Poetry Is A Way Of Life

I teach creative writing, and believe firmly (unlike some such teachers) that many aspects of writing can be taught - especially the forms and conventions that poets need to know (of) in order to master their craft. However, today, a tutorial got me to thinking. The student said they "didn't want to be a poet, just learn how to write poetry". Well and good - modest, even, you might think. And, in England, it is common for serious, published poets to say (at least in print interviews) they don't call themselves poets. Still, I prefer my priests ordained, and my surgeons to be professional. More to the point: poetry is a calling, a vocation, a way of life. It is possible (it might even be a good thing) to quickly train "non-poets" to learn to recognise, and compose in, a variety of traditional forms (The Sonnet, for example). What is harder to teach is "the vision thing".

I don't believe poets need to have a prophetic message - but they should have a poetics, a reason to want to work with language, and, especially, love. Love is often ignored in aesthetics, but a poet who does not love poetry (or poems), is unlikely to create work of lasting interest, even beauty. Now, there may be some measure of antagonism, too ("wrestling with the materials" and so on) - but I feel someone approaching poetry, to learn its "trade", needs to be at least interested in reading poetry by other poets. But, further, should be willing to enter a lifetime engagement with the canon(s), the writing, the editing, the work, involved. Teachers can guide their students to this appreciation of the depths of poetry, while also reminding them of more practical aspects of the genre. There is something in contemporary society that doesn't love a poem, though. I call this The Celebrity Chef Problem. Everyone who has a skill aspires to promote it on TV, these days, in the UK.

Poets should resist this urge. Poetry can reach a wider audience, but on its own terms. Chefs can easily present their recipes to a public, but cooking (foodies, forgive me) is not enough to feed the soul. Poetry can be a way of life - but not in a "take it or leave it" consumerist society that thinks one can treat the art of poetry as one can pottery, or gardening - admirable activities, suited for being a hobby, but not, finally, fully directed at testing the limits of experience, and of wisdom.

This sounds elitist, but isn't - the best way to excite interest in poetry among all kinds of people is to let them realise not how "difficult" it is ("difficult" fails to encompass how profound the act of poetry is, can be) - but how engaged it is. There's a fear of "religion", of "commitment", of "fanaticism" in today's society - a fear fostered by a commodity-based society that wishes brand loyalties to be fluid, and flexible ("new and improved") - well, unfortunately, poetry is, like some kinds of philosophy, some kinds of religion, a total immersion in something other than the self: it is a commitment to reading serious, good poetry from all times, in all languages (tradition), and to pushing the limits of one's own verbal expressiveness. Poetry is not a half-pregnant art. Poetry is life, as big as life. If one wishes to be a gladiator, strap on the armour, and face the lions.


Amy Rose Walter said…
todd swift, you are so cool.
Jim Murdoch said…
Before we start I should like to state for the record that I am a Scottish poet. I can't speak for my English neighbours but I have no problems saying I'm a poet. Usually I call myself a writer because I've written poem, plays, stories and novels but I always think of myself as a poet who dabbles. That out the road we can move on.

I agree with you that poetry can be taught. I think it should be taught and not simply poetry appreciation. There are techniques available that poets should be aware of and practice. All of these are available to writers of all kinds (there no rules that says a novelist can't use alliteration or that a playwright can't bung in the odd oxymoron) but these figures of speech come into their own in poetry. Yes, poetry can be taught but it's easier to teach a natural than just someone who wanders in off the street. Natural ability is not an end in itself though. It is a start and a good start but even great artists, the likes of prodigies like Menuhin practiced and practiced a lot.

There is an arrogance that I suppose a lot of younger poets go through a, to use your expression out of context, a "take it or leave it" attitude, an assumption that everything they write is a work of genius and if the world doesn't get it then the world's just stupid. The idea that they might be writing bad poetry seems beyond them.

The ability to write poetry is a talent and not everyone can master it. If there "is something in contemporary society that doesn't love a poem" then some of the fault rests with those poets who, like a lot of modern artists, have distanced themselves from their viewers and readers. I know in the past people reading my poetry have shown surprise expecting to be presented with something difficult I'd have to explain to them and that really isn't what it's all about?
Poetry is as big as life.

