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Ars Poetica by Patrick Cotter

Patrick Cotter

In a wide-ranging and thought-provoking ars poetica, poet, editor and festival director Patrick Cotter answers our occasional 7 questions on poetry.

Your poems are noted for their marked lack of sentimentality. Is poetry devoid of sentimentality merely a mark of emotional coldness?

Emotion-free poetry is the truest test of a reader’s capacity for empathy. A good reader can generate their own emotional responses to another’s existential predicament. A good reader can respond with feelings not predicated by supplied emotions in the text.

Fast emotion is as insubstantial as fast food or fast fashion. Sentimentality is unearned emotion and sentimental poetry contains emotions that come preprocessed and prepackaged.

Just as with about every other kind of commodity, there is a demand for prepackaging and preprocessing in poems, the prepackaging and preprocessing of emotions and ideas – as distinct from the kind of poem which provokes the reader to generate their own emotions, their own ideas. Too many poems are easily consumed and digested without effort – a phenomenon not necessarily connected to a poem’s comprehensibility, but to its incapacity to challenge (to surprise, I want my poems to surprise) the reader’s world view or emotional comfort zone, even if that comfort zone is built on a foundation of reassuring, reflexive, discomfort – such as that catered for by the misery porn constantly filling the hours on talk radio. Tolstoy was wrong to imply that all unhappiness is original and uncliched. Verse reeking and dripping with sentiment caters to this market, a market sustained by consumers with no capacity for Theory of Mind, who are not interested in learning of the lives of others, where those lives do not automatically reflect the inner life of the reader themselves.

Paul Celan’s ‘Espenbaum’ was a crucial early lesson for me in Ars Poetica. I first came across it in a poetry workshop given by John F. Deane for schoolkids circa 1980. In this poem Celan recounts his mother’s death without portraying directly the state of his own heart or mind in reaction to his loss. A sentimental treatment of this subject matter would not be about the mother’s dying but about the son’s self-pity. A self-pitying reader would find satisfaction in these prepackaged, preprocessed feelings. But that satisfaction would be as fleeting as that provided by a Big Mac.

An evolved reader receives more from a poem which describes the mother’s death in such a way that challenges the reader to imagine the undeclared feelings of the grieving son – it requires a more creative action of reading. The poem free of sentimentality avoids dictating an emotional response, rather, it provokes or evokes an emotional response, it is less manipulative. It is disengaged from the co-dependent mind, even if, occasionally, its subject matter is the co-dependent mind.`

You subscribe to the ‘no ideas but in things’ school of thought. Is this why there is so little presentation of argument in your poems?

Likewise ideas can come prepackaged and preprocessed. The successful poem of ideas is successful in spite of its ballast of ideas. If ideas have any true currency they can be conveyed in any form – an essay, a newspaper column, a radio documentary – as you like it. Ideas do not make a poem – language does, imagination does. The poem of ideas seeks to dictate the intellectual experience and response of the reader. The poem of ‘things’ prompts polyvalent intellectual responses. It facilitates creativity in the mind of the reader. It prompts original, individuated ideas in the mind of a skilful reader. The problem with most poetry of ideas is that the ideas are jejune, unoriginal, received, whose circulation is prompted by narcissism on the part of the author. Most poetry of ideas stems from the conscious part of the brain, the egotistic part of consciousness that gets by on, figuratively, 15mb of RAM, rather than the terabyte of experience and emotion stored in the brain’s (the mind’s, for those who believe in that outdated dichotomy) deeper reaches. Only the subconscious has access to those reaches.

By presenting the opportunity for polyvalent thinking, the poem of things, rather than ideas, can prompt different new ideas each time the same reader approaches it. The poem of things can be ambiguous. We know the best art is ambiguous, open to many interpretations – some artists aim to fake ambiguity through obtuseness, hermeticism. They never succeed. Sometimes true artists appear obtuse, hermetic. But they are not. Their mode of expression has been pushed beyond limits in pursuit of the truth, beyond the current limits of a given reader’s capacity to comprehend. But accumulated experience in life, in reading, eventually opens a reader’s mind to such comprehension.

An aesthetical pursual of this idea, of this argument, against ideas, against arguments in poetry has led me to conclude that content, in poetry, is a conveyance for form. But, acknowledging that content is a mere conveyance for form in poetry is not a recipe for treating content casually as a substance of no importance. On the contrary, content must have substance to adequately convey form. Content fails to convey form when it strays into abstraction and/or when content fails to acknowledge that it is encapsulated in form and that form is the medium by which artistic accomplishment is measured. Poetry fails when content is overprioritised to the detriment of sensitivity to language. Poetry fails when the content is so banal, inane or bathetic (which is not to say that the banal, inane or bathetic cannot be knowing subject matter for functioning content) that it fails to compel the reader to consume the form, no matter how successfully sonic effects might be executed.

