The Poetry School

A Society of Poets


The current troubles at the Poetry Society in London have been the subject of articles this week in both the Telegraph and the Guardian . I won’t go into the history of the problems, which have been well-documented on various blogs including Baroque in Hackney and Surroundings . In the midst of speculation as to what has actually happened (the full facts have not been publicly released), there have been heated discussions among Society members as to the best course of action, and as of today, a GM has been called for 22nd July.

Until yesterday, I was not a member of the Society; I have just renewed my membership for the first time in twenty years. My reason for doing so is to attend the GM. But why have I not been a member for all these years? It is fair to say that poetry is the most important thing in my life; it is through poetry that I have made my living for these last 12 years, both as a writer and a teacher. Not a day goes by when I am not reading poetry or commenting on it. So why should I not be a member of a society that has the function of promoting it? There are a number of reasons why I have allowed my membership to lapse for so long, both personal and professional. But, personal reasons aside, and in light of recent dramas and the equally dramatic response of fellow poets, I wonder whether it is time for all of us to analyse why such a society should exist and exactly what it should be doing to promote the art form it is dedicated to promoting?

I will freely admit that I have my own ideas about how poetry should be promoted, and some of those ideas are based on my own prejudices and preferences. I’m not keen on ‘gimmicks’; i.e. giant poetry billboards, subscriptions to daily poem texts, etc., designed to attract people who might not normally read poetry. I risk sounding like some kind of dinosaur if I wonder if it isn’t more productive (especially in these times of scant funding) to still attempt to guide such people to books and readings instead? I know the ‘hit rate’ might be less, but the quality of the experience might be greater. And here is the basic fact: some people – quite a few people actually – will never care about poetry. No matter what you do, how you dress it up, poetry will never appeal to them. So why not really concentrate on the people who are genuinely interested and treat them with intelligence? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against any sort of promotion outside the normal literary boundaries. I think Poems on the Underground is brilliant, not least because the poems they select are truly diverse – during a long tube journey you have the opportunity to read a poem more than once, to really think about it, instead of gazing at whatever free newspaper has been chucked onto the seat next to yours.

Yes, I know – not just a dinosaur, but a snob. I can’t help it. Poetry is important to me, and important to a lot of people around me, and perhaps it’s just a case of wanting to see it (and its practitioners, of course) treated with respect. So if I were to create my own poetry society (forgetting the small problems of funding and resources), what would be its features and functions? Firstly, it seems to me that such a society should be a gathering place where poets could share ideas and resources. A lot of that happens through social networking these days – which is not a bad thing. But there should be a place where poets feel they might gather (other than the pub), and where there might be books and magazines, coffee (perhaps something harder!). Poets House in New York has a library, an extensive performance and education programme, a showcase for new poets, etc. It seems to me that it offers a ‘one-stop shop’, and here in London, poets have to go to several places, like the Poetry Library, the Poetry School, the Poetry Cafe, because not one place can provide all that we need. There have been various plans over the years to bring a number of literature organisations together, and this has happened to some extent at the Free Word Centre . Of course all of the places I have mentioned provide different functions, and diversity is always a good thing, because that keeps discussions and debates open. Perhaps we are too diverse, too fractured in our activities to come together in that way. And of course the current funding situation makes it impossible in the short term. But it would be interesting to have the debate nonetheless …

As for a permanent home for poetry and poetry organisations in London? What about one of the Olympic site buildings post-2012? I can think of no better legacy …

Burning down the house

This is one of my favourite images, the work of the American photographer, Joel Sternfeld. I’ve known it for a long time, and have even written a poem about it, but the poem never quite lived up to the alchemic magic of the image. To know that the fire was not an accident – part of a training exercise by the local fire department on a house scheduled for demolition to make way for a new development – does not diminish its power (but does explain why the fireman in the foreground is calmly buying a pumpkin from the farm stand while the house goes up in flames).  I’d always secretly wondered if the picture had been staged, but apart from the fire department training exercise, the rest was seemingly a happy coincidence – the photographer driving through McLean, Virginia (as you do …) at just the right moment.

What does it for me is the perfect arrangement of visual elements. Maybe that’s why my poem didn’t work; it’s a poem already, beautifully measured. I like how the eye is made to follow the line of metal fence posts on the right, bisected by a line of small trees that runs alongside a path that divides field from house. This sets up the division of areas – if we’re thinking of poems, I’d say the picture is in tercets – the pumpkins in the field, and further back the farm stand, and further back the house. These areas are marked by a colour – orange, of course: the eye moves from the disarray of pumpkins on the ground, up to the orderly display on the stand (where the fireman almost becomes a pumpkin himself), and up to the flames engulfing the roof.

I always assumed the picture was taken around Halloween, but the date is 4th December, 1978; the trees are not in stunning autumnal display, as they would be in October. These are winter trees – skeletal, bare. The grass is parched to brown. And that feels right – you wouldn’t want any other colours to compete with Sternfeld’s orange (like Titian’s blue). The orange of harvest, of “sweet cider” as the sign proclaims, of all-consuming fire. The whole thing is an allegory for what’s spent (be it passion, or summer, or a happy home), and what you’re left with is smashed pumpkins in a field, a desolate winter day, and a soon-to-be ruined house. The positive spin is the farm stand. I know the expression is “when you have lemons, make lemonade”, but maybe we could apply that to pumpkins and pie, or apples and cider. So I see the image as strangely hopeful; in the midst of winter, in the smoke of destruction, the fireman can still choose a prize pumpkin. There’s a glimmer of hope in the world …

This is in preparation for my online course, Poetry and the Visual, coming up in May: