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Don’t let your peeves be your pets.

February 14, 2011

Everyone has one. Whether it’s bad grammar, bad parenting, nail-biting or girls who take photos of themselves to check their hair (every five minutes, at a gig…I mean come ON), everyone has at least one pet-peeve.  It’s the same when reading poetry, or reading anything. Just one turn of phrase can turn a successful poem into a groan-inducing thing that you put aside with a curled lip. It’s for reasons like this that I deeply admire poets like Paul Muldoon, who can flirt dangerously with cliché and yet still turn out effective and original poems. I have no such skill. When I get near cliché it grabs me and doesn’t let go until I give myself a mental slap in the face and step away from a poem for a few hours. But my point is this: letting our personal tastes interfere with our reading of a poem can be crippling. Sometimes we need to let go of what we consider ‘bad form’ and just let the poem do what it wants to do.

An example is my dogged neurosis over punctuation. In the past, I have cast my eye over a poem, seen not a single comma and discarded it immediately. That is not good behaviour. That is in fact just rude. It may be that zero-punctuation poetry will always remind me of high Modernism and the waste land of The Waste Land, but that doesn’t make it invalid as a form. That just makes me a rubbish poetry reader. And when Alice Oswald can give us lines like these

water deep in its own world

steep shafts warm streams

coal salt cod weed

dispersed outflows and flytipping

without need of punctuation, we can see that such poems drive themselves onwards, out of their own momentum, which commas and semi-colons would only hinder. So I try, with every poem I read, to let go of my nitpickings a little at a time, so I can see what’s good in these poems. This, I think, is essential for anyone who claims to love poetry. Going along with fear of things you’ve been told canonically are ‘wrong’ (like liberal repetition of words) will deprive you of such simple but ingenious images as Heather Christle‘s “My god you were beautiful, / your sword sticking out like a sword.” And that kind of deprivation just won’t do at all.

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