This summer I had the great pleasure of seeing Kei Miller perform locally (he is outstanding seen live) and the experience sent me running to re-read something I recall that he wrote for The Poetry Review.
“Poetry, at its best, does not speak on behalf of the self… it speaks the self only in so far as the self is part of something larger. Any school of thought, any teacher, any poet that repeats that lazy dictum – that poetry is a form of ‘self-expression’ – they do a great disservice to poetry. They rob it of its greatest potential.”
“And I get it. At some point in the history of poetry, the poet was invented… Poetry existed before the poet. Poetry existed even before writing…folk songs that told histories or that were used in rituals or that gave the simplest musical delight… There was a woman or man behind these poems, someone who had a facility with words and with composition. But once composed, those poems did not demand attribution or ownership. There was no competition, no literary rivalries, no prizes to be won. Then the poet was invented, which was perhaps inevitable given the ways of man, our relentless need to possess whatever can be possessed. Poetry became a space where the poet could show himself off…”
In the upcoming issue 31 of Poetry Salzburg, Keith Hutson uses the editorial to set out his own manifesto for what he is looking for in submitted poems (a fine piece in a fine journal). His closing remark is….
“I would love to see more poems…that say ‘look at that’ rather than ‘look at me’.”
Damn right to all that. If I had my way, all budding poets would be locked in a room and forced to write nothing but poems in the third person for six months before being let loose on the world (and editors). And maybe then start to work in the first person. The best poetry always places the poet firmly in the background and not the foreground. It is a dialogue and not a monologue. The best performance poetry, for example, is invitational in style (see Steve Pottinger), because loud proclamations of what a poet thinks and feels simply create a barrier between them and the reader/listener, and it isn’t pretty.
There needs to be a separation of poet from poem. At AoO we consider, always, poems for publication. Never poets. We pay no attention to who wrote them. The co-editors review the poems anonymously in any case. We have never accepted or rejected any poet, only the poems that they have written.
I once commented that I love poetry but hate Poetry. Let’s be clear about what I mean by that – the former is the expression of thought and emotion on a page or stage, and it is fabulous. The latter is loosely an amalgam of activity that seeks to elevate the Poet to a position where their identity is more important/relevant than what has been written. In a recent brief Facebook discussion re self-promotional activities, one respondent offered that any sense of unease about such things was primarily because it isn’t British. No, that has fuck all to do with it. It is to do with the correct balance between identity and encapsulation in poetry.
A final thought…. I once heard someone express the idea that at a poetry event, whether they would engage or listen to someone hinged around what they felt toward that person… that if they did not connect with someone personally, they would be unlikely to be interested in anything they had to say…. well, that presupposes that poetry is about what someone has to say in the first place. It would also rule out finding anything meaningful in the poetry of the dearly departed. I consider poetry to be about something being said rather than the someone saying it. Billy Collins has it that his poems improved dramatically when he no longer had anything to say. Maybe he was really talking about the loss of any need to tell people what he had to say. He may well be right.