It remains the task of poetry to translate into words, with intensity and economy, the inexpressible with an immediacy that is not achieved in other art forms.
Several previous posts have been exploring the purpose of writing in general and poetry in particular (see the links at the bottom of this post to know more). Recently I have been trying to pin down exactly what my problem is with much of modern poetry. I wish to focus next on what might seem a relatively minor even petty problem – all too often I haven’t the faintest idea who the poet is talking about. The reason it matters to me is that this is a symptom of the same problem as I have been discussing already and it’s one all too often encountered in various forms in our reductionist culture. In attempting to be intense and economical the poet’s process of distillation leaves so much out it bleeds the poem dry.
Here is a late poem by Ian Hamilton, called ‘Ties’, unpublished until his posthumous Collected Poems (2009):
You are harvesting dead leaves again
But don’t look up.
The trees aren’t your trees now
And anyway, white storm birds sing no song.
Inside the house
He’s playing genealogies again,
The usual curse:
His, yours, theirs, everyone’s. And hers.
To describe this poem as a skeleton would flatter it. It’s the fragment of a jawbone from which the reconstruction of a living poem is virtually impossible. Fuller goes a long way towards acknowledging this . . . (page 226)
It is an extreme example of the puzzle that readers frequently have when faced with naked pronouns: who are all these people, and above all, who is ‘you’? An extreme example, yes, but it is a puzzle commonly found in the starkly reduced lyric form favoured by Hamilton.
. . . but tries valiantly to resurrect the moment that produced these almost fossilised fragments of dentition. A blow by blow account of the exact nature of this struggle is given at length several pages later (pages 230-231):
Lowell . . . was a crucial influence on Hamilton’s conviction that the personal experience of the poet has an absolute value for the poem emotionally, as a biographical truth. Such a formula sounds like a commonplace of post-Romantic poetry, but after the impersonality of much modernism it became a distinct trait in the later twentieth century.
Hamilton’s ‘Ties’ relies entirely on this conviction, so that the reader is forced to construct a story. How would it go? The trees that ‘you’ are gathering dead leaves from beneath (perhaps in a photograph that the speaker has found) are no longer ‘your’ trees now. Whose are they? They must in a sense belong to the woman referred to in the dramatically crucial final sentence (And hers’). This woman has not only inherited the trees, but also the curse of the ‘genealogies’ that the ‘he’ is ‘playing’. In such a baleful context ‘playing genealogies’ can’t simply be the innocent tracing of family trees, but must have the metaphorical force of an obsessive preoccupation with the past, which the ‘curse’ turns into a matter for rebuke. To imply such a rebuke, Hamilton shifts from the first person of the first four lines to the third person of the last four. The implicit ‘I’ looking at the photograph is turned into the ‘he’ criticised for dwelling in the past. So we imagine two women, the one who used to gather the dead leaves, and the other, who appears to have displaced her, the one who resents the past. The dead leaves of the tree (compare the ‘family’ tree) imply that the first woman may also be dead.
So much is merely logical. The extension of the mysterious pronouns into ‘theirs’ and ‘everyone’s’ follows naturally from it: the ‘curse’ of the obsessive memory of the irrevocable past is not only a problem for these individuals as individuals, but it is a problem that they must share, and it is our problem, too . . . .
In the margin of page 226 I have growled, ‘Teasing at the puzzle doesn’t make a poem of this anymore than reading tea leaves tells us anything about the future.’ I respect Fuller’s learning and admire his tenacity but read his failure to make a poem of it into such expressions as ‘the reader is forced to construct a story,’ ’perhaps in a photograph’ and ‘So much is merely logical.’ Logical it may be but sufficiently coherent and emotionally meaningful it most certainly is not. This is not the combination of creativity and empathy that successfully extends the compass of my compassion as I read, which is what I think I can fairly expect of a poem that purports to convey an important moment of this poet’s life.
Fortunately, Fuller points to a place where just such a combination can be found. But more about that on Thursday.
- Writing and Reality (1/2): the Mystery of Revelation
- Writing and Reality (2/3): the role of lesser mortals
- Writing and Reality (3/3): look in your heart and write
- The Experience of Poetry (1/2): dimming the glare of language
- The Experience of Poetry (2): edges of unease
- Brick-Wall Poetry (1/3): when does a puzzle wreck a poem?
- Brick-Wall Poetry (2/3): the Skeleton Problem
- Practising Compassion (2/2)
- Expanding the Moral Imagination