Maybe it’s my naturally sunny disposition, but for me poetry always begins with a problem. There’s the problem of the blank page, of what to write, where to start, who or what to gripe at, and of course the minor issue of interacting with the entire history of the poetry that’s come before. Each new poem becomes a new entry into dialogue with that heritage in a sense.
If poetry is a thorny issue, then history is a knotted, rhizomorphous, barbed wire shrubbery. It’s probably safe to assume that few of us are naïve enough to see that neat thread of chronological narrative, that the history books (they’re like Wikipedia for people who like the smell of paper) tell us trails deftly behind us, is a reliable blueprint. Simon Armitage explains in his preface to The Death of King Arthur that: “for history to make sense it requires eras and periods separated by memorable dates and clear dividing lines rather than vague segues or blurred transitions”, and one of the clearest examples of this that keeps popping up for me, as a researcher in Victorian literature, is that the Industrial Revolution was only termed such in 1881 by Arnold Toynbee, emphasising that such historical eras and movements often only show up in retrospect. We like to shape, to compartmentalise, to give a sense of logic and progression (or sometimes regression) to the overlapping chaotic sprawl of this mess we call history.
As a haggard vampire, who stopped counting the years as they slouched by somewhere between Marlowe getting his eyeball pierced by cuddly Bill the card shark, and Gee Gee Byron making humpbacks fashionable, I’ve witnessed much of this revisionism first hand and, truthfully, this need not be something that causes us anxiety. We often hear the questions: ‘Is the future written?’ ‘Is it all set in stone?’ ‘Have we gone too far? Done too much damage?’ But seriously, can the future already be written? How can it be when we still haven’t written the past?
This is where one of the great gifts of poetry comes in. Just as reading the works of writers from distant cultures narrows the divide between us, and erases geographical boundaries, making those people absolutely real to us, so too the writings of those who’ve come before. Suddenly the great rifts between us, of history, culture, technology, style (Ugg boots and crocs surpass any fashion crimes of the past millennium fyi) are dissolved, and we find ourselves, not reading the work of a being who existed in some distant era, but instead entering into conversation with… Someone; a person – painfully fragile, fascinatingly contradictory, and fallible. They are just some human giving voice to the moment in which she or he found herself or himself, and they are always there waiting to speak to us. All we need to do is listen.
Dr Steve Nash