The ultimate weapon

April 15th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Last night, to a reading by Catherine Hales. [a few of her poems — some of which she read — are online here, here, here, and here.

Back, and unsure about the whole enterprise. Hales seems to be pretty good at what she does — as far as I can tell, the poems work pretty well on her own terms, and the reading went much more smoothly than I would have expected.

But it makes me realise just how adrift I am when it comes to poetry. I go to readings from time to time, hoping to find something that will describe, explain or enrich the world. Instead I just end up feeling baffled, stupid, underread, and resentful about the entire enterprise.

Partly, this comes down to my old grumble that poetry would be much improved by footnotes. When I don’t understand the origin of a quotation, or the significance of an allusion, entire sections devolve towards being just patterns of meaningless words. There’s little way to know what you’re missing; just a requirement that you spend a lifetime reading the language whose fragments are regurgitated into the poetry. This I won’t do, any more than I’m willing to inhale the canon of Star Wars and Doctor Who so I can follow in-jokes on Livejournal.

It’s a different feeling of stupidity to what comes from not understanding science. There, every moment of ignorance has a solution; understanding some area is mainly just a matter of reading textbooks and papers until it makes sense. Maybe it’ll take more time than I’m willing to put in, but I always know that the answer is out there.

Whereas, poetry? [I mean, this kind of poetry, academic poetry. Poetry that gets listened to by non-poets is a different matter] I have the sense that the only way to understand it is through slow cultural acclimatisation, spending years bouncing around the English department of some anglophone university. And I have plenty of ways to waste my life already, without going down that route.

This shouldn’t irritate me as much as it does; I should be able to accept that poetry is just an enclosed, self-referential world, that I can amicably sidestep in the same way I do Warcraft players. But I can’t; I’m somehow still hooked by the cultural status, by the feeling that I *should* be able to grok poetry, by the wariness that people are doing things with words that I can’t even work out how to comprehend.

The saving grace is the knowledge that, even if I did acquire understanding, perhaps through years of rigorous training in some remote poetry-temple, it still wouldn’t do me any good. As CH describes her work:

‘Look in vain for (linear) narrative, for anecdote, for epiphanies, for messages, for making-the world-a-better-place: the world is a mess and language is messy and the world is language and any attempt to tidy it up with poetry is falsification. There is no utopian vision…’

But what is the use of a book (or anything else, for that matter), without epiphanies and making the world a better place? I’m well aware of the messiness and meaninglessness of the world; the challenge is to tie it into some kind of plausible structure, to give yourself a reason to carry on living. Catherine Hales, by her own aims, isn’t going to do that.

So, in the end, I turn back to rabble-rousing slam poetry. Not only is it easier to understand, but it hints at the possibility of a life not based on continual self-doubt and self-examination, where it is possible to change the world rather than just passively complaining about it. I prefer my poetry weaponized:)

More romantics: Wordsworth

December 28th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Wordsworth, however, is a poet I’ve never been able to make mean something. The main reason, probably, is that I have no time for the pastoral. I’d rather see allusive intensity in the cities I love than in a natural world with which I find no connection.

But the above-linked article by Adam Kirsch turns up other reasons. Apparently “many of what we now see as the Victorian virtues—earnestness, mature optimism, easy authority—are first incarnated in his poetry“. And, perceptively:

If his first readers turned against him because he was undignified, today we are more likely to turn away from him because he is too dignified. He knows what he knows so surely, so completely, that he cannot think against himself; no poet besides Milton is as devoid of humor.

His emergence as the great, challenging poet of natural sympathy and his subsequent decline into dull institutional benevolence form one of the key instructive dramas of modern poetry.

And then, there’s the politics. Shelley embodied it with Queen Mab and the Masque of Anarchy. Byron died for it in Greece, and even Coleridge kept up some level of political involvement through his life. Wordsworth did absorb the afterglow of the French Revolution, but as a spectator rather than an actor. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” is no attempt to change the world, just a thrilling to the work others were doing around him. And even here, argues Kirsch:

“The Prelude” was written as an act of convalescence from and penance for politics, which he finally comes to see as “a degradation” fortunately “transient”

[Kirsch, admittedly, then goes on to praise Wordsworth’s “struggle to transcend the radicalism of his youth, to rescue its benevolent impulses while escaping its shallowness and intolerance“.]

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