Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A note on 'Things New Born': things, statues, gambles...

Not so much a note on, as I am not sure what a poet can add to his or her poem that is worth adding, more a note on the thoughts swirling around and behind the event it celebrates.

The poem seems to concentrate quite heavily on 'things'. Why?

Isn't it an odd experience for the consciousness to perceive itself as one of the all but infinite number of objects in the world, an experience dramatically foregrounded on the arrival of a new being in whom consciousness is pre-social and all but invisible, so all that holds the beholder's consciousness is the sheer beauty, pathos, vulnerability, uniqueness and complexity of the object; an object that is the product of nature, desire, delight, work and pain; and, in the family context, specifically and inextricably tied to the consciousnesses that surround it. No wonder it makes us a little dizzy, however rational or practical we are.

This birth, as the poem suggests, came in a year of deaths. Originally, I had the actual names of the dead in the third sonnet, then thought the names might mean little to others, so replaced names with the nature of the relationship in each case. If the specific life of the writer becomes an active element of a work there arises the danger of the work being read as symptom rather than as art. I, personally (and not everyone will agree with me), like to draw that distinction rather clearly.

Why is Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale the framing reference? The parallels seemed obvious. They are there in the first two lines of the first sonnet, the lines that kept swimming round my head, that I was quoting to friends at Peter Porter's funeral, which was the day of the birth too. It was very strange to be both saddened and elated at the same time. The thought flittered on from there. Maybe the statue moving is an emblem of the feeling that there is life in the dead yet - that the birth of the child brings the dead alive in some way. The statue moving and coming to life, because it was never really a statue, only despised, forgotten and thought dead, is one of the great moments in Shakespeare. Its power exceeds our ability fully to explain it. Like a child we only know that something good has happened out of something bad.

Not that the poem - any poem - is a proposition like that. Poems are attempts to discover what language proposes in terms of cry, song and speech. We say what seems the truest thing at the time, then assume that seeming truth to be the case. That assumption is not primarily intellectual: it is instinctive and emotional. Feeling, instinct and thought meet language. The poem is the resultant trajectory.

A poem is taking a chance on language. It is the shaped, articulated gamble that all people take without the shaping and articulation. They start on a sentence, then having finished it, start on another one. The shaping and articulation is the poetic craft - the craft that recognizes the material it works with and tries desperately hard to understand it - but the art lies in the gamble. If we cannot feel the gamble in the work the art is failing somewhere.

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