Some philologists and philosophers may disagree, but I believe (a Jungian, trans-generational belief) that in the formulation of language, abstract nouns were preceded by their associated/associative adjectives. ‘Beautiful’ preceded ‘beauty’. The concept of beauty could not have been formulated without prior observation of the beautiful thing.  This is why in the first instance there is no idea but in things. Abstract language may be essential in philosophical or scientific treatises, but no treatise ever constituted art. The text you are reading now is not a poem, although various visual art school theorists would claim all one has to do to make a poem, is to assert an object is a poem. You can effortlessly guess what I think of that argument.

People who treat poems as repositories for treatises are mortal enemies of poetry, especially those masquerading as literary critics. Sociologists, historians and AgitProp merchants who have mined various poems for information do great damage to poetry by elevating in importance, useful-information-laden verses above more artistically accomplished poems which fail to serve their purposes. One could say they make a useful idiot of the poem, in the political science meaning of that term.

There is an old Creative Writing adage – do not describe the branch of the tree, describe the shadow thrown by the branch – just so with ideas – do not describe the idea, describe the situational set-up where the idea may arise – thus contributing to the creative potential for a reader in their encounter with a text. If a reader can generate no ideas of their own by reading of a situational set-up, then they will be the sort of individual incapable of generating original ideas in life. An exemplary poem for simply illustrating this point is Miroslav Holub’s deservedly, oft anthologised, ‘The Fly’ (in George Theiner’s translation). Nowhere in the poem do you find arguments or statements to the effect that ‘life is cheap and ephemeral’ or that ‘war is vainglorious and cruel’, but nevertheless those are ideas (which you are left free to agree or disagree with) impossible to come away without, after a reading of this poem, which consists of a simple narrative constructed on a light scaffolding of listed things.

Photography is a major presence in Sonic White Poise – you reference specific photographs by Frank Espada and Bill Brandt, and the names of cameras and other photographers crop up throughout the collection. What is it about photography that interests you as a poet? Do you think there is something that connects photography and poetry as forms or practices?

Most of the photographers who prompt many of my poems I do not acknowledge to the reader. I believe the reader should retain the right to approach those photographs (if they ever come across them) and view them without their interpretations being influenced by my own. In referring directly to Bill Brandt’s East End Girl Dances the Lambeth Walk, 1939, I am involved in something additional, I am not simply recording a narrative prompted by the engagement of my subconscious with the photograph, I am giving a record of my act of thinking about that photograph – the process of that thought, which is distinct from the thought itself. I examined Brandt’s photograph (not for the first occasion) at a time when Syrian refugees flooded (a deluge which engulfed no one, no matter what xenophobes might claim) across Europe, as German Jews had done in the years, months before Brandt’s photograph was shot (Brandt, himself, if not exactly a refugee was at the very least a pressured German immigrant to the UK). These Germans had fled to a space which was subsequently bombed by the people they fled from. They jumped from one fire to another, lit by the same taper. I was imagining our contemporary space – to where Syrians were fleeing – as a place awaiting its own impending conflagration. The poem must suggest these ideas, not declare them as unbendable facts.

Most of the poems I write which are prompted by photographs contain narratives not necessarily imagined or intended by their photographer. A picture can speak a thousand words – so the old shibboleth goes – but I believe, not all thousand words at once and not always the same words at different times. A photograph can speak 200 words when you view it one day, 500 words more when you view it another day and so on. Wait some years until you view it again and you may find it says something completely different to you, as it would to a different person sitting alongside.

I don’t agree with John Berger’s confederacy of accomplices and collaborators way of approaching an image. I saw a filmed exchange between Berger and Jean Mohr in 1988 where Berger in the self-rightous tone of J’accuse, said: “You are completely wrong. Look again!”  Berger’s Way of Seeing merely proposes an alternative orthodoxy – an orthodoxy in contention with opposing, more reactionary, hierarchical orthodoxies, but a new orthodoxy all the same, where Berger’s programmatic way of looking imposes a particular interpretation on subsequent viewers, an interpretation informed still by received ideas.

