In the first post of my residency, I consider the potential of poetry to highlight the significance of what might otherwise be overlooked, and I ask for your contributions to help me build a poem in praise of small good things.
Maia Brown began her residency by eloquently pondering the question ‘What is the point of poetry?’ Personally, I wouldn’t be able to give a single definite answer to that question. But I think that a point of poetry – not necessarily the point, but one of them – might be to assert that whatever the poem is about matters. I suppose any kind of writing makes this assertion to a certain degree; people wouldn’t write novels or plays if they didn’t believe that the story mattered.
When you put something in a poem, it can be an implicit declaration that that thing is important enough to be in a poem.
Nonetheless, I think poetry makes this assertion in a uniquely powerful way, because of the way a poem tries to distil a moment or an idea or a feeling into a relatively small space, and the way the poet tries to shape language and form together to fit the needs of the poem.
In a good poem, every word counts. And so, when you put something in a poem, it can be an implicit declaration that that thing is important enough to be in a poem. Why else would the poet spend so long deliberating over imagery, punctuation, line breaks and so on in order to express it? I think this is part of the reason why writing poetry can feel both empowering and vulnerable; it is both powerful and exposing to implicitly declare that what you have experienced or thought matters.
Poetry as a Display Case
This idea makes me think about the power of putting something on display in an art gallery. I’m not going to ponder the nature or value of modern art here (mostly because I am not knowledgeable enough to do so), but I find it interesting how when something is put on display as a piece of art, people often look at it very differently than they would if they encountered the same item in a different context.
They look at the item more closely. They search for meaning. They are more open to the idea that it is important. You could argue this is out of pretention or snobbery – and sometimes it is – but I would suggest it’s often simply because attention has been drawn to the item in a particular way. When people see something in a gallery, they think the item must have significance. And perhaps it does. Or perhaps, to a certain degree, anything can have significance in the right light.
Poetry can draw attention to something in order to encourage people to see its significance.
In a somewhat similar way, I think poetry can draw attention to something in order to encourage people to see its significance. Writing a poem can be a way of putting a feeling, experience or concept in a metaphorical display case; it can be a way of saying to the reader, “Look at this. Look at it more closely than you otherwise would. It matters.” Perhaps we can think of the white space around a poem as this metaphorical display case – it highlights the contents and suggests that they are worth being given that space. (I don’t want to imply that this is all about the white space however, since prose poems can highlight their contents in the same way.)
Good poems tend to invite re-reading. They reward close attention being paid to them, as this close attention may reveal new meanings, connections, resonances or interpretations. In this sense, they take up space in a way that goes beyond the literal space on the page. They further assert the significance of their subject matter by suggesting that it is worth pondering over time.
Of course, this isn’t always an act of praise or celebration. An angry, sad, or ambivalent poem is still a way of drawing attention to something. The topic of a poem can be significant in its awfulness, just as much as in its value. Asserting that something is significant in a negative way can be a powerful function of a poem. But sometimes, drawing attention to something in a poem can be a recognition of something positive and that’s what I’m going to focus on in this residency.
Small Good Things
For just over a year now, in an effort to give myself a more positive outlook, I’ve been trying to write down three good things from my day via an app on my phone each evening. (I’m aware that people talking about these kinds of positivity practices can sometimes come across as bragging or evangelising – I’m not trying to do either. This is just something I personally have been doing for a little while, and I like doing it.)
When good and/or exciting things happen to me, this habit encourages me to record and acknowledge them; sometimes I’ll recount each good thing as a long paragraph. But on uninteresting or bad days, this practice becomes both more difficult and more interesting. On those days, the items in my lists are shorter and more mundane: my cosy old pyjamas, a meme my friend sent me, a cup of tea, a stranger’s flamingo umbrella, the daffodils outside the library, a song that I have on repeat, a memory that makes me smile.
Making these lists forces me to plumb the depths of the day to seek the good, to call something good even when I am not feeling inclined to praise anything.
On dull or miserable days, making these lists forces me to plumb the depths of the day to seek the good, to call something good even when I am not feeling inclined to praise anything. Like the act of writing a poem, writing these lists feels like a way of highlighting an experience and seeing the significance in it. In the case of the lists, it’s often a way of seeing the good in small, ordinary things.
I’ve often thought I ought to try and use these lists as the jumping off point for a poem, but I’ve yet to do so. Therefore, as part of this residency, I’ve decided to enlist your contributions to help me write a poem about small, good things. The final result will be an amalgamation of things that different people consider to be worth praising in a poem.
Where you come in
Here’s where I have a request for you. I want to hear your good things – in particular, your small ordinary good things. If you’ve achieved any lifelong dreams recently, that’s wonderful, but I want you to think smaller-scale here, like the things I’ve listed above. I want you to tell me about something mundane that you think deserves celebrating. It could be a sensation, object, event, moment, or place…
I’ve made this Google Form for you to share your good things in. It’s an anonymous form, partly because I enjoy that sense of mystery, and partly because I want you to feel the freedom to name your good things without any risk of self-consciousness. You don’t need to try and write about them poetically unless you fancy. You can give as much or as little detail as you want.
I want to put your small, good things in the display case of a poem and say, “Look at this. It matters. It is worth praising.”
If you want to give more detail, you could highlight why you think that thing is worth celebrating. You might also want to consider any sounds, sights, feelings, tastes, or smells associated with your small good thing.
For a forthcoming post in my residency, I’m going to try and weave people’s contributions together with some of my own ideas to make a poem. I want to put your small, good things in the display case of a poem and say, “Look at this. It matters. It is worth praising.”