Poetry is a difficult business. The average man in the street can be a little sniffy about it, in that a common perception is that poetry is an elitist read, it’s for dramatic people. This makes poetry generally a non-commercial proposition compared to the novel. You’d be surprised how many people secretly write poetry though, partly I suspect because there’s the misconceived idea that it can require less sustained concentration by the writer than prose. The combination of these two factors, that there’s no money in it but a lot of people churn it out [1], means quite often that the presses which do publish it have a certain amount of attitude [2] because (a) they’re hardly breaking even and (b) they’re deluged with submissions.

I can sympathise with the view that modern poetry can be difficult to understand, and therefore not an enjoyable read. Quite often it’s overly abstract and ethereal for its own sake and this, quite rightly in my view, puts people off.  Surely writing, in whatever form, shouldn’t be a demonstration of being clever, and poetry shouldn’t be pushed towards being some type of “puzzle” – the aim must surely be communication. The pursuit of being abstract quite often comes across as being jaw-droppingly twee and cutesy, so that for the reader it’s like wading through a river of strawberry clotted cream in a pair of flip-flops. The average man in the street is likely to be more concerned about less abstract things such as getting his car started in the morning and keeping his job and therefore sympathy is lost due to the poet’s otherworldly posturing. So whilst I appreciate reading and writing poetry, you should know this is my starting position before setting out to review volume 1 of “Inspiration Speaks”, a collaborative compilation of writers and artists published by WinterGoose.

“Inspiration Speaks” was put together by ArtPlatform, whose aim is “to make contemporary art available to everyone, while supporting charities”. The charity itself seems to have some good ideas about who to support as there’s some information about one of its recipients, colalife, who have designed a drinks crate to piggy-back off the principle that bottled cola always gets through to the most remote communities so the unused space in the crate can be filled with medicine for disadvantaged communities. It seems like a good cause.

The book itself is a collaborative compilation of writers and artists, that’s to say there’s poetry and artwork/photography. Sometimes the poetry has been “inspired” by the visuals so that poets and artists are paired together. This means the book is not necessarily one you would read in a linear sense but are more likely to dip into randomly as the mood takes you. One criticism could be that the sections about the poets/artists/photographers are after their work instead of before it, so you have to flip backwards if someone’s biography sparks your interest but I suppose the idea should be that you read their work first and then find out about them as people only afterwards.

The poem “And” by Aleatha Hutchison is particularly noteworthy in its description of a dramatic relationship of “you’s and me’s/and mountaintops of how’s and why’s”. Whilst some say that poetry shouldn’t focus on the personal because it’s harder to say something original [3] I still tend to prefer poems that have a human element, as surely it’s easier to relate to something written about something we all know well rather than a topical subject of the day, which in ten years will probably mean nothing to anyone. Similarly I appreciate “Empty Road” by Jaymes Ian Woode which deals with the idea of selfless love – “If you decide to go with him, accepting/his gesture and tightly griping his hand in/yours, and the both of you, together, disappear/into the sunset, I will understand”. It’s also a calligraph in that it’s shaped as the outline of a woman, possibly the object of the poet’s attention.

I’m probably quite a difficult, temperamental reader in that a word can turn me off a poem even if the rest is good or even excellent. And I literally do mean I can take exception to just one word. It seems quite reactive and unfair to be so over-sensitive to language but don’t we choose our friends not only by their actions but also by what they say and how they say it? I really like the poem “Vicissitude” by Julie Laing – she starts off this poem by telling us “impatience thickens my thoughts./Just yesterday they were clear/soothing like tropical waters/enticing in their salty warmth”. This is fabulously evocative but as a personal response I switch-off when we’re later told that “needlefish tickled my ankles”. Maybe it’s just because I’m a boy but unfortunately the word “tickled” does not float my boat. At the very least I’m being picky because otherwise it’s a very good poem and one of her other poems in this book, “3am”, demonstrates Laing’s success as a poet.

It seems to me that the important difference between poetry and prose is that poetry should be verbally economical because there is naturally more spatial freedom when writing prose. When poetry is too ornamental it rarely communicates powerfully as the reader is usually expecting an abbreviated burst of intensity – because it’s a poem. A mark of good writing must be the avoidance of cliché (unless it’s being used for effect), and therefore the use of original or startling imagery, such as that contained in Luke Prater’s poem “Platitudes: “To drink her bathwater;/kneel at the altar of her temples./To feel the mouth inside my mouth water”. Don’t try this at home kids.

I particularly like the photo in this book by Paul Cooklin titled “Rain, Havana”, a black and white glossy image of a gritty puddle. Otherwise there’s some interesting artwork from various different artists around the world. Sometimes it’s difficult to immediately see the link between the poem and the associated graphic but each person’s inspiration can be quite personal to them.

“Inspiration Speaks” is a worthwhile publication to spend some time with – each time I’ve sat down with it I find something new to read, look at or think about. And it’s for a worthy cause so you are hopefully giving as you take enjoyment from it. In times like these, that seems like quite a good bet to me.


[1] “Churn” as in a lot of writers tend to put all their neurosis down in poetry, and as a result the average man in the street would probably categorise a poet as a “neurotic”.
[2] Attitude as in unnecessarily aggressive and emotive feedback.
[3] I can understand it must be tiresome for editors to always have to wade through poems about personal problems, and have to deal with neurotics, but don’t problems, and how we deal with them, define what is to be human?