Saturday, 12 March 2011
from Delhi 3
This morning it was Vahni and Alan. Vahni speaks first and delivers a beautifully illustrated argument about her preference for time over space, expressing her doubts about the legitimacy of the poetic line, which she feels is something of a dead end, to deploy a pun that was not clearly called for. She asks whether form belongs to the reader or the writer, wants to look beyond the process v. product discussion, employs metaphors involving architecture, oceans and astronomy to suggest scope. There is a lovely image of her as a piecer-together of mosaics surrounded, she suddenly notices, but a great mass of other mosaic constructiors.She says her unconscious is more orderly than her analytical mind, prefers toalk of forms rather than of form, cites Anglo-Saxon poetry to demonstrate that the line is an afterthought, not part of the structure, and that if there is form it lies in movement not in fixity. Beginning from Mallarmé's notion of the white space around poems as a kind of silence, she develops the idea that Mallarmé might have wished for silence but that the margin is actually full of noise, pointing to the use of grotesques in the margins of old prayer books and psalteries.
She wants the reader to make an effort, to work. She uses terms like complacent and banal, and when I remark that I have asked students in the past to put the lines back in a poem that I had printed out as prose, and that they have generally got pretty close, she says that students will do things to please their teacher.
Of course, I understand that she must speak with force because she thinks forcefully, but I feel a bit patronised if nothing else. All the same I admire her and have enormous respect for her mind. However, I remember how at the end of her reading the previous evening she asked the audience whether they wanted more prose or a 'poem-poem'. Having heard what she had to say on the subject they naturally opt for prose.
Well, I think, I write poem-poems, and perhaps when I introduce my own reading later I will preface the reading with a warning that the audience is about to hear poem-poems, so if they wish to take a sleeping pill and set their alarm clocks forty minutes on, that's fine by me. I add that at least they are not poem-poem-poems, so are only guilty in the second degree.
Actually, this is probably just vulnerability and pique on my part; why not argue theory with passion and ruthlessness. Ideas are not people, are they?
And of course we get on very well outside the ring... She is splendid, intelligent and right in very many ways - there is always a need to be sceptical about one's work and to guard against complacency and banality. It just feels a touch absolute, as though delivered from a superior height, and does discount centuries of poem-poems. That may just be my own vulnerability though. Some of us start low. But tomorrow I talk about poem-poems.
When it comes to Allan we seem to be caught in an earlier endless circular discussion about who or what readers are and how far we do or do not determine or encourage readings, or indeed readers to be complacent and banal, as complacent and banal as ourselves. Eventually Allan erupts and describes, wonderfully, how he writes - at night, in the dark, with a pencil, seeking words and progressions, without ever thinking of the reader, wanting only to please himself. This is so heartfelt and so clearly true I feel a positive surge of love for him.
And he is right and is only slightly fuzzy on the sense of self, on how the writing self is compounded of all that we have been, done and read and admired, so the tutelary deities in the head - my phrase now - are constantly changing places, vanishing or being replaced. In my case there would certainly be deities that go by the names of Eliot, Stevens, Auden, Roethke, Bishop - and further back, George Herbert, Thomas Wyatt, Andrew Marvell, Rochester in his way, Pope in his and Swift in his and Byron in his; and some notes of Wordsworth and Tennyson, and Emily Bronte, and perhaps we might add Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Max Jacob, Rilke, Mandelshtam, Brodsky, etc etc, to extend to the Hungarians and then to people who are not writers at all, say Vermeer and Goya and strange minor names like Francis Picabia; nor should I ever forget my mother and father and the history I owe them, though that I do not in fact ever forget. And Clarissa who is there in so many poems.
Where does one stop? The truth is that the list is not infinitely extendable. 'These are your Gods, O Israel' wrote Robert Graves accusingly. These are and have been some of my own tutelary spirits who have not quite been gods, and no doubt there will be others. Possibly even Graves, the most English of twentieth century English poets.
In the afternoon a trip out and we talk at ease, Vahni and I. Well, why not? We actually like each other, I think.
Then the reading - first the collective, the writing much simpler and clearer than the theorising about it. Rather lovely depictions of scenes in the city, the complexity tucked well inside the narrative flow. Then I do my piece including a majority of new work. It's fine. I know how to read, and get on with it. People are complimentary afterwards and we head off for a meal in the Lodi Gardens.
Quarter to one in the morning here. Time to stop.