Poetics and Drinking Parties

Colour photograph of a path through November woods in sunlight. The path is thickly covered in brown leaves, but the trees are golden with sunlight and also a fully yellow beech just about to drop its leaves.

I love the word symposium. I don’t know why.

I think it’s because you can hear ‘posy’ in it. And because ‘symp’ starts sympathy and sympathise. And because I think the plural is ‘symposia’, a word I’d quite like to get into a rhyming poem, maybe with a nip or two of ‘ambrosia’.

Obviously it’s a bit of an upmarket, somewhat academic word too. I took part in the Scottish Women’s Poetry Symposium 2016 yesterday at the Scottish Poetry Library, run in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh. It was open, of course, to all genders and to many ideas and provocations. A fabulous event, wonderfully well organised in a building like no other, and free to all.

A symposium, to the Greeks at least, was a party, with stimulating flow of drink, food and ideas. We tend to use it these days to mean something more like a conference, with speakers and panels – a formal event. I’m glad to report the SWPS day combined the best of both, with food and drink that was a feast to the eye as well as the appetite. And a most convivial and welcoming atmosphere.

The word ‘poetics’ was in the air. It is, to me, an academic word, and poets who do degrees in writing use it cheerfully, whereas ordinary folk look a bit worried when the term pops up. (We create both divisions and alliances by our use of language.) But at the Scottish Poetry Library yesterday at no point did you have to feel dim for not grasping an academically technical term (though there were a good few – I have them in my notebook). Of course, it helps if you like language and find it interesting, which most people working with, in or around poetry do.

I was talking briefly on a small panel about my poetics. So I had to think again about what ‘poetics’ meant. It’s one of those plural words that’s really singular. That is to say, there isn’t a noun ‘poetic’. ‘Poetic’ is an adjective. But there is a noun ‘poetics’ and it takes a singular verb. So your poetics is probably different from mine.

I suppose Poetics must have a plural. Because if you and I get together and discuss both of our poetics, two sets of poetics are on the table: two poetics? or two poeticses? (I must not think like this. Red herring alert.)

Poetics usually means either a theory of poetry, of which there are many, or a way of working in poetry, exemplified by practice. So my ‘poetics’ is exemplified by what I do as an editor, publisher and selector of poetry. That is to say, I have preferences and they’re demonstrated publicly in the books I choose to bring out. I promote the work I like and find stimulating. What I like and what I can like turns into my poetics.

We talked about gate-keepers yesterday too, a more accessible term. Publishers, magazine editors and event organisers have something to do with what gets read or heard: they can open or close a gate to publication. My HappenStance gate is quite small. But these days there are many gates. It’s not so very hard to find one that will open, or even to make your own and invite people through it, especially if your gate opens without public funding.

It’s an exciting time for poetry. Confusing, bamboozling and bewildering too. Impossible to keep up with what’s going on amidst the glory of types and forms and outlets for poems. But there’s no need to keep up. Keeping on, is the thing. Keeping on, and making connections, and joyfully exploring the mystery and magic of language. Sharing. Yesterday’s event was very much about that. Both ideas and poems were shared. Some wonderful things were shared: new names, new ways to go, new things to like.

I ended my own party piece yesterday with my favourite definition of poetry, which is Tom Leonard’s, from his poem ‘100 differences between poetry and prose’ which doesn’t contain a hundred differences at all. But this is the one I like – yep, here’s a bit of poetics for you:

‘if you dribble past five defenders, it isn’t called sheer prose’


Colour photograph of a path through November woods in sunlight. The path is thickly covered in brown leaves, but the trees are golden with sunlight and also a fully yellow beech just about to drop its leaves.



2 thoughts on “Poetics and Drinking Parties”

  1. Hello Helena, I love your sweet take on the word symposium? Would you mind if I quoted it in a short article I’m writing?
    Also, has the paper you delivered been published, or, as far as you know, any of the other papers at the posy, ambrosia swigging, sympathetic forum that met that day?

  2. Hi Cora — please quote at will. I don’t know whether any of the posy has been published, but mine hasn’t — some of the others may be suitable for publication at some point — more academic than mine. 😉

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