Why we do poetry

By Kate Garrett

Last Saturday I sent out the final lot of submission responses for our place-themed poetry and flash fiction anthology, Slim Volume: Wherever You Roam, and this Saturday – today – it’s World Poetry Day. Sometimes it seems like there’s at least a week’s worth of Official Poetry Days in a year, but then, I would say that – what difference does it even make to someone who treats every day like A Poetry Day?

Well, I get to wave poetry around in people’s faces under the guise of official celebration. Besides, I was once again asked the perennial question: ‘Why do you love / write / read poetry? What is poetry to you?’

So I’m going to rattle on about how much I love poetry, and why I write pomes, and how poetry isn’t what you think, it can be really anything at all … et cetera.

Only I shouldn’t ramble, because one of the things I love about poetry is brevity. A skilled poet finds a way to say fifty words’ worth (no pun intended, but why the fuck not, have one anyway) of experience in one line of iambic pentameter. Or anapaestic tetrameter, or trochaic octameter…

But brevity isn’t always the key – I love a good performance or slam poem, and some of those exceed three minutes/five pages long. So it’s also the rhythm, passion and twisty wordplay in poetry, subtle or in-your-face, that punch me right here (that’s my solar plexus I’m clutching, in case you were wondering).

I suppose woven in with the brevity, the rhythm, and the interesting words – or any combination of the three – is the main reason I love poetry: the immediacy. Even if the poet’s written about something that happened oh, I don’t know, two million years ago, a good poem will feel like you are right there and it is happening to you.

There’s a tattoo on my inside right forearm, and it’s two lines from Sylvia Plath’s ‘Kindness’:

The blood jet is poetry

There is no stopping it.

Kate TattooThese are my two favourite lines of text of all time, and even though it’s hard to pinpoint why, I’ll have a go: here are brevity, emotion, rhythm and wordplay in two lines from a free verse poem. These lines grab me. They are immediate. For me, these two lines speak clearly, just by using the phrases ‘blood jet’ and ‘no stopping it’ in a metaphor – vitality, pain, survival, strength, willpower, passion, life, death, creativity, even ink, all come to mind.

Poetry is a beautiful shortcut.

If you want to find out if you feel the immediacy too, I suggest you read the poem. Read any poem. Or listen to a poem. See what happens. This one might not be the same for you as it is for me, but maybe another poem will have a similar effect.

And this is one reason why I write poems. ‘Why do you write poetry?’ is tricky. For one thing, I don’t have much choice about writing in general. I’ve been writing stories since I was four years old, and writing poems since I was eleven.

Poetry is a thing that happens to you.

But this other reason, a more universal reason, for both writing and reading poetry is that whatever lodges itself into a poet’s head and heart – truth, fiction, a blend of both – can be turned into an art form that other people might take in as well. That isn’t always what you, the poet, think it will be, but it’s still amazing when your work is appreciated by receptive readers/listeners.

Recently a lovely review of Caboodle (Prolebooks’ six-collections-in-one book, one of which is my pamphlet ‘The names of things unseen’) said my poem ‘Grunge girl’ reflects ‘the need to fit in with the in-crowd’ and is for ‘the one who wasn’t accepted by the girlie gang’. From my point of view, the opposite is true: ‘Grunge girl’ is about self-imposed isolation and rejecting societal beauty standards as an act of autonomy. But I wrote it down and sent it on its merry way, into the wide world of readers – so meaning isn’t mine to dictate anymore. Readers/listeners are welcome to see what they like. In fact, I encourage it.

Poetry is slippery that way. Or maybe human minds are. Or maybe both.

Which brings me back to Slim Volume. Every few months, I throw a theme out there, and people respond. The latest theme, for Wherever You Roam, is place, and we’ve got everything from a surreal city street to a mantelpiece, a dolls’ house to India on the cusp of monsoon season. It’s wonderful to discover how wildly different pieces on the same theme can be, and to know each reader will get something unique from each piece.

As for the anti-romance Slim Volume, No Love Lost, the writers went down winding paths of what love and lust really involve, outside of Hollywood fairy stories. Tie all of their topics up with various forms – sonnets, performance poems, free verse and tiny micropoems, as well as flash fiction – and the result is a book that includes something for everyone.

And poetry can be enjoyed by a majority, just as much as any novel can be. It isn’t a cult or a club you have to join. There isn’t a secret handshake.

There will be more poetry from Pankhearst. In 2014 we had Bewitched and Slim Volume: No Love Lost, and in 2013 my four sneaky poems squeezed their way into Heathers. Coming in Spring 2015 – a play absolutely bursting with slam poetry, In the Jungle You Must Wait by Jeremy Johnson, will be part of our Singles Club, and Slim Volume: Wherever You Roam will be published in May. I’m also working on an as-yet-untitled chapbook of pirate poems that I’m hoping to have ready by autumn, and the call for Slim Volume: This Body I Live In submissions will go out in May/June 2015.

Why do we do poetry? Because we can. (And so can you.)



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