Words, Listening

Philip Gross

  1. Poetry is… just a word. As such, it holds whatever meanings cultures have attached to it. This includes our often peevish differences about what “real” or “true” poetry may or may not be. The word contains them all. It is a resonant room, impartial, listening.

  2. The first misstep is trying to confine it to a definition. Think of it, rather, as a concourse bustling with the meanings that have crowded through – from epic war songs to psalms to courtly sonnets to gangster rap to haiku almost vanishing on their own breath. Concrete poetry, found poems, poems deconstructing their own language, not to mention poems of erasure, where it is the spaces between words that speak…

  3. Poetry is impartial as to who comes to inhabit it. A Bosnian war criminal or a Zen monk can be a poet, equally. I am often disturbed how many poets who have moved me also held opinions with which I strongly disagree. Because poetry can be the vehicle for any attitude, any disposition a human being can voice. All these voices, all these echoes, quivering in the air of what seems, from the outside, quite a tiny room.

  4. Maybe it’s that way with all language. If one claim can be made for poetry, it’s that poetry at least knows that this is the case. It knows that a word uttered – any kind of word – will carry and ring in its resonant space.

  5. A poem does not have to be beautiful, or good, or wise; it just has to be… more so. Poetry is everything the human voice can do, but more intensely, to more memorable effect.

  6. I don’t mean it has to be loud, or forceful. Quietness… but more so… is one gift of poetry.

  7. A poem, well listened-to, is more than the dictionary meaning of its words. (The opposite of poetry is not prose but algebra.)  A poem is also its sound, the rhythm, the chimes, the rise and fall, the hesitation and the flow, the flavour of its language, the whole verbal gesture in its context and the echoes it incites.

  8. Much has been said about each poet finding their own voice, much less about tuning one’s own ear – finding one’s own distinctive way of listening.

  9. There is an unease at the heart of poetry: an art form that relies on community, a shared agreement on how to receive it… yet seems to breed disagreements about what that agreement should be. You could say: this an unserviceably baggy word; abolish it; coin new terms for each discrete kind of word-art.

  10. Or you could say: the contradictions are its constant dynamic, a sign of the shifting tidelines between what is said and what is understood, and by whom. This is a difference-engine, a source of friction and of energy.

  11. Better to talk, maybe, not about what poetry is but about what it can be – the opportunities that it affords. If the range of that seems hugely various and contradictory… well, maybe that’s because the same is true of us. The room is simply listening. It’s up to us to choose, and to choose how, to speak.

  12. Is this starting to sound like bland permissiveness: everything is a style choice, you simply hang out with the friends you choose?  But the world around us is a more contentious place than that. We bring our differences, our inequalities, our out-of-kilter-ness with us into the resonant room.

  13. There have been periods when the surrounding culture seems so conformable – the powers that keep it in place so dominant as to be unspoken – as for there to be no argument. No audible argument, that is.

  14. In other times, and ours is surely one of them, there seems nothing but dissension. As in the brooding political buildup of the 1930s, or writing under a totalitarian regime, the question in the air is: Which side are you on? This collection of pieces is a sign of, and a response to, such a moment.

  15. The present challenge to poetry – the charge to which it might feel it has to mount a defence – is of how it will speak to issues of identity and inequality, of privilege and empowerment.

  16. The laws of acoustics tell us that not all resonant spaces ring to the same wavelengths. A Palaeolithic cave, a Greek amphitheatre or a Gothic cathedral may have amplified certain sounds to which the makers of the time pitched their voices or their instruments. It is of course a problem that cultures of the past will have favoured the resonances of certain voices – male and white, for example – more than others.

  17. To the credit of many poetry magazines and venues, they have re-tuned their way of listening. They have been finding deep and unworked seams in the landscape of experiences and identities. The culture is being enriched. It should be in the nature of poetry, as an art bred of an appetite for more experience, more variety, nuance or depth, to welcome a widening of its scope like this.

  18. This doesn’t mean we’re finished with the old-established voices. But yes, tactically, temporarily, it might be right to ask those voices to speak softly for a while, to spend some time listening, while we adjust the acoustics of the room to hear more equally.

  19. The resonant room is not a fact of nature. It is a collaboration between the past we have inherited and the choices we make now.

  20. In a world of oppositional politics, the argument for poetry should not be that it can serve as a weapon for the side I side with… though it can. It can be eloquent in pleading or incitement. We know from experience – we’ve watched it on TV – how the crudest of rhetoric can give a crowd that sense of seismic uplift, the exultant sense of being wronged and therefore right.

  21. The gift of poetry, and its challenge, is that its still-small voice can help us see beyond our own agreements, to hear a facet of experience that’s true for someone else – even, or especially, someone we disagree with on the level where thoughts and feelings crystallise into opinions.

  22. The same goes for writing as for reading. I hope not to judge the poetry I write by whether or not it fulfils my own intentions or accords with my political morality, but whether it has life of its own and can surprise me by what it has to say.

  23. Poetry: a way of speaking that is also listening – that hears the words coming out of its own mouth taking a life of their own, out there in the commonwealth of meanings.

  24. Whatever the kind of poetry I choose, on any given day, I also want other kinds of poetry to exist. I might not like them but I want there to be visceral rants and sentimental self-indulgences. I want to live in a world that is large enough to contain many places where I do not go.

  25. This is nothing to do with compromise. It doesn’t damp down the inconvenient reality that there are contradictions, to our limited senses at least, between splinters of that complex thing, the truth. In the space of a poem, we can hold those tensions and feel them not as conflict but as potential growth, a source of energy.

  26. At best, poetry, like good science, always doubts itself. It offers its findings to be tested against other, later experiments.

  27. I hope for a poetry that is always, to some extent, agnostic about itself – that still has faith in itself, but faith is not the same thing as beliefs, still less a creed. I hope for a poetry that refuses – should refuse – to be summed up in, or in the service of, any manifesto. This one included.

  28. This might not correspond to what the times seem to be saying, but I want the quiet room of listening, of careful attention to nuances and implications, a room that sees reading, listening and speaking in response, as a benign collaboration. It needs to be there for anyone to visit when they need it… and when the world needs it, as it does now, because other forms of communication seem to be failing. It needs a place for differences to meet.

  29. I trust that poetry can do this. In my own life, at moments of crisis or grief, I have thought: if poetry can’t deal with this, somehow, then it’s just a word game. In each case poetry has shown me that it can. My trust is that the same applies to our shared, and the Earth’s shared, crises too.

  30. Enough. We writers all want to get on with the writing. But it would be a good start to give some time to the listening too.

Philip Gross
 has published 25 collections, for adults and for young people; the latest are Between The Islands (Bloodaxe, 2020) and Troeon/Turnings (Seren, 2021) with Welsh language poet Cyril Jones. He won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2009, a Cholmondeley Award in 2017, and is a keen collaborator – with artist Valerie Coffin Price on A Fold In The River (Seren, 2015), with poet Lesley Saunders on A Part of the Main (Mulfran, 2018) and with scientists on Dark Sky Park (Otter-Barry, 2018). For recent news, visit www.philipgross.co.uk.