SAILOR’S HOME – A preface

How long ago is it since poetry became public property? Today, poets write with the idea of publishing in our minds, and poetry books are published with the idea of sales in the publisher’s minds (however few!). Even poetry events seem to be organised according to the numbers of tickets that can be sold. The public has become an invisible hand, playing with and controlling the standards of the poetry world, and as such has transformed it into just as dull a field as any other directly commercial endeavour.

This is not the same thing as saying poets have no duty to communicate: we don’t want simply to deny a role to the public, but to state a preference for the way people have chosen to interact with poets in every ancient culture for thousands of years — by listening and reading. By leaving the poets alone with the act of creation, to follow our individual, often quite mad, compositional routes.

The power of the public is equal to the power of posterity: it decides which poems, which poets, will survive and continue to be read. But before this selection has been made, as poems are being created, no exterior body should pronounce on poetry, and no one should presume to pronounce on its behalf. No one genuinely knows what ‘the public’ is, or what it ‘wants’, and creativity is not an act of second guessing. All a poet can do is to listen to that voice sounding in their inner depths — not even determining whether this is heart, soul or mind, not even defining what these units might be — and then compel language to follow that voice through an intense engagement with craft. We believe the poetry arising from this individual act is more beautiful than any expensive book and more noble than any would-be bestseller.

Since antiquity poets have enaged in dialogue with other poets. When the great Tang Dynasty poets Du Fu and Li Bai met, they did not write for the public, they didn’t even know if someone would collect and publish their works after their deaths. They simply wrote to each other, in order to deepen and enjoy the friendship they felt; to give each other solace in difficult, often cruel times. Also (and this is no secret for any poet!) to meet the challenge of responding to an equal talent. The type of composition explored in such exchanges has to be a private act pursued with professional fervour. This unique combination allowed their poetry to reach such a high standard that posterity has acknowledged them: we continue to read them today. We are their public.

Sailor’s Home is a private poetry festival being held in London from the 21-23 October, 2005. It is also the title of a body of poems written by six poet-friends in their different languages. We are: Bill Herbert who writes in English (and Scots); Arjen Duinker who writes in Dutch; Uwe Kolbe in German, Peter Laugesan in Danish, Karine Martel in French, and Yang Lian in Chinese.

The poems in this book do not ‘respond’ to each other in a narrow sense: each poet has explored his or her own understanding of the title ‘Sailor’s Home’, and arrranged their individual forms accordingly. So here there are at least six boats setting sail on different waterways, rivers, lakes – and all seven seas. But who is to say sailors don’t catch sight of each other in the distance? The ocean of language beneath our keels forms a deep link between us: by touching its waves, we share the joys and dangers of navigation. We all leave harbour constantly, seeking a new home in each new poem.

As well as the poems in both originals and translations into English, this book contains details of the festival’s conception and programmes. It is the document of this unique event. We have tried to bring to the festival the finest thing we could create in each language, in order to exchange it with others in the readings and discussions. The idea of a truly international exchange is not just an empty phrase: it is based on the specific value of these local voices. Six distinctive writers have collaborated to develop our understanding of both human society and of poetry. Crossing time and space like all sea travellers, they show how poetry can carry the freight of that individual inner voice – privately and professionally.

Yang Lian (and W.N. Herbert)
August, 2005