A Good Poet is a Well-read poet.
Let’s say that loud and clear and in large letters at the very start of proceedings. No good poetry can ever be written without also reading poetry widely first.
One thing far too often heard by creative writing tutors in workshops or mentoring sessions is the plaintive cry of ‘oh of course, I don’t read other people’s poetry in case it influences my own’. This is exactly why you should be reading poetry other than your own.
What results from this kind of monocultural and self-informed diet of poetry, where the only poetry being read by the poet is their own, is a thin gruel of a poem which an editor will always spot immediately. Like a wonky bicycle wheel, it is doomed forever to be out of kilter and lacking balance; it is fundamentally flawed. Without fail, these poems will display a lack of craft and a lack of awareness of how hard each line and every word must work to earn its place. It’s okay to write these kind of poems to get started, but a good poet is one who strives to move on and write better, and seeks to take up an apprenticeship with the master craftspersons of their trade.
Can you imagine a great artist who never looks at other art, or the great musician who never listens to anyone else’s’ music, lest it influence their own ‘style’?
Far from it – great artists and musicians will always first find and expose themselves to a wide palette of inspiration and influences, and in the early stages of discovering their own styles, will emulate, learn from and then ultimately grow up and beyond the various influences they absorb. The more influences (and the wider the sources of those influences) you take on board, the richer, more adventurous your own writing can be. Learn from the best. Reading poetry widely gives us a chance to ask what works, and how – and allows us to also take a poem apart, see the moving parts and the understand techniques, approaches, form and language at work, and get an idea of how it all adds up.
That is why our one of major pieces of advice, alongside writing the thing, and finishing the thing, is that you must read, and read widely and voraciously.
Read poems from your contemporaries and understand what the current poetry landscape looks like. Who is writing now, what do they write about and how? You don’t need to feel you have to copy or replicate the styles and approaches they have, but you should think about where your place is on this landscape, and which kind of approaches speak to you most directly.
Read also great and classic poems from across time and place, and from cultures and languages other than your own. Read Li Bai and Hafez and Sappho as well as Blake and Keats and Dickinson. Modern poetry in translation, and indeed the superb magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, can open doors to some incredible poetry and give you not just a local view of poetry, but a fully global one. The widest range of influences will ensure that no one single style or voice becomes a dominant inspiration in your work.
And in enjoying and discovering poetry, also allow yourself to like and dislike things. It is completely permissible to dislike a poem, or find that you don’t enjoy a particular poet’s style or approach. You should never feel that you ‘have to’ like a poem, or that you have failed if you don’t ‘get it’. So long as you always interrogate this reaction, work at it, find out perhaps if the poem does work, but is complex and rewards being poked and prodded and pondered over. Or perhaps, you will discover that for all its interesting and acute angles, you and the poem still don’t quite get along, but you know why and will come to understand something of yourself and how you want to write by this. These conscious moments of realisation of why something doesn’t quite work for you are just as valuable as the ones where a poem will come to you one day, make itself at home and worm its way into your thoughts and become a part of your daily living and being.
As a publisher, I should at this point declare that I have a professional interest in you reading (and buying) poetry. But I also recognise that not only is there a mind-boggling amount of poetry out there to choose from, but it can be expensive and that many of us don’t have the budget to buy as many books as we might like to. Libraries, where we remain fortunate enough to still have them, can be invaluable, and our borrowing helps them to stay open. Though not all will have extensive poetry collections, there are some notable exceptions and enthusiastic, poetry-loving librarians out there. If you’re lucky enough to live near the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, it’s free to join and there is an embarrassment of poetry riches in its collections – many of which (non-Londoners, visting for the day, take note) can even be borrowed and posted back.
Other ways to read poetry on a shoestring or non-existent budget is to browse the wealth of resources at Poetry Foundation and the Poetry Archive. Both feature recordings, articles, interviews and more; the quality of the work you will encounter is guaranteed to be high, and their overview of poetry’s contemporary and modern landscapes is fairly comprehensive. And if you’re looking for an excellent introduction to contemporary and modern poetry, but are limited in funds and bedazzled by the plethora of possible books to buy, investing in a copy of the Staying Alive anthology from Bloodaxe Books, with its myriad of poets, themes, forms and styles, is a really sound place to begin. And you can’t go far wrong with the subsequent anthologies Being Alive and Being Human either.
One last thing. Poetry needs Good Readers. Most of us are happy to go to the Tate without feeling a need to become a sculptor, and few members of any theatre’s audience are there because they are aspiring actors – yet each healthy-sized audience makes sure that theatres can continue to be viable, that galleries remain open and stage new exhibitions to throngs of appreciative visitors. If ever an art form needed more audience and appreciators rather than participants, it is certainly poetry. Be an active participant wherever you can, not just a passive contributor.