Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Poetry as Fraud

  Tom Chivers has a fascinating post up at This Is Yogic regarding a competition-winning poem by a writer called Christian Ward which was found to be almost identical to an existing poem by Helen Mort. Ward then attempted to justify himself by saying that he'd been using the Mort text "as a model".
    Flabbergasting as it may seem for any writer with the tiniest iota of integrity to believe that merely by altering a few words he could reclaim an original poem as his own, what's worse are his other attempts at self-exculpation by implying that he can't even remember how often he's turned this fraudulent trick before:
   "Furthermore, I have begun to examine my published poems to make sure there are no similar mistakes. I want to be as honest as I can with the poetry community and I know it will take some time to regain their trust. Already I have discovered a 2009 poem called The Neighbour is very similar to Tim Dooley’s After Neruda and admit that a mistake has been made. I am still digging and want a fresh start."
    Tom discusses the issues surrounding such plagiarism so well that I won't rehearse them again here. I can only agree that Ward's apparent belief that "closely modelling" his own work on that of other poets can be a legitimate compositional method takes the contemporary tendency for the churning-out of pre-set, derivative writing-exercises in Creative Writing classes to a new level. One of the abiding strengths of poetry is that, in the vertigo of fake, contentless vacuity consumerism forces upon us, it safeguards one of the few areas where any notion of authenticity or truth in language can still preside.
     Furthermore, Christian Ward has probably breached publishing copyright law by substantially reproducing Helen Mort's work under his own name. Any poet submitting her or his work to publishers and competitions should have some security that this kind of forgery cannot take place, or if it does the perpetrator will suffer legal consequences.
    And how could the poetry community ever trust him again?

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Text Will Start Talking To You

  I was really taken by something I read in an interview with the American short-story writer George Saunders in The Guardian on Saturday, as it chimes with an intuition I've often felt about my own poetry-writing but haven't able to articulate before:

   "...my whole schtick is, doing short fiction is like trying to suspend your conceptual understanding of the story for as long as possible...Donald Barthelme has this great essay called 'Not Knowing' where he says that your job as a fiction writer is to keep yourself confused for as long as you can. And the text will actually start talking to you. If you can keep your own designs a little quiet."

   The short story is a form I'm increasingly drawn to, whose guiding principles of concision and ultimate indeterminacy - that sense of being left equivocally hanging after the briefest glimpse into a rapidly-sketched fictional world we encounter in all the seminal practitioners from Chekhov and the Joyce of Dubliners to Helen Simpson and Lorrie Moore - seem to overlap beguilingly with those of poetry.The recent spin-off "flash-fiction" or short short stories are indeed often hard to tell apart from prose-poems: at their best fragmentary, skewed narratives that thwart their own progress.
    Although I wouldn't extrapolate generally-applicable rules from it, my experience of approaching the poem I'm trying to write is precisely akin to Saunders' sense of willed ignorance in the face of the story, a struggle to suspend my conceptual understanding of the lineage and parameters of "the poem" - never a given, always something to be rediscovered in the very process of writing. (Two Robert Frost insights spring to mind: " I write to find out what I didn't know I knew" and "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader").

   Somehow, out of a paradoxical double-think, I have to get myself into the condition of not knowing how to write a poem before I can write one. Of trying to sidestep all the rational directives I might have made the other day about writing more like So-and-So or avoiding closed forms or "using the page" more (though these might eventually emerge). It's almost the feeling of beginning afresh each time the inceptual word-cluster for a poem suggests itself and - having wrong-footed my conscious mind with a menial task or a distracted reverie while, say, listening to music or staring out of the window on a train - what I call the formal imperative for the poem tentatively starts to take shape. Chance - another element beyond my conscious control - operates in tandem with patience, therefore, to mediate this rare, crucial entry-point into the poem.

    If I approach the writing in a more thought-out, head-on way, it feels like I'm merely repeating myself and writing the same poem again and again (which of course many poets seem happy to do) or liable merely to write in the predictable manner I've gleaned from a mishmash of all the other recent poets I've been reading. But as I say this is less a conscious strategy than the only way I seem to know how: it's partly, I think, a ceding of a good deal of the compositional process to the unconscious, an acceptance that rational control will only take you so far when you are working with such a rich complex of internal and external materials as a poem worthy of the name arises from. But on the other hand it's certainly not automatic writing: perhaps you can only loosen the reins in this way if you've read and reflected and worked at the craft of poetry for years.

      And this is only the way-in to the poem: now the real work, the drafting and deleting and redrafting until you stumble upon something that finally satisfies that initial blindly-groping instinct, can begin.