Sunday, 27 November 2016

Five Words that Poets Hate

As people who work with words, it’s only natural that poets can end up in paroxysms of rage at the sight of certain words or phrases. A couple of weeks ago I polled my fellow poets on Facebook for the words that make them most agitated.

1. Corner
Nobody puts Baby in the corner, as fans of Dirty Dancing know only too well. But poets get put in corners All The Time. And this really, REALLY gets my goat.

I suppose it’s a side-effect of that nice little mausoleum in the corner of Westminster Abbey, where some of the great names from poetry’s past are commemorated. But somehow the concept of a ‘Poet’s Corner’ has taken on a metaphorical life far bigger than the actual physical space that bears that name. Poets, admit it. How many times have you been to events where the poets have been relegated to a ‘corner’ because a non-poet organiser has got it into their head that poets and corners are supposed to go together?

I’ll admit to being partially guilty here. The open mic that I’ve been running since 2007 goes by the name of The Speakers’ Corner. But there’s a difference between a Speakers’ Corner (named after the very public corner of London where anyone with anything to say can be heard) and a Poets’ Corner. You see, Speakers’ Corner excepted, a corner is where you put something to ensure it is out of the way. It is the shadowy space where you put that embarrassing ornament that was a gift from your rich aunt (the one you daren’t offend in case you lose the inheritance) but that you secretly hope nobody will notice. It is the outcasts’ space at parties, into which the uncomfortable, the awkward and the conversationally challenged are elbowed by their more socially gifted contemporaries. The corner, in short, is The Place That Doesn’t Fit.

And I rather suspect that that is the real reason why poets are so often relegated to corners. Poetry makes people uncomfortable – and so do poets. And if we’re doing our jobs right, we should be making people uncomfortable. Not by waxing lyrical about daffodils (see below), but by following Goldsmith’s admonition to “let thy voice, prevailing over time, redress the rigours of th’ inclement clime”. There’s a sort of collective moral responsibility on poets to call out the fakes, the falsehoods, the failures of our society and our politics – and I think that deep inside, most people with any cultural awareness have some sense that this is a good thing. The trouble is, most people don’t want us doing that in their backyard, or in their cosy artsy gathering. Much safer to relegate us to the corner, in the hope that people won’t notice we’re there, or will treat us as the oddities to be avoided. Meanwhile the organisers can tick the right box on their Arts Council feedback sheet and get on with their lives without being unsettled by what we do.

2. Scribble
It’s a faux-truism in popular culture that poets don’t write, we scribble. ‘Writing’ is an activity with a semblance of nobility about it. It’s the activity that produced King Lear, or Paradise Lost, or Moby Dick. A weighty activity for weighty men (and yes, the gender bias is significant).

‘Scribble’, by contrast, is what very small children do with coloured pencils before they learn to write proper words. It’s something that predates the idea of actual communication. When applied to adults, the picture it conjures up is one of eccentricity, of haphazard scrawl into dog-eared notebooks or on napkins in cafés. The implication is that the words being ‘scribbled’ are trivial, ephemeral. Or even self-indulgent; the whole essence of ‘scribble’ is that it’s indecipherable to everyone except the person doing the scribbling. So referring to a poet’s writings in this way fosters the stereotype that what poets write is essentially meaningless to anyone but the poet.

I have to admit, though, this is a word that divided my Facebook poets. One or two of them pointed out that they often do scribble stuff when they go about their day – and most poets are familiar with the syndrome of being far away from notebook or laptop and having a sudden urge to capture a fleeting line or an image that must be written down before it escapes. Even if that means scrawling it on a napkin, or on the back of your hand.

But as my regular correspondent (and fine poet) Angela Topping points out, it’s one thing for us poets to refer to these contextless scrawls as scribble, and another thing altogether for a non-poet to describe the whole of our creative process that way.

3. Wordsmith
This one divided opinion even more than ‘scribble’. Some were entirely comfortable with it – others hated it with a visceral passion.

One or two of my correspondents added a whole pile of synonyms, with which they were equally uncomfortable. ‘Scribe’ and ‘wordweaver’ were particularly unpopular.

