Monday, 21 January 2013

That precise degree of discomfort

Out to a reading by three ex-students tonight. Ágnes Lehoczky, reading from her second book, Rememberer, Kate Kilalea, reading new poems but also some from her first book, One-Eye'd Leigh, and Matthew Gregory reading new poems, some published some not yet.

The whole reading was put together by Nathan Hamilton (another ex-student) of the Egg Box Press but also editor of the new anthology Dear World & Everyone In It which is to be launched this Thursday in London.

Despite the snow it's a good attendance (more ex- and present students in the audience). Matthew reads first, clear, not too fast, a series of poems about rooms, then two about America. The poems are mysterious narratives, beautifully and precisely written. They are quiet but perfectly gauged. They draw us in with images like clues in that they follow but we don't know where they'll lead. They lead in fact to complex states of mind, dramatised in such a way that the listener and reader comprehends them without having to dissect them.

Kate follows. She is a brisker reader and her new poems - she calls them love poems - part of a series, are full of fascinating fractures in which the notion of love is held before us but always questioned, always eluded by something quite sharp and abrupt. It's like hearing a kind of dialogue with the door shutting and opening. She talks about the feelings one thinks one should have and the feeling - or lack of feeling - one actually registers. I know the poems work - I am held by the changes in voice level - but I want to read these on paper.

After the interval it's Agnes. She reads exclusively from Rememberer, densely woven yet emotionally clear prose poems in which the speaker is in several places at once. Or rather, when she is in one place others arise in memory and imagination. The whole is dreamlike but again, like the poems of the other two, very precise. The word choice is always alert, occasionally a touch exotic, as if the poem had unearthed a rare metal. Quite often it is the word choice that indicates a poet. The right word in the right place but nothing too relaxed. The whole tense with the excitement of saying.

All three present some difficulties for the average reader but nothing so difficult as to prove an obstacle. Reading poems is not like getting pizzas delivered. It should be more like the receipt of a compulsive package. It should intrigue a little. Because the difficulty here isn't down to wilfulness or a desire to show off. These are serious yet glittering ways of discovering the nature of things in poetic form.

That's where we are going now. The new wave of poets will, many of them, have been through university where close discussion of poetry and its possibilities is an essential part of the experience. It is not about cleverness but about curiosity and desire. A poem doesn't have to reveal everything ; it doesn't have to dress itself in seductions; it doesn't have to console or comfort or make us feel mystically at one with the world. We're not at one with the world and that's the point. The poem's job is harder. It has to tantalise and remind us that the world we live in and the language we speak may engage in a dance but that the dance is not altogether comfortable.

The world is not now nor ever will be comfortable. It's the dance and the precise degree of discomfort that matters.

I say these poets are ex-students, but I reflect on what I have taught them and I can't actually think of anything. I think that like all real poets they have taught themselves and that those poets who teach them are there simply to ask them a few questions. The rest is theirs to solve.


Tim Love said...

Sounds to me like the "uncanny valley" effect - the words neither too close nor too far from being comfortable/familiar; the parts shimmeringly close to becoming a whole, a dance, then collapsing.

George S said...

Yes, like that, Tim. What's that Wallace Stevens line? “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.”