I say abandon all preconceived ways of looking, Berger’s or anyone else’s. Surrender the image to your subconscious. There will still be an element of preconception which stems from your own experience of being in the world, but it will be a unique experience born of your own uniqueness as a living, feeling, thinking entity. It is only your subconscious which is unique. Your conscious self is forged (as a bank note is forged, not as a sword is forged) by received opinions, programmatic education, inculcation by control freaks and power mongers. Even a palimpsestic mess of unrelated inculcations, imposed on the calculations of your prefrontal cortex, is still just a forgery of a true self. A writer’s so-called voice is just their subconscious revealing what it knows. Sometimes writers of true genius, in spite of themselves, unknowingly allow their subconscious to leak out between their elegantly regurgitated received ideas. They think their appeal and genius is manifested in the elegance of their regurgitations, but, of course, they are mistaken. As I have said, the successful poem of ideas is successful in spite of its ballast of ideas. Rather than speak further here about my creative interaction with photographs I would direct a reader to this earlier article:

http://poetrysociety.org.uk/publications-section/the-poetry-review/behind-the-poem/cotter/

And in this article I relate how my contemplation of a certain work of Leni Riefenstahl’s was one of the starting points for my poem ‘Dinka’:

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/white-privilege-i-am-a-refugee-fleeing-the-mindsets-of-the-20th-century-1.4489876

Ghost housemates, a peacat (a peahen-cat hybrid), literate dogs and an array of other surreal elements appear in Sonic White Poise. What compels you to write about the absurd and the surreal? What can surrealist poems do that other poems can’t?

Surrealism is the perfect vehicle for individuated truth because it circumvents Social Realism which is the main vehicle for received ideas and the imposed interpretation of reality used by Capitalism, Authoritarianism and groupthinkers to reinforce conformity and intellectual serfdom. Prevailing power structures and displacing new power structures cannot be maintained without conformity. Power structures limit the parameters of thought with Social Realism. The word ‘absurd’ needs to be reclaimed by individuated dissenters the way ‘queer’ has been by the LGBTQIA community, the way the ’N’ word has been reclaimed by people of sub-Saharan descent.

The absurd is not a corruption or distortion of reality. It is not a defective perception of reality, it is a valid, dissenting presentation of reality, of the truth which contravenes the dictatorship of groupthink. It works against the chimera of change created when one variety of groupthink is displaced by a different variety of groupthink. It does this by provoking an individuated intellectual and emotional response untainted by received ideas and fast emotion. An individuated response allows space for nuance, for self-truth, for constantly-changing and adjusting self-truth informed by personal experience and the subconscious. This is why great art has different things to say to you at different times of your life.

 Surrealism/Absurdism is a way for an author to convey one’s truth without ramming it down a reader’s throat. A poet should be authoritative in voice – not authoritative in statement. Authoritative statement (in art) is for mansplainers (of whatever gender) and individuals who believe in imposing their views on others or imbibing their beliefs from others. There is a qualitative difference between opinionated facts and truth, one which many reactionaries (of left, right or centre) refuse to recognise. They are driven to apoplexy at the mere suggestion of its existence. Such people dismiss surrealism and the absurd as mere whimsy, in spite of the fact that almost all cultures began by conveying their truth through myth and folklore steeped in absurdity and the surreal.
Poets under the boot of the imperialist experiment of the Soviet block learnt to write aslant to the reported, mitigated, official version of reality; not just to elude detection of their dissidence, but to defy the authorities’ demands for clear as glass communication, constrained within certain ideological parameters. To write work which was polyvalent in meaning (nuanced, as most of the absurd is) was to deny the imposed ‘facts’ of the oppressors, without seeking to impose an alternate orthodoxy. 

There are many schools of surrealism, the way there are many schools of socialism and just as the best socialisms are pragmatic and undogmatic, adjustable and non-prescriptive, so too are the best surrealisms not constrained by formalised manifestos like Surrealism with a capital ‘S’ is.

As both a poet and an editor of a literary journal (Southword), do you think that engaging with journals and magazines, through publication and/or subscription, is an important part of being a poet today? How valuable are journals in getting a sense of how new poems are working or failing to work?

Essential to learning how to write well is to read well. Poetry journals come in all shapes and sizes with different aims, ambitions and aesthetic stances. There are established journals of national importance such as Poetry, Poetry Review and Poetry Ireland Review which are recognised as journals of record, ready to publish established acknowledged masters alongside mid-career and promising or accomplished emerging poets. They reflect the development of poetry in a nation over time and can inform canonical-attempting instruments such as anthologies. Poetry journals are a way for commissioning editors and festival curators to become aware of many new voices. As a festival curator it is impossible for me to buy and read every collection that comes out, especially foreign (American, Canadian, British) collections. I’m grateful as a curator and reader of poetry to have had the chance to discover curated, new voices through the pages of Poetry, the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, but also through many provincial journals. Arguably, any city large enough to have a major art gallery ought to be home to a literary journal. Such institutions present major names, remotely located accomplished artists, with locally located accomplished artists. Crucial to the individual development of an artist is the Anxiety of Influence. By following closely the achievements of peers and fellow denizens and desiring to match or exceed their accomplishment one can become a better artist oneself.  There are always those poets who are content to spend the whole of their creative lives waddling around the paddling pools of ‘starter’ poetry journals. Such journals are essential in the literary eco-sphere. One needs affirmation at all stages of our career and to be published in such outlets during one’s apprenticeship can be essential to receiving the succour required to persist. But ultimately one should push oneself to graduate to swim in the more demanding open seas. There are so many poetry journals no one individual can claim to be blocked in their advancement by a particular editor. The most freedom exists in writing in the English language, there are so many journals in so many places. Even in a world which can be swept by the demands of emerging ideologies, or which you may believe to be constrained by gatekeepers, in the Anglosphere there are enough journals with independently-minded editors to provide a home for all kinds of accomplished work various in intent and aesthetics. I’m grateful to the many editors who have rejected my work. On most occasions, I’ve learnt that the poems needed further work, pushing me to develop my craft, making me the better poet I am today than ten and twenty years ago. A poem I had published in the London Review of Books had been rejected in a rawer form, by the same editorial team three months before they accepted it.

