Almost A Whisper
A polemic on the authenticity of countercultural poetry
Of course I hoped to be a poet when I began writing. This hope soon faded into an occasional attempt which was rarely successful – until quite recently. I took up my pen, and I found I was writing readable poetry. It was working in a bookshop with a poet, and helping out with events and readings that stimulated me to think about poetry. Hearing other poets led me to think seriously about my own writing.
I began to sketch out poems. Rarely did anything flow easily. My notebooks were, and remain, a scrawl of deletions and rewrites. Version after version transforms the raw and awkward phrases into the concise and apt images which please me as a reader. The question I faced was whether they would please anyone else. Fortunately I have an in-house editor with a critically-acute intellect. ‘You should write more poetry,’ my wife said. I wasn’t sure how things were going until I read some work out, and it sounded better than I had expected it would. So I began to read my work to others. It proved easier to find an audience than I had anticipated. It seems there is an appetite for poetry, a hunger for metaphors, whether read in a corner or spoken out loud in a performance space.
But of course a lot of people are trying to satisfy that hunger. Publication is not easy. Unsolicited poems tend to clog up the works. What chance is there to be heard among so much aspiration? Venturing out as a poet necessarily entailed some rejection until the floodgates opened. Success breeds success. Publication engenders the essential confidence which can turn commitment into achievement. I was becoming known as a professional poet, rather than as the essayist-reviewer seeking to regain the creative voice that had lain dormant for a while. Writing workshops and seminars had meant nurturing others in their writing. What I had done for others surely I could do for myself?
What I had not considered is that writing poetry means Becoming a Poet. The essayist is anonymous. The poet is expected to perform. That means adopting a public persona in finding a public voice. Walking into a pub to give a reading, I was greeted at once with, ‘You must be the poet. You look like a poet.’ Flattered at the recognition, and irritated by the wrong kind of recognition, I simply smiled and confirmed who I was. It is the writing that deserves recognition, for at times I feel as much a conduit as an imaginative intellect. I have a personal voice, but it speaks from necessity as much as choice. It speaks in a network of literature that enables me to be more than I can be on my own.
It’s a frequent complaint of harassed editors that so much unsolicited material lacks that sense of dedication which the network gives you. Reading contemporary poetry is essential. Hearing contemporary voices is advisable if not essential also. Gradually you become part of the network. You become a poet. That does not mean acting a part. It means dedicating a vital part of yourself to a certain way, a certain world, of imaginative responses.
There are preconceived ideas of how a poet should be. These notions have to be acknowledged and confronted. We cannot ignore the fact of stereotypes convening in the public mind when the word poet shimmers on the horizon. In recent years the literary public media have sought to countermand the idea of the romantic, possibly fey, bohemian with the presentation of the poet as the worldly street corner shaman, demotic in voice and manner, approachable in person and in poetry. The danger, of course, is that the image takes over the words. The poetry itself becomes a performance, a little too self-aware of what it is doing to capture the freshness and spontaneity it appears to be seeking. When carefully you read the Beats or the Liverpool Poets of the Sixties you understand how difficult it is to emulate those achievements. Unless you have the right equipment you shouldn’t even try.
What we call poetry is a generic name for radically different approaches in style and theme. That does not mean that ‘anything can be a poem’. Nor does it mean that ‘poetry is the new rock ‘n’ roll’. There is poetry in music. There is music in poetry. But words are precious things, easily lost in the crowd. There is an underground feeling about poetry, an unofficial network of the like-minded. Poetry’s surest means of communication is word of mouth. When it is acknowledged by the mainstream it is sure to be absorbed. That will make the poet better known and better-financed. But the danger is in the loss of impetus, of character, and of truth.
I have in mind my beginnings as a writer. There was a lot of literary activity in the south-west corner of England. Based on the poetry and performance happening there a few of us sought in 1978 a gathering for a larger audience. We persuaded an initially very reluctant Michael Eavis to loan a few fields of his farm near Shepton Mallet. George Andrews, Neil Oram’s company (of which I was part), Jeremy Sandford and Heathcote Williams all came. There was some music of course, for this was the site of the famous Glastonbury Fayre of an earlier time. Our event went well. The next year the same thing happened. In 1980 there was nothing in the fields, but there were events round Glastonbury town. Then we dispersed. I went far away to take up a lecturing post. After that, ‘Glastonbury’ became a ticketed event centred on stadium rock. That wasn’t what we had in mind.
It was the distance from the mainstream - the lack of media interest - that appealed to performers and audiences alike. It’s not that any of us believed in coteries. Coterie writing says nothing to the cultural democracy one would like to see develop. That development should be almost a whisper, something that seeps slowly into the blood stream. The public has been taught to fear poetry as something apart from life. Poetry on the Tube is one example of the ways it can become truly part of daily living, not something to be feared or envied.
Our foundation experiences shape us. They predict our future development. Writing for me is a means of personal communication. I like to see my audience. I like to know my audience. Language begins with the spoken word. Literature began as intimate speech, and where it retains that quality of human contact it remains vital. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s insistent phrase, it is ‘an insurgent art.’ It has the varied dimensions of metaphor rather than the plain surface of the known and obvious. The sequestered nature of the enterprise enables it to influence by stealth, by degrees, by happenstance. Once They get in on the act the real poetry moves elsewhere. You can find it in the independent bookshops and their attendant cafes in our cities. The network is easily found by anyone who wishes to look. Just listen for the unofficial voice of unacknowledged news.
Geoffrey Heptonstall © 2012