On writing (and listening)

It’s when words fail, when the grammar falls apart, that we find the real us. Writing poetry is finding that state where the very thing you want to say is the self-same moment language fails and you can’t find the words for the page. Then you really become your deep self, pulling something up and out that you didn’t know was there. Poetry comes out of the abyss of incoherence. The job of the poet is be prepared to go there, to loss and failure, and not cover it up with nervous chatter but to listen attentively in a relaxed manner to the bubbling core of themselves, where the new words come to the surface. It’s a skill and an attitude that can be cultivated which ultimately relies on risk, self-reliance and sharp attention.

The result is work that can creep into the same place in the reader which might in turn take them to their own moments of failure of language. Who am I? What am I doing here? When was the last time I listened? As the reader either veers away from or dives into the poem, they find something out about themselves. People value poetry precisely for the risk it asks them to take because in that moment it speaks right to their heart. A real connection between poem and reader is authentic and meaningful, as affecting as falling in love. The universality of these experiences should not be confused with the intimate truth of the moment for each individual. Poets listen to the bigger you, the you of all of us, and take us by sound and rhythm to a place where we all surrender to the wordless enquiry in ourselves. Conversely, this may be why some people distrust poetry and others dismiss it. Maybe they are not able to take that journey, yet. Also why many people enjoy poetry that is only answers dressed up in verse. It is a type of poetry that we find on greetings cards or held up on banners of one sort or another. Answers close down communication, they end sentences.

For me, writing poetry is about finding the words that can dance to that inner rhythm of risk and take me to a place where I am just energy, pure verb. And then leave me, hanging in a silence that feels like love. To a place where the words that will come next risk everything, they are authentic and I listen to them with wonder and surprise, apprehending their living shape and rarely their meaning. I don’t dwell on their meaning, it is the music of them that matters. The grammar is irrelevant, normal speech is no use. If you try to impose normal speech, the ‘what I should say’ at that point the spell is broken and you are back in the world of prose, of telling and explaining. All is lost. This is why I say that the skill of the poet is holding a space at the edge of failure. It is as precious as it is vital to the new life of words, born out of inability, stumbling, first steps in a new way of expressing yourself. In our current climate of shouting short sentences at each other as a stand-in for communication, poetry that handles the complexity of our experiences is more necessary than ever.

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