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I’ve been reading a lot of poetry recently about the art of writing and that of poetry itself, which I have found both fascinating and sometimes, if I’m honest, a little uncomfortable (largely when it has come very close to my own character as a writer and poet). So I thought that I’d share some of these poems on And a poem on the side, please. Here’s one by Margaret Atwood, from her 2007 collection, The Door.

The Poets Hang On

The poets hang on.
It’s hard to get rid of them,
though lord knows it’s been tried.
We pass them on the road
standing there with their begging bowls,
an ancient custom.
Nothing in those now
but dried flies and bad pennies.
They stare straight ahead.
Are they dead, or what?
Yet they have the irritating look
of those who know more than we do.

More of what?
What is it they claim to know?
Spit it out, we hiss at them.
Say it plain!
If you try for a simple answer,
that’s when they pretend to be crazy,
or else drunk, or else poor.
They put those costumes on
some time ago,
those black sweaters, those tatters;
now they can’t get them off.
And they’re having trouble with their teeth.
That’s one of their burdens.
They could use some dental work.

They’re having trouble with their wings, as well.
We’re not getting much from them
in the flight department these days.
No more soaring, no radiance,
no skylarking.
What the hell are they paid for?
(Suppose they are paid.)
They can’t get off the ground,
them and their muddy feathers.
If they fly, it’s downwards,
into the damp grey earth.

Go away, we say —
and take your boring sadness.
You’re not wanted here.
You’ve forgotten how to tell us
how sublime we are.
How love is the answer:
we always liked that one.
You’ve forgotten how to kiss up.
You’re not wise any more.
You’ve lost your splendour.

But the poets hang on.
They’re nothing if not tenacious.
They can’t sing, they can’t fly.
They only hop and croak
and bash themselves against the air
as if in cages,
and tell the odd tired joke.
When asked about it, they say
they speak what they must.
Cripes, they’re pretentious.

They know something, though.
They do know something.
Something they’re whispering,
something we can’t quite hear.
Is it about sex?
Is it about dust?
Is it about fear? 

Copyright 2007 Margaret Atwood

Although I love the ending of this poem, the lines in the poem that got me thinking the most were these:

‘They’re having trouble with their wings, as well.
We’re not getting much from them
in the flight department these days.
No more soaring, no radiance,
no skylarking.’

I think she’s got a point. Maybe it’s time I wrote a skylarking poem. And maybe you should too.

Here’s another by Atwood, from the same collection:

The Singer of Owls

The singer of owls wandered off into the darkness.
Once more he had not won a prize.
It was like that at school.
He preferred dim corners, camouflaged himself
with the hair and ears of the others,
and thought about long vowels, and hunger,
and the bitterness of deep snow.
Such moods do not attract glitter.

What is it about me? he asked the shadows.
By this time they were shadows of trees.
Why have I wasted my lifeline?
I opened myself to your silences.
I allowed ruthlessness
and feathers to possess me.
I swallowed mice.
Now, when I am at the end, and emptied
of words, and breathless,
you didn’t help me.

Wait, said the owl soundlessly.
Among us there are no prices.
You sang out of necessity,
as I do. You sang for me,
and my thicket, my moon, my lake.
Our song is a night song.
Few are awake.

Copyright 2007 Margaret Atwood

Love this one.

There’s not enough space here to add an extra poem, but if you want to read another like these, I’d recommend Poetry Reading, also in Atwood’s collection The Door. 

Have you written any poems about poetry or poets? Or perhaps you have a favourite poem that expresses the art of writing or the life of a writer. If so, please do add a comment below – I’d love to hear other people’s suggestions and recommendations.

Finally, I couldn’t finish off this post without my favourite quote from Margaret Atwood:

”Everyone thinks writers must know more about the inside of the human head, but that is wrong. They know less, that’s why they write. Trying to find out what everyone else takes for granted.”

5 thoughts on “On poetry and poets

  1. Good write-up. I simply stumbled upon your web site and desired to point out that I’ve got actually treasured exploring your own website discussions. In any case I am subscribing to the rss feed using this program . wanting you write again very soon!

  2. It’s always struck me that one of the great love poems ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ isn’t really a love poem, but a sonnet about the power of poetry

    • You mean it’s written ‘to poetry’, rather than to a particular person? In which case it alludes to the everlasting quality of poetry (“But thy eternal summer shall not fade”), which is a rather lovely interpretation, I think. 🙂

      • Well, the loved one will always be remembered because of the poem – how true

        But thy eternal summer shall not fade…..

        Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
        When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
        So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
        So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

        So it’s the poem which is immortal and gives immortality to ‘thee’.

      • Thanks for your comments, Martin! You are, perchance (!), correct. In actuality, the loved one cannot live forever, yet the fact that the poem exists grants them immortality – a rather unique lover’s gift! It also, of course, grants the poet some kind of immortality themselves, albeit in an indirect way.

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