Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday 15 January 2003

"52 ways of looking at a poem" by Ruth Padel (Chatto & Windus, 2002)

This is an anthology of 52 recent poems mostly by UK/Eire poets. Each has an explanatory article by Padel. It's a bold undertaking (as it quotes on the inside cover, 'an example of raising up instead of dumbing down') and deserves attention. The "Reading poetry today" essay is worth a read even if one's interest in poetry is peripheral - it's not heavy going.

Given the constraints caused by being originally aimed at an audience of newspaper readers, it's understandable that the poems represent quite a narrow genre (no Prynne for example, or even Geoffrey Hill), though her desire for coherence overly restricts her options. Maybe more poems should have been chosen to illustrate poetry issues (rather than to be fair to the poets). None of the poems is bad (at worst they're tidy yet bland) - a shame because bad poems can be useful examples. I wasn't keen on the pieces by Bryce, Dabydeen or Rollinson (none of whom I've read before). I've read Durcan, Olds, Wicks and Maxwell before, and I was hoping that this book would give me an incentive to persist with them but that wasn't the case. Heaney and Maguire came out better than expected, and Farley looks worth investigating. The jury's still out on Anne Carson.

The articles are written for the intelligent layperson, concepts being explained as they're introduced. I'm not sure she addresses the prime concerns of such an audience though. Her discussion of McGuckian's "the Butterfly Farm" (p.94) shows her good and bad points. The poet's decision to use self-contained 3-line stanzas go unmentioned whereas in the succeeding poem the effect's "suggesting it is dangerous to hang loose". The line-breaks and initial capitals go unmentioned. She doesn't explain stanza 1 too convincingly. She certainly doesn't explain why it couldn't have been put far more simply using only a few more words. And yet she treats paragraph 2 well, pointing out much that I'd missed.

She doesn't fault any of the poems - it's not that type of book. I hope that when she's a poetry judge she's as tolerant of loose forms as she is here - Farley's iambic pentameter can have 4 to 7 beats, and Maxwell has 'astonishing technical facility' even though his syllabics are irregular.

As she says on p.223, she sees several poems as images about their own creation, but the most relentless theme is that of sound patterns. She says (p.13) that 'the one thing a poem has to have to be a poem [is] persuasive cohesion'. She thinks the sound should still be 'an echo to the sense'. In the past this was done by regular rhythms and end-rhymes. Even now 'An important way of creating that relationship of sound and sense is by the repetition of vowels and, sometimes, consonants'. I am not very sensitive to sound effects and am not subtle in using them, which may explain my suspicion about these perceptions. My doubts include

  • whether all the patterns that she sees really exist - Her perception of echoes and mutations of sounds sometimes stretches credulity. On p.202 she says that "Many of the vowel-echoes holding the stanzas together are widenings out of, or variations on, the first OR of walking" (the first word of the poem) but I'm unconvinced. On p.252 she lists 'dark ripple' amongst the phrases that are "filled with liquid consonants". The sound effects on p.98 are too slight to worry about I think. On p.77 she writes that "the movement of D through the poem carries a lot of emotional movement". Maybe.
  • if these patterns exist, are they accidental? - texts (particularly literary ones) will have bunched patterns of sounds. For example
    • While writing, one's short-term memory will contain recent sounds which may encourage the further use of those sounds, thus leading to clumping.
    • A tense change will lead to a change in sounds used
    It would be interesting to study extracts from novels, newspapers and various types of text-book.
  • what the cost of these effects is - constraints have their price
  • what the significance of the patterns is - The "ooooo" sound used to be considered sad, but I doubt whether that convention applies nowadays. According to C. Crow ("Paul Valery and the Poetry of Voice") Valery treated sound and sense as consciously separated variables, which is perhaps how many people use sonic effects. She's keen on noting the connecting and isolating effects of sound-bunching and tries to relate these patterns to the sense. On p.243 she write that "the vowels create a particular sonic world for a 'quiet' early moment in the woods". And on p.250 she writes that "The first a close cell of private sounds" but then she continues " also sets up sounds that resonate through the rest of the poem".
  • whether cohesion is so important - see Problems and poetics of the nonaristotelian novel by Leonard Orr.

Get the book and decide for yourself.

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