Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Something beautifully written dropped into my inbox the other day. It comes from a chapter in The Munich Girl, a novel rooted in the life of someone who might seem an unattractive subject — Eva Braun. I haven’t read the book yet as a hard copy copy seems hard to find in the UK, but I think I must try harder (in case you didn’t get the point, I’m finding it quite hard to buy one without going on Amazon). Below is a short extract of the blog post: for the full post see link.

As I reached for Eva’s hand, the door to the main corridor slid open and the conductor seemed to fill it with his blue uniform.

“Where did you come from?” he asked my companion accusingly.

I smelled schnapps on his breath. And saw tears gleam in Eva’s blue eyes.

“From Simbach, where she waited for this tardy train. It’s not as though she was invisible.”

His head snapped back.

“With no one there to help, she barely made it on board,” I accused.

“But I saw no one at Simbach!”

“It’s hard to see, when you’re not on the platform yourself.” Then I asked Eva, “Do you have your ticket?”

Nodding quickly, her expression like a chastened child’s, she started digging in her leather shoulder bag.

The conductor was weaving in the doorway, tapping his boot impatiently. Just like most of these useless bloody uniforms, throwing their authority around. God help you if you actually need their help. They’ll be too busy having a nip and a smoke out of sight, as this joker obviously had. Probably been drinking since we’d left Linz—he’d even neglected to announce some of the stops.

When Eva found her ticket and handed it over, he snatched it without a word, fumbling for the hole punch dangling from a chain on his waistcoat. Then he thrust it back without looking at her, muttering to me, “Your parents should have taught you better manners.”

“My parents taught me people should do their jobs, especially when jobs are scarce. And that men who want to be taken for gentlemen should behave like one.”

I took great satisfaction in saying this, though I did so in English.

Across from me, recognition sparkled in Eva’s eyes.

As he stared at me, I asked in German, “How long will it be to Munich?”

“A little over an hour,” he mumbled. When he lurched back, the door his bulky frame had propped open slid closed with a thump.

Eva burst into a shower of radiant giggles. “Now I know you are an angel.”

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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)

My recent posts on poetry made it seem worthwhile republishing this pair of posts from 2011. This is the second and last.

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.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

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.

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My recent posts on poetry made it seem worthwhile republishing this pair of posts from 2011.
At the moment, while my conscious intentions are directed somewhere completely different, I find myself coming back again and again to the relationship between words and experience. I now feel the need to revisit the area of writing and experience from another angle.

I was brought up short the other day when I read the following in Hilary Mantel‘s Giving Up the Ghost (page 103):

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning. My own thoughts go at a different speed from that of human conversation, about two and a half times as fast, so I am always scrambling backwards through people’s speech, to work out which bit of which question I am supposed to be answering. I continue my habit of covert looking, out of the corner of my eye, and take up the art of sensing through the tips of my fingers.

The acuteness of her awareness of how she relates to other people’s speech and her ability to convey that awareness to us are truly remarkable gifts or skills. If you think it’s innate you’d say its a gift but if you think its learned you might say it’s a skill: right now I’m not too bothered which. And in fact it’s not that aspect of what I’ve quoted that really grabbed my attention but I just couldn’t resist commenting on it.

No, what really hooked me was the first sentence:

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning.

It seems so right as a description of her experience, and yet it’s so far away from my own way of experiencing the matter. Words seem so clear to me but my meaning is blurred. I have to somehow see past their brightness to something shadowy that lies behind it. And behind that shaded shape is reality itself – elusive, indefinable, inescapable.

When I read the kind of great creative prose or brilliant poetry to which I most strongly respond, I am experiencing someone as having been able to put their language on a dimmer switch for long enough to sense the reality behind what they might have thought they meant and then hold on to what they detected long enough again to find the right words to describe it.

And this is about the fusion of music and meaning, sometimes on the very edge of sense. If they are writing about something too far beyond my own experience at the time the music might be the only thing that keeps me entranced. I struggle with much modern poetry because it lacks the music that might attract me, hold my attention, reward it and give me some hope that the cryptic clues buried in the verbiage might eventually make sense.

It might help to use an example in the next post. And I’m not going to make it easy on myself by choosing a ‘classic’ from the past. I’ll pick a modern poem to try and make my point clearer. A good choice, I think, would be a relatively accessible poem by Don Paterson called The Swing from his collection Rain, whose fusion of music and sense keeps me engaged and moves me deeply.

