sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
There's an article by Marjorie Perloff in the current PN Review (vol 38 no 3) which it's taken me a week to get around to reading, purely because the title, "Towards a Conceptual Lyric: From Content to Context" was so off-puttingly reminiscent of the most boring type of academic dissertation. But as often happens, it concealed a riveting and thought-provoking article, on what a lot of people nowadays think poetry is, why they're wrong, and why this misconception leads to such truly awful poetry.

The trigger was a workshop for high school poets, held at the White House under the auspices of Michelle Obama and attended by four practising poets, of whom more anon. The introductory remarks, by Mrs Obama and others, stressed the importance of poetry as a teenage escape from real life – "whenever I didn't want to deal with the nonsense of the neighbourhood I would write and write" – and preparation for more important, real-life, adult activities –"it was my writing that prepared me for what I've had to do in my life as an adult". Despite the presence of published poets, it isn't seen as a career in itself; it isn't even for itself. What it is for is self-expression; Rita Dove tells the group "Only you can tell your own story". Some of the students then get to read their own poems. Not surprisingly, given these criteria, they are truly dire. No doubt they were good therapy, and useful as such, but as poems they are quite unredeemed by any sense of rhythm, structure or even feeling for words (witness the one which uses "exceeded" for "succeeded"). All they do have going for them are originality and authenticity, which are clearly seen as cardinal virtues when trying to write a poem.
more behind cut )
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
This is one of those posts about Things All Writers Know that turn out to be less clear-cut than you think. In this case it's inversion, the violence that poems sometimes do to normal word order in the name of rhyme and metre. This was commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries, fell out of use in the 20th and nowadays will cause an editor to bin you without a second thought. And quite right too, in most cases. But just now and then, something happens to make you think twice. In my case, it was pondering the construction of Latin sentences while listening to a recording of a wartime George Formby ENSA concert. bear with me; all will become clear, or at least clearer than it is at present )
sheenaghpugh: ("It's the bloody Indy!")
I posted a blog review of Victor Tapner's fascinating poetry collection set in East Anglian prehistory, Flatlands, some time back, and also did a blog interview with him. Now I can report that Flatlands has been shortlisted for two awards, the 2011 Seamus Heaney Centre Prize and the East Anglian Book Awards. Fine book: hope it wins.


sheenaghpugh: (Default)
The title "From the Dark Room" is a phrase from a sequence of poems called "Travelling Light". Some unexpected things happen with light and dark in this collection. In "Rare Old", whisky abandoned in Antarctica and "protected by the freeze" is "brought into the damage of light". Nesting house-martins in "Hemispheres", by contrast, are pictured "sliding the dark around themselves" in an act of protection, while "Globe" ends with the sinister volcanic image of
what might ooze if the egg

of the Earth were cracked, light
hatching from the world's blown sphere.
more behind cut )


sheenaghpugh: (Trollfjord in Norway)
I've been involved in a Facebook discussion about the naming and evoking of places in poems, and how the naming of places, while it can sometimes invite the reader in, can also sometimes exclude. At one point the poet and translator Peter Daniels, who's kindly given me permission to quote him, remarked 'There are poets that can evoke "my place" as a magic invitation to the reader (e.g. Yeats with Innisfree, Longley with Carrigskeewaun), and others (e.g. Brooke with Grantchester) that are too much of a private party - "you had to be there"'.

The more I think about it, the more I think it hinges on the fact that places, at least as far as people are concerned, exist in time and context. However much we may love a place for its landscape, its light, or anything else intrinsic, it will also, in our minds, be the place where we grew up, or fell in love, or were happy in our work. And while everyone's particular place-references will be different, the roles those places occupy in their history will be similar and can be evoked by a writer referring to a quite different place, provided he/she somehow finds the universal element that links them. As usual, example is easier. William Barnes has a poem called "The Wife a-Lost" (he wrote in Dorset dialect) in which a grieving widower spends all his time in a gloomy grove of beech, a place his wife disliked and never spent time in. The rationale is simple:
Below the beeches' bough, my love,
Where you did never come,
An' I don't look to meet ye there,
As I do look at hwome.
- he feels some easing of his grief in this grove because it's the one place where he does not expect to see her at every turn. Now this particular place-association is specific to the poem's narrator, but almost any reader could empathise with the basic idea, and substitute his own place for the beech-grove.
more behind cut )
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
One of the more fascinating things about writing is how you can, while doing it, assume not only another persona but opinions and feelings you never held, experiences that never befell you, etc. I can write about being widowed, though I never have been; one just steps into the skin of Lady Franklin and uses one's imagination.... I could, though an atheist, write from a religious viewpoint: I'd feel vaguely uncomfortable about it, which is probably why I have only ever done it when translating from others, but it's perfectly possible.

Hilaire Belloc was a religious man, or so he always claimed, a practising Catholic, but you wouldn't gather as much from this poem, one of his "The world's a stage" sonnets. Some of these are frivolous; this is not:

The world’s a stage. The light is in one’s eyes.
The auditorium is extremely dark.
The more dishonest get the larger rise;
The more offensive make the greater mark.
The women on it prosper by their shape,
Some few by their vivacity. The men,
By tailoring in breeches and in cape.
The world’s a stage —I say it once again.
The scenery is very much the best
Of what the wretched drama has to show,
Also the prompter happens to be dumb.
We drink behind the scenes and pass a jest
On all our folly; then, before we go,
Loud cries for “Author”…but he doesn’t come.

Now one could argue that the fact that the "author" - God, in the context of this extended metaphor - doesn't show up doesn't mean he doesn't exist. R S Thomas's God is similarly and discouragingly absent, and undoubtedly believed in. But this isn't usually how Belloc visualises his God. It's also possible that he was in an uncharacteristically gloomy mood at the time. I know very little about him biographically since he's a long way down my favourites list, either as a poet or a person, so I don't know if he was depressive or subject to metaphysical doubts. But I'd then expect that when his mood changed he might have been iffy about publishing this in its current form. I wonder therefore if he's consciously in persona here, trying to see the world through the eyes of someone who genuinely sees it as a pointless and unauthored sham. If that's so, I'd be impressed, because it doesn't usually work that way round; while atheists are fascinated by the thinking of the religious, most religious writers are supremely uninterested in the viewpoint of the other side and unconvincing when they attempt it (vide C S Lewis and his pantomimic villains). Whatever the impetus, this is one of Belloc's more impressive efforts; the extended metaphor is well sustained and the last line is terrific.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)


I feel very iffy about reviewing this anthology, because I have some poems in it. But it seems to me to have a far more interesting organising principle than your average anthology of "poets under 30" or "women poets", who don't necessarily have a damn thing in common. This is an anthology of poets who came from, or live on, Scottish islands (not just visitors on holiday) and as the thoughtful intro makes clear, this liminality does give their writing traits in common. "The islander's sense of being removed from the heart of things relates, I think, to the writer's sense of being an observer as much as a participant". This is true, though it should not be taken to mean that island poets are unaware of what is going on at the heart of things, just that they can view it with a certain amount of detachment. Jim Mainland's scorching, careering satire "Prestidigitator", which I've blogged about before here, is as committed a modern political poem as you'll find:

Watch this, watch my hands, look in my eyes:
this is viral, this is fiending, this is Celebrity Smash Your Face In,
I'm spooling tissue from an ear, I'm sawing her in half, no, really,
I'm vanishing your dosh, I'm giving it makeover, giving it bonus,
palming it, see, nothing in the box, check out
your divorce hell text tease sex tape, whoops,

but the same writer, in "The Gunnister Man", is acutely conscious of the massive timeline, reaching back centuries, on which he is a point and which connects him to everyone else who has ever lived there. Those who live in small communities are more apt, I think, to have this sense of connectedness to the past; it appears in the poems by which George Mackay Brown and Sorley MacLean are represented here (MacLean's "Hallaig", in both the Gaelic original and the English translation, being a bright particular star).

