Thursday, February 23, 2012

Some Thoughts on Reading Abstraction

This came from a comment of a friend of mine. She said she did not understand the poems of Amy De'Ath, a young poet whose first book, Erec & Enide, was published last year from Salt Modern Voices. Now, I don't have any problem with, in fact I think the collection is really strong. It occurred to me that it must have something to do with the different ways people read poetry.

My friend is very intelligent (in fact she has three degrees), but I think it would be fair to say that she thinks linearly. That is, she thinks in a logical fashion: one idea follows either logically or chronologically from another. Which is perfectly fine with most mainstream poetry, which usually has some kind of argument, or narrative; but it doesn't work very well as a way of approaching much contemporary non-mainstream writing. Hence the difficulty.

Reading non-mainstream poetry is not a question of 'difficulty' as such. None of Amy De'Ath's poems are in any real sense of the word, about difficult subject matter. A lot of them could be described as 'occluded love poems', and in poems like Poetry for Boys, there is a feminist approach that again is occluded. What is a difficulty is not the subject but the approach to the subject. The approach (approaches?) is indirect, circular, deliberately imprecise.

It's like the painting in Frank O'Hara's Why I Am Not a Painter, in which a painting called Sardines ends up as a painting without sardines in it, because "it was too much." The idea of sardines is in the title but not in the painting anymore. So this kind of poem is partly an abstraction from the world, rather than a direct reflection of the world.

It's fair to say that even the most ostensibly realist poem is aware of itself as ultimately failing to live up to the actual experience, or the emotion, that begins it. Language always fails to describe a sunset; or an experience in exactly the way you wish it to. The non-mainstream poet is intensely aware of that fact, highlights that failure, makes it a feature of the poem.

There's also another feature that I want to call the "atmosphere around the poem." I sometimes read poems by mainstream poets that seem to be perfectly fine in themselves; they express an emotion or relate an experience in clear terms, and I know what they mean. Except there's another poem surrounding that poem, a kind of invisible poem that is everything that the poet has left out. So a love poem is surrounded by all kinds of implications about how women are seen by men, about the society that accepts certain romantic tropes and ways or relating but not others, about the whole history of courtly love poetry from Wyatt to the present day, etc...

There is, in other words, a map of meanings, not just a particular route through that map. The mainstream poem, generally speaking, is a route through all those meanings. The contemporary non-mainstream poem is heading toward a more rhizomatic way of reading, where particulars routes are not privileged over other ways of reading, and this means that a mind more used to a singular, linear view might have difficulty because it's looking for a linear reading, an argument or a narrative that isn't there.

As Deleuze and Guattari have it in A Thousand Plateaus, it is the difference between a map and a tracing. A map offers many routes through; but a tracing only offers one. In this sense, the old AtoZ books offer a multitude of routes, but the SatNav only shows you one way: the supposedly more efficient, more direct route. It gets confused if you veer off course, however, and go exploring through the back streets and back routes; or decide you're not going there after all.

So it is with non-mainstream poetry: it has no particular destination, or a series of destinations, or only one destination with a variety of different routes to getting there. Or, as in Amy De'Ath's Letter to John Clare, we have a poem that is approaching the eighteenth century poet, but not biographically, and by a variety of routes that are surrounding the poet's life and work. Maybe it never gets there, maybe John Clare's presence was "too much"; but he's actually still there, under the layers of language.

These thoughts are by no means complete; but I offer them to my readers as a possible way in to reading work that is perhaps 'beyond their comfort zones.'

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Some Thoughts On Dissent

As a Quaker, I'm a member of one of the more well-known Dissenting churches in the country. Dissenters are people who disagree, who refuse to toe the Established Church line, who seek their own interpretations of belief and scriptures and creeds; and Quakers have managed for over 400 years without the usual paraphernalia of creeds and dogmatic statements because they believe in direct access to the spiritual, not through ritual, priesthoods or rules.

So it is with my approach to poetry: and with my approach to the poetry I read. I've just started, for instance, to get my head around the multi-faceted world of Maggie O'Sullivan's poetry. Now there is a poet who dissents from the mainstream of British poetry in ways that probably ensure that she will never be part of any establishment. Blakean and wild, it's also as far from being academic as it's possible for a poet to be. Not that she isn't supremely intelligent, but this is not poetry that displays its cleverness. Like all the best dissenters, she doesn't spend too much time arguing against the establishment; she merely gets on with the job of providing an alternative space for the autocthonous speech of her own vision.

The same is true of poets like Michael Haslam and Geraldine Monk, and the best of the non-mainstream seems to me to have this sense of providing a space for vision and alternative ways of seeing that are excluded from the tidied-up social verse of the mainstream. John Ashbery once said of Frank O'Hara that he didn't so much as protest against the establishment as ignore it. I'm not sure that's entirely possible; but I can see that would be an attractive thing to do.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Some Thoughts About The Well Made Poem

1. Recently, I experienced the strange sensation of having to 'press return to factory setting' on a couple of poems.

2. They were poems that were going in a certain direction towards being 'well-made' in the sense of being perfectly engineering little machines of ideas and emotions.

3. But they felt wrong. In trying to create a poem worked I was trying to squeeze the poem into a shape that 'looked good'. In doing that, I was actually falsifying whatever it was that I was trying to say with the poem.

4. I was trying to be 'clever.' Or maybe to merely appear clever. I find myself prey to the same appetites other poets I like to criticise have: the idea that you have to appear to be 'clever' in your poems, to fill it with 'wit' and the kind of musical lines that get you admired.

5. But the poem didn't fit. I was, for instance, trying to write in regularish stanzas. Not strictly iambic but heading in that direction. I seemed to be going back to the time before I started cutting and pasting.

6. Writing can become habitual, which is why you have to constantly 'make it new'. When it feels like I've done it before, or very nearly, I get twitchy.

7. So I had these poems that weren't working. They were well-made in a sense. They may have been clever.

8. With the first one, I took the first two lines which I thought were good, and wrote about them and a lot of other stuff came out, whilst free writing around them. I started with the phrase "So I had these two good lines..."

9. With the second, I again rewrote if from scratch.

10. In both cases, I did it at night before I went to bed. My mind was loose. I wasn't trying to be clever.

11. They both work better now. They're freer, looser, baggier even. They don't look like little boxes one on top of one another.

12. So what do I conclude? That I can't do the well-made poem? That the well-made poem is, in the end, a back alley?