If I can manage to bring myself to tackle it, I might also look in a later post at one of the two poets that I find particularly challenging – the Basil Bunting of Briggflatts or Geoffrey Hill

Edgar feigning madness to Lear

All too often, rather than holding up a mirror to nature, they seem to delight in smashing it and handing me a bundle of fragments  with a gesture that says, ‘Here you are. Stick this lot back together again and mind you don’t cut yourself.’ While poets are not agony aunts with the job of providing comforting insights into how to handle life, I’d rather they didn’t vex me with tormenting verbal puzzles that seem far more obscure to me than most of the testing ambiguities and uncertainties of life itself. I can accept the need to represent the chaotic uncertainty of reality in some of its most profound and important aspects by obscurity in the poem. Surely though that has to be offset by shafts of illumination that place it in a context that gives us enough help to discern some meaning in the apparent madness, rather as happens with Edgar’s babblings in King Lear.

Anyway more about Paterson tomorrow! In the end I might just give up the ghost and leave it at that.

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The first crossword puzzle, created by Arthur ...

The First Ever Crossword Puzzle

One of the highest services [poets] perform is to reacquaint us with our true feelings which we put away in our need to manipulate our workaday world.

(Roger White from Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle – page 3)

This is almost my last word for now on the subject of obscurity in poetry in the wake of my reading ‘Deaths of the Poets.’ There will be some passing references next week!

The combination of a butterfly mind, a long todo list and a busy calendar has made it hard for me sometimes to find a space for reading poetry. So, I made a resolution recently to choose unread books of poetry off my shelves, one at a time, to read from cover to cover no matter how long it takes.

The first poet to fall victim to this rather mechanical process is UA Fanthorpe (UA stands for Ursula Askham, by the way). I recently bought her New and Collected Poems. It’s not been easy to keep to my resolve. My creativity seems to find its most consistent expression in the fabrication of excuses over why I cannot do something so simple. I have stuck to it though. I’ve managed to stop production at the procrastination factory long enough to get to page 409 out of 508.

Along the way there have been deserts, pages and pages of poetry that failed to touch me either because my mood was not right or maybe the poems in question were less than her best. But her best poems become oases that more than compensate for the Saharan passages.

As one such oasis gives an interesting slant on my rant against puzzle poetry, I thought it well worth including.

When you understand that a river is a flower
You have begun. Friday, of course, is a man,
And a duck means nothing. Victim of gin
Is not an alcoholic, nor revolutionary
Political. Cardinals, favourite standbys,
Are always news. The Mayfair Railway’s wiry,
And the 6-50’s found in the first three villains.
Night’s a dark deranged thing. Possibly, we hear,
Perhaps, can be, are warnings; damaged isn’t serious . . .
(page 278: New & Collected Poems)
This is not a brick wall puzzle poem. It is perfectly clear what the poet is doing – she’s embedding crossword clues into her lines.

The simple ones at the start make sure we’re in no doubt about what she’s doing. Later, the clues get more testing. This group – “And the 6-50’s found in the first three villains./Night’s a dark deranged thing. Possibly, we hear,/Perhaps, can be, are warnings . .” – took a few re-readings to disentangle. Sadly I’m still stuck on the solutions to:

. . . . . . . . . . . . Cardinals, favourite standbys,
Are always news. The Mayfair Railway’s wiry . .

Any help forthcoming in the comments section below would be greatly appreciated.

Why would she include clues in this way?

Because the voice of the poem is a person with a dying child using crossword puzzles to console herself during the long hours of waiting in the hospital. The experience of the clues in the first stanza helps draw us into the this same state of mind.

This adds poignancy to such later passages as (pages 279-280):

. . . My baby’s local language
Is anguish. Shrieks are all she says.
I pray. Frank pays: neither does any good.
Only the reliable riddle that comes each morning,
Its answer the day after. (More
And more cavalry casualties? (8,6)
Mounting losses.) Although it comforts,
Each answer bears my darling’s dying too.

William Tyndale, just before being burned at t...

Tyndale’s Burning at the stake

The reference to prayer is interesting. Though she mercilessly mocks superstitious and self-righteous piety along with other unappealing frailties, her ability to identify with deep and compassionate spirituality in even the most distant places is uncanny as is shown by her moving dramatic monologue in the voice of William Tyndale, whose early translations provide the foundations of the King James version of the Bible. The words are spoken as he waits for death in a cold and candleless prison cell:

But I watch too,
As once I stood on Nibley Knoll and looked
Out over moody Severn across the Forest
To the strangeness of Wales, Malvern’s blue bony hills,
And down on the dear preoccupied people
Inching along to Gloucester, the trows with their sopping decks
Running from Bristol with the weather behind them
And none of them knowing God’s meaning, what He said to them,
Save filtered through bookish lips that never learnt
To splice a rope or fill a bucket. So I watched,
And saw the souls on the road, the souls on the river,
Were the ones Jesus loved. I saw that. Now I see
The landscape of my life, and how that seeing
Has brought me to this place, and what comes after.
(Page 296: op. cit.)