It is in fact thought-provoking to consider the roll of famous names who fit this anthology's criteria: MacLean, Brown, Crichton Smith, Edwin Muir, MacDiarmuid, and in more contemporary times the recent T S Eliot winner Jen Hadfield. But there are many others less well known, like Jim Mainland, Laureen Johnson, William J ("Billy") Tait, Laurence Graham, who deserve to be more widely read than they are and who should come as a salty surprise to those who maybe picked up the anthology for other reasons but happen on something like James Andrew Sinclair's "Immigrant":

Fill my pockets with lochs
the wind will fit snug in my wallet.
I will weave a scarf of mackerel, haddock and trout
the good fit of sheep on my feet.
My jacket, knitted peat and heather
with a bottle of good humour for the journey.
Planks of fishing boat bound tight as a belt
the sails making dandy trousers.
My back-pack holds the entire ocean
and last but certainly not least
I will wear the sky beneath my hat.


These Islands, We Sing: An Anthology of Scottish Island Poetry is published by Polygon.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
Christopher Meredith is a novelist and poet from Wales. Though he works mainly in English, one of his books for children is in Welsh and he also translates from Welsh into English. He is a professor of creative writing at the University of Glamorgan. His most recent collection of poems is The Meaning of Flight (Seren) and he has just completed a new novel, The Book of Idiots, which will be published in 2012. He is also involved with five artists in the project "Bog-Mawnog", responding to fire damage on a mountaintop in the Black Mountains in Powys. A booklet of Meredith's poems, Black Mountains, with images from the artists is being produced by Mulfran and there will also be an exhibition about the project in Brecknock Museum, 16th July to late September.


Toy Revolver

He loves its pointed symmetry
the lazy, opened hook of trigger
stock shaped to the palm
like a lover's hip,
opens it like unstoppering a flask
of magic that might spill.

He holds the chamber,
sectioned like fruit, close
to see each scoop and groove
each empty socket in the disc,
counts with a fingertip
six spaces for the dark seeds.

Interview and more poems behind cut )



Links to other poems and information

Breaking Wood - Christopher Meredith reading his own poem on YouTube.
What flight meant - a poem of Chris's featured on Jo Preston's writing blog.
Christopher Meredith's website
Seren, Christopher Meredith's publisher
Christopher Meredith's page on the Contemporary Writers website
A Woollen Line - the blog of Pip Woolf, who is involved with Meredith in the Bog-Mawnog project.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
(a concept possibly more familiar in fan fiction than in litfic.) You know what I mean, that way a writer can casually drop a shared cultural reference which not only conveys in one or two words a huge cargo of meaning and information to his/her readers, but does it more powerfully than by any other method, both because of the weight of emotion and memory it already carries and because the reader has pretty much arrived at the meaning independently rather than being led there. It's extremely common in fan fiction because that relies on shared cultural references, but one good litfic example is Francis Lauderdale Adams' poem "Hagar", where by giving this title to a poem about an outcast unmarried mother, he conveys to anyone acquainted with the book of Genesis that not only is the girl in this condition, the man who caused it was almost certainly some patriarch, some pillar of the community (think master and housemaid).

It's harder to do in litfic these days, precisely because you can't rely on readers having heard of Abraham, Circe or various other mythological/historical personages whose names and stories were once common currency. And as soon as you have to add footnotes, much of the effect is gone. Nonetheless, one of my favourite poems is an 8-liner from 9th-century China which takes this technique to such extremes that when A C Graham translated it in his Poems of the Late T'ang (Penguin 1965) he had to paraphrase it for Western readers. Obviously these references wouldn't have been anything like as arcane to a T'ang Chinese reader as they are to us, and one can only guess at the way the meaning would have insinuated itself, trailing all the emotions and associations he's haunted it with. In the vague hope of re-creating something of that effect, the background info first:

The lovely and dissolute Queen of Wei once gave audience to Confucius behind a brocade curtain.
Prince O, out in a boat with his lover, piled embroidered quilts above her for warmth.
In the dance Drooping Hands, girls wear jade waist-pendants; in the dance Snapping Waists, they wear saffron skirts.
Shih Chung cooked a banquet over the flames of massed candles.
Hsun Yu exuded a natural perfume which lingered where he had been.
The poet Chiang Yen dreamed that a poet's ghost visited him to take back his brush of many colours; when he woke, he found he had lost his ability to write.
A goddess slept with King Huai in a dream; when she left he asked her name and she said "At dawn, I am the clouds of morning; at sunset the driving rain."

