Manifesto For a Young Poet

I’m not going to give you any guff about your having chosen to “embark” on a “journey,” nor the ostensibly wondrous places it will take you. Poetry is the evasion of cliché. It alters our perspective, showing cliché up for a tiny island of refuge in an enormous Jungian ocean.

Write nothing that seems familiar or that you’ve heard before, even if it fits your rhyme scheme or metre. (Unless, of course, you’re composing a Golden Shovel — and do give that a go.) Otherwise, you are betraying your own potential by denying yourself access to those linguistic depths freely explored by your predecessors. Why should they enjoy the full range of the language’s seabed while you restrict yourself to the shoreline, paddling about in heavy diving boots?

A colleague of mine on the Liverpool performance circuit recently said you don’t need a degree to write poetry. I agree — anyone can do it. But most shouldn’t. The vast majority of poems are dragged kicking and screaming into the world and would have been happier left floating in the ether of unreality. Every bad poem is an act of aggression against the Muse.

And there is such a thing as bad poetry. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something. If you don’t believe me, read William McGonagal — and he’s the only example of a bad poet whose compositions made the world a better place.

So you don’t need a degree, but you need to educate yourself. Familiarise yourself with the Western tradition into which you are now stepping. Presumably you wouldn’t visit another country without at least looking it up on a map and Googling a few of its customs, perhaps even trying to memorise some helpful phrases in the local dialect. To write poetry without a rudimentary guidebook is equally disrespectful: to your predecessors, to your peers and to your readers and listeners.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to what’s fresh and what’s cool. Yes, listen to Kate Tempest. Immerse yourself in John Cooper Clarke. Try to get under the bonnet of rap music and understand its flows and its syncopations — many of the best living poets (Eminem, Rakim, Immortal Technique) are working within that medium. Listen to other poets on your circuit and around the world on YouTube — find out what they’re doing well and what they’re doing badly.

But understand that these modern masters have not yet passed the ultimate test: that of time. There is no sell-by date on great poetry. The longer a poem has endured, the closer to the centre of human experience it struck, because it has survived innumerable changes of political and historical context. It may be that people are still reading Tempest’s verse in 1,000 years, or she might disappear off the face of the cultural map in 5, along with all her imitators.

So one must start at the beginning. Read Homer and understand why he (or she) wrote the way he did. Read Sappho and the lyric poets. Read Alcman and dirty, impolite Archilochos — and this will all be at your fingertips if you purchase a copy of Guy Davenport’s wonderful Seven Greeks. Move on to the Romans: Virgil and Horace and Ovid and Catallus, Archilochos’ great bawdy successor. Read a bit of the Latin, and see if you can pick up the beats.

Read Dante to understand the great break with the classics. Read some of it aloud to yourself in Italian and appreciate the task of your unfortunate English translator who did not have access to the same abundance of rhyme. Only then will you understand the horrifying truth: you will never truly read Dante, or any poem in a foreign language, unless you learn the language yourself. Be humbled by your lack of knowledge, then do everything you can to fill the gaps by writing the poems you long to read.

Recognise, however, that translation itself is an art, and can be beautiful and awe-inspiring: read Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer if you doubt it. Then read Rimbaud and the French symbolists, in the best translation you can find and several different translations if necessary. Read Rilke and Neruda and Lorca, with Yeats the four great poet-prophets and soul cartographers of the 20th century.

Read Shakespeare, yes, but also read Spenser, Sidney, Donne and Milton. Understand what iambic pentameter is and identify where Donne deviates from it, something that infuriated Ben Jonson.

By this method, at least develop a passing familiarity with the great English metrics, even if you have no intention of using them yourself: the ballad metre mastered by Emily Dickinson, the anapestic tetrameter that appears in such unexpected places as The Night Before Christmas, Byron’s Don Juan and Eminem’s The Way I Am. Learn the rules before you break them.

Learn the verse forms, too. No poet ever died damning himself for not writing more villanelles, but at least find out what one is. (And the best way to find out is to write one yourself.) Write sestinas, pantoums, and Petrarchian sonnets before you decide you don’t want to. You might find that poetry is like squeezing a tube of toothpaste: the more you restrict and pressure the tube, the better the flow that emerges. The radical freedom of free verse is also a No Man’s Land better poets than you have died on.

Indulge yourself and spend a little time with the Romantics. These are Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Byron and Leopardi. Read Lyrical Ballads as the Sergeant Pepper’s of its era, Wordsworth and Coleridge the Lennon/McCarthy of the day. Understanding Blake’s great visions will necessitate popping back to Milton and Dante for a refresher, at the very least.