Because a dying child and religious persecution are still part of our lived experience, these poems are deeply moving. The intermittent reinforcement of priceless gems like these will certainly see me to page 509 of this book and be enough to spur me on to the next, I hope.

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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.

(Roger White Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle – 1989 – edited by Michael Fitzgerald, page 2)

Sometimes I feel that my literary tastes are locked into the Nineteenth Century and before. My recent post on Farley and Roberts’s book Death of the Poets has reminded me of my problem with modern poetry, something I’ve been avoiding recently. I may have to take another look: until I do, this republished sequence explains clearly where and why I got stuck before. This is the third of four relatively brief posts on the subject.

The cover of Ian Hamilton's Collected Poems.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.

To illustrate this, the other poem I wish to focus on from Fuller’s intriguing book Who Is Ozymandias? is discussed on pages 225-233. The section title is ‘Who Is You?’

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.

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Even with such a lesson before him, how heedless is man! Still do we see his world at war from pole to pole. There is war among the religions; war among the nations; war among the peoples; war among the rulers. What a welcome change would it be, if only these black clouds would lift from off the skies of the world, so that the light of reality could be shed abroad! If only the darksome dust of this continual fighting and killing could settle forever, and the sweet winds of God’s loving-kindness could blow from out the well-spring of peace. Then would this world become another world, and the earth would shine with the light of her Lord.

(Selections from the Writings of‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Page 276: Addressed to the readers of The Christian Commonwealth, 1 January 1913)

Sometimes I feel that my literary tastes are locked into the Nineteenth Century and before. My recent post on Farley and Roberts’s book Death of the Poets has reminded me of my problem with modern poetry, something I’ve been avoiding recently. I may have to take another look: until I do, this republished sequence explains clearly where and why I got stuck before. This is the second of four relatively brief posts on the subject.

The first poem I want to consider, of the ones Fuller discusses in his book Who is Ozymandias?, is a war poem. It illustrates one of my difficulties with what I feel are the left brain tendencies of modernism to strip away organic tissue and reduce it to lifeless abstraction (see the first two links in the list at the bottom of this post for more on this issue).

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Randall Jarrell

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

It was, it seems, a popular poem. Presumably the extreme theme helped.

Why don’t I find it satisfactory as a poem? I find myself asking, ‘Is it too abstract for all its apparent “telling detail”? Is it too stripped down?’

Basil Bunting put his advice to young poets on a post card:

Basil Bunting was asked so many times for advice by young poets that he had a postcard printed with his key points:

1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjectives; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape

Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

What exactly is the shape kept here in Jarrell’s poem (and I feel in Briggflatts, or perhaps is should be Brick Flats, Bunting’s supposed masterpiece) when all the jettisoning and cutting have been done? There’s certainly no spare flesh on The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.

The trouble for me is that this process squeezes the life out of a poem leaving only a skeleton. And, perhaps appropriately, perhaps not, that’s all I think we’ve got here in Jarrell’s poem. And how many of us can honestly say that we’d prefer to spend an evening with the skeleton of a friend rather than with the friend in person?

In the end, with a skeleton poem, rather than enjoying the shared creative enterprise offered by an achieved poem, the reader has to perform instead the miracle of raising the dead. We have to exert tremendous effort to put life back into a collection of words that I sometimes suspect might have been more stones than bones to start with. The poet’s desire to pare it all back, even at the risk of creating a brick-wall puzzle, has killed any hope of our finding a poem: even in this case, where the puzzle is not too great, we have a fossil poem at best – bone turned to stone and quite dead – where it would take too much specialist expertise to recreate a sense of the living original.

Maybe that’s what the poet wanted to achieve as an expression of his take on the mechanistic modern world, but it’s not the kind of poem I want to read: it seems to me to capitulate to, rather than effectively protest against the left-brain desiccation of the life world that poetry should, in my view, resist at all costs. The distillation process here has not enhanced the potency of the poem, as the poet perhaps expected, but made it a quisling instead.

So, even when I know what the theme is and can sense the acute tension created by the ball-turret as womb-of-death imagery, it can’t rival the full human impact of such poems as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘ by Wilfred Owen or the deeply unsettling Keith Douglas lyric, where compassion and creativity are deeply fused (see link to Practising Compassion at the end of this post for more exploration of this issue):

How To Kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

(There are two brilliant chapters on the war poets, including Keith Douglas, in my recently explored Death of the Poets – pages 155-203.) 

