Notional Poetry Day / by Alex Williamson

It was notional poetry day, the annual celebration of all things notionally poetry. He thought he ought try to write something, but instead spent the day scarifying his lawn, scraping out the matted, spongy moss with a rake. After that, he pruned his overgrown hedges with secateurs, chopping back the advancing branches and bundling them into a wheelbarrow, ready for burning. He made a mental note of the trees that would need to be pruned before winter. There was always more work to be done.

He had written little in the way of poetry for some time. As he raked at the mossy grass he wondered if he was done with it, or if it was done with him. He considered how many poets would be out tending to their garden today. Some would be writing, no doubt, others teaching or giving readings, editing or selecting poems for their magazines. Social media would be abuzz, with verses and comments from leading lights and lesser knows. Then it would be done for another year.

He had always felt the best poetry concerned itself with time and mutability. For him, at that particular moment, there was no greater marker of time passing, nor the mutability of things, than having to deal with a garden run rampant with weeds.

Having to deal with an overgrown garden, of course, consumed the time available to write poetry. Perhaps this was why while there were plenty of poems about enjoying gardens and landscapes, there were few about actual gardening: the requirements of digging, planting, cutting back. The only poem that immediately sprang to mind was Simon Armitage’s ‘Chainsaw versus Pampas Grass’, which didn’t exactly paint the poet-cum-gardener in the best light.

As he worked the leaves of grass, he thought about the dichotomy between physical and mental toil. He had never seen a distinction between the two, but there were plenty who did. His parents, for a start.

There was another poet whose writing he admired, who had worked as a gardener for a number of years, and another he knew who had worked as a tree surgeon, but by and large poetry talked a good game; good at watching others work while musing in some Brechtian register on the nobility of the humble labourer.

Within the poetic world, he sensed a reversal of this position. Naturally, there were plenty of poets who had their shoulder to the wheel, in one sense or another, but when it came to work, there was something about working the earth with one’s hands that no poetic endeavour could touch.

Wheeling the barrow with its bundle of leaves, he recalled that this was how things had begun for his family. His paternal grandfather, the son of a publican, had left school with no qualifications and, with only a wheelbarrow and a shovel, set himself up as a builder. He had married the daughter of a farmer, who in turn had come from generations of farm labourers. The earth was in their blood.

Both his paternal grandparents were able to read and write, but neither had much time for literature. When he died, you could count the number of books in his grandfather's house on one hand. Nor were their sons particularly academically gifted. Which is not to say that they weren't intelligent or astute.

His father, who took over the family business, had no truck with poetic pursuits. Existence manifested itself as a life labour for financial gain, where achievement reflected reward. Life was hard, as it should be, and leisure hard-won, deserved. Earned. His father divined more about human behaviour from observing his employees than from any philosophical method. To not work was to be bone idle. Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks. On the road to ruin, idleness and the imagination walked hand in hand.

The family business was the inheritance he passed over pursue a career as a writer, albeit in a noncommittal way. He never thought of himself as a poet, but simply someone who wrote poems. He wrote poetry in his spare time, for almost twenty years, and he was aware that every time he wrote, he did so from a position of privilege, as a white, middle class man. When he sent his poems out into the world, he did it from a position of privilege. He never felt as though he wrote from a position of privilege. In fact, he felt like a fraud, neither one thing or the other. He knew that what he wrote wasn’t exceptional material, but once he had thought it might have a place somewhere. Now the ranks felt indefinitely closed to him.

A few days prior to working in the garden, he had stood in the poetry section of a large chain bookstore, studying the shelves where the canonical and contemporary sat in uneasy silence.

The hefty volumes of the poets of antiquity dominated the section, squeezing the life from the narrow, newer volumes. He had always envisioned a place for himself between William Carlos Williams and Benjamin Zephaniah. He couldn’t see himself there anymore.

This was how poetry sustained itself. With festivals and notional poetry days, prize-givings and platitudes, baubles and plaudits. He contemporary envied poets their gestative first collections, their fawning TLS profiles, lazy afternoons at Latitude and Hay, their annual stipend, meagre as it was. There were more poets, more prizes, more writing programmes, more residencies, more fellowships. More people were writing poetry, more people were reading it. At times he felt excluded by its inclusivity. 

Yet poetry remained all but invisible, absent from the majority of people’s lives, the preserve of marriages, funerals and greetings cards. Its formal advances felt like a kind of disappearing act. Remake it new. In its urgent need to reinvent itself, to reappraise problematic past incarnations, poetry had become so completely untethered from its past that he was unsure if the term 'poetry' was meaningful anymore. 

He wondered if poetry was indeed a form in dialogue with itself, or if this dialogue was a product of its formal prescriptions, with the contemporary scene being little more than a means of rearranging the furniture, of renewing and repurposing the old themes. Part of that process of renewal was the publishing industry’s obsession with youth, fresh voices and fresher faces. The older a poet became, the more they began to disappear. Supporting acts, no longer the star.

Poetry confused him. There was too much nuance, too little noise. Too little nuance, too much noise. Too much diversity, not enough diversity. Too democratic, not democratic enough.

Then there was the enduring schism between tradition and the avant-garde, poetry of the page and spoken word, noble amateurs and their academic critics. Rumours of sexual impropriety among would-be professors. Gaslighting, aggressive editors. Deranged poetesses. Arriviste Instapoets.

Verses and versus. Spats and rants. Leaves on a wet black bough.

Poetry always seemed to be at war with itself, and its critics, as if practice and praxis were a matter of life and death.

He and poetry had always had a difficult relationship. He moved to London specifically to become A Poet. Back then, he was naive enough to believe that he had something to say. He found a job in a pub to pay his rent, leaving him time to write.

He spent hours in the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, selecting magazines to submit. Churned out poem after poem, hunched over a typewriter, punching its keys into the early hours; smoking and drinking, reading Bukowski. Always Bukowski. He could blame a great deal on reading too much Bukowski.

When he was offered a job as an office temp he took it without a second's hesitation, knowing it would give him financial security for a few more weeks while he focused on his writing. He started wearing a suit to work, and found a new job. More responsibility and better pay. Those few weeks became months. Months became years. Each year he earned a little more. Each year he wrote a little less. He knew his parents would be happy. 

Commuting into work he nursed a notebook in his lap, pored over first collections or anthologies, trying to find out what worked and what didn't. He turned up at countless open mics, sometimes in his suit, to mumble his lumpen prosody. Kept his counsel and hurried home. Submitted to the well established little magazines. Tore open dozens of rejection letters. Gained publication a handful of times. Stopped submitting when the poems stopped coming.  

He wanted to remain hopeful. That he might find something more to say, and that someone might want to hear it. That the poems would come back. That someone might find something in them. Would his poetry be of any interest to anyone? He had no idea.

He tipped the last of the branches onto the scarified moss and stood back, pleased with his work. The day had produced a mass of new material, haystacks of damp clumps and winnowed thatch. A satisfying feeling for a few hours graft. Not unlike writing a poem.