I’ve been reading a book about the craft of poetry and was startled by this paragraph.

“You may be able to craft gorgeously cadenced lines, full of fresh, surprising metaphor, sonorous combinations of words, and multi-layered allusions – but all this, without seeing, will only produce what we might call pseudo-poems. They may be very good, by current standards- many of them find their way into respected literary journals. But true poems, and poets, are difficult to come by. They have to have what the Spanish call duende – what poet Federico Garcia Lorca described as ‘the mystery, the roots that probe through the mire that we all know of, and do not understand, but which furnishes us with whatever is sustaining in art’….What matters in your work, ultimately, is not how much it pleases an editor, but whether it has integrity – integrity of vision as much as language.”

I nearly fell off my chair. The author is daring to say that a lot of published poetry these days is pleasant enough, but very forgettable. It’s a brave comment to make.

I agree. There is a lot of great craft knocking about. But the reality is that with such a plethora of magazines, both print and online, that the truly exceptional will necessarily be sparse. It’s a bit of a cliché, but the Emily Dickinson quote about great poetry “knocking your head off” holds true, and it doesn’t come easy. It happens when craft and vision collide. Craft alone is not enough, and I can’t help feel there is a bit too much clever, sometimes, too many inbred references to the historical body of poetry that entertain only the academic or those in the know and familiar with the jargon.

At University I dated a music student, and we attended a carol service at Winchester cathedral together. The centrepiece was a new composition by some contemporary British composer (I forget who) and I found it to be dull and uninspiring. I doubted if it would ever be performed again. I said as much. My date was as unimpressed with me as was I with the music.

When we got back to her house her mother – another academic musician – asked how it went. My date proceeded to make hand gestures to demonstrate how the piece had been crafted, as if on a piano. There were appreciative grunts returned. All greek to me. Again, it was well-composed and doubtless had clever echoes of something or other, but the overall effect lacked any inspiration and was only really of interest to them rather than the likes of me.

People complain that people don’t read poetry any more. I can’t help feeling that is partly because it has become so insular and craft-driven.

Last year I was lucky enough to find a couple of “new” things that I think break the mould and rise above the trend. One is the poetry of Helen Mort, a relatively young British poet, and the other is the magazine The Interpreter’s House which has more substantive work in it than most of the magazines available. I don’t know if that’s just good editorial choice, or whether they get an abundance of the “right stuff” submitted to them. It could just be my personal taste, but I tend to think that the best poetry transcends that kind of subjectivity.


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