The skeleton problem is not the only barrier between me and much of modern poetry, though it is perhaps the most important. Fuller lists many others including borrowed characters and troublesome titles. Next time I’m going to consider a particularly irritating habit which seems to me to make even less sense than reducing the words of a living poem to a pile of bones.

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Folk who write poetry are interested in stress-testing the language almost to destruction, to determine the poundage it can bear before it cracks.

(From John Glenday‘s Poetry Hero in the Autumn 2011 issue of the Poetry Society‘s Poetry News)

Sometimes I feel that my literary tastes are locked into the Nineteenth Century and before. My recent post on Farley and Roberts’s book Death of the Poets has reminded me of my problem with modern poetry, something I’ve been avoiding recently. I may have to take another look: until I do, this republished sequence explains clearly where and why I got stuck before. This is the first of four relatively brief posts on the subject.

After examining briefly some possible reasons for supposing a puzzle is good for a poem and looking at the risks that being too puzzling entails, in this sequence of posts I am going to consider one or two examples of where, for me, the puzzles destroy the poems.

The two earlier posts on the experience of poetry indicate clearly that I’m with Glenday when he writes (ibid):

The way to inspiration lies through an intuitive examination of the physical world because everything means helplessly more than itself.

He quotes the poet Charles Wright in support:

To look hard at something, to look through it, is to transform it,
Convert it into something beyond itself, to give it grace.

(Looking Around III)

This sits well with mystical ideas such as those in the Writings of the Bahá’í Faith:

Every created thing in the whole universe is but a door leading into His knowledge, a sign of His sovereignty, a revelation of His names, a symbol of His majesty, a token of His power, a means of admittance into His straight Path. . . .

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh: LXXXII)

(The link to the post below on A World in a Grain of Sand explores this further)

But can the wrenching of language he refers to, which is presumably meant to serve this end, go too far?

John Fuller, a poet I have greatly enjoyed reading, discusses this problem in his engaging book Who is Ozymandias? (and other puzzles in poetry). He helped me to see where my problem lies though I do not share his exact point of view.

He has a very positive take on puzzles (op cit: page 3):

We know very well that most obscurities in poetry soon or eventually begin to respond to the light of the reader’s intelligence, and that it is an intrinsic part of the pleasure of’ poetry to be able to unravel difficulties and to solve puzzles.

He does though acknowledge that this comfortable relationship with such puzzles as poetry poses can break down rather badly (ibid):

Despite this comforting principle, there are a few problems about wilful obscurity in poetry, and I shall deal with some of them in the course of this book. For the moment it remains to examine a little further the reader’s relationship with the poet who is responsible for the puzzles that for a time confound him. Is the poet in some sense a superior person to the reader, leading him on just for the sake of it? Is it possible that the poet sometimes doesn’t know what he is doing and is asking for some sort of mindless complicity on the reader’s part? Is it all serious and worthwhile or is it a pointless game? Such needling questions are often, I believe, lurking behind the reader’s occasional impatience with poetry, and though they may be irritating to poets, it is important that they be addressed.

When I am confronted by much modern poetry, these questions rarely go away for me and I am often irritated. I experience what he describes as ‘brick wall moments’ more often than he does, it seems (op cit: pages 10-11):

Still, the puzzles in Thomas are often enticing enough to require our attention. If we can find more meaning in them than we suspected was there, we dignify the poem. If it is in some sense more our own meaning than the poet’s, we are usually generous enough to wish to share it with the poet, as though we could let him know that his own half-conscious instincts have been successful. In the matter of intention, we want to give the poet the benefit of all doubt. And he, in turn, is felt to sanction our interpretation. Until, that is, we encounter the brick-wall moment when we may temporarily concede the puzzle. The reader will probably recollect experiences of this unhappy state of affairs, perhaps with the work of early Thomas or late Hill, perhaps much of the time with John Ashbery (though these are by no means extreme cases).

It may be no coincidence that I gave up doing the Guardian Crossword at more or less the same time as I resumed an intense interest in poetry. I’m pretty sure I went to poetry for satisfactions altogether different from those provided by crossword puzzles.

Fuller discusses many poems. In the next post, I’ll take one of those poems, one that isn’t hugely puzzling but where, apart from its bleak theme, the puzzle seems to be its main attraction, before moving on, in the the third post on this issue, to another poem where the puzzle seems about all there is to the poem. Neither example is as taxing as those written by the poets he singles out above. Incidentally, I’d add Basil Bunting to my list of brick-wall poets: interestingly, Fuller doesn’t even mention him.

I’ll throw in a good poem in each post just to ease the pain a bit, but be ready for a headache none the less. Bring an aspirin.

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