Like most writers, I’ve turned my hand to poetry on occasion. With mixed results it must be said. I seem to have a small talent for very short poems, and have an (unpublished) book of haiku lying around somewhere on a CD labelled “backups – writing”. However, apart from a couple of half-decent political poems, as soon as I try to go beyond a few lines, I find one of two things happen. Either it turns into sub-Byronic cliché-ridden quasi-Romantic sludge, or it turns into a bad pop song. Often both at once.
I’m not bad at limericks, but that’s “humourous verse” not really poetry. No, for me, haiku are where it’s at. So it is thanks to the Japanese – and Basho in particular – that I can, with a degree of honesty, call myself a poet.
This – my first ever serious haiku – was written as a thankyou to Basho, whose poetry is one of those things you encounter in life that makes you think… “well, no matter what else happens… being on this planet was worth it for this”.
My heart yearns to glimpse
within springtime’s first blossom
the meaning of life
Another poet who helps make this world a more worthwhile place to spend a lifetime is my dear friend Mahalia. I don’t regularly attend modern poetry slams, but have been to a few over the years (which, I suspect, is “a few” more than most people, sadly). And I don’t read much modern poetry, but the fact that I read any at all probably puts me in a tiny minority (the title of my book of haiku is “Echo of a Falling Petal”… a reference to a quotation from Don Marquis; “Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”)
All of which is to say that I’m probably as well placed as most people to have an opinion on the finest poet of our generation. And in my opinion, it’s Mahalia. His three volumes; Doubting, Surrender and Love are all the best book of poetry you’ll ever buy.
However, it’s not always enough to merely read a poem, though in practice it is as close as most of us can get to poetry these days. When poetry first began it was an entirely oral tradition. Writing them down came later. And I feel that one of the reasons we lost our cultural appreciation of poetry is because we’re not listening to it any more. Well, that’s not entirely true… our better singer/songwriters can sometimes trick millions into listening to a poem through the ruse of declaiming it over a catchy tune. The reverse of David Byrne’s maxim that “the words are just there to trick people into hearing the music”.
But that’s not quite enough. We’ve probably had songs for as long as we’ve had poems. The two have always been separate despite their similarities, and when you hear a great poem being read or recited then you know why… you want nothing distracting you from the words. George Orwell’s wonderful essay, Poetry and the Microphone, goes into this in much more detail, and should be read.
However, before you do that, I’d like you to download and listen to Mahalia’s reading of Even Your Rapture Is Waiting. Don’t do it if you’re in a noisy or distracting environment. Save it until you can give it your full concentration. It’s from Surrender, and requires neither preamble nor explanatory notes from me. [mp3 | 2.5MB].