Sunday, 11 September 2011

Sincere Austerities 1: Beginnings


I am not sure how far other poets feel - at least occasionally - a tug in two different directions. The first is towards the language of poetry, or rather poetry as language, in which the act of writing is improvised from some set starting point with a certain consciousness about both the process of improvisation and the nature of that with which it is improvising.

The second is a sense of responsibility to the world outside poetry. By the second, I don't mean writing with some political idea or perception within the world of highly-skilled specialists, but, quite literally, to the man or woman on the street, a not-especially educated figure but a human being with whom there may exist the possibility of communication in the form of poetry.

Speaking for myself only, I have very much enjoyed working with visual artists whose starting points and means are quite different from mine. Each time they opened up a door I found myself darting through it, often with the aid of some formal device - a verse form, an invented structure - to see what lay on the other side. It was like getting out of my own history. After over thirty years of writing I rather like getting out of my own history. The New and Collected Poems of 2008 is there and there is no need to write those poems again. This doesn't mean that the new poems are unrecognizable as my work only that the impetus to write them has less to do with the consciousness of being myself, and with my own obligations to that consciousness: in other words with writing simply that which I understand to be a truth within that life. So it is that some of the new poems to be included in the forthcoming Bad Machine have appeared in internet magazines with an interest in experimental work, such as Blackbox Manifold. To put it very simply, the subject in these poems was tilted rather more to the discovered rather than to the known.

On the other hand there were the recent riots and I found myself writing the poem Children of Albion which appeared on this blog a few weeks ago. Children of Albion is very much a piece of public verse, the verse overt, the language negotiating a series of statements that have clear outside referents. Even before, when I have written about the town where I now live, as in 'Backwaters: Norfolk Fields' I was aware that people living here might come across the poem and recognize the place, even recognize themselves. Believing as I do that poetry is an innate, intuitive way of responding to the world, I liked thinking that my work wasn't going out into a hermetic space of rare air, but might, as Wordsworth urged in the Preface to The Lyrical Ballads, speak the language really spoken by men / women and hence be read by them because it addressed what they felt and thought.

There you have what might be considered a crude binary opposition: the hermetic versus the populist. In actual fact the choice is rarely as simple as this. I have no desire to be either hermetic or populist, but realise that there are interesting currents flowing either way and that the only true imperative for a writer is to be swimming against currents. The first thing is to sense the currents. What after all is the populus? Who is it? Are they bound to be people like oneself? How far does one want to be like people like oneself? Never join a club that would accept you as its member, thought Groucho Marx, who knew a thing or two.


All the same, I cannot help thinking that while the intuitive understanding of the poetic is part of the human condition, poets themselves - that is to say people who give their lives to poetry as a literary form - are not entirely like other people. What are some of the signs that might mark such people out?

Time to roll out the clichés, always remembering that the problem with clichés is not that they are not true, but that they stop seeming true in language. Love is a true cliché, meaning that we generally feel that love exists as a truth: writing clichés about love does not seem like truth.

So let us assume that poets are in some ways loners, or at least less gregarious than the normal run of humankind. When poets turn party-people they are likely to do so in a somewhat melancholy or frantic way. There is something a little detached about them.

Let us also assume that poets are peculiarly sensitive, in so far as they notice things (as Hardy put it in 'Afterwards', "He was a man who used to notice such things"). They notice a great deal, and you might argue that the first thing they notice is their own existence. This might be a sign of vanity - indeed it sometimes is - but it is also a sign of understanding the difference not only between themselves and the world (eg the party going on around them), but between their noticing and the way that noticing arrives and is articulated. They notice words. Too damn right they do. They could never be poets otherwise. Noticing their own existence, they cannot help but notice the strange, equal, almost oppressive existence of the world. The motions they make with language are their ways of finding some manageable, persuasive tension between the world, themselves and the language. It is not the fact that they notice these things that makes the poets (everyone does that at some time) - it is the degree, depth, and intensity of their notice.

You might also assume that poets value intuition, emotion, and mystic ritual above intellection, rationalism and institutional rules. That is partly because they sense the arbitrariness of the whole intellectual process, that is of its given terms, ie language, and that they are therefore somewhat aware of the Achilles heel of language and reason. It doesn't mean, in most cases, that they disavow language and reason simply that they distrust it. On the other hand, precisely because they value intuition, emotion, and mystic ritual, they distrust these things even more. They are concerned in case they became sentimental about them. Sentimentality is a belief in cliché as sign and cliché is what they cannot afford.

Do they pray to the Moon? Do they owe fealty to the Great White Goddess? Do they go all dreamy and weak at the knees surveying waterfalls and cataclysms? Are they slightly effeminate? Quite possibly, in various non-clichéd ways.

In any case the poet begins with some sort of psychological starter kit that may contain some or all of the items above. The starter kit helps them articulate - what are kits for after all? - the poetic, which is, they instinctively know, something to do with the relationship between life, language, and the sense of being both in and out of both.


I am thinking my way through the above in order to prepare the ground for an engagement with what Sam Riviere has generously offered in an email - the use of his earlier email with its fascinating arguments, which are actually better than the link he modestly, and, I think, wrongly, points to as superior to his own.

So tomorrow to Sam. There remains the music for Sunday and a note on 9/11. Next post.

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