Saturday 27 March 2010

Introduction to Poetry

'Short and Sweet - 101 very short poems' edited by Simon Armitage

For some reason I started out reading the introduction to this little book, rather than just flicking casually through and reading at random, as is mostly the case with poetry books. I am beginning to wonder if maybe poets have arranged their books with much care, and that you are supposed to read them in the prescribed order, that there is something subtle to be gained from doing so that I am missing out on. This collection is arranged by size, so if read in one sitting, you get a slight sense of acceleration as they get shorter and shorter and you turn the pages more swiftly (though some you might pause at and read again), until the final one, which is title but no actual poem: 'On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him' by Don Paterson.

Simon Armitage (who's very thought provoking introduction makes me want to read his poems) talks about the nature of words, how they were precious when literacy was less common, and how in the digital age mass communication and intrusive advertising seems to have devalued words. He comments on how it is short poems that stay in the mind, being easier to remember and hence "more successful" (assuming success in poetry equates with people recognising it), whereas longer poems are taken as being serious, as if length is important to make you mark. But he does not necessarily agree:

"And yet the short poem, at its best, brings about an almost instantaneous surge of both understanding and sensation unavailable elsewhere; its effect should not be underestimated and its design not confused with convenience." (p. xi)

He goes on to define 'short' so that readers can see the parameters that have defined his selection. The sonnet, at 14 lines he decides has stepped over the mark of brevity, being structurally defined, and so he begins at 13 lines. Then he says something very helpful about poetry in general that in definitely worth quoting:

"As far as I can tell, there are two kids of poets: those who want to tell stories and sing songs, and those who want to work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poems."

I just loved this way of expressing the subtlety, "the chemical equation for language". Then he goes on to define a poem, also helpful:

"a poem is a poem when its context declares it: e.g. here is a group of words that appears alongside other poems, in a book with the word poetry in its title, edited by a poet, published by a press famous for publishing poetry: it is a poem."

It reminds me of the assertion that 'art' is art if it is made by an 'artist'. I liked him even more when he declared that he would resist the sensed obligation to include some haiku, so you really get the feeling that he has chosen these poems out of liking and respect, not because of reputation or just because they fit the category.

I decided to quote two contributions. Now much as I love D.H. Lawrence's 'Piano' I will resist the temptation to quote it, I'm sure you can read it online somewhere. Instead from among the 'longer' ones I chose one that I did not know but was hauntingly poignant, 'Second Marriage' by Stanley Cook:

The sky stopped crying and in a sudden smile
Of childish sunshine the rain steams on the roofs;
Widow who has married widower
Poses outside the Registry for photographs.

Their grown up children are there
And damp confetti like a burst from a bag
Accumulated from a morning's marriage
Is second hand for them against the door.

In the wood of the world where neither of them is lost
They take each other by the hand politely;
Borrowers going to and from the Library
Passing through the group as if it were a ghost.

And from the other, more brief, end of the book. Again I resisted Carol Ann Duffy's 'Mrs Darwin' (and 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner', as I didn't want two poignant ones), and picked out instead 'An Expedition' by Peter Didsbury:

Down to the end of the garden in the night
With cigarette and glass of ice-cold milk.
I pick my way over heaps of builders' rubble
Light from the new kitchen window comes along too.

And if you pop over to Dunk's blog he has been experimenting with a new camera in the dark, and click on the first photo (this will enlarge it), it accompanies this poem quite nicely (though he never drinks milk:-).


  1. thanks for tip Martine I don't know this book but it looks good, especially Simon Armitage's intro. I've just ordered it from my library on the strength of your review!

  2. Afraid I have lost motivation for reading. Doing too much again. I did read Steinbeck's The Pearl, which left me feeling yucky. And now C has asked me to read Lord Sunday.

  3. I had never thought of poets putting their works in a particular order and am one of those who tends to dabble his way through poetry books. I shall have to pay more attention in future!

  4. I like Simon Armitage a lot and have his 'Selected Poems' here on my shelf. Writes good prose stuff too. I think he's got an original voice, and something to say, though sometimes he tries too hard to be 'cool' to a younger generation when you hear him on the radio and read him in interviews.

  5. Very interesting - thanks for posting - I like Simon Armitage

    Great post



Thanks for stopping by. Thoughts, opinions and suggestions (reading or otherwise) always most welcome.