Seven Days in and I’ve already stumbled into Perplexing Poetry.
Having decided to spend a year reading more poetry (Adventures in Poetry),and exercising the long dormant poetry-processing portion of my brain: then having found a book that will remove all responsibility for making any kind of decision regarding what poetry I should be reading¹, (A Poem for Every Night of The Year) I am happy to report that the first seven days have been pleasantly rewarding.
Actually, that’s a slight exaggeration – for me it was the first five days. I didn’t remember to buy the book until January 3rd. But once I’d got it and overcome my personal discomfort at not having begun it on the right day, thereby missing the first two poems² I found it quickly became something I looked forward to each night.
The very first night I was initially joyful and then increasingly confused as a poem I thought I remembered from my childhood soon became unrecognisable. Sara Coleridge’s The Months begins with a stanza that is engraved on my heart, but as I progressed through each month I began to feel more and more like the child that loses it’s parent in the toy department: I should have been in seventh heaven but there was a nagging suspicion at the back of my mind that I might have spend eternity in my posh shoes and pooing in a public toilet if I couldn’t get back home. Not only was I certain that the words I was reading were not the words I used to repeat as a child, but I knew for a fact that the last verse ran thus: “Then- , Bloody January again!” and with each advancing line I was more convinced that those words had never sprung from the pen of Miss Sara Coleridge. I was deep into the dark days of November when it came to me. Miss Coleridge had been cannibalised by Flanders & Swannª:
The next couple of nights were happily occupied by A A Milne (apparently its alright to like his poetry as a grown up!) whose style and syntax, I realised, are probably unique and certainly instantly recognisable, and Robert Frost.
I repeatedly forget Frost when thinking about poets I love despite the fact that at least two of his poems have affected me profoundly. Nothing Gold Can Stay shattered my heart into blissfully desolate pieces³ when I first read it at about fourteen in Susie Hinton’s The Outsiders. Undoubtedly context played a part in that: without the tragic story leading up to Ponyboy’s analysis of the poem I probably wouldn’t – at that age – have fully appreciated the meaning in it. But the other, The Road Not Taken, has resonated with me since the first time I read it, at a level so deep I can’t easily define it. If I were asked to choose a motto for myself it would be “I took the road less travelled by”. So much so that I used to have it written on a wall in my house. It both describes, and informs my life-choices on a daily basis. That and The Logical Song.¹¹
As it turns out these few nights of happy, reminiscent and uncomplicated reading were designed to lull me into a false sense of security. On night six I reached for The Book secure in the knowledge that we, the readers, were being eased into the Serious Poetry Stuff along a gentle and meandering path. So my shock was whole-hearted when Esiri side-swiped me with a fully loaded T.S.Eliot, and there wasn’t even a cat in it!
If you don’t know, T.S.Eliot – when he’s not burbling on about cats – is a hardcore Poet. A Real Poet’s poet. Initially, the poem didn’t appear to be too demanding but in the final verse the true Eliot rose from the sea of the comprehensible and suddenly I was equating birth and death and wondering what the hell had happened, and if he even knew what he was trying to say.
I find that’s generally the give-away. If you find yourself perplexed; re-reading it six times, moving your lips as you go; if there’s a big, fat “eh…?” punctuating every line then you have probably arrived at Serious Poetry. I’m pretty sure it’s a rule or something, somewhere. “If it’s too obvious you’re not poeting properly!”
However my confusion led me to a realisation. I had started this experiment just one week ago to try and discover what it is that sets poetry readers apart from prose readers.Why they seem to be two different breeds of the same animal. Why do poetry readers get so much more out of the texts they read? In truth it was something I had forgotten, rather than something I’d never known. They get more out because writers like Eliot do their stuff. If the words you’re reading don’t state simply “Jane shot John”, but twiddle around the edges and swap clarity for obliquity then the reader is gong to have to bring more of their own thought to the understanding process:
“Jane raised the gun and pulled the trigger once. John fell in a bloodless heap on the floor and plaster rained down on his face, matching the pallor of his skin. Holes pierced his body and mind but as Jane dropped the empty weapon and blood spilled from the searing wound in her chest he rose to his feet, turned, and left.”
I mean, I just wrote that and I don’t have a clue what happened, but I’m pretty sure someone could make a story out of it if they thought about it for a while.
Perhaps it is just as simple as that. Prose readers read for the story. Poetry readers read for a deeper understanding, not just of the text, either. But does that mean the story is less important to them? Or is it that the story within a poem changes from reader to reader, biased by individual interpretation? If so when did that happen? The Icelandic Sagas just tell stories. I’ve read Beowulf (in translation, obvs!) there’s nothing that seems to me deliberately obscure. So when and why did poetry attain this highbrow quality that stipulates Real Readers have to be willing to indulge guessing games? I am genuinely asking, I don’t actually know.
It’s easy to come away from these kinds of analyses with the feeling that somehow you are ‘less’ than the towering intellects that spend years immersing themselves in tomes of Serious, Perplexing Poetry, squeezing every last ounce of interpretive meaning from them. So cheer up. Because if you are comforted by petty examples of how the literati occasionally get so full of themselves they just disappear up their own arses then you will love this.
The only poem from The Book that I am going to reproduce in full, this is a shining example of something that makes normal readers gape at each other in astonished bewilderment. Somewhere there are people out there who think that this (fun as it may be) actually warranted publishing:
Sssnnnwhuffffll? Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl? Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl. Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl – gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm. Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh? Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok! Zgra kra gka fok! Grof grawff gahf? Gombl mbl bl – blm plm, blm plm, blm plm, blp.
¹ In fact the book suggested the process. When I first saw it on the shelf at work I thought it sounded like a flowery, fluffy idea for poetry-wanna-be’s who think it’s all beautiful suffering and unrequited love. Fuzzy Emos, basically. But the idea of a daily dose of poetry seeped into my subconscious until the whole plan erupted, fully formed, into my conscious mind. I subsequently realised that this was the perfect text for my experiment. Of course I simultaneously realised that rather than a flowery, fluffy idea for poetry wanna-be’s,the book was, in fact, a very sound anthology of reliable verse for sensible people who make informed and intelligent decisions regarding their reading matter and practices. No Fuzzy Emo shit here.
² I’m not O.C.D. I’m not ‘a little bit O.C.D.’ (that’s not a real thing), I’m just tight-fisted. There is a sliding-scale zone within which I can more or less comfortably ignore the real start date for something, but there comes a point beyond which I cannot go. January 14th would have been too late. I could never have started this book that late into the year. I paid for those first fourteen poems, dammit, and I don’t want to be wasting money on poems I’m not going to use!
³ I’ve always had a bent for the melancholic, tragic irony, and pathos. It’s why I love David Gemmell. And Irish music. The only music on the planet that can sound sad, even when it’s belting out cheery sedition.
¹¹ If you think this is weird print out the the words and read them instead of listening to them as happy background noise. Then take a good look at education for the last thirty years¹²
¹² I had to go straight to ’11’ because there is no superscript ‘4’…thanks WordPress.
ª I grew up on a regular diet of these two. They were hilarious and ridiculously clever, and in a small but tidy piece of construction Donald Swann, who was an Oxford Linguist, was very good friends with another professor of languages called J R R Tolkien. The man who first translated Beowulf into English, and whose translation I read.