Those of us attending Malika’s Poetry Kitchen last night were fortunate to have a bit of masterclass from Kei Miller.

As well wearing the best luminescent snakeskin books you have ever seen, he deftly articulated some of the ways in which poetry can start to provide new ways of seeing. My scribbled notes follow:

  1. The job of poetry is to show that the world is insufficiently defined, and then to open up new definitions. If you think that the world is one that is ‘stuck between truths’, then your new definitions must reveal a truth, yes — but also surprise while doing so.
  2. These new definitions should dislocate, thanks to their surprise — but also be ‘located’, familiar.
  3. You can think of the process of ‘defining’, labelling things as concentric circles. You start by finding new definitions; you then move on to trying to define the self, before opening up to the world of objects, and then lastly, abstract ideas.
  4. Your ‘definitions’ don’t have to be objective: they can draw on feelings, mythologies, your own stories… subjectivity is something to be embraced here.
  5. Good poems establish some form of ‘ground’ — then leap to somewhere new; this movement will make sense to the reader, if you trust them.
  6. Speaking of which: often you will hit upon a riff, and you want to use it lots, quickly. Don’t. Be patient — trust that the reader will remember it when you bring it back in.
  7. At some level you are striving to do what VS Naipaul described as ‘conveying complex ideas in simple words’.
  8. Beware things — images, descriptions — that mesh, clasp together perfectly. These are unmemorable. You need to leave gaps. The imperfections are where a reader does their work.
  9. Verbs are what make a poem; never the adjectives.
  10. Do not be afraid to travel away from the poem; you can interrupt one narrative with another, come back to the original and ultimately arrive somewhere you didn’t expect.

The most resonant poem he shared with us to illuminate some of those themes was Les Murray’s ‘The Quality of Sprawl’, which if you’re not familiar with it is a wondrous thing, not least in its attempt to define the abstract within that word ‘sprawl’.

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