Why do these phrases attract such bile? There’s a slightly archaic, artisanal feel to them, which makes me think they are the kind of words that rich people who like to pretend that they’re cultured would use out of condescension, rather than genuine admiration for the craft. In these words the poet is cast in the role of skilled manual labourer – the verbal equivalent of a potter, or a rug-maker. It suits those who like to appear cultured to have the pot or the rug in their mansion (or the book in their library), but they would never want to get their hands dirty trying out the artisan’s craft for themselves. So they dignify the craft with a fancy title and it makes them feel that the world is ordered just the way they like it: the rich man in his castle, the poet at his gate.

It’s worth mentioning, at this point, some of the other detested phrases that often get bundled together with ‘poet’. ‘Impoverished’ was one. ‘Arty’, ‘intellectual’ and ‘dreamer’ were also in the mix. Again, all these are words which set up the stereotype of the poet as one of the noble, hard-working poor – much as if to say, well it’s all very nice to have them, but you wouldn’t actually want to be one, would you?

4. Award-winning
This is another one that I’m guilty of myself. Let’s face it, 90% of poets’ CVs contain the phrase. And therein lies the problem. When almost any poet you meet can describe themselves as ‘award-winning’, it’s obvious that being award-winning doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. As the great Len Goodman once said, awards are like piles – every arse gets them eventually.

Why do so many of us persist in describing ourselves as ‘award-winning’? I think the answer to that is that we are constantly having to justify ourselves, and our art. Very few poets have a queue of people at their door, wanting to hear their words. Most of us, if we want to be taken seriously, have to get out there and sell ourselves to a largely indifferent world. And in my experience, that’s not something which many poets are good at. There are one or two honourable exceptions (my York contemporary Miles Salter, for example, has a talent for self-promotion that I really envy). But most of us find that we need to stake our claim to being a Serious Poet by constantly referencing those pesky awards, whether they’re the Bridport Prize or our local writers’ group’s annual limerick competition. They are one of the few objective measurements we can cling to, to show that we are Any Good.

But even being award-winning is no guarantee of recognition. The extraordinary Pat Borthwick, for example, has won almost every major poetry award out there, and tells me that she still struggles to get bookings. Which sometimes makes me wonder, if Pat has difficulty, what hope is there for the rest of us?

5. Poetry
I’ve saved the most controversial word for last. But the person who proposed it was quite adamant about this one. It’s a “pigeonholing misrepresentation”, I was told. And I have to admit, that somewhat flummoxed me.

So is it true? Are poets really ashamed, embarrassed or angered to be associated with poetry?

I’ve pondered this at great length since. And I don’t think that it’s the whole corpus of poetry that’s being slagged off here, but rather what my correspondent eloquently described as a “pompous white-ruffled airy arty farty stereotype”. The point was made that there is a way of presenting poetry which is intrinsically ‘uncool’ and which does sometimes irreparable damage to people’s appreciation of poetry, often at a very young age. Poetry was something, says my correspondent, that people just “didn’t do” when he was at school.

I can’t really argue with that. I’ve blogged before about the dreadful negative impact of Wordsworth’s Daffodils on generations of schoolchildren – and the even worse impact that over-sentimental rehashings of Daffodils have on the credibility of poetry as an art form (it’s probably worth mentioning that the word ‘daffodils’ had its own nomination in this survey!). However, I’m far from comfortable with the notion that this means the very word ‘poetry’ is intrinsically devalued amongst those of us who write and perform the stuff. If anything, perhaps the opposite is true.

Poetry is not something which ever had aspirations to be ‘cool’ (except for possibly a year or two in the Beat era). In the UK at least, it certainly hasn’t ever been ‘trendy’ in my lifetime. But what good poetry has going for it is a certain counter-cultural quality. That’s why Goldsmith described poetry as “my shame in crowds, my solitary pride”. That’s part of the reason why it continues to attract such a high proportion of geeks, goths and misfits of all kinds (and long may it continue to do so). Pretty much all the performing poets I know are proud to call themselves poets; that word represents an artistic, cultural and political standpoint very different to the societal norms of capitalism, tribalism and conformity.

But I have met other poets who are still embarrassed to think of themselves as poets. They bring out their notebooks almost shyly at open mics. They share their words hesitantly. And it’s not because the words are bad – they never are. It’s because when they have admitted to friends, family members, sometimes even partners, that they have been writing poetry, they have had their art ridiculed, or dismissed as unimportant.