On that note, how do you know when a poem is finished, and how can you tell when it works?

The most crucial lesson I learnt (as a writer) by judging competitions and editing journals is that most work sent out into the world is unfinished. A poem steaming towards accomplishment is often derailed by a clunkily sounding line, an unintended cliché or a bathetic turn of thought. Bathos can be banished only by maturity and the constraining of narcissism. Clichés are like constantly invading lice that keep coming and need to be caught and squashed by constant vigilance. One thing for poets to be aware of is that cliches are formed of not just well-worn locutions but of the combination of a noun with its expected verb. Must that dog ‘bark’? Must that liquid ‘drip’? If they must they better be doing something else unexpected as well. What can pass as non-cliché in prose can count as dead language in poetry. In a poem language must be made new. A major challenge is to make the new believable or truth-sounding. And if the sound is not working rarely is the sense. A poem lax in sound is almost always lax in thought. When I was a young writer I thought the ‘well-made poem’ was an instrument of conspiracy wielded by a patriarchal establishment seeking to exclude everyone else from their club. It is hard to accept that one is not yet accomplished in one’s craft. There are many accomplished poems which do not qualify as ‘well-made poems’ but they are much harder to write because it is so difficult to judge if you have written one from your own subjective viewpoint.

Subjectivity is not such a problem if one aims to write sonically effective lines. I find a poem is finished when I can no longer change the sound of a poem. I find writing poems in regular stanzas and rhythms helps to hunt down the word or syllable which is disrupting the sound. If one has an aesthetic preference for meandering lines, uneven stanzas, one can always reset the lines after one has hunted down and replaced the individual clunking words while drafting in regular stanzas. But I still manage occasionally to send out poems which are not quite finished. As the poem is waiting in its submittable queue or desktop slushpile for the editor to get around to it, I’ve found myself making more and more edits to it. It helps to wait months and years for a poem to settle but most of us are in too much of a rush for that.

If you had one piece of advice to give to young or beginning poets, what would it be?

I actually have two pieces of advice.

Be careful how you wield ambition. The supreme ambition should be to write a brilliant poem, but paradoxically the initial stepping-stone is to begin the writing process without ambition, because ambition breeds judgement. Judgement will kill the proverbial baby at birth. Judgement will create performance anxiety which causes writer’s block. One should begin to write the poem without expectation or judgement, one should begin in a state of play. What you write might be unusable, unfinishable, not worth finishing. But to judge something as unusable at the beginning kills creativity.  At a certain stage of the writing, on certain occasions a viable poem will begin to present itself. A poem which works, proves itself working as an organic whole in need of revision, a poem with a promise to interest other readers beside yourself. At that stage ambition and judgement should kick in, the ambition to finish a brilliant poem, using judgement to eliminate cliché, cacophony and bathos. One generates writing without ambition but one revises with ambition. Remember the ambition should be to complete the brilliant poem. The ambition to be a writer in residence, to set oneself up as a workshop leader, to be a social media-star, can lead one away from the path of being a writer of brilliant poems. Such ambitions are sirens with real power to lead us onto the rocks, because it is a sad truth that many curators and gatekeepers do not actually read the poems of the poets they work with – they choose poets by hype, they give awards to poets they know, they reward poets who share their political or religious ideals. But the poems of such writers have no staying power. Do you want quickly achieved, transitory, temporal renown or do you want to write a poem which will be still readable a century from now? The choice is yours.

When I was a young writer I believed that I had to become experienced in life for life to inspire me to good work. But most of us lead unremarkable, humdrum lives, the account of which others would find tremendously tedious. I would wish a tragic, ‘interesting’ life on nobody. Everyone deserves to have the comfort of a settled, trouble-free existence. Tragedy finds us out anyway but we should never seek out tragedy for ourselves or others, especially just to write about. A young writer should not wait for life to inspire them, they should practice generative exercises. Such exercises might generate publishable material only ten per cent of the time. But that results in far more poems than twiddling one’s thumbs waiting for life to provide inspiration. I fully subscribe to Picasso’s statement: “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.”