and here's the poem )
I never tried this on students, because some were ready enough to cry "elitist" if any poet used a reference they hadn't come across. But even without being able to experience it as a T'ang Chinese would have done, I still find its technique utterly enchanting. What interests me is that I can't think of any Western work, offhand, that uses this technique in the same intense, concentrated way as this one (unless indeed it would be certain fan fiction stories). I suppose Eliot is the obvious candidate, yet no poem of his works quite the way this does for me. It surely could be done, though, even with the decayed state of our cultural currency, and it'd be interesting to try.

EDIT: I've just realised I was 16 when I first read this in 1966 (the book was a birthday present from my best friend at school, thanks, Anna Cortens and where are you now?) and it totally changed my perception of what poems could be and do.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)


Tamar Yoseloff has long been interested in urban landscapes, particularly ruined or decaying urban landscapes, and the first section of this new collection blends the often exhilarating feel of a modern city (not always the same one) with a consciousness of its past and its detritus. cut for length )

The City With Horns is published by Salt Publishing
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
I'll Dress One Night As You, by Chrissie Gittins, Salt Publishing 2011



The title comes from a sequence about mourning a mother; in the poem "Out Of Place" the bereaved speaker envisages putting on the dead woman's clothes and habits:
I'll dress one night as you,
wear your weighty beads and bracelet,
I'll stretch my lips across my teeth,

             half open my mouth,
apply red lipstick in a compact mirror

It's an appropriate title image, because much of this collection is about putting on the voice and personality of others - a former bodyguard of Hitler, a 17th-century chorister who also acts in Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys's mistress.

Sometimes too the alter egos are from the myth-kitty, as in "Alcyone" and "Triptolemus". I'm not among those who are turned off by the mere mention of Greek myth; it seems a perfectly valid source of material as long as the poet recognises that it has been extensively mined already and needs something new doing with it. In "Triptolemus" we see the man cheated of the gift of immortality as a baby, now on his deathbed and massively grateful for not having had to outlive his own children - a good twist on the myth, I think.

I've always liked voice poems because they give the poet a certain distance from material that might otherwise become sentimental, also because it seems weird to be a writer and not take advantage of the freedom it gives you to get into someone else's skin. In "The Carpet Fitter's Wife", this fondness for shape-shifting combines with an interest in vocabulary: a married couple's relationship becomes defined by their respective idiolects, his as a carpet fitter, hers as a maths teacher:
Our congruent bodies lie parallel,
an owl calls from the coppice,
he holds me firm like gripper rod.

Another sequence, about a woman transported to Australia, works well. Of course the thing about voice poems is that the voice needs to convince throughout; if "Chorister, St Saviour's Church, Southwark, 1607" works less well for me it is because I can't hear a 17th-century voice saying "his lips were mink on mine", given that mink weren't introduced into Britain until about 1920. Granted, their fur could have been imported earlier, but it can't have been widely known, and it just seems unlikely to have been among this speaker's references.

The other main theme of this collection is bereavement, and on the vocabulary and minutiae of loss she is very sharp - "the back of everyone's head is you" ("Around Thaxted"). The poem which sticks with me most, though, is another about the place of fictional vocabularies in life, "She Gave Me Her Childhood Books, in which fiction becomes a talisman for children against reality:
on a cold stone wall in the playground

we're joined by the King of Peru
who falls down a well

and comforts himself with a rhyme.
The bell sounds for lessons, we fetch up in a line.

Beside us loiters a row of ducks,
an old sailor, a knight with quiet armour.

