I embarked on a PhD in Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill in 2001. Two years previously, I had published my first full-length collection, Henry’s Clock(Smith/Doorstop) and the handbook commissioned by the Poetry Society, Jumpstart Poetry in the Secondary School. I was a member of the Poetry and Poetics Reseach Group at Edge Hill, which was stimulating me to clarify my poetics, and the PhD seemed the logical next step. Completed in 2006, my PhD thesis consists of a collection of poems which subsequently formed the basis of Frank Freeman’s Dancing School (Salt, 2009), a critical study entitled ‘The Poem of Process: Frank O’Hara and Tom Raworth’; and ‘Flying: A Poetics’. A revised, trimmed-down version of ‘Flying’ was subsequently published in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh: Manifestos and Unmanifestos, edited by Rupert Loydell (Salt, 2009). Here is an extract from the opening:
Flying: A Poetics
It is useful to distinguish between two approaches to writing. The first is to write abouta particular subject, to record, explore, analyse or express it. The second is to write in such a way that the poem itself is the experience, or the subject. It is the second approach that I am concerned with here.
‘In writing, it is not a matter of a certain material which is there, as a fixed thing, upon which the writing feeds and works. The act of writing also serves to nourish the material. When we speak of something, we affect it. It isn’t quite the same. As we cannot altogether ‘will’ what we would say’ (Turnbull, 1962: 27).
The process is improvisatory: to write without a set idea of where the poem is heading. As if the poem has a life, or energy, of its own.
‘I just get hung on the energy. Like the way the energy goes through it’ (Raworth, 1972: 12).
The poem attracts material to itself. Or, to put it another way, during writing, material finds its way in. The poem is the important thing at this stage and the language of the poem, whatever is going on in the environment, whatever thoughts occur during the writing (including memories) can dictate the direction.
Any experience prior to the writing of the poem is ultimately irrelevant to the poem, though the poem can ‘contain’ or allude to dozens of experiences.
A poem does not have to depend on the idea or experience which may have given rise to it; the idea or experience can ‘merely’ be the starting point.
‘The poem is more than the poet’s intention. The poet does not write what he knows but what he does not know…. Words are ambiguous…. The poem is not a handing out of the same packet to everyone, as it is not a thrown-down heap of words for us to choose the bonniest. The poem is the replying chord to the reader. It is the reader’s involuntary reply’ (Graham, 1946: 380-381).
A poem does not have to ‘say’ anything.
‘I // have nothing to say and I am saying it / and that is poetry’ (Cage, 1961: 183).