Friday, January 20, 2006

In place of a profile

My user profile is rather enigmatic, containing no useful information. This post is intended to provide readers with some background about my poetry at Complete and Utter Poetry and related topics.

Q. There's a lot of Christian imagery in your poems. Are you a Christian?

A. No, I am, like Douglas Adams, a 'radical atheist' (a term he invented to avoid the 'I'm an atheist' 'Don't you mean agnostic' 'No, I mean atheist' conversation). However, my upbringing was very Christian, and as a result, the Anglican liturgy, hymns, and the Bible form part of my language. My shift towards agnosticism and then atheism was quite quick, and can be explained by the total absence of any spiritual experience: by the application of Occam's razor, the simplest solution, No God, stands until or unless this becomes untenable. However, Christian and Biblical stories are very useful in addressing philosophical issues; in much the same way Anglo-Saxon missionaries re-branded Christ as a hero-warrior, he can be re-packaged in several ways.

I have no interest in 'proving' that the Bible is wrong or inconsistent, although I do get a bit exasperated by fundamentalist arguments that it is all true and all correct and not at all inconsistent or open to interpretation. Thus when I looked at Genesis http:// and noted that God appeared to mislead Adam by saying that eating the Fruit would make him die, and it didn't, I later came across an explanation that when God said this he meant that Adam would start to die after eating it, not die on the spot. To which you might reasonably respond that God might have been a bit clearer on this fairly important issue.

I have no time for the woolly vague sort of Christian who believes that the world is a nice place in which nice things happen thanks to God; I do have some respect for the more thoughtful sort who acknowledge that much that happens is bad and that God is in no position to prevent it.

Q. Where do you think poems come from?

A. Mine emerge slowly from the subconcious. I will often feel an idea at the edge of my mind, and wait for it to emerge. It's usually a scenario or mood rather than a phrase. But as I say in my poem Ars poetica, that is really only the start of the work. I try to write down a narrative, not caring too much about the sound or form, and then rigorously edit it down so that it says only what needs to be said.

It is probably something to do with how Creative Writing is taught that so many people seem to think that having the inspiration is all that is needed.

Q. You use a range of poetic forms: how do you choose them?

A. In general, I will use a form if I can fit the thought to it. Ideally, a poem should effortlessly sit in its structure as if that is how it would have been written anyway. The great advantage of forms like the haiku / senryu is that they provide an organising principle without constraining the content. It is a commonplace to say that free verse is usually terrible; I would add that so is most rhyme, because the most worthless poem might be held to have some merit if it rhymed. No. My advice to aspiring poets is to forget rhyme, and concentrate instead on economy of expression and clarity of thought. The other main form I use is the villanelle, which allows a refrain structure without imposing an unnatural word order or stress.

Q. How would you define poetry?

A. There's a lot to be said for Auden's definiton as 'memorable speech'. That leaves it quite open, while reflecting the basic principle that it is a medium in which the words matter. In fact my definition would be 'carefully chosen words'.

Q. Which contemporary poets do you admire?

A. I don't read much poetry, I must say. This is partly because I don't have much time for reading at all, but in any case I find that reading modern poetry is hard work. Published, literary, poetry, seems too smug and complicated; internet poetry too simple and banal. Ideally, I'd like to read short, snappy, witty, clever, poems, conscious of literary forms, and not mentioning rainbows, cats or gardens. Wendy Cope's good. Of earlier poets, I like Larkin and Amis, Eliot and Auden.

Q. You often include quotations as part of the titles of your poems. Why?

A. The inclusion of epigraphs wasn't something I had thought about: it seemed natural at first, since all of those I mentioned do it quite a lot. It's not intended to show off: I try to find quotations which bear on the subject of the poem, hinting at its approach. For example, the long poem Seven Cities starts with a quote from the book of Jonah and another from Eliot so that before starting the poem proper, the reader is already being led to expect an allegory about destruction, cities, and salvation. It's only recently that I realised how old-fashioned the inclusion of epigraphs looks, not that that will stop me.

1 comment:

Ephrem said...

Hi, Martin. Just a note to let you know about my hymn blog. Not high poetry, mind you, but maybe not so bad, either.