OK, I’m calming down. Why I should get so het up about standards in poetry I don’t know. Maybe it’s because poetry is, to me, one of the most important things in the world. I don’t care if nobody much sees mine. (Most of it sits on my hard drive, and in notebooks). I’ll only read things if they are at least a decade old. I just love it, because it is beautiful, and I want to see that beauty going on.
I’m all for playing around with forms that have become outdated. I even had a go at writing a few pages of modernised Anglo-Saxon poetry. But iambic pentameter still works in the English language because it is a form that is natural to it. (Anglo-Saxon English must have been very different, with a huge number of unstressed syllables, which are needed by the form.) It is so different that it is like a different language, and that is why – with the best will in the world – it will never work very well with modern English.
We have borrowed a great deal from Welsh poetry now, and I’m all for it. I just don’t think that you have to throw away the baby with the bath water. We have beautiful, serviceable forms, that you can use to write about anything. (One of my first published sonnets was about morning sickness, and it was written in a completely traditional way. It’s in an anthology somewhere, where they were prepared to take a bit of a risk.)
That’s what it’s about. Taking risks. Daring to use old forms in modern ways… Not putting together a lot of slipshod lines that don’t scan at all. It makes you wonder how many excellent poets have been lost. Do let me know if you happen to know any of them….
In Response to Will Shakespeare’s Sonnet No.CXLVII, And Many Others, Written about Me
Indeed… my skin is black, or “coloured ill”,
And nothing in myself can ever please
A jealous soul, like yours. You hold me still –
And yet you see me as a dread disease!
Your reason once did lead you to approve
My every gesture, every word. You kept
Me safe within a web of gentle love
Which I, rebellious soul, was moved to accept.
But now that you, for “reason’s” sake can’t care,
And think I am the cause of your unrest;
You – lost to love – as all good white men are
Will warp with “reason” what I have expressed.
It seems to me that your white skin holds night
And my black skin still keeps the gentle light.
I don’t usually post my poems here, as I wait to publish them, but this was written specifically for a competition which required ‘a sonnet in response to Shakespeare’, and I don’t know where else to send it. There is a response to all his thoughts, in every line, and the form is a classical Shakespearean sonnet. It was disqualified, like many others, because it was traditional, even though it was a perfectly valid interpretation of what they were asking for.
Where does this come from? I know Hopkins wrote a curtal sonnet (invented by him), but it didn’t say ‘curtal sonnet’ in the competition guidelines. Don Paterson writes sonnets, but thoroughly understands the form and uses it well.
Interestingly a friend has just told me she had the same experience when she entered a haiku into a competition. Again the judge poured scorn on people who had written ‘traditional haikus’.
Please – you devisers of competitions… do give us a better idea of what you want, and what will be disqualified. Otherwise it becomes just a matter of who is ‘in the know’.
I might be quiet, but there is a lot happening at this end. I’m in the process of arranging cards for schools, so that they have some up to date information about what I’m doing. This is a link to the wonderful illustration that Annaliese Stoney has done to illustrate my children’s poem, ‘Louisa, the Boxer’:
Louisa, the Boxer
That will be on the front of the card. How cool is that?!
I’ve also allowed myself be persuaded into leading a course on ‘Writing as Therapy’. I’ve done a lot of writing in cafes over the last few years; weeping copiously as I did it. (I used to have a rule that I’d write till I felt tears welling up, and then I’d leave. Usually I managed about five minutes, but it was easier than coping with grief alone, at home. )
In one particular cafe I fell for the man who ran it, but I was often in such deep grief that I couldn’t speak. It didn’t make for the easiest relationship. I’m sure he remembers me as a very peculiar woman. However my notebooks are full of fragments of poetry, and prose, which I will edit in tranquility, along with all the other things that are sitting here, waiting for a quiet moment…
I’m revising a short story at present, but more of that next time. There is still the same relentless pressure to keep earning, and writing – although it pays well – pays months, or even years, later. I’ve finally realised that even successful writers can apply for grants to help them, so I’m going to be doing that… More about that next time! 🙂