The contemporary irish word for poetry is éigse, whose root is eces, and the source of it is comprehensively documented in the stand-alone myth system comprising of four cycles.

This word appears in a medieval bardic primer, the Auraicept na n-Éces, which literally translates as the "working-methOds of the knowing ones" and there is a poem heading it, which was untitled, as it needed none, as every poet coming into the schools, learned this first, though few poets are aware of it, even though it explains exactly what poetry is and how it works, from a 7C druidic/filidh persective.


In irish culture, poetry has a much different relationship in the culture than the UK and Americas, the basic one being that its poetic is native non-graeco-roman and there is a 1200 year literate history from around 5 - 17C, which is all but ignored by the vast majority of english speaking poets.

The connotational valency in the word eces, is imbued with a far greater poetic gravity than its english equivalent, as this tradition went from oral to literate in a smoth transition, from druid to fili poet and with a full working poetic in there to be extracted for any interested in deciphering it. Traditionally it took seven years study in the bardic scheme before one could practice pubically, and this poetic and myth is really a very pertinent one, as the bardic culture is as poetic as it gets, and though i understand, i do think this poetic is vastly unknown, and my passion in life is the four cycles and the mad dream of taking on the corpus to use as the basis of my poetic.

And within irish myth the most poetically interesting group are the Tuatha De Danann, who the annals say were the primary people on the island between 1800 - 1500 BC and the literal translation is the people of art, Danann being a major celtic water-goddess, Dunube, Don etc, and dan in irish means Art/Poetry, and also has a much deeper cultural weight.

And to get to the point of writing this, in irish dan means art/piece of art, and was also deployed to refer to one's life/fate/what will be kind of thing, as each individual life was viewed as a poem, dan, as was the whole o existence and humanity contextualised as a poem.
Anonymous said…
Yes, oh yes. About eighteen years ago I undertook an Open College of the Arts poetry course tutored by Maggie O'Sullivan, a hugely inspirational teacher and poet. One of the things she said was, 'poetry is a lifetime commitment.' It is, as you say, a way of life, of feeling, of love, and of having a deep sense of all the dimensions of poetry. What it was, what it is, what it is developing into, how and maybe why!
Anonymous said…
As a former student of Todd's, I can vouch for his outstanding teching skills -- I think I learned more about the fundamentals of poetry in ten weeks of evening classes with him than I did in a three year english literature degree. The comparison with other creative writing tutors I have had, who lay the emphasis on 'becoming a writer' and have no more actual teaching ability than responding to pieces within the bracket of their own taste, is painful.

Though through the class I wrote some of the first poetry I personally liked in more than ten years. But shamefully, despite Todd's encouragement, I haven't really pursued the writing of poetry. I'm aware of the space that it takes to begin thinking poetically, how you can cross blackheath twice in search of two good words, and I can't find that space at the moment. Nevertheless, I don't feel like I've abandoned poetry altogether, it's somerthing I want to come back to.

Is it not possible to want to push yourself a little but slowly, to write some, and to practice poetry as part of everyday life?
Unknown said…
There is a growing sense of disengagement in Canadian (professional, public, private, artistic, academic - particularly the latter!). Eery, really.

I have a feeling that if you came back and stayed a while, you wouldn't find it terrible different. It is ironic: in Asia, or at least where I was, in Taiwan, and where I am going back to, where people are traditionally collectivist in their attitudes towards actitivities, family, etc., now they are becoming more individualistic. I rather suspect there is a flip-flop going on, and that civil society will become a thing of the past for the West, whereas for the East (including the Far East and the Middle East) civil society will flourish in the way that we know it. Along with that, there comes a flourishing of the arts.

Is this a bad thing or a good thing? I don't know. It is a tragedy for the West, if Britain, Canada, the U.S. can only get excited about extremist religion, be it Christian fundamentalism or Islamic Fundamentalism. Art, under those conditions, will be looked at as insufficient.