Down with Poetry!

October 18, 2016


The proper kind of poetry
has resonance – it’s heavy.

Her verse is light, the critics said
she writes it on the bevvy.

This is part of Helena Nelson’s ‘Self-portrait as an Unsuitable Poem’, in her new collection Down With Poetry, which the postman brought to my door the other day, to my huge delight.
The book brings together her previous ‘unsuitable’ collections, and adds more to them. The term ‘unsuitable’ is inspired by a magazine’s rejection note many years ago: ‘Many thanks for the poems. These aren’t quite suitable…’ Helena has a keen ear for the intricacies of language, and realised that the editor wasn’t saying the poems were no good – just that they were ‘unsuitable’ – they didn’t fit the standard category of poems that get published. Maybe because they don’t make a show of taking themselves too seriously.
Helena’s ‘Unsuitables’ are sometimes rude about poetry and poets:

Poetry bores me.
I think I will become a poet
so I can bore people.

Sometimes they are rude about particular types of poet:

The title was Copacetic.
‘To K.S.’ below it.
Four hundred lines and three made sense.
He was a poet’s poet.

Sometimes they are just plain rude:

I frequently pee in the shower.
More often I pee in the bath.
Outside on the ground when there’s no-one around
I pee and I pee and I laugh.

Helena (No, I’m going to stop calling her Helena – she’s Nell) is well-known, of course, as the eminence behind Happenstance Press, which has produced some of the most lively and readable pamphlets of the past decade.  Editing poets has made her hyper-alert to the clichés of today’s poetry and criticism. There are comments here on such critical notions a ‘voice’:

Rumpkins is a new voice in poetry.
She tweets sweetly.

If these poems are ‘unsuitable’, what are ‘suitable poems’? All is explained when ‘The Contemporary Poem Explains Itself’:

I’m not allowed adjectives and adverbs.
Exclamation marks are out too, which is sad.
I have any amount of verbs, I adore verbs.
My tone is casual, but that’s just a front.
I do my thing mainly in the present tense…

and so on.

Nell’s other collections are more serious than this, but they share the same readability and the same lack of pretension.
It was very nice, by the way, to see this book mentioned approvingly by J.C. on the back page of the Times Literary Supplement. J.C. very rarely mentions any modern poetry that is not highly ‘suitable’ and probably obscure. He picked up on the poem ‘The Inaugural Not On The Short List Prize’, which first appeared in September’s Snakeskin:


Nell’s whole collection is a lot of fun – but it’s more than that. I’d recommend any aspiring poet to read it, and to think about what it’s saying. This is a book whose sage wit could help you to see how to write poems that might not be suitable but, much more important, might stand a chance of being good.

One Response to “Down with Poetry!”

  1. Nell Nelson Says:

    Thank you, George — you are very kind, as well as being an unsuitable poet after my own heart. Nell 😉

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