The Dog Walking Poet 2

Do you like to read a poem for yourself ? Or do you prefer to hear it spoken ? I ask that because there has been a recent revival in spoken word poetry. Maybe it stems from rap music. I must admit that I have a problem with rap – maybe I’m too old to appreciate it, but I do think that sometimes it glorifies rhyme and rhythm at the expense of meaning. But at least it’s there.

When I was growing up spoken poetry was dull, prim and exclusive. I remember being made to listen to TS Eliot reading “ The Wasteland “ – he read it in the portentous, droning way which was the fashion in those days. Most poets are bad readers- they need helping out. And yet I can remember listening to Ted Hughes read “ Crow”. It was late at night, with the wind howling and the rain lashing at the windows- and he scared the living daylights out of me. And no-one can beat Richard Burton in that wonderful opening speech of “ Under Milk Wood.”

All poetry was originally spoken word.. It was a way of embodying experience, of shaping the past. Before a battle, the bards of each party would meet and agree a place where they could watch the fight- they would note who showed the most courage, who fight with the greatest vigour- and at the end – they would work it all up into an agreed version, to be spoken in the mead hall or before the next battle. It wasn’t a good idea to upset the bards- they held your reputation in their hearts
Printing changed everything. It altered the very nature of poetry. What was a flourishing, social art became personal. You could read a poem for yourself and by yourself. Rather than being simply an audience, the reader became a partner in the creation of a poem. You could work it out for yourself. You could relate it to your own experience. Thomas Wyatt was the first Elizabethan poet to make poetry directly personal- his work is taut, allusive- meant at the most for a very small audience. The same can be said of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Donne’s love poetry, George Herbert’s quiet dissection of his own soul.

And poetry as good as this is being written now, you’ll be glad to hear. If you haven’t read Clive James poetry- then that’s a gap you’ve just got to fill. And James Nash’s “ Some Things Matter” – a wonderful sequence of sonnets- is simply a masterpiece. It’s moving and human and it really does go straight to the heart.

It’s horses for courses, isn’t it. The main thing is that poetry is alive and well and getting stronger by the day.

Ah…the dog… here he is…you ndon’t believe there is a dog, do you ? You think it’s a cheap way of bringing this to an end… wait till next time… and he will make an appearance.


The Dog Walking Poet

I’ve been writing poetry for about sixty years, and I’m just starting to get the hang of it. Why do it ? All sorts of reasons, really. First, it was more fun than football. I never liked football. Terminally short sighted and with two left feet, I was useless at it. On the other hand, I was good with words- I could kick them around the page and, from time to time, I achieved a goal.

Writing poetry was a way of fixing the present. Time moves on, you’re old before you realise it – and a poem can fix one moment, with all its complexity, like a fly in amber.I’ve still got poems I wrote forty years ago – they’re dreadful – but they’re honest.

I hate to say that poetry is a journey – a cliche about as fresh as that tub of last week’s yoghourt hiding at the back of the fridge – but sometimes cliches are true. When I start a poem I know exactly where I want to end up – and I never get there. I end up in a place I never dreamed of. Someone is leaning over my shoulder, whispering “ No, Ian…this way..can’t you see it..”

Poetry’s greatest virtue is that it’s short – unless you’re John Milton…or Byron…or Homer…ok…poetry is usually short. I like the idea of cramming ten gallons into a pint pot. It intrigues me. If a novel is a Venti Cappucino with cream, sprinkles and chocolate sauce, then a poem is a triple shot of bitter espresso.

I like the technical challenges of poetry writing. Anyone can write a novel. Even Morissey. Have you seen the reviews though…No – being a poet means heavy duty thinking, balancing meaning against structure, making one word do three jobs, agonising over a comma. It strains your brain.

It all takes time. Was it UA Fanthorpe, or Stevie Smith who said that a poem took 74 hours to finish. How did she get to such a precise number, I wonder. I know that most poems I write take about a fortnight. Around the half way mark I’m ready to quit – it’s so tempting to drop it into the “ Scrap” folder and melt it down later. But if I keep going, there’s a lovely moment when you know that it will work. The golden city is in view. All I have to do is walk through the gates. It’s a great moment.

And of course, poetry writing is therapy. It’s a chance to dig down, get the bad stuff out, look at it, and move on. Good poetry is an account of internal weather.

Talking of weather- it has stopped raining, and the dog is demanding his walk round the lake. Next time I shall be talking about the printed…and the spoken word.

Until then – goodbye

You can always listen to a spoken version of this piece here: