Saturday, 28 September 2013

Where have all the war poets gone? Part 1

My friend and poetic sparring partner Tim Ellis sparked off yet another cracking Facebook debate a couple of weeks ago. In a discussion of his e-book On the Verge – an elaborate satire on the Western world's disregard for the consequences of environmental degradation – he asked the question: why were there so few poets writing about climate change? Are we afraid to tackle the subject? Or are we more comfortable disregarding the issue altogether, and writing about ‘safe’ subjects like love, daffodils and cats – thus proving the truism that most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people?

Tim has a point. Very few of the poets I know in Yorkshire are writing about climate change – or Syria, homelessness or benefit cuts. Those few that are overtly engaging with these issues seem to be writing rants, rather than poems – shouty tirades that fail to have any real impact. The bona fide poems are conspicuous by their absence.

I felt duty bound to play devil's advocate. It wasn't, I protested, that we didn't want to write about such things. The difficulty is that for most of us, war and homelessness and climate change are subjects too big to write about. Is it even worth the poet's effort trying to write about such things, when any given 30-second run of newsreel images makes our months of laboured word-craft pale into insignificance? Isn't it better to write about love, and daffodils, and cats, because these things at least give us a moment's escape from the ugly realities of the world?

I don't really believe this theory. Poetry is the stuff of human life. Poets, as a class, have a sort of responsibility to humanity, to reflect and recount all of human life. We need poets who write about climate change, and war, just as much as we need poets who write about love (or cats). Poets, collectively, are failing the world if we decide that any subject is not fitting subject matter to write poetry about.

So why do so many of us find it so hard to write poems about ‘big issues’ – or make such a bad job of it when we do try?

War and climate change are pretty unsubtle things. So there is a tendency, when addressing them head-on, to think that ‘subtle’ isn’t good enough. Why write a sonnet, when you can have a rant instead? But rants on their own are an artform more akin to Party Political Broadcasts than to poems. I'm not saying they don't have their place. Someone needs to get up on the barricades and say what the rest of us are feeling. But it doesn't require poetry to do that. Rhetoric, yes. Oratory, probably. But poetry? The subtlety of poetry is just going to be lost on an angry mob.

So what can poetry do to illuminate, inform and educate about the big issues?

In my opinion, poetry has two qualities that newsreel footage and mob rants don't have. Firstly, poetry is a way of looking slant-wise at the world – of finding meanings and connections that we never realised were there. By looking at something slant-wise, we end up looking at it more deeply – understanding its inner workings, its relationship to the wider environment. We find the new angle that the news reporters and the propagandists miss.

Pete Seeger's Where have All the Flowers Gone? is a prime example. One of the greatest anti-war songs ever written; but it never goes near a battlefield. Its starting-point is the cycle of life and love, as young girls pick flowers to be reminded of their sweethearts. It ends up in the graveyard where all their sweethearts are buried, without us quite noticing how we got there – and then the whole futile cycle starts again.

The second thing that poetry does is to use the microcosm to tell us about the macrocosm. A war poem doesn't tell us about ‘war’ – ‘war’ is too big, too abstract and too grotesque a concept to be pinned down in a 14-line sonnet. But a Wilfred Owen poem can tell us about a single, heart-stopping moment of terror in the life of a single soldier. And it's when we grasp the notion that this awful moment was replicated tens of thousands of times over, in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, that we begin to feel the true horror of the war. When we see its discarded left-overs picked over by the ragmen in Patricia McCarthy’s Clothes that Escaped the Great War – the 2012 winner of the National Poetry Competition – those of us who have been fortunate never to have experienced such desolation can at least begin to grasp the awful emptiness, the futility of what was left behind.

There is an even subtler way that poets can be war poets, or climate change poets. A good poem has many layers. The subtext of a poem often carries a meaning that goes far beyond the subject matter in the written words. Love poets (and love-gone-wrong poets) use subtext all the time, to turn a physical description into an emotional map of the human heart. A whole generation of literature students are currently writing theses on the existential significance of William Carlos Williams' wheelbarrow. So what's to stop a poem about a love affair, a cat, or even a daffodil, also being an unwritten commentary on the folly of war, or the depredations of global warming? All it takes is for poets to be made aware of the possibilities.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Are we all plagiarists now?

