I hope plenty of people send in properly shocking and edgy poems to the Bridport Prize this year, following Daljit Nagra’s recent call for entrants to liberate themselves from feeling they should submit a ‘good, liberal poem’ to the competition. I’ve submitted one that I hope will raise eyebrows and it would be great and refreshing if the eventual winner made readers sweat a bit and take a second, third and fourth look to check that they were really reading what they thought they were reading.
Poetry competitions are at their best when the winner comes as a complete leftfield surprise, and especially when it makes you as an entrant think, ‘Ouch – that’s a beauty!’, which was the effect Dom Bury’s National Poetry Competition winner The Opened Field had on me this year. A sestina! That’s not supposed to happen – they’re too formal, too old fashioned and – mostly – too difficult to write well. But Dom Bury did it, and… it’s a beauty – ouch!.
By the way, Stephen Fry published a fantastic diagram and mathematical formula invented by his father at the back of The Ode Less Travelled to illustrate the complexity of a sestina:
Anyway, on to my headline topic. Writing my own Bridport Prize entry this week, and thinking about shocking people and being shocked in return, I started wondering about something that feels to me like a truism; that is: contemporary poetry, when it comes down to it, is the educated, liberal middle classes talking to themselves (that sounds like it may be a quote from somewhere; if it is, I’ve forgotten where I heard it). Is it true? I don’t know any poets or readers of poetry who fall outside that definition – as diverse as they may be in other ways. And being ‘liberal’ as opposed to ‘illiberal’ (not necessarily anything to do with left- or right-wing) seems to be the key word here. That is why Nagra’s call is so interesting, he is asking entrants to step outside the poetically comfortable world where ‘right choices’ of the ‘decent word and the appropriate subject’ conform to an essentially liberal world view. He is asking us to take on dogmatism and intolerance and other ‘illiberal’ qualities, and not only in an adversarial way, but in the sense of grasping, wearing, getting inside them – using the dramatic monologue perhaps to ‘be so offensive that it is ultimately contradictory’.
What makes this more interesting, for me, is that ultimately this is asking poets to look outside their own sense of the world and attempt to realistically – or at least truthfully – portray ‘another’. The trap for all who attempt to take up Nagra’s challenge, I would imagine, is stereotyping and/or patronising those we are attempting to ‘take on’ in our poems. Even now, thinking about my already-submitted entry, I’m not sure I’ve avoided this. There was certainly something uncomfortable about trying to be ‘offensive’ and I think part of this is because it felt, attempting to write truthfully about a set of views that are not mine and so I ultimately reject, that I was in effect talking about someone behind their back, slagging them off while they were out of the room. I write as a middle class liberal, Daljit Nagra and those who are a) aware of and b) will read the winners of the Bridport Prize are middle class liberals; and yet I am writing about the views of those who are, say, working class illiberals. The fact that I agonise over this at all confirms my status as a middle-class liberal, I suppose. A middle-class liberal talking to myself.
“Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its making” said Auden. I wonder if he had in mind the idea that poets only talk through poetry to other poets and so any power their work has is trapped within their particular social stratum. Probably not, the landscape was very different in 1939, although it is easy to look for and find parallels. But even if my statement above is true (and it may well not be), poetry would seem to me a very good way for educated, middle-class liberals to talk to each other, with its endless acres of fertile space for contemplation, suggestion, thesis/antithesis/synthesis, first baby steps and Olympic-level long-jump leaps. And if we speak shockingly and offensively to each other within this space sometimes – perhaps even without feeling guilty or worried about patronising others – and having done so if we understand the world a little bit more for when we do interact with non-poem-lovers (which surely we have to do from time to time!), well, that’s okay.