24 essays on how poetry happens in the twenty-first century provide rich nourishment for curious readers and aspirational writers alike.
Rishi Dastidar wants you to revel in the possibilities thrown-up by poem-making. Recognising that, ‘to write poetry today, you need to be thinking about more than just your technical, prosodic abilities’, The Craft comes with numerous ideas, testimonies and treatises from both leading lights and emerging figures in the British and international poetry scenes. The core message of the book can be distilled by Will Harris’s insistence, in his Introductory essay, that ‘the art object is defined by the threat of destruction in a way that the craft object isn’t.’ The remaining 23 pieces might be seen, then, as different, but interlocking, ways of arriving at that art object: poetry.
Invariably some readers will gravitate to certain sections of this book over others. I adhered to Dastidar’s curation, reading the book’s four parts in the order they were presented, but a randomised dip would yield a treat at any point. You might, for example, be drawn to Harry Man’s ‘Computer Says “O”: On Using Technology in Poetry’, which, for all its propounding of immersive online publication tools and their power to connect poets with audiences in revolutionary ways, still advocates (pleasingly, to this reader) that ‘you will always need a human editor’. Or, you might, in the wake of the new political (un)reality, relish Peter Raynard’s ‘Agents of Change: On Power, Politics and Class in Poetry’, a timely sermon willing us, through examples ranging from Sarah Barnsley to Kyle Dargin, to ‘shake the snow globe of complacency, if not smash it up all together.’
Wherever you look in The Craft, and wherever you’re at in the ongoing apprenticeship that is writing poems, you will find something here to savour. Writing about your family but coming unstuck? Turn to Julia Webb’s ‘Of Guardians and Destroyers’. Feeling let down by your line breaks? Moniza Alvi is on hand in ‘Active Lines and Scoring Goals’. Curious about translation but don’t know where to start? ‘Creating Unfaithful Beauties’ by Clare Pollard introduces the fundamentals. Elsewhere, Roy McFarlane’s ‘Beyond the Known: On Using Research in Your Poetry’ gives a fascinating insight into how the author developed a working relationship with the IRR (Institute for Race Relations), immersing himself in ‘files of deaths in custody from 1969 to the present day’ to unearth source materials that added to his poems ‘David Bennett, 1988’ and ‘Mark Duggan, 2011’, two poems which, McFarlane acknowledges, ‘started in research, in reality, but only came to life by heading into the unknown, into what I didn’t know’.
I want to turn to the two essays in the book that most resonated with me before trying to summarise what it is that I think unifies the whole, making this an important standard-bearer of the poetry manual at the start of this century’s third decade.
Peter Kahn’s ‘Writing Poems Can Be Real Cool: On the Golden Shovel’, explores a form created by Terrance Hayes, itself developed in honour of Gwendolyn Brooks’s centenary. Hayes borrowed all 24 words of Brooks’s short poem ‘The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel’, to create his own two-part, 48-line poem, in which words from the source poem (Brooks’s) are ran down the right margin, forming the end words for each line of his own new poem. As Kahn says, Hayes is ‘known for experimentation and expanding how poetry can operate […] Like Brooks, he’s known for being kind and giving.’ While there is a risk that in five years’ time a load of sub-Hayesian Golden Shovels might appear as a result of this gift (Kahn telling the reader that he has taught the form to ‘thousands of people in the US and the UK’), a more cogent reading, compounded by Karen McCarthy Woolf’s excellent ‘When Two Become One’, would have it that the communitarian act of sharing, especially among marginalised communities of emerging poets, is already working incredibly well to decolonise the canon and invigorate all of our understandings of what poetry can do ‘simultaneously [as] rupture and repair’ [McCarthy Woolf].
If Kahn’s and McCarthy’s Woolf’s concern is with how form can be a vehicle for overcoming obstacles, Gregory Leadbetter’s ‘The Mother of Lies? On Poetry, Fiction and Truth’ can be read as the underlying philosophical positioning of The Craft entire. Leadbetter’s is a fierce, intelligent work, attuned to the zeitgeist and its worrying tendency to obfuscate. ‘Unchecked’, he writes, ‘that desensitisation [to subtlety and nuance] can lead to impatience with anything that is not already familiar, and a limited capacity to respond to experience with curiosity, empathy and imagination.’ Ostensibly a reappraisal of Sir Philip Sidney’s sixteenth-century ‘Apologie for Poetrie’, Leadbetter calls for Keatsian negative capability as a kind of asynchronous ally against that which ‘short-circuits our grasp of reality’, reinforcing the point that ‘the affective power of language operates upon us both before and after the ‘literal’, denotative sense of the words, and that this power, in touching the sub- and supra-verbal life of our bodies, finds its way past the merely rational understanding.
In this regard, Leadbetter’s piece is more of a rallying-call or manifesto than it is a poetic credo. That shouldn’t give the impression that much of The Craft is polemical – it isn’t – but it ought to give you some feeling for not only how these reflections on writing better poetry were deemed worthy of collation in the first place, but why they needed to be. Like any good editor, Dastidar’s position is very much in the background. Which is not to underplay the central importance of his role in bringing this exciting, risk taking coterie together under a banner headed: ‘A living thing is much more than a crafted thing’ (Will Harris, Introduction). It is in that spirit that I sense this assemblage has been undertaken: with extreme judiciousness and sense of duty on the one hand, and extreme invocation to play and delight on the other.
Buy The Craft from Nine Arches Press.
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