Poetry is always a kind of dialogue between the internal and the external. We write out of, if not necessarily ‘about’ in a confessional sense, our personal lived experience of reality — our bodies, our upbringings, and the things that have happened to us historically and recently.
But we also write towards something ‘out there’, more or less dimly imagined: a contemporary world of potential readers and listeners in which all kinds of questions and debates are continually raging.
As Birmingham Poet Laureate (2018-2020), I’ve recently become very conscious of how my own writing does or doesn’t manage to bridge this gap. I can’t, in any sense, be representative of all poetry or all people across this large and diverse city, but because I have a public platform which amplifies my writing voice, I’m always asking myself how my poetry speaks to and about the people and the places around me.
It can be tempting to reach for the widest possible political or social themes when we sit down to write, but often this leads to abstraction, or to a lack of grounding in the concrete and the particular. That’s why I’ve designed my upcoming Poetry School course as an exercise in gradually expanding our horizons outwards, thinking about ‘self’, ‘place’ and ‘world’ as a series of concentric circles.
For instance, Jason Koo’s ‘A Natural History of My Name’ starts small, exploring the unusual ‘vowel-to-consonant ratio’ of the poet’s own name, but the poem ends by reflecting on ‘colonial culture / and upheaval’ and claiming a potent sense of Korean-American identity. Likewise, Eve Ewing’s ‘what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife’ playfully establishes a cutting distinction between ‘you’ and ‘I’ from the vivid sensory details of food and eating as a way of getting to the ‘iridescent everything.’ Poems like these render the self with a powerful force, as a way of reckoning with the limiting categories of the wider world.
The details of a local landscape can also be an effective way of getting across where we come from, where we’re speaking out of, whether that’s a rural location, an urban environment, or anywhere in-between. I’ll be using poems by Kim Moore, Casey Bailey and John Clare to explore how a speaker can connect with the world immediately around them, building up a sense of presence, movement, belonging, or productive tension. We’ll look at the paradox whereby the most specific writing can, through the use of convincing details, speak more effectively to a broad audience.
Our last session will look at poets like Tony Harrison and Carol Ann Duffy whose work aims explicitly to address big questions and big audiences, as we consider the particular challenges and rewards of trying to be ‘public’ or even ‘popular’. When Birmingham’s own Liz Berry writes about motherhood as a ‘wild queendom’, her Forward Prize–winning poem invites in a wide range of potential subjects: how can writers capture an extensive readership without sacrificing nuance and specificity?
We’ll turn to the work of poets who’ve enjoyed both literary and popular success to better understand how poetry takes on a public role, in contexts like political response and national mourning. But all the way through, we’ll bear in mind our initial questions: how does this poem still speak distinctively and directly from the self, a particular human speaking voice at the core of the experience?
Louis MacNeice, writing from a house on Sir Harry’s Road in Edgbaston, famously described ‘world’ as ‘crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural’, and he wasn’t wrong. Nonetheless, over the three sessions of this course, we’ll see what happens when we start from the singular and go in search of the wider world from our own inevitably unique perspectives.
Join Birmingham Poet Laureate Richard O’Brien to explore your unique perspective in Self, Place, World.