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Essay - Whatever Happened to the Poetry Manifesto?



Recently I tried writing an essay that had the working title 'Why the Meaning of a Poem is the Last Thing You Should Think About'. I felt like I had something to say. It began like this:

I can't help but remember what my old angling tutor used to say: “Be careful when you open a can of worms." Of course, he didn’t say any such thing, and I never had an angling tutor, but writers, and perhaps especially poets, can say anything and get away with it, because . . . Actually, I'm not sure why. I'm not even sure if it's true. If it is, it shouldn’t be. And I'm not sure about that, either. I think it's probably best if we accept a certain degree of uncertainty and subjectivity and other words that suggest everything is open to argument and get on with this. Just because something is open to argument doesn't mean it's wrong.

Later (about 3000 words later) I decided I was on to a loser. Ever methodical, I'd done my best to identify what a poem was, because I'm convinced that loads of what passes as poetry isn’t. And I'd gone some way to describing different kinds of readers, and their reasons for reading poems. All of that was actually pretty good, and I've saved it in case I can use it sometime. But also when I'd done those things plus a chunk more I knew for sure I was in a swamp and it was getting swampier. I was sinking fast, at the same time as beginning to go round in circles. It was going that well.

This was another bit, which I'm also saving, because it's OK:

This week I re-read J.D. Salinger's "Franny and Zooey", a novel I hadn’t read for several decades. In there, Franny, a few minutes away from some kind of nervous breakdown, is railing against her college teachers, who her boyfriend says are "two of the best men in the country" and "At least, they're poets, for Chrissake. 

Franny responds: "They're not….. That's partly what's so awful. I mean they're not real poets. They're just people that write poems that get published and anthologized all over the place, but they're not poets."

Pushed to explain what she means, she falls back on the vague, saying that "if you're a poet, you do something beautiful", but she also stumbles into saying something exquisitely perceptive:

"All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn't have to be a poem, for heaven's sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings …"

It didn't take me long to realize that this probably condemns all my own poems and many of those by poets I love, at the same time as it throws this essay miles off course. But the fact that Franny can’t define the poem or the poet other than something ineffable actually gets us back on track, because the pleasure of the poem – intellectual, spiritual and, I think, in some sort of way physical  – does to a large extent defy pinning down.

Pretty soon I figured that the essay wasn't back on track at all. This was mainly because I'd kind of lost interest in the idea that had prompted my title, and what I was really wanting and beginning to write about was what poetry is for me, and how if reading a poem doesn’t give me pleasure then I'm not interested, in the same way as I would not be interested in a movie, a piece of music, or a sandwich that didn't give me 'pleasure'. Of course, that meant I would have to define 'pleasure', a subjective thing, and which would be like describing the taste of strawberries. I was probably also unconsciously flirting with the idea of writing about the poetry I want to write (which I worry is not always the same as what I do write), and probably also about why I hate (yes, hate) so much contemporary poetry. It was then I decided the essay could and should be ditched so I could go and think about something else.

That something else was to wonder, Whatever happened to the poetry manifesto?

It's often claimed, on national media and at live events, that poetry today is healthy and vibrant. Because of the internet, publishing and distributing poetry is easier than it's ever been, but quantity is not the same as quality, and while on the face of it there's loads of activity, where are the signs of passion? And where are the debates? Where's the argument?

A couple of times in recent months I've heard people on the radio read their poems and they haven't been poems at all, they've been pieces of writing, sometimes of dubious quality,  indistinguishable from ordinary prose. But in each case the ensuing discussion between radio presenter and writer was about the subject matter, not the writing, and certainly not about the writing considered as poetry. Unsurprisingly, the subject matter was either what is called ‘woke’, or something unpleasant in the writer’s past. Often it was both, because they were the same thing. I ached for someone to stick their head in the studio door and shout Excuse me, but that was a crappy poem. Do you even know what poetry is? Have you ever heard of Donald Barthelme's 'notion of the lousy'? Just because a poem is about an important issue of the day doesn't mean one should ignore the craft, or the lack of it. Who will dare to call out any of this stuff, and condemn the mutual back-slapping? Where are the critical debates? Who will dare say that actually this poem, this poet, isn't very good, and argue the How and the Why? Who will dare say, Stop being so bloody nice about everything?

Back in 1978 my buddy Rupert Mallin announced, in 'Manifesto 1', the arrival of Nervism: "What you dare not say in private, say it in public." So what if almost nobody noticed? At least he had some blood and energy in his veins, and wanted to shake things up a bit. Where now is someone, anyone, with the courage to go out in front of the world of poetry and say, 'I have a new way! This is how it should be done!' or 'Don’t do that, do this!'

Of course, there are lots of ways to write poems and read poems, and a lot of energy can be expended and wasted airing opinions about right and wrong approaches, good or bad style, and is this or that poem really a poem? But what the hell . . .  I've been led to believe that Coleridge and Wordsworth and, later, Ezra Pound didn't worry about upsetting a few people. Outside of today's mainstream, even the so-called avant-garde is too often recycling stuff from 50 or more years ago, and being quietly pleased with itself for being outside of the mainstream. Nobody is in much danger of being upset or unsettled by anything from that quarter.

In a slightly different vein, and not always manifestoes but sometimes they were, go back to 1960 (a good year; I was 8) when the back pages of Donald Allen's "The New American Poetry" featured 'statements on poetics' which remain endlessly fascinating and inspiring, even when some of them are incomprehensible tosh. Closer to home, for me at least, of the 16 issues of joe soap's canoe I edited back in more recent history I'd suggest that #14, where invited poets contributed a poem and then wrote a commentary on it, was arguably the best, because the commentaries made you think.* I nicked the format from a book called "Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms", edited by David Lehman and published in 1987, a brilliant book full of poets talking about one of their poems: loads of How and Why. Does anybody actually care now about stuff like that, or get hot under the collar enough about poetry shortcomings to take a stand, or make a noise, or start up their own '-ism' for the heck of it? Or is getting published the be all and end all?

Nothing is going to stop what we seem to have quite a lot of these days, which is the apparent belief that writing about issues is as important, if not more important than engaging in any substantial critical appraisal of a so-called poem as a piece of poetry. And I doubt anything can be done to change a cultural climate where what seems to qualify one for success in poetry is usually about the writer ticking a lot of appropriate and fashionable boxes instead of writing good poems. On top of that, too many reviews of poetry are not much better than advertisements, as one poet writes about another poet and says how super they are, and they 'like' each other on Twitter or Facebook, and Yes, I'd love to come and read to your bunch of friends, and then you can come and read to my friends, and thanks very much. At which point, of course, you will have noticed that the words 'good poems' popped up a little while ago, and the can of worms is back, and it's probably a couple of cans now, filled with subjectivity, and the ground underfoot has become very unstable. Actually, not 'unstable', but definitely a bit tricky. Anyway, whatever did happen to the poetry manifesto? For that matter, whatever happened to opinionated critics?


* Archived at


Copyright © Martin Stannard, 2022


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