I’ve been thinking a lot about recycling lately. Not so much of the plastic or cans variety, but of a more metaphorical kind. What goes around comes around and what goes in comes out and those same clichés are true in poetry – for me at least – despite the wisdom that it is best to avoid cliché in poetry. Clichés are things that have been said too many times and so become meaningless – a thing to avoid certainly. But recycling in poetry can bring new meaning to the pre-loved.
I often think of my method of writing poetry as a kind of compost heap of words, ideas, symbols, stories. I read, I converse, I watch, I listen, and all these inputs are funnelled into my brain, where they swim around, mix themselves up, settle, rot down a bit, and then some of these inputs emerge as outputs, sometimes in unexpected ways, generally transformed, in a poem. We live, we experience, we consume, we steal, and then we make art from it – though sometimes it feels to me as if it is my subconscious that does the actual work.
A poem that is recently ‘finished’, but with which I am still tinkering (never finished, only abandoned etc – I have been known to keep editing poems even after they are published), is an example of recycling, but of a more deliberate kind than the recycling in the great compost bin of the mind. ‘How to live’ was made up of bits of poems that I had written some time ago, and which had something I wanted in them, but which, in their original form, were not that successful. I mixed them up with new pieces of writing and quotations from various thinkers, many of which I found from going through my journals and recycling what I found in there. I cut and shaped and moved things around until the recycling became upcycling – the poem as a newly re-covered 1970s couch perhaps? Or, in this case, a mosaic made out of pieces of broken crockery might be a more apt metaphor.
Another kind of poetic recycling that is dear to my heart is recycling/reusing/retelling old stories, but with a new perspective, a new vision, a new meaning. Poets aren’t the only people who do this of course – novelist Jeanette Winterson has said, in her introduction to Weight, a retelling of the myth of Atlas, ‘My work is full of Cover Versions. I like to take stories we think we know and record them differently.’ At the moment I’m reading Falling Awake, a new collection by English poet Alice Oswald. There are several poems in this collection that recycle pre-existing stories, especially mythological ones, as you might expect from a classicist. Her work that I love the most is her brilliant and moving book-length poem Memorial, which recycles the ancient text of The Illiad. She cuts out the story, and rather focuses on introducing us to each warrior, a few little details of what was known about who he was – just enough to make us see him as a person – and then describes his death in visceral, tragic and sometimes almost beautiful ways. Each death is personal. Each death is a heartbreak. Without really modernising it all, manages to make it so fresh, so immediate, so new, so relevant.
©Helen Rickerby 2017
Helen Rickerby is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Cinema (Mākaro Press 2014), and is on the home stretch with her next collection, How to Live. She runs boutique publishing company Seraph Press and was co-managing editor of JAAM literary journal from 2005 to 2015. She is particularly interested in genre-crossing poetry, and with Anna Jackson and Angelina Sbroma, is organising a conference about poetry and the essay in December 2017.