When keys are thrown at chatty Colin
the knight shields the blow

If I were feeling picky, I might object that actually he deflects the blow, or shields Colin from it, but the idea behind the words is one most of us could relate to. Gittins has in fact worked a great deal with children, but this collection shows her as a poet adults can certainly enjoy as well.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
How's this for a good marketing idea? Here is Paul Yandle's poem "Dogs" from the anthology of dog poems I blogged about in my last post, and he's recorded it not only with his rather lovely reading voice but set it to kinetic typography using words from the poem (and playing with said words visually; see what he does with "circling"). Curiously enough, though this uses modern technology, it had a precursor in the artist Paul Peter Piech, who used to make posters using text to create pieces of calligraphy. Mostly he used political texts but he did sometimes set poems too; he did a lovely one for Dannie Abse. This is an ingenious update of the technique; give it a listen!
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Candlestick Press is to publish a pamphlet of 10 poems about dogs by various writers. Arr, says you, why is she blogging about that, for she is a cat person all the way down the line? Well, says I, among names like Billy Collins, Stevie Smith, Siegfried Sassoon, Ogden Nash and Lord Byron is that of my ex-student Paul Yandle, with whom I did a blog interview here. Paul also has a web site, where you can see how unusually upbeat and aware of the possibility of joy his poems are. He won't look at all out of place in that company.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Some folk on Planet Academia are sniffy about Billy Collins, finding him not complex and multi-layered enough. I think myself that this poem could both start and end a few lines in from where it does. But... it's funny and well-turned, and more to the point, a brilliant performance; his timing and delivery would do credit to a top stand-up. If I ever get the chance to go and hear him read, I certainly shall.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Just in case anyone'd like to know, the poem I wrote on the day of the Chilean miners' rescue and posted on this blog has now been published by the magazine PN Review (no 198). This is quite enlightened of them, because a lot of print mags won't so much as look at anything blog-published, even if it's the writer's own site. I offered to take it down but they haven't required me to. Good eggs, and sensible. I only wish more mags would figure out that it isn't going to hurt sales if the odd piece is known in blogland.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
Michelle McGrane's poems, like those of many a poet who grew up in one country and now lives in another, show a keen awareness of location, not just the ones she knows but those into which she can imagine herself. This goes for historical times and personas too; she's as likely to think herself into a female Irish pirate or the last Russian tsarina as to speak in her own person. In short, she sees poetry as a window rather than a mirror, which is in my view the best way to make it entertaining and relevant to others.

Paradoxically, I think this outlook can also be beneficial to more personal poetry, because being in the habit of seeing herself as only part of a wider universe, rather than as the whole concern, enables a writer to universalise her experience, giving her an eye for those details that will resonate immediately with others. The second poem of "January Triptych", on the loss of a father, is a good example:

Grief

It arrives in the mail
with a licence renewal,

wears the thin grey socks
never returned.

It curls up, settles in
where I least expect –

a note slipped between pages,
a bald head in a supermarket queue.


Now the thin grey socks of old men struck an immediate chord with me, because exactly the same detail was true of my father. But so did the bald head in the supermarket, and in this case the detail was different; my father had very white hair and for a long time after his death, I couldn't see a white-haired old man without thinking it was him. This shows, I think, that if the poet gets it right, it isn't necessary for the reader to share every incidental detail of her experience; it is the basic situation, the essential in the experience, that travels.

While I don't object to poems having notes (especially when, as in this case, they are at the back), I think some of these are unnecessary; if your reader has not heard of marchpane or doesn't know the translation of remise, he can soon look them up. Also, though I'm averse to suggesting any subject is off limits, I do think there are territories that have been so thoroughly claimed that one needs to be sure one has a new angle. My first thought on reading the title "Bertha Mason Speaks" was "Wide Sargasso Sea!" and I didn't see anything in the poem that Rhys hadn't already said in the novel. But in the poem "Princesse de Lamballe" (one of Marie Antoinette's pals who lost her head during the Revolution), the head held aloft on the pike memorably sees a side of Paris its owner never saw when alive:

growling alleys and ravenous back streets
guttered with urine, nightsoil and vermin,
toothless, frayed women queuing for bread


It's this heightened awareness, a window on something one hasn't seen or been conscious of before, that the best of these poems can provide.


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?"
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
One can pick all sorts of holes in Earl Gerald's argument, from the exaggeration to the ulterior motive at the end. But when you come down to it, he's a 14th-century poet going right against the grain of his time, refusing to be satisfied with easy targets or ancient, classically-sanctioned clichés. And I like him and his poem.

