One of the best things that a poem can do is that it can unsettle you.
It may be a certain strangeness to do with its form or the voice, for instance, that keeps you thinking about what it says. Take, for instance, the creative decision Abigail Parry made, to begin her poem ‘Arterial’ (which won the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize) with the startling metaphor of a stranded heart on M4:
I’m only half-surprised to find the heart
stranded half-way down the M4. This is not,
as you might think, a metaphor. The cats’ eyes
all join up and there it is, red-raw and chugging.
By first evoking the physical, surreal image of a half-beating, nearly-failing heart, the poem enters into a flashback as the protagonist relives his or her relationship, on the brink of dying. This impossible and yet persuasive account shows us the power of poetry.
Taking risks in poetry is beautiful because there are so many ways to manipulate your form and voice, and succeed in it, like watching an Olympic diving event, where every athlete manipulates their muscles differently as they lift their bodies and take the decisive plunge. The other day, when I was re-reading Jorie Graham’s FAST — an account about her dying father and her mother’s dementia, as well as her own struggle against cancer — I think about how long lines and curtailed syntax in her work can make the philosophical more accessible. Adopting the fragmented mode of a spontaneous mind, Graham opens up a new way to portray the personal:
[…] and we tip over to enter into the circle
light makes —> me with this cup of milk —> as there is nothing else to give you—> the water is not
safe —> on the way home I saw mushrooms pushing up through roots —> I wish to belong to the
earth as they do
Graham’s inventive use of arrows to connect long and short run-on thoughts captures the poignancy of the continuous, as we locate ourselves in the changing present, learn from events that happen to us, and create meanings from the totality of those experiences.
Speaking of the personal, I am reminded of Melissa Lee-Houghton’s Forward-shortlisted ‘i am very precious’, in which run-on lines, blurred chronology of events and intimate details of a relationship combine to suggest a searing, emotional wound. Her use of tantalising vocabulary (’When I used to wear my fuck-me boots and walk / the streets at night I could feel men looking at my melancholy curves / I felt hot’) and incorporation of pop culture (‘I’m a big girl / I said. Roomy in the hips like Buffalo Bill’s victims / in Silence Of The Lambs’) also give a convincing voice to the suffering protagonist who stirs sympathy.
On my course, At Risk: Going Somewhere Different in Poetry, we will explore the diverse routes that allow us to take intelligent risks in our writing, learning about the value of originality and how to make that come through. We will look at how different contemporary poets achieve this through their own adventurous approaches to form and language, and above all, we will learn from each other’s writing and feedback, to gather courage and new ideas, and to learn how to be unafraid of challenging ourselves and locating our own writing voices.
How can poetry speak to us if it does not take risks? Find out more on Jennifer Wong’s new online course, At Risk: Going Somewhere Different in Poetry. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.
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