I like poetry. I like it best read aloud, maybe in a pub or café. Sometimes I enjoy reading it when I am alone. Yet I hear, and read, much poetry that I do not care for much. I don’t mind not liking “bad poetry”. However when I do not enjoy poetry others deem good, I feel bad. I feel that my intellect is not up to it, or judgement is poor, or both. I feel inadequate.
Recently I had an exchange on Social Media with someone who declared that any such judgement of good and bad on poetry was subjective, and therefore worthless. I understood her point. But I know good poetry when I see it, read it, hear it. At a live performance those poems which enrich, delight, entertain, challenge stand out. They do not have to be funny to shine. I do not even necessarily have to “like” a poem to appreciate its value, if I see that value in it. So when others eulogise about the work of someone, and I do not appreciate that which they appreciate, I am wracked with doubt, every time. Have my critical faculties deserted me?
Poets who stand up and read their own work are brave. The words are their own. There is no character to inhabit, nor costume to don. They are not offering or interpreting the work of a third party. It is them. I heard an eminent psychologist once offer the view that nothing that we say is neutral. It all has a purpose. She was right.
As a poet I want you to like what I write, to appreciate the gravitas, insight and skill of my work. But I crave a response. With a witty, humorous, poem, that feedback is instant. You can see the attentiveness, the smiles, hopefully the laughter, the swelling applause at the end of the poem an instant hit. That does not happen with serious blank verse, the response id more nuanced. Of course you still see attentiveness, but sometimes the silence can be a sign of great reflection and appreciation, a post coital lull, or, it can mean complete indifference.
And so I give in. Too often falling back on humour, light rhyming ,and contemporaneous satire, to secure my quick fix. Too uncertain to gamble with the silence. To continue the post coital imagery, are they thinking “Wow, I am speechless” ? Or ” Thank God that’s over, whatever you do don’t encourage him”.!
Which is not to say that serious poetry cannot be powerful, compelling and capable of evoking immediate reaction. One of my favourite practitioners is Fatima Al Matar, a Kuwaiti, poet who performs in a hijab. Controlled, soft, mesmerising. her trick is to lower, not raise her voice so that the entire audience strains forwards to catch every last syllable. Helen Mort and Liz Lefroy are similarly strong. But I think the task is much tougher, the safe laugh and smile easier – so I capitulate
Last weekend I was flattered to be asked by the formidable Coventry War Poet ,Antony R Owen to read some of my poems at Coventry Cathedral as part of an all day Peace Vigil. Panic set in. “Six hours of blood torment and anguish – I won’t be able to compete with the best of that” I thought to myself. So I went light, obtuse, and a poem about words and truth went down really well, so well I proudly performed it at Poetry Alight a couple of days later, and I read it awfully, from the heights of satisfaction to the depths of despair in three days. To compound the issue I gave a non-humorous, but fey, poem of mine, Café Blend, to a young woman, Emily Galvin, to read out. She did so beautifully imbuing it with qualities which I had not found myself.
That is the problem with poetry.