At some stage in their careers most serious poets attend writing workshops. These events differ widely. Some are closed shops; at others cost is a filter. Some, in pubs, are run by practitioners whose advice is second to none, but are open to anyone who stumbles in with a variation on Roses are Red and a pint of Lowloader.
At some you write to generate ideas. A favourite exercise is to imagine looking through a window: a different standpoint, if only by millimetres, alters one’s world view. (Who hasn’t lived alongside neighbours from another planet?) Other exercises push you out of yourself via an imaginative leap into a picture, a box, a word you didn’t choose, another voice. Drafts cranked out in workshops may not be as good as the tutor suggests but are likely to have that shift in perspective making them two-dimensional. With honing and six weeks in a drawer, an inspired title may add a third.
And no, the verdict of a roomful of hot egos – half trying to impress the leader, score points and sell books, half trying to hide under the table – is not infallible. Sometimes a ouija-board effect sets in and the consensus drifts towards an opinion no one actually held in the first place. But all exposure strengthens a poem, and those that have been ‘workshopped’, if its suggestions are fully considered, typically have fewer technical flaws and an expansiveness which admits unknown readers.
Readers? Strangers who may not know your accent or share your passions. People who vote differently, or don’t vote. People who, far from loving your rant, may see you as a crank and feel personally harangued. People who do not know a sestina from a Cortina or a Cornetto – but also professors, fond of all three. Millennials, who may value nothing on paper, from books to cards to money, but who still value the currency of words. Memorable poems – portable even into a dark room – can open windows to and for all these.
Clive James’s ‘Windows is shutting down’ takes us from there in 16 lines through a linguistic window onto human evolution. The casement in Wuthering Heights opens onto a dark and violent past. In prisons, the walls and floor speak of other times. The poet’s job is to think us through them. ‘Over the cage floor’ says Hughes, throwing us in there with the jaguar, ‘the horizons come.’