As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.
(King Lear: Act IV, Scene 1 lines 41-42)
Let’s take Don Paterson as an example of where my uncertainty about what the poet means (in this case relatively brief) serves his poetic purpose perfectly rather than becoming a barrier.
Paterson’s not an easy person for me to pick because his world view is completely different from mine – he sees the universe as bleak, and empty of anything resembling a god. He’ll probably enjoy a deeply satisfying conversation with Thomas Hardy when he meets him in the afterlife that neither of them believes in. It’s true he may not share Hardy’s idea of the President of the Immortals, the one who finished “his sport with Tess” of the Durbevilles, or of the gods in the Duke of Gloucester’s despairing words quoted above, uttered after he has been blinded for helping Lear, but it feels as though he is a close relative.
He’s also modern in technique as well as spirit hence the value of contrasting him with the inaccessibility for me of a Bunting or a Hill. None the less, in spite of his modern approach, I have found some poems in his collection Rain among the best of any I have ever read.
I’ll pick one where a critic saves me the bother of placing the poem I want to talk about in context. When Rain came out in 2009 Adam Newey in the Guardian wrote of the poems:
. . . reading his poems, you don’t know what’s real and what’s illusion . . . At their best, this gives them a curiously disorienting quality, like looking at a photographic negative, in which the world – or its representation – has been turned inside out. “The Swing” is seemingly a poem of loss. The tone is unmistakably one of absence and regret, though precisely what is lost is initially unclear. The poet describes putting up a swing for his children – “for the boys, / for the here-and-here-to-stay” – but, having finished the job, sees upon it only “the child that would not come”. The sense of aloneness is clear in the way the world of the poem coalesces tenderly around the shape of the missing child, reconfiguring her absence as a sharply felt presence: “I gave the empty seat a push/and nothing made a sound/and swung between two skies to brush/her feet upon the ground”.
I puzzled over this poem when I first read it because of the two lines Newey doesn’t quote from a key stanza that he does quote from. Paterson is writing about the swing.
[I] saw within the frail trapeze
the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home
(Rain: page 6)
The last two lines set up a moment of doubt as to what exactly he’s referring to. Is the ‘what’ a coffin? Is the child already dead? In fact, I was so taken over by the obvious pain of loss in the poem, a loss that I assumed was in the past, that it didn’t occur to me that the death might not have happened yet. But the sense of agency and of a future act began to filter through but still the penny obdurately would not drop. Maybe my Catholic upbringing created that unmoving block. The possible truth came as a shock to me that lent even greater poignancy to all that follows in the poem. Though my obtuseness is painful to admit, I am indebted for my eventual awareness of this other possibility to the reviewer in Contemporary Poetry Review:
In “The Swing” he tells of a swing set he picked up for his sons (“for the here-and-here-to -stay,” he says, and at first we wonder at that odd locution). As he sets it up, fixing its legs in the dirt with a shovel, “only she” (his wife, we infer) “knew why it was / I dug so solemnly.” Not until the fourth stanza that speaks of
“the child that would not come
of what we knew had two more days
before we sent it home”
do we begin to comprehend the situation: there will be an abortion. The “here-and-here-to-stay” will not be joined by the potential child in its mother’s womb.
Abortion also makes the idea of sending ‘it home’ brutally ironic, especially in the light of the writer’s view of reality from which he does not spare us in the immediately succeeding lines:
I know that there is nothing here
no venue and no host
but the honest fulcrum of the hour
that engineers our ghost
the bright sweep of its radar-arc
is all the human dream
handing us from dark to dark
like a rope over a stream
(The slight stumble in the rhythm of the last line there might have some interesting implications – tripping before a fall perhaps: Paterson is an accomplished jazz musician after all.)
The honesty of the poem is truly painful, because the loss that creates the grief described so tenderly will come from the poet’s own act, conveyed in deliberately thuggish terms and rooted in his world view and the values derived from it, as well of course as in the force of circumstances unknown to us. (The extent of our ignorance there must temper our judgement and leave plenty of room for compassion: still, it is a brave poem to have written.)
Whether he is describing the specific situation in his own voice or assuming that of someone with whom he closely empathises I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. The former seems more likely. What counts is, for example, the skilful way he finds concrete terms with which to convey his own bleak sense of what will always lie beyond the limits of our physical senses and which take us into his world without imposing it on us.
It feels for me as if it comes from an ability to discern what might lie beyond language for him and language it. It also highlights the point in the first post of this sequence, that language does not always make it easy for us to capture what we mean and what we understand may not be what is really out there. The greatest poetry is not afraid to balance on that uneasy ledge where what we think we know ends at the darkness of the unknown and possibly unknowable.
That I dissent from his view of the world is neither here nor there. The music of the poem and the power with which it conveys the feelings are more than enough to carry me over both this and the puzzlement about what exactly is happening here. In fact, the temporary puzzlement which I expect every reader feels to some degree and which in my case also revealed my own huge emotional blocks, is necessary if I am to feel the shock over what he seems to be contemplating.
You see, I’m not even completely sure about the abortion interpretation. I can see it’s probably, almost certainly correct in fact, but there’s just enough doubt to keep my mind playing with other possibilities. And it’s that uncertainty about what the poem really means, even if it is partly the product here of my residual resistance, that mirrors my uncertainty about what so much of reality really means. This could be why I find full blown modernist obscurity so aversive: there’s just nowhere at all for my mind to settle, and if I feel this much uncertainty about a relatively clear poem, imagine what it’s like with a poetic crossword clue with no apparent solution! I want poems to engage me at a deeply human level but it doesn’t help me in that aim if they become too cryptic.
So, someday perhaps I am going to consider, if I can, one or two poets where, for me, the puzzles all too often destroy the poems. But don’t hold you breath.