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Outside In or Inside Out Poetry?

I read a poem recently that was written by a well known - famous even - English poet. The poem had been specially commissioned for a leading charitable organisation that was dealing with poverty and homelessness. To be fair, the poem was interesting - on its own terms. What he had done was artfully construct it around 'found' conversations that he had taped from the very people the charity sought to help. A certain pathos emerged as well as a strength too. But I have to say, for all its 'goodness', to me it was not a poem. Rather, it was symptomatic all those poems we keep reading which are about 'things'; as words about 'things', then, it was perfectly acceptable, but a poem?

Of course, every poem needs to be about some 'thing', but the problem is poems - real poems - are not written in that way: constructed as if by Lego. It's what I call the Outside-In method. The world presses in on us - a social problem, our love problems, somebody dies, global warming - and the pressure of these truths forces us to write something about it.

The worst thing is the kind of drivelly lines that some many 'poets' think is poetry: ideas with lineation and voila, there is a poem. Better than this is when some real poetic form is attempted and the subtleties of rhythm and sound are employed; yet still, the poem is Outside In.

Martin Heidegger made the distinction between good and bad art. Bad art, he said, simply tries to represent things or obviously attempts to express truths. There is presumed to be a linear relationship between reality and the words. This of course produces superficiality and shallowness. We only have to consider a poem like Kubla Khan by Coleridge to realise there is no linearity - and that is a truly great poem!

Good art, Heidegger said, does not tell the facts but reveals truth or truths, and is aware that words themselves are not that truth. It re-inteprets reality and in so doing becomes genuinely creative. That is why true poetry is always Inside-Out. And that is also why the Greeks were right when they talked about the Muse or the nine Muses: the sources of inspiration without which the poetry - or any other form of creativity - is stillborn. One has to wait on the Muse - and then allow her to take over.

As a poetic practitioner myself, I nearly always wait on the Muse and most of my poems are written in one sitting, one take, sometimes without even a correction subsequently. This does not prove that I am a poet - let the reader be the judge - but it does tell me I am on the right track. And strangely in comparing my own work with itself, I frequently find that what I consider my best work is often written in that instant way.

Clearly, there are fine poets who don't write like this, and who labour more assiduously than I do - yes, not one size fits everybody. But I would still contend that if they true poets then they will still be Inside-Out poets, for only Inside-Out poetry has poetic value and will last.

The great Socrates put it this way:  ‘I soon realised that poets do not compose their poems with real knowledge, but by inborn talent and inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many things without any understanding of what they say . . .’ This isn't popular in the modern, technological world where we like to imagine that we are in control, even of the imaginative processes; but popular or not, it's true. And we need to be encouraging poets who are inspired by the Muse of poetry - and who are not just simply 'messaging' us with words about some linear ideology.



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