“Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” – Adrian Mitchell
I like people. I like reading about them. I like talking to them and getting to know them. I like writing about them. It might just be age, but these days I can’t think of anything worse than meditating on my own attitude to a place, or a concept, or dear god – a feeling, and then trying to capture my own response in verse. I love reading confessional poetry, but I’ve never been able to respond in kind and lay myself out in painful, detailed glory for everyone to see. You can go looking for me in my books, but the chances are (hopefully) that you won’t be able to find me.
What you will find are lots of other people. Real life figures, usually. People from the margins of history who didn’t quite make it into the world’s bigger narratives. Or sometimes fictional characters who offer a voice on a wider topic or event. Quite often, writing about other people, sketching out their lives (or lack of them), has felt like a restitution. It can be a way of giving people a voice who otherwise wouldn’t have been heard.
But it’s a tricky thing, writing about other people. In an age where identity politics is king, what does it mean to offer a portrait of somebody, especially someone very different from yourself? Is it possible to separate representation from judgement, or to escape the accusation that you have no right to create art out of anyone’s experience but your own?
These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about lately, and it occurred to me that visual art, the art of portraiture, had been around a long time, and might offer some answers and techniques that I could try and apply in my own writing. There’s something brilliantly energising about getting out of your own art form and exploring new ways of creating work.
So that’s what I’m hoping my upcoming online course will do. We’ll be able to consider some of the weightier questions about responsibility to a subject, about what it means to write from life, but that we can also play around with ideas of symbolism, perspective and purpose. Will someone come up with a way of replicating the Mona Lisa’s unknowable expression through line breaks? What will it be like to work with a sitter – to ask someone to sit right in front of you whilst you attempt to capture a likeness with words?
There are so many different reasons to create a portrait. Michelangelo famously protested that he would not paint portraits because there were not enough ideally beautiful models. It sounds like a crazy argument to us today, but whilst we might be no longer be concerned about capturing ‘beauty’, portraiture is still bound up with the sense that there can be something fixed and true. To capture a likeness is to say something undeniable about a person, and I’m interested to see what happens when language, with all its doublings and ambiguities, rubs up against this principle.
I was in two minds whether to include that Adrian Mitchell line at the start of this post. It’s been been seized upon by so many to either beat the back of poetry for ignoring the world at large, or else it’s been used to highlight poetry’s need for distance if it’s to do the job of challenging and changing our ways of thinking. I think what Mitchell’s saying is that poetry has to refuse to conform to the everyday and avoid the prevailing ways that people think and behave.
But the everyday is really interesting and it deserves and needs to be observed and represented. To write about other people, to say look – this is how I, or others see you, isn’t a safe or easy thing to do. But to enquire into the nature of another human being, to try and express that creatively, it’s got to be more interesting than taking another selfie.
How do you capture personality in poetry? Take a penetrating look at appearance, and learn how to paint remarkable likenesses with words alone on Sarah’s new online course, Readers of Faces: Poetry as Portraiture. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.