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Sunday, 2 March 2014

'But You Don't Write Poems Like That' (+ a VERY silly poem)

Tomorrow I am due to give a presentation, as part of my MA, on the topic of my 'poetics', i.e. the overarching philosophy or ideology that informs my work both as a poet and as an educator. I have been instructed to come up with a metaphor to describe my poetics, and my metaphor is that of a tightrope: my experiences on the page, on the stage and in the classroom have revealed to me a variety of apparent dichotomies that, on closer inspection, can in fact be bridged. Like walking a tightrope, bridging them requires a degree of care and dexterity that I hope I grow to possess over the coming years. Here, then, are what I perceive to be the 'tensions', as they relate to my own work:

My work as a poet
  • 'fun' poetry vs 'deep' poetry
  • didacticism vs artistry
  • writing for children vs writing for adults
My work as an educator
  • teaching vs entertaining
  • drawing on imagination vs drawing on real life experiences
  • allowing freedom vs drawing boundaries
These tensions are painted with extremely broad brushstrokes, and relate to my work as a whole, rather than to any one particular poem or lesson; it may not be possible to bridge each of them within the course of a single poem or lesson. What I'd like to do now is briefly to look at the first tension, between 'fun' poetry and 'deep' poetry.

I perceive this as a tension in part because of my experiences with a variety of children's poetry. I notice that some poets write stuff about snot and farts, which makes kids laugh but which doesn't carry any deeper message - the equivalent of Viz magazine perhaps - and some poets write earnest little numbers about 'deep' stuff like sunsets and love. My point is not that either of these is wrong per se, but that each is diminished in the absence of the other: only silly stuff and the potential for words to touch the core of our psyche is not explored; only deep stuff and kids, like adults, will think "whatever, lets go watch television." The optimum, then, would be to achieve a balance.

The reality of this tension in my own work was brought home to me last night, when I was babysitting my young cousins. When I had put them to bed I decided, in a rare moment of self-discipline, to sit at their kitchen table and write a poem. I decided that this would be a 'deep' poem, a poem about a boy and his father watching a bonfire, the bonfire serving as a metaphor for their love for each other (insert either "ahhh!" or "pass the sickbag" depending on which side of the 'tension' your proclivities lie). My 10-year-old cousin Jack couldn't sleep, and came downstairs. He asked what I was doing, and I told him that I was writing a poem. He looked over my shoulder and said "but Josh, you don't write poems like that. You write catchy rhyming stuff." (Notice that he is referring to form as well as content: catchy rhyming stuff.)

I told him that variety is good, and that I write lots of different stuff. However, the challenge, for me, is not simply to write lots of different types of poems, but to imbue the whole body of work with a sense of being recognisably 'mine'; it is to bridge the tension, and all the other tensions mentioned above, in a way  that does not leave me seeming like a variety of different people. In other words, it is to encompass many different possibilities within the parameters of a single unified poetics, rather than dabble in lots of different, erm, poeticses [?].

To return to my cousin. What he meant was that he liked the catchy, rhyming stuff and he wanted me to write more of it. So after having explained to him that variety is good, and that if you have just catchy rhyming stuff you leave your horizons fairly limited, I decided that now would be a good time to GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT! So I invited him to sit and help me write a catchy rhyming poem, about a subject of his choice. In the spirit of nothing other than fun, then, here is the poem we came up with together (WARNING: it is ridiculously silly. The fact that he couldn't sleep for laughing determined that this was a good thing):

My Sister

If you come over to my house
And look inside my loo,
There will be a big surprise - 
A special treat for you. 

You may not see it straight away
In fact you may well miss her,
But if you peer really close
I think you'll see my sister. 

You may think this is rather strange
You may think it's absurd,
But this, I promise, is the truth:
My sister is a turd. 

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