The Craft: A Guide to Making Poetry Happen in the 21st Century, Rishi Dastidar (ed.), Nine Arches Press, Nov 2019, ISBN 978-1-911027-85-0, £14.99
On one face of the trapezoid stone that marks John Clare’s grave is carved ‘A POET IS BORN NOT MADE’. It’s a bold, unambiguous answer to one of the big questions that tends to get asked about poetry; can you learn, or be taught to write poetry? Clare, or rather whoever was responsible for the inscription, came down clearly on the ‘nature’ side of this nature or nurture question. On the other side, implicitly or explicitly, you have MFL courses, modules on creative writing as part of an arts degrees, poetry workshops, mentorships and poetry manuals, all of which, to one degree or another, assume the importance of nurture in a poet’s formation.
The Craft falls under the heading of poetry manual, and so is invested in the nurture argument. It’s an attractively presented set of short, to the point, chapters divided under four headings that range from specific poetic forms to broader discussions of such subjects as the role of research, performance, voice, narrative and the nature of poetic truth. Each chapter is by a practicing poet and they are consistently well-written, not pushing one particular school or style of verse, and refreshingly jargon free.
The idea of poetry as craft is called into question early by Will Harris in his introduction, subtitled ‘Against “Craft” in Poetry’. Harris compares poetry with carpentry and points out that the carpenter works with ‘materials that have consistent properties’, whereas the poet works with mutable language, and that as a consequence to talk of craft in poetry is not appropriate; we are dealing with a different kind of human activity. Harris is quite correct, insofar as he goes. The problem as I see it is that his comparison is of the ‘apples and oranges’ variety; it would be more accurate to compare the poet working with language to the musician working with sound and silence or the painter with colour and form. All art works with the mutable, and all art is a product not of craft, but of the use, abuse, neglect and/or transformation of technique. Of course, The Technique would make for a less snappy book title, but perhaps a more accurate one. In fact, the term is used by a number of the contributors, as, for example, when Jane Commane writes about technique as a way of exploring truth in an essay that reminds me of Marianne Moore’s description of poets as ‘literalists of the imagination’; Commane argues that if we work towards accuracy our poems poems can offer the poet ‘the chance to imagine other realities and possibilities’ or, to quote Gregory Leadbetter (in his chapter on the fictive in poetry), in turn quoting RP Blackmur, ‘poetry “adds to the stock of available reality”’.
The first section consists of a series of ‘how to’ essays on specific forms, covering the sonnet, sestina, Ghazal, Golden Shovel, narrative verse, nonce forms and prose poetry. These are clear, practical guides that both demystify the forms in question and highlight their individual strengths and potential uses. The one risk is that the reader may come away thinking that if they have created, say, a sestina that fully complies with the rules, they will have written a poem, which, as we all know from experience, is not necessarily the case. Poetry is more than form, which nudges us towards the other great question, what is poetry anyway?
A number of contributors address this question either directly or indirectly. For Caroline Bird, writing on the ‘impossibility’ of poetry, ‘[e]ach poem is an attempt to communicate something wordless… using words’. Karen McCarthy Woolf talks about ‘trying to write music with words’. The most comprehensive definition is Carrie Etter’s ‘[a] poem combines distillation (focus, concentration, etc.) and musicality. It is through the intensity that comes with focus and musicality (that may come from metre, repetitions of sound, speech rhythms, etc.) that we recognise poetry’. Etter is building a case for prose poetry, but the definition holds equally well for all poetic forms and genres. I would add that poetry tends to embrace uncertainty, to deal in questions rather than answers.
And I would further argue that ‘focus and musicality’ are the consequences of technique, the poet, consciously or unconsciously, applying skill to language, and skill tends to be acquired, bringing us back to the ‘nature/nurture’ question. as with most aspects of human behaviour, the answer is probably ‘both’. Clare may have been born a poet, but his feeling for language was nurtured on ballads, broadsides, and recitations, and we know that he also read voraciously, starting with James Thomson’s The Seasons, which he bought as a schoolboy, the start of a small library of poetry that he kept with him always.
It seems almost redundant to say it, but poets learn technique by reading, and reading in, broadly speaking, two ways; as a reader who enjoys poetry and as a technician who is reading to beg, borrow or steal ‘how it’s done’. And yet, if the evidence of journal and press submission pages is anything to go by, many would-be poets seem reluctant to dilute the purity of their inspiration by succumbing to any risk of influence. Pretty much all of the contributors to the book refer to poets as examples, with the implication that maybe we should go read them, and some are more explicit. Harry Man devotes an entire section of his piece on technology and poetry to the vital importance of reading widely, and particularly reading work we find difficult or unsympathetic. In her piece on translating, which is a particularly intense form of reading, Clare Pollard is even more explicit: ‘every translation is a new reading of a text, in which you try to decide what is brilliant and important in the original, and try to replicate it; in which you say: look what this poet is doing! Look how amazing this is!’ It is primarily through reading at this level of attention that born poets are made, that they, we, learn to recognise, learn and adapt the technical means of poetry for our own ends.
The rest is work. Many of the contributions on here acknowledge this inconvenient fact: Liz Berry on making dialect a part of your own voice; Roy McFarlane on doing research; Julia Webb on the fraught business of writing about your family and the limitations of anecdote; Rishi Dastidar’s funny, well-argued piece on picking the right title for a poem that ultimately fails to convince me that Shakespeare’s sonnets would be improved by the addition of snappy names; Moniza Alvi on the line as a unit of composition; Antosh Wojcik on sound; Malika Booker on her writing process; Joelle Taylor on Performance; Peter Raynard on class and power; Dean Atta on creating characters and personas in poems, and the importance of empathy. Atta also underlines the importance of revision, of ‘[redrafting] until you get it right. I confess this seems a bit optimistic to me; I might have gone with ‘until you can tolerate it’.
At the end, there’s a kind of checklist of questions you might ask yourself when writing a poem by Roger Robinson that may serve to make the fledgling poet more self-aware, especially those questions that remind us that everything we write is part of a tradition or traditions and that it might not be a bad idea to be familiar with what went before, and a set of writing prompts, a tool whose appeal I constantly fail to understand but which lots of people seem to like.
Will reading The Craft make a poet of you? Probably not. However, you are likely to find lots of useful advice in comprehensible language and, like me, you may well find yourself reflecting on your own development and practice as a writer. And it’s a lot cheaper than doing a university course or going on a writer’s retreat. It certainly won’t do you any harm, and that’s no small thing.