I find poetry more interesting than other kinds of writing…
Professor Alice Entwistle is a literary critic with specialist interests in modern and contemporary poetry. Most of her publications examine the connections between text, form and place. She is a member of the English Research Unit and the Centre for the Study of Media and Culture in Small Nations.
I sometimes write about prose, but I’ve been drawn to poetry since I was at school. I find texts which use the fewest words the most interesting to read. They give me room to think. In fact the best ones don’t let me get away with that; the best ones ask me to think very hard about what I’m thinking about them. Or rather, about the things they seem to say. I always like the ones which make me ask most questions, and don’t answer any. They’re the poems I come back to.
For most of my career I’ve tended to write on contemporary poetry, probably if I’m honest because I like working in a space by myself. The less a writer has been written about, the more likely I am to want to write on them myself. This is partly why my books to date have all focussed on poetry by women. Through the ages women have produced wonderful poems, but they’ve rarely received the attention enjoyed by the chaps. This implies that poetry by women must be slight, boring, or a bit rubbish. What nonsense! Creativity doesn’t work like that. But people still seem to want to assume that it does.
The degree to which sexist assumptions colour expectations and behaviour even today, in ways which range from the very subtle to the thunderingly obvious, never ceases to amaze and annoy me. So I write about women authors partly out of political irritation. I guess I’m contrary-minded: I like proving the sceptics wrong, dismantling the prejudice. In fact one of the great things about what we now call Welsh Writing in English is that poetry by women has really altered the literary landscape here in recent decades. They are producing more poetry, being reviewed more widely, winning more prizes, than ever before. Commentators are having to take notice of that productivity and success. A good example is the very deft bilingual poet Gwyneth Lewis. I am working on a book about her at the moment.
I love the challenges of reading Lewis’ work. She doesn’t rest on her laurels. Each new collection finds her refining a new aspect of her writing, or testing out a new technique. I enjoy the energy of her writing, and the cunning with which she makes use of rhyme and rhythm, without it ever sounding contrived or dated. Words can behave so flexibly and surprisingly in poems. As Lewis proves, a swipe of rhyme here, a line-break there, a change of pulse or a terrific image can completely transform a whole text; make it say something you never saw coming.
Language animated like this, through its form, can make prose, even fiction, seem rather pedestrian and dull by comparison. To be honest I rarely read novels. I’d rather sit down with a couple of poems, see what they prod me into thinking about, and try to work out why and how they do that. I spend too much money on poetry, I’m afraid. My sons would much prefer us to get a new car. Yes, I sometimes call myself a feminist literary critic. But I prefer to think of myself as a gender critic, as a rule. Expectations about gender affect how all kinds of writers are read by all kinds of readers. I’ll never lose interest in that. I enjoy the thought of adding poems by men to the mix at some point. I like wondering where it would lead.