It was national poetry day, and to mark the occasion he spent the day scarifying his lawn: strimming the long strands of grass and going after the spongy moss with a spring rake. The day produced a mass of new material, haystacks of damp plant matter and winnowed thatch. After that, he pruned his hedges with secateurs, chopping back the advancing branches and bundling them into a wheelbarrow.
He had written little in the way of poetry for some time, and 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 on this day of days. Poetry was above all concerned with time, yet there was no greater marker of time passing than having to deal with an overgrown garden. Having to deal with an overgrown garden, of course, ate into the time one had to write poetry. Perhaps this was why while there were plenty of poems about gardens, there were few about gardening: the physical act of digging, planting, cutting back. The only poem that immediately sprang to mind was Simon Armitage’s ‘Chainsaw versus Pampas Grass’, and that didn’t exactly paint the poet-cum-gardener in the best light.
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 sifting the earth with one’s hands which could not be matched. 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 when it came to physical work, poetry talked a good game; good at watching others work while musing in some Brechtian register on the nobility of the humble labourer. When he thought of the relationship between poetic craft and hard graft, he thought of Ashley Hutchings, dressed in the garb of a 18th century yeoman, awkwardly wielding a spade on the reverse cover of The Albion Band’s The Battle of the Field.
A few days prior 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 slim volumes of emerging poets. He envied their slim chapbooks, their TLS interviews, afternoons at Latitude and Hay, their annual stipend, meager as it may be. He had always envisioned a place for himself between William Carlos Williams and Benjamin Zephaniah. He couldn’t see himself there anymore.
He never thought of himself as a poet, but someone who wrote poems. He knew it wasn’t poetry, but he thought it might have a place somewhere. Now the ranks felt closed to him indefinitely.
There were more poets, more prizes, more writing programmes, more residencies, more fellowships, more grants and funding opportunities. More people were writing poetry, more people were buying it; and yet poetry remained all but invisible, absent from the majority of people’s lives, the preserve of marriages, funerals and greetings cards doggerel. Its technical advances felt like a kind of retreat. In its hurry to reinvent itself, poetry was undergoing a debilitating identity crisis.
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. The 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. Media voices taking potshots at the scene.
Verses and versus. Spats and rants. Deep beef and enduring love. A microcosmic world.
He wondered if poetry was less a form in dialogue with itself, or more a victim of commodification, little more than a means of rearranging the furniture, of renewing and repurposing the old themes, to ensure continuity and commercial viability. Part of that process of renewal was an obsession with youth; fresh voices and fresher faces. The older a poet became, the more they began to disappear.
He and poetry had always had a difficult relationship. Fraught and unforgiving. He moved to London specifically to become A Poet. He felt ready. He found a job in a pub to pay his rent, leaving him much free time to write. Spent hours in the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, pored over the little magazines. Churned out poem after poem, hunched over a typewriter, punching its keys into the early hours; later, when he worked in an office, nursed a notebook on his daily commute.
He had always favoured poetry which leaned towards the vernacular, recorded the dialogue between the individual and the collective, enacted the tension between conscious and unconscious. Plain-talking poetry that didn’t gild the lily. Poetry that was coarse and vulgar in its confessions, hissed directly into your ear while holding you by the throat, before kissing you. Poetry that gave it to you straight. Straight as fuck.
He was too impatient to learn the craft, too impetuous to understand the technical requirements. So he turned up at countless open mics to mumble his lumpen prosody. Didn’t talk to anyone and hurried home. Submitted manila envelope after manila envelop to the well established little magazines. Excitedly tore open dozens of rejection letters. Gained publication a handful of times. Wrung himself out until there was nothing left.
He wanted to remain hopeful. That the poems would come back. That someone might be listening. But why on earth would his thoughts be of any interest to anyone? He couldn’t say.