Workshop, 2nd October 2018

Many years ago, in an episode I would rather forget, I found myself in a dark, oak-panelled room in a country retreat seated in a wing-backed leather armchair drinking port with a cadre of disreputable poets.  The poet sitting next to me, a man whose name I can only recall in the midst of my most terrifying nightmares, leaned over me to wrest the decanter from my hand, and with a glow in his eye which might have come from the pit of Hades itself forcibly stated that ‘every poet should have a manifesto’.  ‘You should burn to write, friend.  You should be writing now’ he continued, his hand getting ever closer to the Taylor’s Incredibly Late But Undoubtedly Fine If Somewhat Old Bottled Pre-Vintage which I had supplied to the gathering case by eye-wateringly exorbitant case.  Perhaps he was trying to help. I suspect he merely wanted to top up his glass, but as you can appreciate, such an experience runs deep and no matter how much I invest in counselling, it never leaves me.

What did this Ancient Wordsmith mean?  Why should poetry be bound by a defined set of rules or even aspirations?  How many poets actually have a manifesto?  Have any of them bothered to write theirs down, or is it enough to leave it up in the head with the boxes of song lyrics, family snapshots and old magazine articles?  Why did this poet have such a terrifying glow in his eye?  Why can I not recall his name?  Did I dream the whole thing?  Perhaps as a way of finally exorcising the ghost of this dread encounter, I determined to spend a little time looking at the concept of the manifesto, but first I should tell you about this week’s Workshop, since it’s probably why you are here.

Pat Francis gave us the closest thing to a manifesto we have seen for a while with her to-the-point Poets On Song, and on song it was.  Peter Francis gave us a traveller’s tale about not finding Innisfree, which many poets will only find reassuring.  Michael Harris looked back on ten years of poetry with a piece which must count as a retrospective manifesto.  Alan Chambers brought us one from the archive concerning the ear worms of our dreams in a poem more than fifty years old.  New-to-us poet Catherine, who clearly has a manifesto, gave us a closely-argued and heartfelt polemic on Grenfell Tower.  We hope Catherine returns to us as, apart from anything else, the Archivist carelessly omitted to make a note of her last name.  Doig Simmons brought us a characteristically romantic view of a relationship, from his wife’s point of view.  John Hurley has added an amendment to his manifesto to exercise his non-rhyming chops more often – this week with a piece exploring the dreaming of fish.  If Niall Cassidy has a manifesto, it surely includes an obligation to understand the present through reflections on the past, as he recalled collecting shellfish with his Grandfather.  We believe Daphne Gloag has a manifesto, and that poems like this week’s piece on Alpine Plants perfectly reflects her commitment to strive to craft meaning through metaphor.  We know that Owen Gallagher has a manifesto and that humanity’s dislocation from reality is part of it.  This week he was encouraged to bring in a poem from his archive on being elsewhere, which fits perfectly.  Finally, Martin Choules’s manifesto surely includes the invocation that poetry should rhyme, which never holds him back, as this week’s piece on the decline of the Anglo-Saxon given name shows so clearly.

The trouble with considering your own manifesto is that you cannot look at the subject for long before running into Ezra Pound, being a thing the man himself expressly forbade in his Manifesto of the Velocepiste of 1914.  Pound loved nothing better than to jot out a new manifesto on any given subject or for a jobbing poet.  He was known to offer manifestoes at the drop of a hat, for the very reasonable rate of farthing per line or shilling per injunction, laying down the law on everything from use of imagery to who to be beastly to next.  The point is of course that Ezra Pound was a lister.  He loved a list, whether compiling one or reading one out, and his manifestos were in all likelihood thinly-veiled excuses to come up with a really good list, a tradition which is followed to this day whenever two or more men get together in a Public Bar for a pint.  His visits to the Pitshanger Poets Workshop while he was living in London show that he was just as likely to turn up with critical reflection upon the state of the art of prosody as a ‘top ten’ of philosophers, poets, fascist dictators or psychiatrists.  On one occasion Pond arrived with a jacket pocket full of lists and the Workshop was subjected to for the butcher’s boy, items I simply must take to the laundry, gift ideas for Christmas, some ideas for Thomas Stearns, things I cannot abide and the people who do them, before realising that he had left aspects of great poetry composition no self-respecting writer should avoid at home.  Perhaps it was just as well that we never saw him at the manor again.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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