Thursday, 10 June 2010
Simon Armitage at UEA: poetry as prose
A near capacity hall for Simon Armitage reading from Seeing Stars last night. The book is as good as anything he has done, more adventurous, sharper, darker, bleaker and a lot funnier. It has been enthusiastically reviewed in The Observer, The Guardian and other places. Some refer to the poems in it as prose poems, but he wants to keep the term at bay. Too many associations perhaps. But he talks about James Tate and about Charles Simic. What joins him to them is partly prose, but partly the urge to tell a story that is funny in some parts and grotesque or unsettling on the other.
In fact the poems often start in a humorous key, inevitably naming one or other well known public figure as a fantasy character, drawing on some aspects of the real figure's real life but setting them in an unlikely situation, then suddenly twisting into a different mode and register. It is a little like hearing Eddie Izzard setting off into the arctic wastes accompanied by Alan Ayckbourn in a dark mood, but the result is oddly human and properly poetic.
It would be much harder to do this in verse and it is interesting to think why.
The poems on the page are justified left, not right, so sometimes there is an illusion (another illusion) of lines of verse, but the line break could come anywhere, and has come in different places in different publications. It is not so much prose poetry then, more poetry as prose.
Poetry as prose is counter-intuitive. We expect prose to inform us, to proceed down its syntactic route with just the odd glance to left and right. It is there to answer the question: what next? That is what syntax means. And what comes next has, by definition, to be consecutive. Reading prose is, intuitively, a reasoning, logical process springing out of a logical system.
Reading poetry is less a logical affair. You are looking left and right and every which way all the time. You don't necessarily expect a rational tour. Language simply behaves differently, distrusting itself, absorbing everything. As I have written before, no one reads a poem to find out what happens in the last line. We know intuitively that the point of the journey is not to get to the far shore but to experience the sensation of travelling while being: it is travel as dance. It's not difficult really: there is nothing easier in fact, but reading left to right while accompanied by the police force of syntax and the gendarmerie of literalism, means we keep trying to explain the poem as though it were a journey from A to B. As evidence. Bad mistake.
And that is precisely the role of prose as poetry. It offers not only counter-intuition but counterpoint. If offers one expectation to deliver another. The sense of disorientation is humorous at first, but disorientating and potentially terrifying. Logic seems to be driving us on: but if that is where logic leads us (in one Armitage poem it leads us to the discovery that all our assumed nearest and dearest are in fact the agents of the state, without a shred of affection for us, but simply doing their jobs) - then logic too is absurd.
Absurd yet worrying, because nothing need be as it seems. The logic is not logic as we know it: its inevitability comes to us like night falling.
Having said that the poems make comic entrances that remain with us and Armitage reads them mostly as comedy, with comic timing, downbeat, lethal - in fact prosaic. The comedy appears to comfort, but you'd better laugh before the ribs break.
It only hurts when I laugh, went the joke. I met with one such last week who had met with an accident. She smiled but stopped herself laughing. Seeing Stars is full of accidents like that. His best book for a long time. Maybe the best, full stop.