Mar. 24th, 2011

sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
I've been thinking for a while about an email I got last year. I'd judged a poetry competition, the winners of which, with my comments on them, are online here. Soon afterwards, I got an email enquiry from a gentleman who was clearly well-read and highly educated, a retired medical specialist fluent in two languages (English was not his first language, but I don't think that actually made any odds in the context). He was fond of traditional, especially rhymed, poetry but said he had difficulty in understanding contemporary poems, and my comments hadn't helped him. He was hoping I could give him "short conclusions about the context of each poem and the message they wish to send to the public".

This, as I explained, I couldn't do, firstly because having judged them all anonymously I had no idea who had written them, or under what circumstances; nor did the context affect the quality of the poem. As for the message, again that wasn't for me to say, or rather it was for every different reader to decide what they said to him. I tried instead to outline the criteria I had used in judging: which poems seemed to me to be the best constructed, and to use language and the other tools of poetry - rhythm, imagery etc - most effectively to achieve an effect on the reader. But I suspect he'll have found this unhelpful too.

What worries me is that here is an intellectual, erudite person who thinks he needs guidance (from someone no more intelligent than himself and probably rather less highly educated) on how to read contemporary poems, and doesn't trust his own judgment to come to a conclusion even on what they're trying to do, let alone how well they succeed. The poems in question are by no means abstruse either, as you'll see if you read them on the linked site; we're not talking J H Prynne here and we never would be, because I wouldn't have chosen anything I couldn't understand. It looks more like the sort of automatic switch-off my mind performs when faced with mathematical or financial matters, which I simply assume I won't understand. That again would be understandable in a man of science whose mind had no holding place for the imaginative intelligence of poetry, but that's not the case; it is purely contemporary poetry that does this to him. And if that's the reaction of a person who would seem in many ways to be poetry's natural audience, it's hardly surprising most collections sell in dozens.

At a guess, I would wonder if it has to do with there being no obvious rules. I suppose when reading a sonnet, even if you are nervous as a critic, you can count to 14 and figure out if something has gone amiss with the rhyme scheme. In the same way, with a representative painting you can tell if the perspective's wonky or the horse's walk doesn't convince, whereas with a Jackson Pollock you have no such clear means of telling if it's any good or not and will be hesitant to express an opinion. Since that's exactly the position I am in with art, I can understand it in that context, but in poetry, rules or no rules, it still seems to me clear enough when imagery is fresh and surprising as opposed to stale and over-familiar, or when rhythms flow rather than halt, or language takes off and flies instead of plodding across the page. It just isn't as specialised as art; few of us can paint a convincing horse but we all hear and use language all the time. That doesn't mean we can all employ it as poets do, but I'd have thought it did mean we could all form a fairly confident opinion on what they were trying to do and how well they succeeded. Am I being, here, the poetic equivalent of my old maths master, standing baffled at the blackboard saying "But it's so easy! Why can't you all see it?"

Profile

sheenaghpugh: (Default)
sheenaghpugh

December 2011

S M T W T F S
    123
45678910
111213 14151617
181920212223 24
25262728293031

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sep. 25th, 2017 06:08 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios