This will be a weekly feature starting next Tuesday, but it needs a little explanation, and a little preparation, hence this article.
When I was a small boy, there was an unfortunate fashion among the small boys of the UK for headshaving. Most went for a “number 1” or “number 2” (referring to the clippers used), but the especially on-trend instead requested a “number nothing” – the result being that for a year or so the playgrounds of Britain were turned into gleaming fields of tiny baldy-headed old men.
The poet and novelist, Tim Clare, has an excellent feature on his blog called ‘In the Barber’s Chair’. In it he takes the first page of an unpublished novel and rips it to tiny but instructive pieces. If you are at all interested in the writing of fiction, or just want to read some entertaining prose, I heartily recommend it. He has said he has no interest in providing the same service for poets, so I have decided to fill this need.
And it is a need. Poetry is desperately lacking in robust criticism, not only in the area of reviews of published collections and live shows, but at every level. Part of poetry’s image problem, and a contributing factor to its lack of popularity, is the impression given that it is some sort of fragile, unique flowering of “self-expression”. This in turn creates the idea of the poet-savant, some kind of inspired idiot who creates as naturally as they breathe, and that poetry is nothing more than an expression of the poet’s innate genius, rather than the product of hard work, skill, and an awful lot of thought and revision.
All this leads to a preciosity among practitioners – mainly those who read less poetry than they write, admittedly, but unfortunately they are the ones whose work most people are most likely to come across in day to day life, on blogs and Facebook and so on. It turns poetry into an unedifying circlejerk in which the only acceptable responses to a piece of work are, “Ooh, that’s nice, dear,” or to ignore it. Most people choose the latter.
So, from next Tuesday onwards, I will be critiquing an unpublished poem in a manner which I hope will be both educational and entertaining. If fiction writers can take it, then we ought to be able to take it, too. As poetry ought to be more succinct than prose, the haircut given in this barber’s chair ought to be more spartan as well – a number nothing. Please send in your work to the usual address, with the phrase “Number Nothing” in the subject line.
However, some of you may be reluctant to do this without seeing how it works first. So, in the spirit of fair play and so on, I will now, in the fashion of all the worst slams, offer myself up as the “sacrificial poet” of this new venture.
Below is a poem which I wrote when I was 16. What I want you to do is tell me all the reasons why it is shit. Leave your comments below this post. On Tuesday, I will give it the number nothing. Hopefully, by the Tuesday after, some of you will have decided to brave the clippers too.
A Rule: If
by Paul M.
Hung up on achieving. Hung
Up on succeeding. How young
Must you see import in They
And see heroics unsung
as so much as if to say
‘I had no hands and no tongue’
(Eyes? ears? – No matter). Obey
Instead: Failure? U r a
Life. A better maxim: less
work; that sense of guilt when you
Guess wrong. Hey – it’s not your mess
Why should you not get your due
Happiness in sloth? ‘Success’
is not worth that sense of rue
nagging – you are overdue
Always. There is not enough
Space nor time to put this strife
to words. The gods’ play is rough;
you’ve had enough of this tough
Prison-rules life – corrupt; rife
with nothing; meaning-shorn – wife,
husband, kids are nothings: stuffed
Zilch. Failure – U r a life.