I picked up my copy of Robert Frost’s poems a few nights ago, to re-read Fire and Ice. It’s a short poem that I first heard read by Jonathan Price during a TV drama. It was years later that I realised it was Frost’s writing. One Frost leads to another (unlike, for me, Ted Hughes, whose poems have never led me on to read another!). I ended up not only reading a dozen out loud, in a voice as near as I can get to Frost’s, but marking them in the book. Laid out chronologically as published in my Vintage, 2001 paperback, I was interested to see which phase of his life drew the most hits from my dozen. As I suspected, it was the earlier years that got most of my likes.

This, of course, tells you more about me than it does about Frost, but then, reading is more about the reader than about the writer. That thought drove me on to consider the question I might be asked, which is if I thought those dozen were his ‘best’ poems.

The idea of ‘best’ poems – or short stories, or novels or plays – has at its heart an absurdity, for it obscures the more useful addition of ‘from your point of view.’ There can be surely no objective best – though I’d be reluctant to argue the seemingly logical extension that there could be no ‘better’ nor ‘worse’ either. What we should say is there are poems we like most, and perhaps have our reasons ready. ‘Bests’ and ‘betters’ though, give a spurious factuality to what can only be a subjective opinion – if that’s not a tautology – with reasons, possibly in writing, and that idea of factuality endows us with our spurious authorities and elevates one person’s likings above another’s.

Fellow writer Kurt Tidmore recently sent me a link to an Atlantic Review article about poetry. Masquerading as a review of a book, it examined the reasons why, writers and readers alike ‘we don’t like poetry.’ It seemed to me to say very little in a lot of words, but the little it did say struck home. My response was to coin the phrase ‘creative potty training’ for the type of poetry (and perhaps other writing) that we see published these days. Kurt hit back with ‘masturbatory narcissism.’ Both of us, I think, are agreed that much modern poetry has nothing to do with any reader, but only with the writer.

A retort of mine, too frequently used perhaps, when confronted with the ‘I write every day’ assertions of poets who have just read out – from their latest collection – something unreadable, has been to observe that I fart every day, but don’t bottle it for sale.

Behind all that narcissism though, stands a desire to communicate, to share, not merely with the mirror, but with ‘the other’. Stephen King, in On Writing  cites the ‘ideal reader,’ who is not necessarily, I suspect, the person most likely to understand or respond to what we have written, but the one we would most like to be!

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