There are some startlingly good poems in Acumen 86 – well, I think so!!

There is also a very interesting review, by Fred Beake, of Nobel Prize-winner Wanda Szymborska’s collection Map. I’ve not read any poetry by this writer, so am in no position to comment on the descriptive qualities of the review, but it seemed to me that one or two underlying assumptions about what poetry is, and should be were co-incidentally revealed, and were worth pulling out and taking a look at.

It’s curious the way elements of what we write, which are perhaps intended to uncontroversially buttress some perceivedly more important statement elsewhere in the piece, should spike the reader’s consciousness, like a thorn in the palm as we stroke smooth wood. One such element, early in Mr Beake’s piece caught me so. Commenting on the lack of information in the collection about the poet he says (and the speech marks are his) “some poets like to be anonymous”. It seemed a curious word, that ‘anonymous’, and especially so in the context of a collection of poetry with the poet’s name attached to it. Here’s a tip for poets who might want to remain anonymous: don’t put your name to it! But was it anonymity that the poet was aiming for?

A deeper implication interested me: the assumption that the context in which a poet writes is of concern to the reader. Behind that lies a further implication, which is that the circumstances leading to the writing should somehow influence the reading. Behind that, the idea that the importance of the poem (or of any other piece of writing) lies in what it means to the poet. But as a reader, you are entitled to read for what the writing means to you. The context of the writing probably won’t be the context of the reading, but do we need to know the former to benefit from (or enjoy) the experience in the latter?

The two are not mutually exclusive, but which way the balance of importance tips might well be different for the ‘ordinary’ reader, and what we might call the academic. Academics tend to look back at the creation of the poem, not forward to the effects. Because the effects are acting on a constantly changing group (and context), whereas the origin, arguably, remains the same, this might seem the best, and perhaps only practicable option. But to what extent does, or should the reader need to care about the back-story of a poem’s genesis?

 

Once you’ve snagged your palm your senses are heightened, and the next thorn was about popularity, which amounted in one quoted poem to ‘two in a thousand.” That might not make you a living  – which rather dovetails into another article in the same issue, but that’s another matter (mother) – but the late Norman Nicholson in his poem The Whisperer talks of searching for the ‘one face/Lit with the grace/Of listening’, which suggests a rarity. Being unpopular, in that sense is, perhaps, normal.

Yet, writers in particular seem to fall foul of the ‘high brows’ as soon as they are perceived as being ‘popular.’ Readers of the blog will know that I favour the ‘artisan baker’ over the ‘white sliced loaf’ metaphor when talking, writing, and thinking about the good poems (and other writing) I encounter from people that even ‘two in a thousand’ of you probably won’t have heard of!

Next came “inclined to duck the big issues in favour of the point of view of the individual’. This reminded me of that old Jewish joke, about the man who makes the ‘big’ decisions – e.g.whether we should leave NATO or bomb Syria – while his wife makes the little ones  – e.g.whether we should by a new suite and re-carpet the bedrooms etc. I don’t think it was supposed to.

Followed the statement ‘it is very hard to perceive continuities in this work’, which brings us back to the starting point, of context. I’ve already quoted this week, in response to a quite separate article, Meg Peacock’s comment about judging poetry by ‘looking for evidence of reading’, but it seems relevant again. Perception, and evidence, is about what we already know. We can only find evidence of reading by what we recall of having read. As to ‘continuities’, aren’t they like the answer to the question ‘what can you see?’ when someone is lost, and we want to know where they are? Could those continuities be ‘ours’ rather than the poet’s, or indeed the wider world’s?

It was the final thorn, though, that made me want to sit down and write about all the others too: ‘So I am reduced to asking “ which poems do I really like, and why.”’  It’s the choice of verb here that disappoints. ‘Reduced’?  Isn’t that the only question worth asking, and worth answering (with reasons in writing!)?  ‘Liking’ poems and stories is not something we are reduced to. It is what they are for, though I can recognise the word being progressively narrowed and diminished by its usage on Facebook and elsewhere.

But Mr Beake goes on to say more: ‘but I only take a small number to my heart.’ There are degrees of liking. Robert Frost is high among my favourite poets, yet of the couple of hundred poems in his collected works only a dozen or so strike my heart. How could it be otherwise? To like moderately, as Mr Beake says he likes many of the poems in the collection, is one thing. To ‘take to your heart’ as widely would suggest either being indiscriminate or over sensitive.

It is not in the poet’s or any other writer’s grasp to make us take anything to heart: That lies in the joint enterprise of reading and writing. The reader has to bring their sensitivity and experience of life, as well as their competence in reading, to enable a piece of writing to work powerfully, or rather, to recognise a power within it.

Of course, as soon as I write that, I recall C.S.Lewis berating ‘unliterary’ readers for imbuing bad writing with their own imaginings.

DIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAIL

Advertisements