amongst books

amongst books

Friday, July 06, 2012

Poetry, poetry

thoughts on the eve of a poetry workshop conducted by Stephen Brockwell

As a complement to our work, our dear instructor has provided us with some germane articles to read.

Philip Larkin presented some interesting perspectives about poetry in his Paris Review interview. His aim in writing a poem, he said, was "to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem." He wrote for anybody who would listen, rather than having a specific audience in mind. He never went to readings or read to an audience because he felt that an audience was missing a lot when hearing a poem aloud, "shape, punctuation, italics," & you have to follow the speaker's pace rather than your own: "When you write a poem, you put everything into it that's needed: the reader should 'hear it' just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don't think it stands up on the page." I have to say I haven't heard that opinion expressed in many years & I think it can have some validity. I try to write my work so that it can stand up on both the page & aloud.

Larkin espoused the effects of Yeats, Hardy and Auden, "the management of lines, the formal distancing of emotion," "the poet should touch our hearts by showing his own," "the poet takes note of nothing that he cannot feel,"  "the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own."
One of the most inspiring things I took from the article was this: "I think a young poet, or an old poet, for that matter, should try to produce something that pleases himself personally, not only when  he's written it but a couple of weeks later. Then he should see if it pleases anyone else, by sending it to the kind of magazine he likes reading. But if it doesn't, he shouldn't be discouraged. I mean, in the seventeenth century every educated man could turn a verse and play the lute. Supposing no one played tennis because they wouldn't make Wimbledon? First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God."

I hadn't read any of his work before, so I popped into the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library, which has his collected poems, published just this year by Faber & Faber. Much of his early poetry is metered with heavy rhyme, but by the 70s it becomes more open. What struck me about his writing was his wit, his keen observations, memorable & unique imagery  & muscular diction. I recommend "This Be The Verse" from High Windows to one & all. It begins with the line "The fuck you up, your mum and dad." You've probably read it before. Do it again...There's a disenchantment with the way the world works in his writing that any post-modernist/post-post modernist would be at home with.

Seamus Heaney's Nobel Lecture from 1995 was quite different, also very inspiring. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, his main preoccupation with poetry seems to be the need to restore order. "I credit poetry, in other words, for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind's centre and its circumference." "Poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet's being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in [a bucket]. He has found that he often needs the poem not only to be "pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself. We want the surprise to be transitive like the impatient thump which unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set, or the electric shock which sets the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm."
Charles Bernstein, on the other hand, concentrates on the diversity offered in contemporary American poetry & its aversion to conformity. "It is particularly amusing that those who protest loudest about the fraudulence or aridness or sameness of contemporary poetry that insists on being contemporary, dissident, different, and who profess, in contrast, the primacy of the individual voice, fanned by a genteel inspiration, produce work largely indistinguishable from dozens of their peers and, moreover, tend to recognize the value only of poetry that fits into the narrow horizon of their particular style and subject matter. As if poetry were a craft that there is a right way or wrong way to do: in which case, I prefer the wrong way--anything better than the well-wrought epiphany of predictable measure--for at least the cracks and flaws and awkwardness show signs of life." I found this very heartening; although I think today we are seeing more hybrid forms, a combination of traditional narrative & lyric with contemporary sensibilities of dystopia & disjunction & the belief that we can't all speak with the same voice, as Bernstein says here: "We have to get over, as in getting over a disease, the idea that we can "all" speak to one another in the universal voice of poetry. History still mars our words, and we will be transparent to one another only when history itself disappears. For as long as social relations are skewed, who speaks in peotry can never be a neutral matter."

Louis Zukofsky defines & describes the mechanics of poetry in his statement. He sees poetry as "The rhythmic or intoned utterance that punctuates the movement of a body in a dance or ritual, aware of dead things as alive, as it fights animals and earth;" One of the most inspiring parts of his article for me was this: "If read properly, good poetry does not argue its attitudes or beliefs; it exists independently of the readers preferences for one kind of 'subject' or another. Its conviction is in its mastery or technique."

Gérard Genette talks about the poetry of Valéry in order to get at the question about whether word & concept are fixed, whether language is arbitrary. This tension between a conformity or not of language to a concept, of sound to a meaning is of central preoccupation to poets: "The nonmimetic character of language is thus, in a certain way, the opportunity and condition for poetry to exist. Poetry exists only to "remunerate," in other words, to repair and compensate for the 'defect of languages.' If a language were perfect, poetry would have no reason for being, since it would have nothing to repair."

Genette talks a lot about the difference between poetry and prose;  I found these differences to be absolute & not really in keeping with the poetry I'm reading or writing today. For example, he describes prose in analogy to walking, the object being to get to one's destination, a utilitarian goal, whereas poetry is likened to dance in its skill & its playfulness, its lack of goal. I ponder where prose poetry might fit in such a binary & have come to the conclusion that prose poetry is a wander, a chance to explore, to observe. Genette posits via Valéry et al that the basic character of poetic discourse is harmony between sound & meaning. Perhaps that was true in the time of the symbolists, but I think today many poets are more interested in disrupting or breaking that so-called harmony, or at least questioning it.

The articles have returned me to pondering once more about what makes a poem, what makes my poems. I am keen on being flexible in what types of poems I write, but in general, at least for now my sensibilities run less toward harmony, meter, reassurance, restoring order & more toward disjunction, listening to the variety of voices around me, avoiding artifice or elevated language, concern for erosion &delipidation, not having any answers only questions. I like Brenda Hillman's phrase "singing against singing" quoted in the Introduction to "Lyrical Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries" edited by Reginald Shepherd (Counterpath Press, USA, 2008). But I reserve the right to change at any moment…


Rol said...

Thanks for that detailed response/synopsis, including quotes from a variety of authors, but also giving your take on each one of them.


Amanda Earl said...

thanks for reading, Roland :)