With its proximity to some of the processes of politics, what has come to be the traditional form of the poetry workshop is perhaps easily derided. Billy Collins does this (in his book, The Art of Drowning, 1995) and we all recognise both the speaker and the likely recipient of the speech:
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.
And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
As both leader and participant, I’ve suffered and witnessed suffering at the hands of egomaniacs, bullies and tyrants – those who come to workshops with no intention of listening to the proffered advice. What they are after is some exertion of personal power over a captive audience and, up to a point, workshop members are exactly that since the basic democratic premise is that we sit and listen with an open mind – a very open mind.
But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.
Others will know the history better than I do but the poetry workshop seems to have been organised first by Philip Hobsbaum in the 1950s. Hobsbaum was born in London to orthodox Jewish parents who moved north in 1937, sensing the threat of war and fearing the anti-semitic currents of the time. In Bradford, Hobsbaum attended Belle Vue grammar school, then Cambridge, where he studied under F R Leavis at Downing College (“the greatest man I ever met – an amazing teacher”).
He also encountered Thom Gunn, just graduated, who introduced him to the early work of Larkin, and, as editor of the student literary magazine Delta, he printed work by Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove. Most significantly, with these budding poets, he organised regular meetings. Hobsbaum possessed some training as an actor and the original idea (of what was to become ‘The Group’) was to encourage verse-speaking. But these meetings soon turned into exercises of Leavisite close analysis, or Practical Criticism in the style of I A Richards, plus a good deal of mutual support for the growing network of poets.
Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.
The Group style of workshop spread as Hobsbaum himself moved to a variety of jobs from Cambridge, to London, Belfast and Glasgow in turn. Although there was some overlap in personnel with The Movement, the various incarnations of the Group had a more practical focus as there was no imposed programme or style. In Belfast (1962–1966), Hobsbaum organised what became known as The Belfast Group, including emerging authors Seamus Heaney, Edna and Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker and Bernard MacLaverty. Heaney described the process in 1963: “members of the Group listen to a fellow member read a number of his poems which have been previously circulated on cyclostyled sheets. They then discuss the verse very thoroughly, frankly, informally – and the poet is there to counteract, resent, and/or benefit from the criticism”.
Personally, I first experienced the process at Lancaster University in the late 1970s, taking a ‘free ninth’ optional course in Creative Writing as part of a more traditional English degree. The meetings were led in Lonsdale College by David Craig and Heaney’s “previously circulated . . . cyclostyled sheets” have a very familiar ring to them. The format was somewhat different in the 4 years or so I spent attending two workshops in Oxford – copies of individual poems were handed round only on the day and discussion was spontaneous indeed (see my earlier blog ).
The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we’re in this big aerodrome
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that’s nice, the coiling hose,
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.
I currently attend 3 workshop groups. In none of these is work circulated beforehand. In one, the poet reads once only, the other members have photocopies and discussion ensues with the writer sworn to silence (this prevents self-defensive manoeuvres and conflict). In the second group, the same process is followed except that after the reading of the poem aloud by the poet, the members have about 10 minutes to WRITE their thoughts on the poem itself. Discussion then follows (the up-side of this is that all poets go home with annotated copies of their own work; the down side is it’s very hard work and discussion often follows the annotations, a little less fluidly).
There’s something about death going on here.
In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none.
But then there’s that last stanza, my favourite.
The third group plays the game of anonymity. Sufficient copies are put into an envelope, no identifying marks. Each member then picks out a poem (not their own) to read aloud. On first reading the members cannot see the text. Only on second reading can they follow the text on the page. There then follows the discussion. This produces the fascinating experience for the poet of hearing another person read the poem – and the reader’s later comments about how easy or otherwise the poem was to read are always interesting to those of us who think poetry is primarily an oral art.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse [. . . ]
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.
Easy to mock; easy to de-rail from their true purpose, but in creating his workshops (once more following Leavis) Hobsbaum believed a vital part of a student’s course was the rigorous discussion of text. To him, criticism was a fiercely rational, evaluative process, and any other use of language – “political propaganda, newspapers, advertisements, film, conceptual prose of all kinds” – had to be liable to the same level of scrutiny. In Essentials of Literary Criticism (1983), he maintained that “the training of a critic is also the training of a citizen”. This is surely right as the skills and sensitivities of the workshop, the class, the informal discussion of poetry anywhere, anytime, are exercises, in part, to develop the insight, the healthy scepticism, the ability to read and interpret whatever those vying for power, those possessed of power, want to say to us. Alan Brownjohn wrote in Hobsbaum’s obituary: “In a postmodernist, relativist age of education for entrepreneurship, Hobsbaum’s analytical and discriminatory approach might appear to be losing out, though reports of its death are an exaggeration.”
I’m sure Brownjohn is right and – as the UK General Election machine winds itself up ever higher – I’ll quote David Constantine’s important conclusion to his third Newcastle / Bloodaxe lecture in 2003: “We are, when we read poetry, during the reading of the poem and lingeringly for some while after, more wakeful, alert and various in our humanity than in our practical lives we are mostly allowed to be. Achieving that, in vital cooperation with the reader, a poet has done the most he or she is qualified to do. Any further stage, any conversion of this alerted present state into action, into behaviour, is the responsibility of the citizen. And the poet, like the reader, is always a citizen”.