for the word: Poetry as Plastic
I want to say something useful about poetry. Something unlike what I was taught in school, stiff and heavy with rules and traditions. I want to say something that will find a new way of enjoying poetry, and help us make new kinds of it.
What does it mean to say something useful? Well, first it must be grounded in concrete reality, in the ways we actually live. And second, it must be open ended, since people are rarely well served by strict definitions. Very little can be objectively said about art, even less of which is useful. I am a young poet still sharpening my pen, and can only speculate on what I have felt. If my thoughts prove useful, they will prove themselves true.
“What does it mean to say something useful?”
Since I am only an individual, subjective thing, the most basic reality I can ground myself in is the one my senses give. In this article and the next, I will pull apart my experience of poetry, and examine how it reaches out to my senses.
While these are in-depth and sometimes technical discussions, they don’t expect any extreme poetic education from you. All that’s needed is a basic interest and a bit of patience.
I will regularly ask you to interrogate your own senses for truth, so you might find it helpful to pick a few poems for reference. If you haven’t got a favourite, I’ve included some in the appendix below. But only you are in your skin, and only you can tell me if my suggestions make sense to your experience.
Our first step is phenomenological, and focuses on how a poem manifests itself to us as an audience. All this means is recognising specific details about the poem as it is given to you: What was the font like? What kind of paper was it printed on? Was it loud or quiet? What accent was it spoken in?
These details make up your direct, sensual experience of the poem. They have nothing to do with what a poem makes you feel and everything to do with how it does so. Return to these questions and notice which senses they are drawing on – where in your body do you visit in search of answers?
A poem might call on any of your senses, and another might reach you through a completely different set. Its text can be read, its braille can be felt, its performance can be seen and heard. A single poem can be given to us in several distinct, unrelated forms, and we still say it is the same poem, but different.
“On the page, the poem cannot move.
On the stage, it can’t stay still.”
If we want to describe this difference, we examine the unique features of each physical form. We might say that the performance brought the poem to life, whereas its printed form allowed more room for reflection.
Each form brings fresh possibilities to the poem, and as it moves from one to the other, it bends itself to the unique limitations found in each. On the page, the poem cannot move. On the stage, it can’t stay still. And though it lives in two very different bodies, we will want to say it is still the same poem.
This is the rare ability of poetry to express itself through multiple art forms. Other arts are less flexible, and struggle to retain their identity across mediums. For example, we don’t watch novels and we don’t listen to paintings. We might watch a movie adaptation, or listen to music inspired by a picture, but the film is not a novel and the song is not a painting.
Not so with poetry.
Today we have poems that are spoken, or sung, or written on paper, or on phones, or buildings, or signed to rooms. In this wave of experimentation, we are loosening our prejudice for a poetry that lives only as little black marks on white paper. And we are finding our way to a poetry that opens itself to the sensuous multiform of the material world.
It is for us as poets to recognise the open possibilities of our language and take responsibility for them in our art. Doing so is a statement of inclusion. Insofar as we are all language users, we are all already poets.
Being responsible to the open-endedness of poetry means asking new questions about our art and expecting new poets to answer. What shape should it take on the page? What colour inks could I use? How should I use my voice? What should I do with my hands?
These are the same questions I asked earlier, but in a different direction. They take us forward in building poems that are more than literary objects. Full-bodied poems brimming with possibilities of interpretation by sense. Poems that know their body and express themselves through every muscle and sinew. That don’t prejudice us and demand an intellectual attention. Poems whose words are no longer the end-goal of creativity, giving only jigsaws of grammar and definitions, but points of departure that lead in diverse, unique directions.
As we have seen, poetry is a highly versatile art, capable of a wide-ranging aesthetic. I call it plastic because it is both flexible and artificial. But remember that some plastics are stiff and brittle! As the makers of poetry, it is for us to decide how we make it. If we are truly interested in democratising poetry, we can’t restrict access by a limited view of what language can be. This means forgetting the comfortable pedestal of literature and exploring the hugely varying ways that words exist. We must see words as sensual sculptures in themselves, and investigate the wealth of art forms in which poetry can live.
“The flexibility of poetry is an entry point for everyone.”
If you want to write a poem, but all you can think of is what kind of paper to use, start with the paper. If you have the voice but not the words, speak and let the voice find its own words. If you don’t use your voice, there is beauty to be done outside of the voice box.
The flexibility of poetry is an entry point for everyone. Taking stock of this is a subversive act of sharing and imagination. Suddenly, the written word becomes a piece of visual art, and the stage is a place of dance.
We could spend all day swapping poems to explore the themes of this article, and both have a lot of fun in the process. To start this exchange, here are some of my favourite poems experimenting with their physical form:
Tom Phillips, A Humument (available at The Poetry Library)
Hannah Silva, Prosthetics
Al Jarreau, Take 5
David J Pugilist, This Is What We Do
Richard Carter, Goldfish
And here are some presented across two mediums for your reference:
Kate Tempest, Man Down
Danez Smith, Dinosaurs in the Hood
Warsan Shire, Backwards
As I said earlier, this is all only a suggestion from a subjective view, and only you can be the scientist of your own experience. If you have any comments, questions or disagreements with what you’ve read, or if you have your own examples to share, I would love to hear from you. Just find me on Facebook or Instagram and get in touch!