Maybe. It worked for Sharon Olds, for example, with Stag’s Leap, winner of this year’s T S Eliot prize.
Anyway, Olds thinks themed. “When I see that I have a lot of poems clustering around a subject, I start to put a book together,” she says in the Huffington Post.
But other poets also do well this way, and the theme doesn’t have to be personal. Joanna Boulter’s Twenty Four Preludes & Fugues on Dmitri Shostakovich was shortlisted for the Forward First Collection prize in 2007. Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities (a kind of theme) was the 2002 winner. Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road ( a sequence of poems responding to Hiroshige’s woodcut prints of landscapes and travellers of the Tokaido Road) took the Aldeburgh First Collection prize, and was shortlisted for Forward as well. Of all Ruth Padel’s books, Rembrandt Would Have Loved You is the one I remember best, and that’s because it tells a story. Hannah Lowe’s Chick, released this year (and described as “a journey round her father”) tells another one (I predict thematic focus will assist its success). Anthony Wilson’s Riddance, which I wrote about here not long ago, pinned me to my seat not least because it deals with the progress of his treatment for cancer “from initial diagnosis to the uncertain territory of remission.”
Plenty of contemporary collections work in this way (although more are not themed). Whether it works or not depends on the synergy. For a true humdinger, the whole has to be more than the sum of the individual poems.
Reading a poetry book is an odd thing to do. Unlike chapters in a novel, which propel the reader forward, each poem demands its own island of time and concentration. The reader moves slowly from one intensity of experience to another (or skims from one text to the next deciding where to immerse). Some kind of connection does make it easier. Oh dear. Even in using the word ‘easier’, I felt a momentary sense of guilt. Is wanting it to be easy allowed?
I think sometimes a set of poems is easy, pleasurable reading. And yes, I think that’s okay. If they’re any good, there will be levels of meaning and intensity that creep up quietly and summon the reader back. And occasionally, if there’s a theme, they’ll accumulate to do something as a set that they might not accomplish individually.
Which brings me to a new HappenStance pamphlet. Officially launched next Saturday (her wedding day), Diana Gittins’ Bork! is a sequence of poems connected by . . . chickens. It isn’t a light verse collection, though there’s lightness in it. Diana keeps hens and, as every poulterer knows, their lives have preoccupations, triumphs and tragedies parallel to our own. Diana didn’t set out to write about the hens, but her writing space (a ‘shack’ in the garden) is in their territory. So this sequence represents – not a poet deliberately writing to a theme, so much as a theme that encroached while she was trying to write something else (in one poem, for example, the hens interrupt her reading of Prynne).
In Diana’s first submission to me, well over a year ago, the chicken poems were mingled with others, many of them interesting and worthy, but it was in the Bork! pieces I sensed synergy. So I asked for more.
I love these chicken poems. I wonder whether you’ll agree. Bork! is in the shop now. For the modest outlay of just over a fiver (including postage) you can sample the synergy.