I’ve been dabbling of late with the strange game of poetry; reading the greats (as well as listening to them on Youtube), looking at how they do what they do, doing what I seem to be good at: dissecting something complex in the hope I may see some pattern in it. It’s how I do most things, not being one to ask for advice or education, but rather break it down bit by bit. This is how I learnt to do websites, like this this one, not by paying someone else or going to school, but by looking at the HTML and CSS source code and playing at it until one day it sort of made sense.
Unfortunately poetry’s code is not so easily broken.
Unlike prose like this, which has a pretty strict structure (which I don’t understand fully, such as where to stick semi colons, colons etc - see above!), poetry does not, being more free form. Here it’s harder to really grasp if what you’re doing is actually doing anything at all. It seems to read well, and when spoken aloud makes some kind of rhythmic sense, and takes you where I wish for you to go (well as far as it can lead), but in the end I don’t feel any real confidence in its worth. Is it wonderful enough or wholly wank?
This dilemma is something that hounds me in all my writing, and my confidence in what I do, what I say, what I think, flips from big headed certainty that it has weight, to utter dejection, that it’s all self absorbed delusion.
The other day, talking in Norwich, someone came up to talk, a proper writer who gets paid to tie such words as these into strings printed on paper. Such people are proper writers, people who went to university, know the rules of the game, read books, can spell etc. Whenever I talk to such people I always feel a bit like I can’t quite get my thoughts together, that at any moment they may find me out or trick me; like get me to spell ‘Once’ or ask me what an ‘Adverb’. Such people make me feel like a blogging Susan Boyle, an underdog yes, with some small talent, but actually no match for any real performer, my only real strength, like Susan’s, only my novelty.
At the same time I think that perhaps if you do slip into your writers slippers, light that pipe, and retire into being ‘good’, you’ve lost it, that nothing extraordinary is produced by someone one hundred percent at ease with themselves.
Have you seen Whiplash? I think about this film a lot, the idea of someone pushing someone else to be great, to burn him to see if he will flinch back to just good enough, or take the pain necessary to be better than that. Lately I’ve been asked to give feedback to a few people (writing and films), as well as giving it unsolicited! Being critical to others - who you consider artists - is tough, but it’s probably the most important kicking you’ll ever get, so it’s sometimes worth trying to kick them to death. If they get up they’ve got what it take to be great. If they don’t - well maybe they should do something else, because if they’re crushed by what I or anyone else may say then a: these people are right, and you’re shit, b: they’re right, but you can do better, c: they’re wrong, and you can prove it. This may sound heartless this this kind of kicking is what I feel I get everyday from myself, getting better being a process of self inflicted wounds, like going back again and again for a kicking, your art the result of self inflicted wounds. Maybe one day you’ll win, but you know even if you do, they’ll be some Man Mountain waiting to go next.
I’m not into the business of soft soaking me or anyone I respect, who I think needs a kicking. I’m not in the business of hand jobs.
So back to the poetry.
I think one reason to try my hand at this is that it’s Alpine style writing, not the normal siege of words used in prose, where you’ve got vast armies to try and make your point, the battle you want to win to move someone, that it’s not just a junk of words, but a goosebump, or small laugh, or little tear. In all my writing I’ve tried to keep it short and simple, to get to the point, a simplicity which is harder than long and complex. With poetry is seems you’re stripping those words down to just the armature of the meaning.
With normal writing I think I get it at last, having written pretty constantly; probably a few thousand words every day for the last couple of years, two books, countless articles. I get it, well sort off. Every other day someone emails or takes the time to tell me that what I do has some meaning, has to value - even if it’s only to them. Yes there are better writers, a ocean of them, but I’m the best me there is, better than the me I once was. But with poetry it’s not so easy, it’s so hard to grasp what is right and what is wrong; cliched, rubbish or wank. I’ve asked people to look it over, but it seems that there is not real path to follow.
Then this morning I got it - well maybe a bit - something that’s been dawning on me slowly for a while.
Since I was a kid I’ve been under the spell that writing was some formal mathematics, that everything, at the end of every line, every paragraph, every story, must add up. There are marks to be had, formulas to follow, strict rules of spelling and grammer designed to aid ease the code breaking of another’s thoughts. But it isn’t like that at all. Writing and poetry is story telling, and the words you write are no more than music notes, arranged on a page or screen for you to read. What matters is not the words, but the music they make, whatever order they come in, even of discordant; that I sing in my head, and write down what I hear, that you read them there and hear them played back. There are no rules, but only the music that you make in other people’s heads, its failings, its cliches, its naff over sentimentality really unimportant as long as that tune has some sustain, even if only for a moment. Writing is not about writing, just as music is not just about sound, it’s a game of rhythm and charm and magic, where there are no rules, just a feeling.
So read on if you wish and tap your toes or kick me dead.
All my life
Find what pieces
hamper, trip and trap,
To leave behind.
Not what I want,
Not what I need,
Told to bring,
Day to plant.
So, bit by box
Junk and jewel
Memory, heartache, madness,
I Leave behind
Or throw away,
The must I must do if I am to escape,
To find what I really need.
Free at last I thought,
No ballast of love so long to lift,
On morning wake
I see you there,
Sunlight curtain proud,
Know at last
All I ever wanted found.
A Kit Kat bar costs 60p. Were these words worth as much?
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram