Take poetry slowly

28th February 1997 at 00:00
HOW POETS WORK Edited by Tony Curtis Seren. Poetry Wales Press Pounds 6.95

This is a collection of essays and drafts by a clutch of poets whose main subject is themselves and their art, a series of educationally useful glimpses of the poetic workshop.

This format makes for an attractive combination of anecdotes about, and sober analysis of, what Robert Lowell's mother described as "the emotional excitements of poetry". In fact, this book shows how much, in poetry, vision is a product of revision, how much "being a poet" entails having not only second thoughts but, often, 22nd thoughts.

Tony Curtis, the editor, is Professor of Poetry at the University of Glamorgan, with a robust sense of the absoluteness of the superiority of poetry over all other forms of cultural production (although a slight dismay at the prominence of the electronic media creeps into his interview in Laugharne with veteran protest poet, San Francisco publisher and fellow-admirer of Dylan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti).

The book is to some extent a Welsh venture, and consequently they wrestle for a time with the problems thrown up by the RADA-voiced quasi-Welshness of Dylan's apolitical manner. But "protest poetry" as such is, they seem to conclude, a mere variant, if a necessary one. It is a special case in the making of a commitment to poetry itself as a protest against the qualities marginalised by an "instrumentally rationalised" society which has its own "madness-in-reason".

Hence the emphasis of the book is on the protest of poetry rather than protest poetry. But Helen Dunmore's work has some of the characteristics of the latter, and Vicki Feaver strikes home with urgent, Plath-like points containing a necessary aggressivity.

Youngish Turks include Simon Armitage (four collections), and Don Patterson, winner of Gregory, ArvonObserver and Forward prizes, who (incidentally) produces a serio-comic masterpiece about the whole business of "being" a poet. The others are the well-known Anne Stevenson, Dannie Abse, Gillian Clarke and Michael Longley, all with creditable track records, all long distance runners in the field.

So how, then, you may finally ask, do poets work? In general, the answer would seem to be: very, very slowly. Now there's a real tip. But, joking apart, the book is well worth considering as a classroom acquisition.

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