Digging into things; thoughts on poetrya response to Amanda Ravetz's paper: Being in the Line

I’ve been on different sides of AHRC CC projects. My first encounter with them was as a community partner, or consultant; brought in for my experience with working in schools and community settings and getting them writing. Now, as a full-time lecturer, I’ve scuttled back into the Academy, and am now on the other side of the fence. Reaching over to the community. Hopefully knocking down the barriers. Good fences (don’t) make good neighbours.

The ‘Behind the Line’ paper offers up some interesting provocations towards its end. Poetry is an interesting proposition, I think, for Connected Communities projects because it is inherently about collaboration. That might sound antithetical to what we imagine poetry to be; a solitary, intellectual pursuit.

The truth, or the truth as I see it (every poet will tell you something different) is that poetry shares a lot with the idea of collaborative research. The poet Sharon Olds suggests that she wishes her poetry to be ‘useful’ more than anything else, that it might make something beautiful out of whatever has happened, that it might come to be redemptive in some way. The poet takes something large and intangible, sits with it in their mind, struggles with it, and then shows back the reader something distilled, smaller, which might be useful; they have mined down to the truth at the core.

In that sense the ‘social, creative, generative, generous’ space which Ravetz et.al. call for is already in existence when a poet is around, they are the open space through which things pass.

Poetry not only has the power to take people’s stories and craft them into something, resifting them and saying to their original owner ‘look, you made this, this came from you’; it also has the power to show people that their lives are worthwhile, are worth something. Poetry still, despite it’s occupying of a small place within the wider cultural field of the Western World, has an immense academic cache; it is still considered intellectual. Thus there is a wonderful power in community groups, or anyone outside of the Academy, realising that a poem could be written about their life, their street, their language, their history. People turn to poems at weddings, or deaths, or great anniversaries of events; they recognise that poetry has within it a gravitas equable to such occasions- when they see it can also be about their lives, and that they themselves can make it so, the results can be immensely powerful.

Provocation Number 6,  to ‘be inside the line/ the experience’, seems something uniquely suited to poetry as well; for the poet the experience is the life they have chosen to live- not a profession, a hobby but a state of being; the social ghosts, the haunting, cannot be simply admired from the outside, or observed as if in a museum, it must be lived in, walked through, dug down into, in order that we might fully understand it.

The unknown, that which we might not ourselves know that we know (to snatch some lyrics from the mouth of Donald Rumsfeld); poetry can drag up that which we didn’t know was there- the rich seams of our unconscious mind.

If we are to understand the ghosts of our own history, what they are trying to say, then perhaps the poet must be a medium, an ‘automatic writer’, acting as scribe for what they might want to say.

Perhaps the poet must be archaeologist, digging into the writing which has already happened, looking for the clues that are buried there.

Certainly the poet needs cooperation, must engender it from the community- if it is their stories which are to be told then only they have the true right to tell them.

Perhaps the poet’s job is that of a miner, to go down deep under the surface of lived world, to that which we keep hidden; to abandon their own health in the quest to provide an income and energy; in this sense an income of knowledge, paid back to the community, which might help them move on, which might help them regenerate. In this sense energy to fuel that change, to galvanise something more.

Post by Andrew McMillan

Andrew McMillan Comment