Lindsey Shaw-Miller spent ten youthful years working on farms, with Bathsheba Everdene as her rôle model. At 30, realising the hazards outweighed, she went to university to read Theology and History of Art, and became a lecturer, museum educationist and curator. At 42 she had a very unexpected baby, who, along with its father, turned out to be one of life’s great blessings. Her subsequent research in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art led to a research fellowship, a freelance career and a necessary extension of the geography, as the artists who interested her most (apart from Rembrandt, her first love) never stayed at home. She has written poems all her life and was first published at the age of seven.
While for some this strange constriction of the Coronavirus brings illness, bereavement, financial trauma, or the hell of being confined to the home with someone you don’t like or who mistreats you, it’s ironic that what may also be emerging is the recovery of intimacy. With pubs, theatres and cinemas closed, people are making entertainment at home, or sharing online entertainment. Families are more together. Fewer cars on the road means some children are able to play outside, in their own street, though with parents and siblings rather than friends. While we are urged to subdue close physical contact, to replace a hug with a bow or ‘namaste’, there is a care with which these greetings are given; the space that is created between people by ‘social distancing’ has become a site of respect and consideration.
This is of abiding interest in relation to poetry. Of course, social media and virtual contact play a vital rôle at such a time and thank goodness for them. When I’m contacted by the convener of the writing workshop I attend and told that the workshops will continue online, with her sending out stimulus poems and associated exercises and responding with a one-to-one critique, I feel a minor thrill at the intensity it promises, and the potential to focus on the poem(s) I shall have written, not on me as their writer.
I have been writing poetry for the last seven years, but in a landscape radically different from the one I knew as a young reader (and occasional writer). While the writing comes, it’s difficult to know how to be as a poet in this 21st-century world of competitions, social media, poetry cafés, groups and workshops. My way of reading is to take down an anthology, say, find a poem that speaks to me and spend time with it, perhaps learn it by heart, or use it as a stepping- stone to another poem. Or I might take down a collection and read it right through, going back over favourites when I’ve finished. Five years ago, I re-read Ted Hughes’s Crow, and saw it quite differently from my younger reading self: the anger, violence, loss of control, now seemed much closer to pain. I might go to one of my favourite bookshops and sit in the quiet corner that is usually the poetry section, sometimes on the floor, and explore new territories, look for collections I’ve seen reviewed. Last year I discovered Anne Carson’s brilliance this way, and her big books, Nox and Float, have to be handled, you can’t experience their fragmentary, montage quality online.
For me (and, I suspect, for Anne Carson—in person, she doesn’t disclose much beyond what’s on the page), poetry is private. Whereas I share happily with others the novels I’m reading, I have to be very sure of their collegiality to discuss poetry. It’s not just personal, it’s intellectually personal, and if that’s who you are then it’s difficult, in our present world, to navigate the relentlessly public presentation of poetry. In the old days, if I wrote a poem, then my critique would come from reading other poetry, my dialogue was with other poets, through their poems. Rarely would I share anything, and if I did it would be with a trusted friend or colleague. Perhaps because, by trade, I’m an art historian, I’m used to critique—the old-fashioned watchwords of compare and contrast—and I know that sometimes an awkwardness captures something, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Plenty of Hughes’s poems have abrupt, awkward endings.
When I worked for South West Arts in the mid-70s, we organized occasional poetry readings in the bookshop, which I ran. If Ted Hughes came to read, or Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle, the audience was rarely as many as 20. It was a small space, we were close to the poet and the event was almost like the meeting of a minor political or philosophical sect. It was completely different from the razamatazz of, say, Poet in the City at King’s Place, where there can be a convener, an academic, an actor who reads if the poet is absent or dead, and a contemporary poet who responds with their own work. Last year, Hughes’s widow Carol sponsored an event in a basement space in London, in concert with Modern Poetry in Translation, one of Ted Hughes’ collaborative innovations, to commemorate 20 years since his death. Contemporary poets responded: Clare Pollard, editor of MPT, Zaffar Kunial, Tara Bergin and Polly Clarke. This was attended by a small group of people and was the closest I’ve come in recent decades to the kind of atmosphere I remember. It was beautifully organized and conceived, with some wonderful poetry in the responses. Ted Hughes would have felt perfectly at home.
