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After my republishing the posts about my problems with puzzle poetry, the poetry of Antonio Machado seems to me to provide a good example of the kind of poetry to which I resonate most strongly. This second one is not so a much literal translation of his original as a response to it which incorporates his imagery seen through the prism of my perspective. 

A Crazy Song For the original Spanish that triggered this see link.

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After my republishing the posts about my problems with puzzle poetry, the poetry of Antonio Machado seems to me to provide a good example of the kind of poetry to which I resonate most strongly. This is not so a much literal translation of his original as a response to it which incorporates his imagery seen through the prism of my perspective. 

For source of image see link: for the original Spanish click here.

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Language is the medium of the poet. One has only to turn to the words of  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to discover its purpose: “. . . the function of language is to portray the mysteries and secrets of human hearts. The heart is like a box, and language is the key.”

(Roger White on Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald, page 8)

Pressure of other things has meant that I have not had the time recently to do more than work on a couple of poems. However, something I did manage to read triggered me into thinking that I need to revisit my ideas about brick wall and puzzle poetry. I really value the idea of poetry as ‘solving for the unknown’ so I could not lightly dismiss what I found myself reading.

It was an article by John Hatcher in Where Art & Faith Converge (edited by Michael Fitzgerald.) Hatcher argues strongly for the value of what he calls (page 48) ‘algebraic’ poetry, ‘a process that requires the reader to participate in deciphering the equation, in solving for the unknown, the x factor.’ When we encounter a poem of this kind (page 49) ‘we as readers are required to participate more actively in the process of acquiring understanding of the poet’s intent.’ He goes on to explain that ‘[t]his process requires work, sometimes a great deal of work, sometimes reading footnotes to recover allusions,… sometimes this algebraic process of discovering meaning makes the ordinary reader and the less adept critic content to dwell on the surface of meaning.’

His last comment was what struck me the hardest, as I generally invest considerable effort in slowing down my engagement with what appear to me to be potentially rewarding aspects of experience in order not to simply skate across the surface, strongly desiring instead to penetrate into their depths. The poems that I have categorized in these posts as puzzle or brick wall poetry have not so far rewarded my efforts to engage with them more deeply.

So far, I have not had the time to revisit them and others of their kind in the light of Hatcher’s strictures but I plan to do so whenever the tide of my current commitments ebbs. In the meantime I am republishing the relevant posts both as a reminder to myself and a prompt to any reader who wants to contribute to this debate. I have begun to dip more deeply into the poetry of Marianne Moore as a start and found some words of comfort in one version of her poem Poetry (published in 1925 and reprinted on page 408 of Grace Schulman’s edition of her poems (2003):

It may be said of all of us
that we do not admire what we cannot understand;
enigmas are not poetry.

She could’ve had her tongue in her cheek of course!

Incredible as it may seem, there is a link that Fuller is able to make between the skeletal ‘Ties,’ discussed in the previous post, and a full-blooded poem by Thomas Hardy, During Wind and Rain. The link is the reference to ‘white storm birds.’ John Fuller, in his book Who is Ozymandias?, describes Hardy’s poem as (page 213) a ‘celebrated account of sacred family moments, seasonal change and death.’ Clearly the fact that we don’t know who precisely ‘He, she, all of them’ are does not diminish the human impact of the poem in the slightest. There is enough of the living tissue of human experience there to make what it describes come alive in the reader’s mind.

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no ; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

This is not one of Hardy’ best poems but it clearly illustrates that anonymous pronouns need not confuse and putting some flesh on the bones, far from weakening its effects, adds to a poem’s power to convey an experience.

I’d like to end though on one of Hardy’s best and most popular lyrics to illustrate another important point for me which is that accessibility is not incompatible with depth.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited ;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

In the end I have chickened out of tackling the two poets who challenge me the most – Bunting and Hill. I felt that it would be better to use poems where every reader of this post can easily find a brave attempt to bring them to life and judge for him or herself whether I have been unfair. In the end, Fuller, in spite of my liking for him as a poet and my respect for his having attempted what I regard as the impossible, fails to convince me I am wrong. I will continue to look with great suspicion at poets who, to huge adulation in some cases, parade before us as though it were a living poem what I see as a bag of bones. The Emperor in this case not only has no clothes: he does not even have any flesh.

If I am right this is a confidence trick which is seriously damaging the potential poetry has for stirring the hearts of the generality of readers to higher understandings of the human predicament, as I believe Hardy’s does in spite of his own bleak view of what to him is our pointless universe. Every failure to fulfil the potential of a poem is such a waste, such a betrayal, and I regret such failures deeply when I come across them and find reading them immensely frustrating, in case you hadn’t noticed.

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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)

Pressure of other things has meant that I have not had the time recently to do more than work on a couple of poems. However, something I did manage to read triggered me into thinking that I need to revisit my ideas about brick wall and puzzle poetry. I really value the idea of poetry as ‘solving for the unknown’ so I could not lightly dismiss what I found myself reading.

It was an article by John Hatcher in Where Art & Faith Converge (edited by Michael Fitzgerald.) Hatcher argues strongly for the value of what he calls (page 48) ‘algebraic’ poetry, ‘a process that requires the reader to participate in deciphering the equation, in solving for the unknown, the x factor.’ When we encounter a poem of this kind (page 49) ‘we as readers are required to participate more actively in the process of acquiring understanding of the poet’s intent.’ He goes on to explain that ‘[t]his process requires work, sometimes a great deal of work, sometimes reading footnotes to recover allusions,… sometimes this algebraic process of discovering meaning makes the ordinary reader and the less adept critic content to dwell on the surface of meaning.’

His last comment was what struck me the hardest, as I generally invest considerable effort in slowing down my engagement with what appear to me to be potentially rewarding aspects of experience in order not to simply skate across the surface, strongly desiring instead to penetrate into their depths. The poems that I have categorized in these posts as puzzle or brick wall poetry have not so far rewarded my efforts to engage with them more deeply.

So far, I have not had the time to revisit them and others of their kind in the light of Hatcher’s strictures but I plan to do so whenever the tide of my current commitments ebbs. In the meantime I am republishing the relevant posts both as a reminder to myself and a prompt to any reader who wants to contribute to this debate. I have begun to dip more deeply into the poetry of Marianne Moore as a start and found some words of comfort in one version of her poem Poetry (published in 1925 and reprinted on page 408 of Grace Schulman’s edition of her poems (2003):

It may be said of all of us
that we do not admire what we cannot understand;
enigmas are not poetry.

She could’ve had her tongue in her cheek of course!

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). I am aware that someone following this blog is a great admirer of Ian Hamilton and writes poems of high quality in his style, but I felt compelled to use this poem as one of the best examples of one of the problems which I am all too often confronted with when engaging with contemporary poetry. It was apparently not Hamilton’s fault it got published though, so I’m not blaming him for this.

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 in the next post.

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