Is it just me, or do the poetry plagiarism scandals seem to be getting too close for comfort?

I was shocked when I read the allegations by Carcanet poet Matthew Welton that his work had been plagiarised by his fellow Nottingham poet CJ Allen. All of the plagiarism revelations to date have been scandalous, but this one seemed to hit home in a more – well, personal way. After all, I've entered competitions where CJ Allen has been a prize winner.

I must be clear: at the time of writing there is no suggestion that ANY of CJ Allen's prize winning work is anything other than his own original creation. But sadly, now that he's been tarnished with the plagiarist’s brush I can't avoid a nagging little “What if...?” that creeps into my mind when I hear his name mentioned. And it's depressing that I should think about any poet that way, particularly not one with such a strong track record and hitherto good reputation. If I start doubting one poet, how long before I start doubting them all?

What makes it worse is I have a sneaking suspicion that very few poets are entirely blameless when it comes to appropriating other people's work.

We all absorb ideas and images from the world around us. Writers pilfer constantly from overheard conversations, bits of pop culture, lyrics, advertising jingles, politicians' soundbites, and the like. “Intertextuality”, where a piece of writing knowingly references an existing source from the print or broadcast media, is one of the buzz-words in contemporary poetry. If, like me, you go to a lot of poetry readings and open mics, you'll be exposed to a whole barrage of poetic phrases, unusual metaphors and similes, and the like. And the chances are you may be picking them up subconsciously, reworking and reusing them in your own creative work.

I realised – and realised in a very public arena – that this was happening to me too, not so long ago. I'd been working on a new poem, a childhood reminiscence infused with my beloved fairytale imagery. I had a line in my head, which provided a perfect ending for the poem. And I knew it wasn't entirely ‘my’ line. I'd picked it up from somewhere – but where, I had absolutely no idea. Was it something I'd read in one of my books of fairy-stories? After all, I often find ideas for poems lurking within their covers. Had I heard it on TV, or the radio? Or – and this is the tricky bit – was it another poet's line, that I'd heard at a reading or an open mic, and picked up without realising that I'd done so?

It turned out to be the latter. This perfect final line for my new poem was somebody else's work. I used it in the poem. And the moment I realised where I'd heard the line before was the moment I read it out loud to an audience – at the self-same open mic that I'd first heard it, several months earlier.


If the poet who had created that line had been present, I could easily have ended up tarred with the same brush as CJ Allen. They weren't, as it turned out. But I had no idea who had written that line; all I knew was it was someone who might well be in the room, who almost certainly had friends who were in the room. The only honourable thing to do was to make a public confession of what had happened, and ask the original poet’s forbearance on the grounds that imitation, in this case, really was the sincerest form of flattery.

The audience at that open mic are a lovely lot. They were very understanding. They actually applauded the poem (and the confession) – and they didn't come after me with pitchforks afterwards, or ‘out’ me on the Carcanet blog. But I know fine well that I now have no right to use that ‘borrowed’ line in my poem. I could never be comfortable, submitting it for publication in the knowledge that the poem owed its power to someone else's words.

That last line has now been binned. It took me a couple of weeks to come up with the replacement (which is not nearly as good as its ‘borrowed’ predecessor). But such is life. All poets tend to find that, just when we want to say something really profound, someone else has got there before us. We shrug our shoulders, revise our poems, and move on.

The whole experience has made me realise just how close all poets come, at times, to being plagiarists. After all, we'd have precious little source material if we had to rely only on the original stuff that comes out of our heads. But the stuff we pick up from our environment – the lyrics, the headlines, the discarded soundbites – these are someone's creative work too. And the fine line between unconsciously using these as the starting-point for our creative process, and rehashing them wholesale as if they belonged to us in the first place, is finer than most of us realise.