By contrast, I exchanged a few words at a big ‘café’ gathering some months ago about the poet Anthony Thwaite, with a poet friend. Like me, she has known the Thwaite family since the 1980s, though we’ve never coincided there. I was recalling a conversation with Anthony when he was showing me some finds—he loved archaeology—from the hedgerow of a field near his home in Norfolk. He was very happy digging around at the edge of fresh plough, or transcribing, on an old-fashioned typewriter, Philip Larkin’s letters, which he edited. ‘The poetry thing is overrated’, he said to me. He didn’t mean that poetry didn’t matter, or he didn’t care about it, or didn’t really try. He meant it wasn’t the be-all and end-all of him, and his poetic skill in eliding the personal into the formal betrays a certain detachment. My friend remarked ‘I don’t think he would survive if he were a [young] poet now.’ I know exactly what she meant, but I find the thought shocking. That someone of his mindful understanding of poetry, his knowledge and penetration, would not survive the demands of self-presentation in our times.
When I first started attending workshops, going to poetry cafés, getting out and about, I was startled and perplexed, occasionally dazzled by the range of work and approaches that were manifest. It was undoubtedly a stimulus to my own work, but also, unbelievably embarrassing. Not because my work was terrible compared with others’, everything was various; and not because I’m shy. I’m a retired academic, used to giving lectures and presentations. It was the feeling of inappropriate exposure, of tossing my draft poem into the ring without all its clothes on, like using foul language to my husband’s boss or showing a love letter to a total stranger. I’m used to showing a poem to someone carefully chosen for their receptive potential. I don’t mind if they’re critical, that’s good, but I want to feel secure the poem will be read in a certain spirit. By comparison, this seemed like naked dancing.
If you are browsing poems in a bookshop and take down something you don’t ‘get’, you put it back. If you find something intriguing, you stick with it. If you find something you love, you commune with it for a while, and then you probably buy it, take it home. I’ve entered a bookshop in a state of near-fatal distress or depression in my youth, and, given an hour or two with just the spines of books and occasional wrestings from the shelf, come out again in a state of complete calm. Books, ideas and poems are my pyramid in the state of small death.
At a poetry café, by contrast, you can be overwhelmed by an arhythmical series of poems of different styles, agendas, modes of delivery. You want to give everyone your full and open ear, but it’s a poetry disco where you have to keep changing step and pace, and though you’re among others, you’re also on your own, and you’ve brought a poem about love or landscape and everyone else has a political poem, an environmental issue, an abuse to expiate, your poem is rather tame in its ambit but it’s all you’ve brought so you end up reciting something from memory by someone else because it’s safer.
I’m not into poetry to perform. I’m in it for love of language, of emotional truth, sometimes humorous, and of a way of telling that is also a kind of music. I don’t want to write a poem because I haven’t written one for a while, but because I want to tell myself something with particular words that come towards the idea when I explore it.
I know that far more people have benefitted from the opening up of the poetry landscape than have lost out. The expansion of writing has been extraordinary. People who might have felt excluded from poetry as something elitist, difficult, only for the highly educated, have been encouraged and given voice by poetry groups and cafés. As a medium for expression about politics, emotional and physical repression and abuse, women’s issues, disability, race, social estrangement, difference and the histories of displacement and oppression, it has become a necessary force for many, and a verbal lifeline for environmental issues. Some who find the public sharing in person difficult have found a platform on social media, where poems can be hung, read anonymously and written that way too. All of this has been, and will continue to be, in the current lockdown, democratically powerful for possession of the word.
What you intend to ‘air’ among your poetry community, in person and ‘live’, must affect what you write. I’d no sooner put a poem up on Facebook than I’d send a first draft to Neil Astley. I can let work go, I know when something’s never finished, and so finished. I just don’t have the right type of address for social media. Poetry was always, for me, about making a relationship with words and writers that negotiated their word space and mine, on each other’s terms. A poem like Robert Frost’s ‘Acquainted with the Night’ that takes you, so skilfully, into the poet’s sense of disaffection and limbo, through reported actions linked to sights and sounds, a sense of direction without purpose, all contained within a sonnet form, divided into four tercets and a couplet:
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
or Robert Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’, and its bleak perception of unrequited parental love:
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
These are intensely personal poems about the writer’s place in the world, seen from another state. The solitary, night-walking was in the past, just as Robert Hayden is realising, as an adult, how unloving he was towards his father, as a child.
