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.

Monday 28 January 2008

"The Poem and the Journey" by Ruth Padel (Chatto & Windus, 2007)

"The ideal guide for the apprehensive reader of contemporary poetry" - "Irish Times". It's aimed (I think successfully) at the intelligent lay-person. After a 50 page essay, 60 recent poems are annotated. Nowadays, anthologies of recent poetry are hard to find in shops, so we should be grateful even for that.

The essay tries to deflect some of the standard objections to "modern" poetry, then delves (too deeply?) into the notion of journey - "adventure, quest, homecoming, pilgrimage and exile", but also journeying through a poem by alighting only on the verbs. She uses her knowledge of old Greek literature to good effect. I'd have liked more about different ways of "understanding" works of art - it seems to me that people new to poetry too often depend on the idea that "understanding" means being "able to paraphrase". There are examples from other Arts that can be used (and Padel uses some of these), but a few examples of "WoW!" phrases that defy paraphrase (using sound not just to amplify the meaning but generate it; or using surrealism) might have been useful. She presents no Minimalist or Aleatory work, thus sidestepping the task of explaining the value of such pieces to the public.

Somehow a route needs to be found from what the reader knows/likes to an appreciation of modern verse. I think part of the process of clearing a space for modern poetry should be attacking old certainties. As well as attacking the necessity of end-rhyme why not lay into a Wordsworth or Shakespeare piece? It needn't be too serious, and some of the poems that labour their point ("Lines composed on Westminster bridge", "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") are asking for it.

The poets range from Prynne, Ashbery, Jorie Graham and Hill through Jacob Polley and Katherine Pierpoint to R.S. Thomas and Kit Wright. I'd heard of them all except for Paula Meehan. Most of the poems are new to me though. Her comments are unreservedly optimistic, which is fair enough. She explains difficult words (I didn't know that "silk vest" was American for waistcoat) and identifies allusions (I didn't know that Laird's piece had anything to do with Auschwitz). As in her previous book, she highlights sound effects. Read this, the first stanza of a Peter Reading poem -

All day, the drone of a saw
and resin across the pines
of dark Mortimer Forest.
With each completed sever
it fell by a whining octave.

She says that "This poem also balances echo-words in and across lines within a stanza: a balancing trick perfected by Roman poets. In the first stanza, pines at the end of a line balances whining in the middle" - I don't believe it! While exaggerating the validity of sound effects she underplays the "Wow factor" of some imagery (perhaps because they're too "subjective" for her purposes). She describes one poem as having "a taut cat's cradle of sonic echoing" which suggests that a visual representation might be useful. On p.128 she writes "I have no room to go into Heaney's signature music, syllables and echoes, vowels and consonants", and indeed she does vary her themes, but for me she describes too much and justifies too little. Perhaps more historical context is required, showing how a poem's a reaction or an anxiety of influence. What does Jorie Graham gain by using spaces and being obscure? Padel mentions alternatives to the spaces, and ways to make the poem more readable without (as far as I can see) having any side-effects.

She starts with Michael Donaghy's "Machines", a poem whose evident craftmanship makes it an ideal exhibit. Even those who feel a lack of emotional empathy with it might concede that it's carefully put together, that each feature's worth investigation. But then we get Gwyneth Lewis's "The Flaggy Shore" whose "blank verse lines mostly have three or four beats. Some stretch to five ... So the form both is, and is not, a sonnet". A paragraph later we're told that "The poem is between a sonnet and not-a-sonnet". I don't think the doubting intelligent lay-person's going to swallow that. Not all poems are as meticulous and calculated as "Machines", nor can be treated as such. Readers new to poetry will sooner or later query the random, the arbitrary (content and format), the needlessly obscure, the emperor's new clothes, so proponents of "modern" poetry need to have arguments (or concessions) ready. And if there's one thing the public like less than pretentious art, it's pretentious analysis - some of the discussion of sound effects veers that way, especially when the poems are themselves pretentious, as if something rational must be mined from them.

She hasn't picked poems that make her task over-easy. Her explanations of impenetrable poems usually helped me understand what the poet was trying to do, though didn't explain why the poet had chosen to be unhelpful. Christopher Middleton's "Disturbing the Tarantula" is a unexpected choice so early in the book because I don't think she deals with it convincingly. She's picked an easier Ashbery poem - I learnt from her description of it. She gave a Prynne poem everything she's got, but it's not enough for me, and the write-up of Ciaran Carson's "O" lingered too long in Pseud's corner.

Then there are the "so what" poems - Harsent's for example, or Clanchy's, or Jamie's. The content could have been expressed in fewer words than the poet expended. And Riordan's is prose I tell you, prose! I think she's less successful when trying to justify poems like these. With my layman's hat on I might forgive poems whose form doesn't distinguish the poems from prose, provided that the content's different, but when the shape of the text on the page is the distinguishing feature, I might buy a novel instead - at least the pages are filled up.

The most useful sections for me were about poems that sounded interesting to me on a first reading and required re-reading. Her descriptions showed me how much I miss with poems like Khalvati's, Alvi's and Duran's.

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