Turn your attention to the modernists. Here it pays to be selective. Tackle Eliot and Pound head on, but do not be overawed by or get bogged down in the endless referential masturbation of The Waste Land and the Cantos: find refuge in Prufrock and Pound’s perfect In a Station of the Metro whenever necessary. Eliot’s greatest work is the Hollow Men.

After Eliot and Pound, Yeats and Auden will seem like playtime. Understand that these four also had to learn the canon before they became great. They had had Shakespeare drilled into them. They could recite great works, even each other’s, from memory. When James Joyce’s mother was on her deathbed, he refused to pray with her — instead, he sang Yeats’ Who Goes With Fergus. You, too, should memorise their poetry, and others. Committing great poetry to memory is like lighting candles in a darkened room. It’s also like a chess master learning Capablanca games — it gives you a map of the territory you are about to navigate by showing you the Old Masters’ footprints.

You now have an outline of your new territory. But that’s not sufficient. Knowing merely literature, and merely literature in verse, only gives you a narrow territory of the vast continent of the humanities. Art, and human attainment, do not split themselves into college courses or library categories.

Since you are going to employ imagery in your poetry, get to know the visual arts, from ancient sculpture to modern conceptual installations. Your best guides here are Pater, Ruskin, Winckelmann, Lessing and Robert Hughes. Ask where our contemporary Michelangelos and Brunelleschis are. They might not be working in painting, sculpture or architecture.

Since you are going to employ ideas, learn philosophy. Do not be intimidated. Go straight to the source to save time. Heraclitus (whom you will find in your Davenport book), Aristotle, Hume, Spinoza, and Nietzsche are all accessible if you approach them with a keen, sceptical mind. Wallace Stevens was an executive for an insurance company when he read Nietzsche, and it ignited in him the creative spark: he became the most brilliantly blazing American poet of his generation.

All of the above is available in the city library, by the way. No excuses.

Neither idolise nor deny science. The scientist investigates the same subject you do: the universe, it its macro- and micro-scales. In fact, it would help to read some psychology and anthropology yourself. Start with Freud and Frazer.

Don’t be cowed by Bukowski’s admonitions, his “don’t do it” unless it comes pouring out of you. Art should be refined and honed — Bukowski knew this better than anyone. He spent years suffering menial employment and didn’t even lose his virginity until he was in his thirties — you likely already know more of love and the world than him.

Don’t fall for the allure of the poète maudit. Verse is not a prerequisite for self-destruction. Great wits may be to madness near allied, but an ally can be kept at distance.

Don’t listen to anyone who says “that’s not your story to tell.” Possession is established in the telling: tell the tale well and it’s yours. And poetry is never a zero sum game. When you write a poem, it doesn’t silence someone else. Quite the opposite: poetry grows across the planet exponentially.

Don’t listen to the fashionable malcontents: they err even in their good intentions. If anyone tells you you’ve “appropriated” someone else’s culture or style, you will now have the entire Western tradition of cultural appropriation to back you up.

Do not provide trigger warnings, even if your subject is dark. Art sometimes relies on exploitation of extreme emotional responses. The Taj Mahal doesn’t need a signpost saying “Warning: may provoke awe.” If your reader suffers from post-traumatic stress, it is their responsibility to seek treatment, not yours to protect them from the world.

If someone tells you to “check your privilege”, treat them with kindness even as you disregard their counsel. Your race, gender and class inform you, but they don’t define you and cannot be used to shut you up. We are all spokes on the same wheel, and poetic truth is the axel. If you write what is true, it will prove true for many. Read Rumi: is he not accurate? Are his passions and fears not yours? And yet he was a 13th century Persian Muslim, writing outside of the “tradition” I’ve been talking about. The greats transcend economic, ethnic, historical and geographical boundaries, even while being aware of them; even, indeed, if that is their subject.

Beware the hucksters of the spirit, those who promise fulfillment through charms and crystals and chants, or anyone who calls themselves “guru”. They are trying to exploit our disconnection from the gods of old. But do not fear: with the Western tradition behind you, you can tell Hyperion from a satyr.

Anyone who calls themselves a punk poet, ask when they were last arrested. If they say never, shun them.

Do not deny yourself the Western tradition, even if you want to write against it. Do not be ostracised from a reverie of wonder. You chose to be a poet; I’m just telling you to do it properly. Don’t exclude yourself from your own heritage. The great writers, artists and thinkers are your peers now. Treat them as such, even if you revere or detest their work. This is not snobbery but true egalitarianism.

Most importantly, do it your own way. But don’t. But do.

And finally, don’t use the sea as an metaphor for anything. Only a complete cunt would do that.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Laurence Thompson’s story.