word reaches, the better. I’ve been sharing quite a bit about Steve Roggenbuck recently, for example. Go look him up on YouTube — share his work some more! I’ll be delighted if you do that.
Can you tell us something about time?
Camille: There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She started one day
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.
Being less facetious, though: all poetry is fixated on/in time. When we’re counting our stresses in writing a poem, what are we really counting? Footsteps (from metrical ‘feet’)? Heartbeats? Ticks/tocks?
Time, like space, is a ubiquitous theme in literature. The clock, our universal measure of time, has been a recurring image for centuries: the phrase “ticktock” itself first appeared in Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’, and much literature before and after this has also been preoccupied with the passage of time – particularly with what Woolf described in ‘Orlando’ as “the extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind.” One interesting discourse on time I read recently was in David Foster Wallace’s ‘Good Old Neon’ (which is my favourite of his short stories, and well worth reading): “As if the present were this car… and the past is the road we’ve just gone over, and the future is the headlit road up ahead we haven’t yet gotten to, and time is the car’s forward movement, and the precise present is the car’s front bumper as it cuts through the fog of the future, so that it’s now and then a tiny bit later a whole different now, etc.”
…& so on, in literature, ad infinitum.
Jacob: Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
The last two lines of Delmore Schwartz’s ‘Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day’, although I first read them in Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’. Schwartz’s poems were described as marking “the first real innovation we’ve had since Eliot and Pound.” He died relatively young (at 52), “outside a stranger’s door with no one to come to his aid. For three days no one came to claim his body.” Perhaps this says more about time than a poem ever could.
J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello says this (which I think is worth quoting in full): “… the British Library is not going to last for ever. It too will crumble and decay, and the books on its shelves turn to powder. And anyhow, long before that day, as the acid gnaws away at the paper, as the demand for space grows, the ugly and unread and unwanted will be carted off to some facility or other and tossed into a furnace, and all trace of them will be liquidated from the master catalogue. After which it will be as if they never existed.
That is an alternative vision of the Library of Babel, more disturbing to me than the vision of Jorge Luis Borges. Not a library in which all conceivable books, past, present, and future, coexist, but a library from which books that were really conceived, written and published are absent, absent even from the memory of the librarians.”
Time is perhaps the best reason to stop writing, and perhaps the best reason to keep on.
What about love?
Jacob: Love is something common to almost everybody who has ever lived; strangely, almost everyone who has ever experienced love experiences it as something utterly and inimitably unique.
Camille: “O Tell Me The Truth About love,” pleads W.H.Auden, before offering (and questioning) a list of conflicting metaphors for love.
If we tried, we could probably chart developments in our idea of what love is using only poetry. From ancient epics in which love (or at least marriage) is seen purely as political and practical, to the French troubadours (Rudel, for example), medieval romances and the tradition of “courtly love”, to the late 18th century, the rise of Romanticism (“emotion recollected”) in poetry and the growth of Scotland’s Gretna Green as an institution of the runaway wedding, to “free love” and the poetry of the 20th century put on trial and/or blocked from publication for ‘obscenity’, and everything in the gaps in between. Today, anthologies of erotic verse can be found in any bookshop, acting as proof of modernity’s diverse and more accepting views of love; equally, independent ‘self-love’ has become a topic of some importance. See Derek Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’.
Despite our uncertainty in definition, love is one of the areas — like the other ‘big events’ in life, birth and growth and death and so it goes — in which poetry dominates discussion. Is there a link between lovers and poets (and lunatics), as Theseus suggests in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’? Maybe we’re all poets, where love is concerned.
Learn more about our editor-in-chief, fiction, nonfiction and art teams with our Meet the Editors series.