During 2008 I was slap bang in the middle of a masters in 20th and 21st Century Literature in the University of Southampton. At the time, one of the course options was a poetry writing module, which was part of a larger creative writing MA but suitable candidates could take part if they had proof of having written before, and I had.
I don’t go on much here about writing poetry, and sometimes I think I should, but perhaps I feel that writing is something I struggle enough at without having to pretend to know what I’m talking about. The poetry class I took made it a requirement to actually write an essay proving to a certain extent that I did have a clue what I was talking about.
Looking back at it now, I can recognise some strong elements of theory and understanding of what I was doing in my own writing, in a time when I knew less of my actual poetic direction than I do now, and I maintain I know nothing to this day. That’s not to say that I write bad poetry, just don’t ask me to give you a notion on what my actual goals are, other than to write and get published more (you can read some of my published poems here and here – but be sure to read some of the other great poetry on both these sites).
This essay though was written five years ago, so in advance allow me to offer my defence. I don’t think I’ve ever written as much as I have in the five years that immediately preceeded this essay, so I think my writing is better. I’ve also got my bullshit detector a bit more finely tuned, although still far from perfect. I haven’t edited this, except for a few typos, so please feel free to pick through it and raise any points in the comments section. There are large tracts where I related to my own poetry, and in terms of that you can refer to this document which includes all the poems which the actual essay was referring to (again, I have not edited these poems and consider them to be in their so-called original state).
So without further adieu, allow me to present my essay full of self criticism, self appraisal, but hopefully not self destructive.
“Poetry and Art”
Southampton, December 2008
Why and what am I writing for? What is the significance of my own ability as a poet or writer and what good can come of it? I have tried to confront as many themes and different styles for varying poetic effect. I have amalgamated my writing into a project which presents to the reader a journey. The ‘journey’ is an artistic journey from the position of questioning my ability, to understanding, and to the eventual acceptance and use of poetry as a means of conveying a message.
I have experimented with the use of language and its effect on the poem. Of course, there are various definitions of language and each affect us differently. A simple search on the internet for ‘language’ will reveal a primary concern with translation and learning new languages; this directs us towards the function of ‘language’ in poetry. Poetic language is a means of translating the world into art, the same as painting or sculpture, but in this case, with language and words. By learning to be ‘poetic’ we understand a new way of speaking and looking. This all sounds very simple, but that is its beauty; that it is simple and easy to understand.
With this in mind, I have used my own experiences and ideas to help my writing. I have used a mix of reality and imagination to create a blend of language which represents truth. At the same time, I have remained conscious of the fact that simple language portraiture has little function other than aesthetic. For me, poetry must contain more than just a picture.
I have added into my work emotion, nature, and the subconscious self that cannot be transmitted in conventional terms. Of course I am conscious of the disadvantage of individual interpretation. Human interpretation is, as Susan Sontag termed it ‘the revenge of the intellect upon art’. And it is not only Sontag who holds this opinion. Nietzsche said:
“The feeling that one is obliged to describe on thing as red, another as cold, and a third as dumb, prompts a moral impulse which pertains to truth; from its opposite, the liar whom no one trusts and all exclude, human beings demonstrate to themselves just how honorable, confidence-inspiring truth is”
With that in mind, how do we know what poetry is? How can I tell that what I am writing is ‘true’?
Wittgenstein said that ‘mutual understanding, and hence language, depends on nothing more or nothing less than shared forms of life, call it our mutual attunement or agreement in our criteria’. As a poet one is not left in the world with only feelings to decipher but left in the world with meaning to respond to. Art is created for a response to be created from it, not dictated from it. Poetry must insist on running its own course, finding its own measures, and charting its own course in hidden or denied places as a means of unlocking its true feeling and expression.
When I write, one of the things that I want to address the world and the problems and realities which, I believe, the twenty-first century has forced. Consumer culture and the loss of the individual’s sense of individuality is one of these pressing forces. I have tried to explain that through the desire for all things material we have allowed ourselves to be consumed by the society we live in, leaving our lifestyles to be decided on by ‘decrees of state’. My own attempt of finding poetic truth has been hindered by what Nietzsche has drawn attention to:
“humankind, where deception, flattery, lying and cheating, speaking behind the backs of others, keeping up appearances, living in borrowed finery, wearing masks, the drapery of convention, play-acting for the benefit of others and oneself — in short the constant fluttering of human beings around one flame of vanity is so much as the fact that an honest and pure drive towards truth should ever have emerged in them”
With this in mind, there is a fashion of living in large expansive housing estates where all the homes are the same design and shape and colour. In Ireland, near my home town, this is particularly the case, where huge stretches of field have been turned over to construction companies who have built thousands of houses which, to me, have little or no character, with even less public amenities; except for a small green patch in front for the children to play on when it is not raining. Lives and the deep, deep reality of life have been clouded over by the competition between neighbours’ own vanities. Art holds a responsibility to present realities at face value and to present to open the eyes and minds of those that are clouded over.
In saying this, art can have its own personality and avoid the politics of society. Poetry is a voice, art is a vision, what is heard and seen depends on where one looks.
Poetry as an art is concerned with the moment, one which deals specifically with the present, asking questions and presenting answers about moments which are not distinguishable from the repetitive nature of human life. Both situations may in their own right be unique, but the solutions are not. Sentimentality has little function in matters of the heart. Understanding the very motions of existence from start to finish, realizing their significance, and reacting to them, are more important than waking and running to work. Waking up in the morning brings with it a total change in the way we have perceived the world, from dream state to conscious state. The emotions brought about by change and then the sickening feeling of reality can do more damage to the subconscious, yet at the same time it can have little benefit to the individual as it will not return and it will not change. Poetry is a means of expressing the reality as it is, and diminishing the effects of trauma which comes from realization of the conformity which humanity subsists itself to.
I have presented poetry which has been inspired by the situation, the moment, and the occurrence which can only be true for the moment which it is speaking of; be it feeling, a true story, or an imaginary creation. My intention has been to prove that it does not matter what words are used, but what they say, how they are used and what they present to the reader. I want my poetry to be understandable for what it says, and for the words to interpret the poems for the reader, and not the other way around.
Language and literature are inseparable. It is only through this connection that we can use language as a way to express and commit our thoughts into expression.
 Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’ pp.7
 Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’ pp.878
 Charles Bernstein, ‘The Objects of Meaning’ pp.60