Many of the poems I hear at poetry gatherings express the personal to political and vice versa. I write about landscape, nature, love, family, relationships, maternity and about words, poetry itself. These are pretty unfashionable subjects, pace Simon Armitage. The only thing I write about that is ‘on trend’ is art, so-called ‘ekphrastic poetry’. Even here, I’m in a siding, because to an art historian, ekphrasis means the opposite of what is meant in ‘ekphrastic poetry’. Ekphrasis is used of a description of an image, yes, but where the image itself is no longer extant. The words conjure the image, not the other way around. Famous examples are Homer’s description of the forging of the shield of Achilles in Book XVIII of The Iliad; Pliny’s description of competitive trompe l’oeil paintings in Historia Naturalis Book X.35; or Siri Huvstedt’s detailed descriptions of the fictional paintings of the artist Bill Wechsler in her novel What I Loved. Ironically, poems about art are among the most difficult for me to read in public, intimate as they are with the way I think and have worked, before poetry and beyond it.
So, what of writers whose work is meant to be spoken? This is a different kind of poetic experience, raw and refined together, it’s bardic and it’s modern, it’s very public and it’s also very intimate. I’ve found every experience of seeing Alice Oswald recite thrilling. What she allows you to share is a mind in motion with the poetry, a poet still thinking as she recites, you don’t know where it’s going, you don’t know where you are, she takes you with her and makes you work for your place in the poem. The glimpse you get of her knowledge of the classics is dizzying, and it’s a knowledge that is held in the body and worked through her experience of nature, not unlike Hughes’s knowledge of Shakespeare, or Virgil’s of Homer (and Heaney’s of Virgil …).
I mentioned Pliny’s famously described competition between Xeuxis and Parrhasius. One of the best ways forward as a poet today is to enter and win competitions. But how do you compete with a poem? How are poems judged against each other? To me that’s like trying to judge whether an apple is a better fruit, qua fruit, than a mango or an orange or a banana. Or does the dynamic act in reverse: the competition gives you a reason to write a poem, or stimulates a particular poem or collaboration or set of poems? I know more than one poet who has written specifically for a competition, and I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong or misguided or not what poetry is about. In more than one case they have won, so it works. It’s just not what poetry is to me.
I suppose it begins as a soliloquy: writing to oneself, explaining to oneself, describing to oneself, unravelling the challenge that is daily existence, then, when the meaning seems aptly shaped, sharing it with a trusted reader, perhaps another poet, probably my husband or a close friend. After some months, even years, I might try to get it published if the music still echoes and the word-shape endures. Like good painting, I trust the viewer, reader, listener, publisher, to see further, to track the questions, images, word-trails, if it resonates. If it doesn’t, they’ll move on.
To engage with a poem for real, rather than get a poetry ‘hit’, you need a certain kind of quiet, as you do around a picture if you want to look with clarity and perception. Noise disturbs thought. What we are finding in this strange moment, with traffic reduced to a few commuters, the skies silent but for birds, is people out walking in the sun and smiling, taking time to think about their actions and their day. That’s how I try to be with poetry: taking time to read quietly, to write thoughtfully, to share with few but warmly, intimately, in an open, unintimidated space and with an uncompetitive heart.
Some will say my way with poetry is élitist. Yet I would like, through good education and early exposure, as many people as possible to claim poetry for themselves, to be able to reach out for it, to know it and keep it in their hearts. This is not a manifesto of limitation. It’s a cry for the reclamation of intimacy with our own poetry and that of others, and the softer, deeper knowledge that it brings. It’s okay to be up close and personal with a poem. And writing but not telling is okay too, but probably won’t make you a career poet in the 2020s. No-one’s going to publish your collection until you’ve visibly jumped through some hoops, and that worries me, just a bit. Perhaps there’s more to being a poet than success.