Reading poetry in fathoms has a weird effect.
One of our garden birds sometimes flies into the window (birds can’t see glass). Thunk. It sits on the path stunned for half an hour, unable to articulate a plea. Gradually it hops into the undergrowth and from there, eventually, away. That’s how it is with me after five hours of poetry.
In bed, at night, I’ve been reading The Chocolate Connoisseur by Chloé Doutre-Roussel. The author of this book was once the chocolate buyer for Fortnum and Mason. She’s now a ‘freelance chocolate consultant’. She eats about 450g of chocolate a day and gets up at 6.00 a.m. to start tasting. According to Chloé ‘a successful tasting needs exam conditions: no smoking, no drinking (except water), silence, paper, pen, an organised table. . . no smell or noise to distract you . . . and your body and mind should be calm and comfortable’. She drinks water or eat bread as a palate cleanser after each different chocolate. And when she’s finished tasting, she swims for an hour. Every day.
Perfume samplers take the business no less seriously. They talk about ‘the nasal palate’ (a nice one for oxymoron spotters) and they cleanse it between different scents with coffee. Coffee’s an olfactory palate cleanser, unless the thing you have to smell is . . . coffee. In this case, you sort out your nose between coffee beans by sniffing your own skin.
So – you guessed this was coming – how do you cleanse the palate between the poetry?
Because I have been dwelling on this matter. So much so, that I looked up ‘cleanse’ (as opposed to clean). You clean the bathroom (at least you would if you weren’t reading poetry all day) but you cleanse your palate. ‘Cleanse’ comes from the Middle English clensen, from Old English clǣnsian ‘to purify’, which in turn derives from clǣne (‘clean’). Cleanse sounds intense. I feel my elbow leaning into the word, with a scrubbing brush in my hand.
So how do you purify your poetry palate? I don’t think I do it properly. I wish I did. Like Chloé, I prefer to read first thing, though not quite as early as six a.m. My brain is clearest in the morning. If I had time, I’d go for a short walk between each set of poems. Instead, I sniff some coffee, and sometimes drink water and/or eat bread. I have tried sniffing my own skin but it doesn’t work.
Prose is a pretty a good poetry palate cleanser though. So I write to each poet, by hand, after reading their submission and scribble a few notes in my record book.
Sometimes I start to feel impossibly full. I can override this feeling because of years of practice – but I don’t recommend it. The impossibly full feeling should, whenever possible, be attended to.
But reading all the submissions is also not like tasting chocolate or cheese or whisky or wine. The poetry submissions are not, with notable exceptions, work from master artisans at the top of their craft, although the work is single-origin and organic. The source is human beans.
Each bean is clearly different from the next. Each has unique features as well as sharing aspects with her/his fellows. It’s easier to pick out common practice than identify what is, or could be, distinctive.
Still, I start with the shape of the poem on the page. It helps if the shapes of the poems vary from one to the next – a kind of palate cleanser in itself. If a poet favours long lines and dense layout as the norm, I flag fairly soon. I feel bad about this.
It’s good if the first poem is short. It eases you in. It’s also good if several of the poems are not long. I don’t think poems should be short – not at all. But if you’re reading a lot and mean to read each one three times before articulating a response, you manage the short ones more easily and thoroughly. Unless there are only three lengthy poems in the envelope, which is fine, and never happens.
I try to come to each poet without preconception, even though there are many obvious similarities between them. Because you can get distracted by recurring features. I am over-sensitised to what I see most often. For example, the business of laying poems out in couplets. (When I say ‘couplets’, these are not couplets in the traditional sense. They are two-line stanzas.)
Two-line stanzas, yes. We like two-line stanzas these days. Most poets choose to run the sentences across the stanza break frequently. Lots of space. Easy to read (unless the enjambed syntax is fearsome). So I welcome a couple of poems set out in this way. They look friendly and familiar.
But when they start to stack up, I get irritable. I turn the page. Not another poem in couplets! Yes, another.
My irritation with two-line stanzas is the unease of the professional choc-lit consultant and it is obviously unreasonable. In The National Poetry Competition earlier this year the first three prizes went to poems by Linda France, Paula Bohince and Josephine Abbott. Guess how their poems were presented? In groups of two lines. And in the commended section, two of the seven poems were . . . in couplets. Couplets are uncontestably ‘in’.
I must stop calling them couplets, since often the two lines only belong together by virtue of positioning. The poems are more like solid blocks, in which a line-space has been inserted where every third line might otherwise be. They have been aerated, like shaking out a duvet.
For several centuries ‘couplets’ rhymed and were metrically matched. Poetry has to react against itself regularly and break with the traditions – any art form does. So couplets got themselves half-rhymed, then unrhymed, then unmetrical (though even now the lines tend to match lengthwise). Poets broke the unit by enjambing fearlessly. They rampaged down the sheet, revelling unrepentantly in space and counter-space.
Over time, two-line units that were neither rhyming, nor metrical became commonplace. But poetry reacts creatively in response to constraint. Art doesn’t like a ‘norm’.
And I am manifesting all the symptoms of a person who needs to have her poetry palate cleansed. A bit of rebellion, you see, does help. But equally, a poem that follows common practice but does it exceptionally well – that’s just as good.
Meanwhile, there is another method. Yesterday I wrote a poem myself. I felt guilty but I did it anyway.
In some sense, all poems are in dialogue with all other poems. They respond and react to each other, as well as to the world. Some of them react by getting more like the poems they admire; others react against common practice, though soon the rebellions are popularised, and so it goes. My own poem is not in couplets. Or two-line stanzas. It cleansed my palate because I felt bold and rebellious writing it.
Today I can welcome a good number of poems that go into the ark in twos. And threes. And other neat arrangements.
p.s. ‘Poetry does not like to be up to date. She refuses to be neat.’ Stevie Smith, in My Muse, 1960.