Why do I take these risks? I forget that the stakes are quite high in these places and that it matters, or at least it does to me, how I feel when I go out the door.
I’m talking about my new poetry class. Such a treat. What could possibly go wrong?
The tutor is a woman, a poet, who I respect deeply. The class is relatively local, the cost is reasonable, minimal preparation was required.
All I had to do was bring in a poem that I like, read it to my classmates and talk about it.
My first thought was Will Kemp’s Moons and Cricket Balls which was published in a recent edition of Ambit magazine. It’s an absolutely lovely poem, accessible, but mysterious, a pleasure to read and say. Why didn’t I just stick with that?
But, no, I had to read Kim Hyesoon’s this night. I don’t dare to reproduce any of it here given the response it provoked.
Winding back a minute, Kim Hyesoon is the poet I saw read at Parnassus (part of the cultural olympiad that ran alongside the Olympics) in London’s Royal Festival Hall. Also on the bill were Seamus Heaney, Kay Ryan and Bill Manhire. She was among the greats.
At the time I commented that she looked like Edna from The Incredibles. Maybe this was her revenge.
When I heard her poetry I found it viscerally exciting. I mean I really felt it in my guts. I had to buy her book. She responds to the world with total freedom, it seems to me, a kind of freedom that I have rarely, if ever, encountered in any other writer.
When I read more of her work I was even more excited. This is a woman who owns her body. She’s not afraid to discuss any aspect of her body, or any woman’s, or ANY of the things that happen to women’s bodies.
I’m really grateful for that.
So I took both poems to class. In a brief discussion with my tutor, she was keen for me to read the Korean poet and teacher’s work, although she didn’t know her work.
I got six lines in and my tutor put her hand up and said, ‘Stop. Please stop. I can’t take any more.’
The rest of the class said it made them feel ill.
I haven’t been able to tell anyone about this without laughing hysterically (I use the word advisedly) to the point of incoherence.
My tutor said it’s great that I read what I read because it allowed a valuable discussion of boundaries. I can’t really remember any discussion of boundaries. People said that they felt poetry ought to offer some kind of light, that the work couldn’t be totally dark.
People – kind people – tried to find symbolism in the work. They hoped she was writing in the censored North (she’s not). (But I appreciated their kindness which redeemed the experience for me quite a lot.)
They did not value her freedom in the way I do. I was alone in that.
My tutor then made me read the Will Kemp and said that it was a safer choice.
For me, what this exposes is that I am at odds with the group (it could be any group) and not for the first time. I try not to believe this. People who think they’re different and special (therefore) are just annoying.
I’m trying my hardest to be normal. Honest.
It also exposes the issues of decorum and sensibility in poetry which people often think is a medium in which anything goes. On the diploma course that I’ve just finished I watched some of my classmates struggle with the poetry strand.
Some wanted to write traditional verse, complete with archaisms (doth, thee, thy), which is deeply frowned upon. You better be a Keats or a Shakespeare if you’re going to compete with them, seems to be the general view. And, as contemporary poets, we should use our own language, not hark (!) back to some ‘golden age’. That makes sense to me.
Others liked to use words like ‘gossamer’ and ‘shard’ (usually in relation to ‘sunlight’) and ‘rainbows’. These words, and others like them, are said to have become tired and can no longer bear the weight their users are hoping they will.
I did ok in the poetry strands. I got the sensibility and wanted to work within it. That was lucky for me.
But the lesson I therefore didn’t learn from personal experience is that poetry has rules. I’m not talking about rhythm and rhyme. I’m talking about decorum, a term I encountered in a famous Billy Collins essay. He says every age has its own decorum:
that cultural force which sets down for any given age certain guidelines governing acceptable artistic expression
The current antipathy for traditional verse and the lists of banned words are clearly part of ours.
Sometimes I hear it in my work, this decorum, and it does weary me a bit. The self-consciousness of voice, the measured words and flashy line-breaks. If I manage to execute it, it feels a bit ‘pat’. It’s probably because I’m a beginner and the joins in my work still show. Whatever the reason, it feels compliant and veering towards clever (very distracting, cleverness, can slap you out of a poem).
As to boundaries, if I can argue with my tutor a little, I don’t think it came up much in the discussion. I think I was simply an object lesson in getting it wrong or going too far. I wonder if my tutor hopes it will stop others in the class bringing in questionable work, such as the overly personal or obscene.
I chose the wrong poem. Everyone hated it. I felt bad. I don’t feel bad any more. I just feel a bit worried. I feel like this isn’t the first time I’ve been off the grid.
It’s not the first time the book’s fallen off my head.
ADDENDUM: There’s been some debate about this event on another blog. From the distance of a few months on (January 2013) this was clearly my mistake. I love Kim Hyesoon’s work but for the first class of a new course, a less confrontational text would have been wiser. This was really nothing to do with decorum (although that’s an interesting and real phenomenon) and everything to do with me seeking to justify an embarrassing blunder in a room full of people I didn’t know at all.