Jack Underwood, UK graduate of the Faber New Poets program, Eric Gregory Award winner, doctoral student of Creative Writing and lecturer in English Literature at Goldsmiths College, has recently been tweeting his 20 poetry tenets, which the website of IdeasTap, “an arts charity for young, creative people at the start of their careers,” has gathered together and put up online. (IdeasTap, incidentally, is sponsored by businessman and philanthropist Peter De Haan.) “Young poets, take note,” says the Ideas Tap preamble. “These may well make you a better writer…”

I’ve pasted them at the bottom of this article so that you can be the judge. Obviously Underwood didn’t put equal weight on all of them. Never judge a man by his tweets. So let’s see where he speaks more fully and seriously about poetry.

In an interview with poet and spoken word artist Raymond Antrobus, he says: “Poetry (by which I mean good poetry) is largely a means of interrogation, of asking questions about difficult subjects, intersections, phenomena, so-called ‘Truths’. It also does so in a way that announces the provisionality and subjectivity of any possible answers to such questions, which in turn invites the question of whether such questions can be ‘answered’ at all, and this is essentially the rhetorical shape of most philosophy: we understand this thing according to these terms, and these terms in relation to this thing, and we will rejuvenate and reinvent the terms until the thing is seen from another perspective and the terms broaden and refine or die. That’s what poems do, and it’s what knowledge is.”

Do they? Or rather, why do they (or particularly, good they) do this rather more or better than any other form of words? Underwood doesn’t elaborate, but he does diss on the intrinsic value of words themselves elsewhere. “No word is poetic. Only ideas are poetic,” he declares, which rather dumps on Stéphane Mallarmé‘s dictum that “poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words.” It also might or might not be of a piece with his declared hostility to craft. “There’s only a bit of ‘craft’ in ‘art’,” he announces, and elsewhere:

“lf ever I feel that I’ve ‘deployed’ something too consciously I screw up my face and go and read Lorca: wash that sense of ‘craft’ and ‘device’ out of my system. Craft is for nerds and repressed perverts. It’s the dullest kind of fetishism. Craft is to poetry what driving-gloves are to a road-trip.”

To me, that sounds like the kind of self-mythology or image of straight-from-the-shoulder spontaneity that Francis Bacon liked to project, only to meticulously work up his compositions in secret. If you’re spending time on a piece of art, what are you doing but crafting it? Lorca described his ballad-style poems as a “carved altar piece”. Sounds pretty crafted to me. I’d also ask, what’s wrong with nerdishness or perversion? They didn’t do Bill Gates or Georges Bataille any harm.

Anyway, here’s the tweets. Will they make you a better writer? Take two tenets and call me in the morning.

  1. No word is poetic. Only ideas are poetic.
  2. Poems should not recount events but be events.
  3. In poems, don’t talk like more of a knob than usual.
  4. A poem is a question and not an answer.
  5. If a poem wanted you to know exactly what it was about, it would be a boiled egg.
  6. A poem is the shoe you saw as a child, by the side of a road, and you asked yourself about.
  7. Good poems are like the thoughts of awful tennis players between points.
  8. Description refers to something in terms of what it is whereas poems refer to things in terms of what they are not.
  9. Never put out a burning poem with a wet person.
  10. Plath: “I have never put a toothbrush in a poem”. “My next poem is called The Tootbrush,” says the next poet.
  11. All sighs are poetic because they shift the feeling without altering the context.
  12. The more something tries to convince you, the less convincing it sounds.
  13. A figure of speech is a public figure, and therefore should not be trusted.
  14. Form is a kind of visual grammar, not a job description.
  15. A poem is getting into a too hot bath without any water in.
  16. There’s only a bit of “craft” in “art”.
  17. “Hello” said the poet. “You don’t live here anymore,” said the poem. “But you can look round”.
  18. When you’ve finished writing a good poem, it should feel like you’ve just borrowed a close friend’s saxophone.
  19. Language isn’t fixed so you don’t necessarily have to break it.
  20. You will find less than five really good poems




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