This resulting post comes from something I’ve been thinking over the last few months. Apologies about my lack of activity here on the Guild, as I simply have felt that I had nothing further to add. Anyway, working on Civilised Beasts proved an eye-opener in many respects; mostly in editing, but also in people’s attitudes and practices of poetry. The number one thing that troubled me, honestly, was the amount of people I’ve encountered who say they just don’t get poetry - that it does nothing for them.
I’d like to think myself as someone who can write both prose and poetry, so this opinion worries me. Poetry essentially does something that prose cannot; I’d argue that this is having beautiful expression and imagery at it’s forefront. Prose that does so is often bad because it’s flowery, yet poetry gets away with that because it’s what’s expected. The only problem is, I think we tend to do it too much.
When I was at university, I was lucky enough to attend a free talk by the poet Simon Armitage, who has produced translations of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and ‘The Death of Arthur’. I’ll be referring to those poems later, however, the point of his hour plus lecture was to highlight a simple point. In his belief, poetry loses itself if it has no geographical space on the map. By this he meant a poem needs to have a strong sense of place to ground the reader in, so that place acts as an anchor that allows you to understand the poem. From his experience teaching poetry at university in workshops, poems that have no sense of place turn out to be ethereal, nebulous, muddled, and somewhat undecipherable. There’s a good point there, as if you’re spending time scratching your head to try to figure out what the poem was about, you’re not able to enjoy the beauty of the words themselves. I think this is spot on, as even at university, I would skim across poems that simply meant spending more time trying to decipher what they meant simply, before then thinking about analysis of it.
Returning to what I’ve been up to, recently I’ve been working on a series of narrative poems, mirroring the epic style (only in this case they’re much shorter). At first I was worried about revisiting this old style, as academic opinion from articles I’d read resoundingly centred on the opinion that epic poetry firmly belongs in the bast. But from tweaking the style so it fits modernity more, such as removing the long lists of names and genealogies you get in them, or that the story must start ‘in the middle of things’, you end of with a streamlined version of what the poem already was - a narrative with a geographical foundation.
It’s no secret my favourite epic is Beowulf, and approaching it on its security of place, we can see that it certainly has that (as do all epics). The main action of Beowulf centres around Heorot, acting as a secure imagination for us to get our heads around. It also mirrors a lot of northern traditions in storytelling - it uses Kennings, which I’d argue are it’s chief poetic device, and like a lot of Norse verse, it does not rhyme. In fact, reading a translation or even listening to it being spoken in Anglo Saxon, you can see that it seeks to tell a story, as well as being poetic. So, I’d like to hear from you as to what your thoughts on narrative poetry are. Considering it has a sense of place, and has a plot progressing through it, is it something that would appeal to you?