I take heart from writers and commentators such as Michael Schmidt (Professor of Poetry, University of Glasgow). In ‘Lives of the Poets’ (2008), in the chapter on Robert Burns, Schmidt observes:
Periods when rules are being formulated and manacles forged, are fascinating ... Once forged, for a time there is a common language and, one might imagine, a common audience. But poetry, like language itself, is in movement. It begins to stifle, to atrophy; poets with something unconventional to say find they cannot say it directly as they would wish, or go for language or for theme where they would want to go. The ‘little virtues’ are so dominant that the potential of the larger ones is quite forgotten. Some poets, perhaps not the most educated, the most privileged or the best connected, hanker after the freedom that poetry is actually about: ways of concentrating meaning, feeling, perception, and finding new meanings, feelings and modes of perception through language, or recovering those that the tyranny of convention has dulled and discarded. They are in thrall to the ‘big virtues’, and with great effort they shrug off a burden they did not choose and make their own ways.
At the recent LATE James Britton conference (12.3.2016), Jeni Smith led an NWP session in which she rehearsed the vital importance of promoting writing in both spectator and participant roles, of exploring writing together and, rather than being brow-beaten by imposition, of cultivating agency through writing. This project, (NWP UK), builds on Britton’s work and promotes ‘quiet processes and small circles’ where vital and transforming events take place.
For example, a recent writing group exercise (undertaken in the NWP ‘Whodunit’ and ‘Free Spaces’ groups) was to take proverbs or idioms, and twist them – sometimes, by just one word. This is an activity with subversive appeal - and there’s an in-built doubleness about it – the traditional proverb is still clearly audible beneath the new wording. You know the kind of thing – Philip Larkin, for example, re-cast ‘Discretion is the better part of valour’ as ‘Discretion is the better part of Valerie’. So it can be good for young writers to reacquaint themselves with idiom, to its application and flexibility, but not to be falsely reverential of it.
Other writers borrow a proverb’s intent and intensify it: ‘He didn’t dare say boo to a – gosling!’ And there is also satisfaction in puncturing the smugness of some proverbs with bathos: ‘Late to bed and late to rise, makes a man – very late.’
Try it yourself.
A list of proverbs is a good start http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/proverbs.html – or you can give each person a card with two or three proverbs and ask them to add another and then take two minutes to change the wording of any one. Then read round the circle and enjoy. You can not only interrogate ‘frozen traditional wisdom’, but force it out of cliché to speak new truths as well as old ones. It’s also a way of exploring the values encased in cultural nostrums. So it’s good practice for free-thinking at a time of linguistic normalisation.
After this initial ‘loosening of the writing muscles’, writers dispersed to write as each wished. Sometimes the proverbs exercise had percolated into people’s writing, sometimes it hadn’t. There was no compulsion. But the variety and vitality are always delightful when people trust each other - and their own voices.