In Defence of Women
from the Irish Gaelic of Earl Gerald Fitzgerald, 14th century

Woe to him who speaks ill of women! It is not right to abuse them. They have not deserved, that I know, all the blame they have always had.

Sweet are their words, exquisite their voice, that sex for which my love is great; woe to him who does not scruple to revile them, woe to him who speaks ill of women!

They do no murder nor treachery, nor any grim or hateful deed, they do no sacrilege to church nor bell; woe to him who speaks ill of women!

Certain it is, there has never been born bishop nor king nor great prophet without fault, but from a woman; woe to him who speaks ill of women!

They are thrall to their own hearts, they love a man slender and sound - it would be long before they would dislike him. Woe to him who speaks ill of women!

An old fat greybeard, they do not desire a tryst with him - dearer to them is a young lad, though poor. Woe to him who speaks ill of women!
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
This ain't no work of genius, but it may well be the only English poem ever to be inspired by a triple German pun. Should maybe explain that "Strauss", apart from being the name of the Waltz King, also means (1) a bouquet of flowers and (2) an ostrich.

Strauss

The ostrich's petals are shaggy,
chrysanthemum-bronze and cream
above their oasis cushion.
The neck is a feathery stem

of maidenhair fern, and it flexes
and dips with a dancer's pace
like a girl being whirled round a ballroom,
some frothy young Viennese miss

who will prove less flighty than flightless,
confined to a vase, to the ground,
to a body, a life that keeps moving
around and around and around.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Exam time is icumen in, and many poor souls in schools up and down the country are wondering what to say to the examiners about poems, some of which are mine. This post is aimed at making sure they don't say some of the things I've recently heard people saying online.

I've blogged before about the perils of assuming that "the narrator" of a poem, especially one in the "I" voice, is the same person as "the poet", or that everything recorded in a work of art Actually Happened. A discussion I've lately been involved in on Facebook, though, makes it clear that some readers, even if they know it ain't necessarily so, think it should be; furthermore that they make a difference between novels and poems, at least lyric poems, in this regard. It's fine by these folk for novelists to make up a world; it may even be ok for writers of long narrative poems to do so, but there's a feeling that a lyric poem should come "from experience" (I have actually seen the phrase "from the heart" but am trying to forget it) and that if it's in the "I" voice the "I" should be the poet telling (heaven forbid) the truth about himself - whatever that is, and assuming he even knows it.

I don't know where this notion came from - the earliest real school of lyric poetry in Europe would surely have to be courtly love, which existed to celebrate purely imaginary love affairs - but it horrifies me quite a lot. For the record, when poets are minded to write about their personal experiences, they are very likely to distance the poem by putting it in the third person and making it happen to someone else, for the excellent reason that it avoids the danger of sentimentality. The most autobiographical poem Kipling ever wrote was the third-person "Merrow Down", which purports to be about a bereaved Neolithic father. By contrast The Changelings" (courtesy of Tim Kendall's blog "War Poets") is first-person and deals with experiences that weren't the poet's own at all; it's very much in persona.

I used to write poems in persona if I thought they might otherwise look too personal. These days I tend to third-person. But even if they do spring partly from my own experience, that is no reason to assume they won't also be adulterated with my reading, or other people's experiences, or, shocking as it may be to some, imagination... The fact is, poets are licensed liars; it's what we're good at and we can no more leave the facts of our own lives unembroidered and unimproved on than we can anything else. Nature is often a lousy writer; she gets details and endings wrong and frankly we can do better.

In a recent interview on this blog, my friend the poet Paul Henry described how he had excluded some of his best work from his Selected Poems because he was tired of seeing them read as autobiography. In the FB discussion I referred to earlier, someone said he felt "betrayed" on finding that a poem of Robin Robertson's in the "I" voice was not necessarily All True. Well, attend, O Best Beloveds in the AS-Level exam class, for I am about to utter a profundity: if you want The Truth, you go to the shelf in Waterstones marked Biography. (You still won't get it, but you will get something that aspires to it.) But if you're reading poems, and commenting on them in exams, remember that the "I" voice is correctly referred to as "the narrator". He/she is not, to your knowledge, "the poet", and there's no rule that says they should be.
Page generated Sep. 25th, 2017 08:00 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios