A debate on how we can write poetry in the 21st Century

Complex poetries for complex times? This is not a new idea. Eliot himself argued that modern poetry must be difficult if it is to be responsive to the complexities of the early twentieth century. Hence The Waste Land and its footnotes. The idea of experiencing life as fragmentary, ‘chains of interlinked narratives’ is not new. It was one of the chief projects of the modernists . I haven’t read Pound’s Cantos all the way through, but even an initial acquaintance dispels the idea of a single voice, a straightforwardly original text.

Poetry and its critical appraisal is a spiral endeavour. It’s not that we’ve come to the end of a long period of linear development and fallen into end-time fracture. The metaphysical poets have more in common with the modernists than either do with the Romantics. Times change and our turning of the spiral throws light on the hidden curves of our poetic past. If a poet is reflective she or he will experience this spiralling movement in their own creativity, like a coil of DNA. If s/he is lucky s/he will somehow interlock with the prevailing power of our culture’s contemporary poetics.

The widening disparity between public perception of ‘what poetry is’ and what practising poets think about the matter is cause for concern. Or is it just because I teach creative writing that I’m so aware of the uncertainty about modern poetries on the part of aspiring student writers? At a time when even the mainstream poetry publishers are shunned by bookselling chains, poetry seems like a winking star. Fascinating, unattainable: is it really still there at all?

We have responsibilities as readers as well as writers of poetry: not to assume a dismissive attitude to work of a genre unpleasing to us. Truth may not be a stable concept in any way we can imagine. Truth is not found in dead metaphors. ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ is just as much a cliché as the pastoral idyll.  All the more reason to be aware that truth will surprise us. We can’t tell what form the strongest contemporary poetry is taking because we’re living through its genesis. The only clues are a freshness and power which do not necessarily tally with abstract or confessional, concrete or lyric. I do think there must be some acknowledgement of society and culture as is generally perceived today, else the poet will veer off and be dispersed in a void.

I’m all in favour of a poet finding his or her plural voices (as Edwin Morgan advocates) rather than a single voice. Multiculturalism and feminism have some enlightening ideas about this. How much linguistic jazz should come into the mix, I wouldn’t like to say. The world is not a safe place at the moment. Communication and listening would be no bad thing. Poets would be hard pressed to regain (?) their position as unacknowledged legislators, but chaos theory acknowledges the phenomenal power of the butterfly’s wings.

          © Sarah Law


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