Rachael Boast: poets on poetry
Picador Poetry is one of the leading poetry imprints in the UK, and home to a roll-call of critically acclaimed and often prize-winning poets. In this new series for picador.com we interview some of the finest poets now writing to gain insight into the art and practice of poetry.
-how do you personally write a poem?
By what feels like a very impersonal process. The poem may start off as ‘self-expression’ but if it ends there I’ll know it isn’t finished. It then needs to go through some kind of transmutation so that I barely recognise how it began – as if poems are a collaboration between self and otherness; a co-operation between my own conscious intention and the will and volition of the work itself. Sappho’s Fragment 150 can be read as saying as much: ‘There must be no lamentation in the house of the Muses. Such a thing does not befit it’. Poems are an ordeal of discipline and have a mind of their own.
-why do you write poetry?
As an exploration of consciousness through listening rather than through thinking. I see poetry as a way of training ourselves to be able to access what we don’t know we know, through language. Through the rhythmic play of sound and syntax you can reach something that surprises you, something you didn’t know was in your mind that enriches and broadens your perspective on the world and how to be in it. Listening comes first; having something you want to say comes last – and, in the best poems, evaporates entirely.
-which poet has influenced your work the most?
Arthur Rimbaud has turned out to be the most enduring influence – through his feverish concentration and disordering of language, and his hermitic roots (‘hermit’ also turns out to mean ‘hummingbird’ – more of that later).
Rimbaud understood the usefulness of pain and discomfort as part of a process of self-awareness, an idea he outlines in his Lettre du Voyant. I hadn’t heard anyone say that before. In conjunction was Enid Starkie’s biography which introduced me to various systems of thought, including alchemy. Again, I recognised the importance of transmutation – of the work being a way to turn negatives into positives and move towards some form of emotional inclusivity, or, ‘complete being’.
-why is poetry important?
Briefly, it provides a solution to the problems of aversion (to pain) and attraction (to pleasure). It enables us, whether through the reading or the writing of the poem, to escape the trap of wasting time pushing away what we think we don’t want and trying to grasp what we think we want. Some people spend their entire lives doing that.
A poem, in an act of reconciliation, can hold anything life throws at us; can help turn pain and illness, for example, into something useful; to make beauty out of it so that ‘what the heart has understood / Can verify in the body’s peace’, as Louis MacNeice has it.
-how do you know when a poem is finished?
Russian poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam talked about how verse exists before it is composed, of it being a case of translating the pre-verbal ‘hum’ going on in his head into poetry. The poem is finished when the hum stops. The resultant poem is a hummingbird free to fly off as it may.