If you’re one of these people, then this post is for you. The word ‘poetry’ is on this list because poetry matters. Don’t hate that word. Be proud of it. Immerse yourself in it. It is a truly soul-crushing thing, when those closest to you just don’t understand why it matters to you. But there are hundreds and thousands of us who do get it. Seek us out. Be poets with us. We will do what we can to make your life better. To help you be proud of who you are.

And not a single daffodil will be harmed in the process.


  1. I'm with Clive James...there's never been so much poetry about, and so few good poems. 'Poet' is a word I run from. I say I write. I'm not 'a writer'. I write poems. But they don't define me, these words. These things are not my life...I'm not good enough. Like a lot of other people.

  2. I was tentative for a long time about calling myself a poet. Many say a poet is someone who writes poems. But what makes something a poem? When I was a very young poet (13 or 14), I used to show my work to people and ask’ is this a poem?’ by which I meant ‘does it do what poems are meant to do, is it magic?’That is why I don’t believe in bad poems, if it’s bad, it’s not a poem. William Carlos Williams said ‘if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem’.
    By calling oneself a poet, if one simply means that one writes poems, I don’t have an issue with that. But the secondary definition is that a poet is a ‘person with great imagination and creativity’. I don’t feel I could say that about myself unless other people said it about me first.
    Matt Simpson always said poet was a ‘praise’ word. There is a tradition behind this assertion. So I used to call myself a writer of poems, or just a writer – which is true enough because I do write other things, such as critique books for Greenwich Exchange, chapters of books aimed at undergraduates, GCSE textbooks. But these are by products of my teaching career. I have written poems since I was very young, but when I read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess’ at 15, I decided to dedicate myself to poetry. I read Auden’s essay ‘The Dyer’s Hand’ too, and from these texts gleaned that I needed to immerse myself in poetry and learn from the masters. I tried every form in Frances Stillman’s Poetry Manual. A poet needs to have the knowledge, to read, to learn from the best, and to keep on doing so.
    I was almost 19 when I first met Matt Simpson. We gradually moved from mentor/ mentee roles into friends who commented on each other’s poems, a shift which evolved over a long period. I dedicated my first collection, Dandelions for Mother’s Day (Stride 1988) to him in recognition of my debt to him.
    In 2009, he had a heart bypass operation. He was fully aware that he might not pull through and horrified me by describing it as ‘an awfully big adventure’. He had the operation on the Monday and it was a relief that it appeared to have gone well. I went to visit him in hospital on a beautiful June day. He hadn’t wanted me to go and see him in intensive care but I was so glad I did. It was to be the last time I ever saw him. This poem was written a few days later, after his death:

    Hospital Visiting

    I trace your steps
    from hospital car park
    in warm evening sun
    impatient to see you.

    A machine helps me find
    a path to you through grey
    shiny corridors, up stairs
    and over bridges, through

    protocols and passwords,
    hand gels to sanctify me,
    like holy water in church,
    before I can touch you.

    I have to ask where you are.
    The medics have claimed you
    though I’m allowed
    to squiggle on to a high stool.

    We think this is all temporary,
    that soon we’ll have you home,
    a new man. We’ve plans for you.
    You say it’s kind of me to come.

    As if I could stay away. You know
    I love you. You introduce me
    to your favourite nurse, the one
    with the film star eyes. Tell her

    ‘This is my friend Ange, a poet too.’
    Not a title to be claimed for oneself,
    but you gave it freely, a last bequest
    in your final days of life. *

    Whether one subscribes to the notion of poet as a title conferred, as Matt did, or sees it purely as meaning someone who writes poems, what Matt said to me on that visit was a great gift, and I know he did it deliberately.

    I read it as giving me that long-withheld title, out of love and respect, of passing the baton to me, of telling me to go forward with my poetry despite him not being there to critique and encourage me, as he always had done, his way of saying I was a fully-fledged poet, which indeed he had said in a review but not to my face.

    And it is why I now feel able to call myself a poet.

    *This poem first appeared in my Salt Modern Voices pamphlet I Sing of Bricks and was united with the remaining poems from the 17 poem elegiac sequence I wrote for Matt, from my Rack Press pamphlet Catching On in my collection Paper Patterns (Lapwing 2012)