Tuesday, 26 August 2014
From the Hurst 2
Surprisingly nowadays I had a good night but woke early. I had a set of poems to read and duly read them then decided to go for my brisk walk before reading the poems again. The trees were still dripping with last night's rain and there was more rain in the air, all but intangible for a while then every so often producing a spell of something a little more pronounced and distinct. But whether it ws actually raining or not it was like being in Baudelaire's 'rainy country', a terrain dunked in a systematic wetness that was both dismal and romantic, hills coming into view like veiled and faintly operatic statements.
Just a bowl of cereal for breakfast and some coffee then to prepare for the first session which was to be mine. I squeeze a lot in but try to link themes, beginning with the sense of language as something both rich and multifarious but at the same time as thin and brittle as a sheet of ice over a mass of water. Language as a system of arbitrary signs, language as something not quite amenable to paraphrase, language as transaction, as code, as manners, as decoration. Might form with its apparently arbitrary rules be an echo of the arbitrariness of language? And if there was an element of the arbitrary and provisional in its way with meaning might that be a way of opening up possibilities, ways of conducting an exploration.
I talk of Nemes Nagy and her view of the poet as a scientist or explorer of the emotions, as someone coming across a new emotion, discovering it by exploring it through language, and her sense that a poem was, in fact, a kind of name - the name of a complex emotion, or to put it another way, the name of a complex state of affairs.
When we come to patterned form I suggest there are various conventional ways of approaching it; in terms of tradition, song, echo, mnemonic, and music, but also as process, a process in which the rules of any particular form are constantly diverting us from simply articulating something we already feel and know, shifting our attention towards improvisation and the discoveries of improvisation. How paradoxical it is that the very things we assume to be limits to freedom may in fact be the producers of a less expected freedom; that having overt rules is a way of breaking a more pervasive covert rule.
We say something about the different natures of poetry and story: poetry as cry and naming, story as consequence.
But I have written all this before in various ways and the point is to see how form can help us. So we take a gallop through various received forms starting with some short ones: the clerihew, the haiku. We look at five Tranströmer haiku. We discuss the sonnet and its apparently infinite tolerance for rough handling - from Shelley through Ransom, through Berryman, Hacker and Lowell. Then the sestina, the canzone, syllabics and finally MacNeice's internal rhyme device in The Sunlight on the Garden, and a bit of Sitwell.
We also talk about the structure of the three-stage poem, which I explain then set as an exercise. We start with rain, then continue first by digressing, then by either returning or by digressing still further into an area that nevertheless seems relevant.
We spend about 20 minutes writing, then read and discuss the drafts and that takes us well past the time designated for lunch. The students have in fact done very well indeed: time pressure and structure (or rule) immediately produces results that longer forethought might not have. So it's pleasing.
Then a light lunch and into individual tutorials - three meetings in my case. I am always trying to gauge what level of advice / criticism to offer that might be valuable, not to an abstract student, but to the specific writer in front of me in the light of what they have shown me. I can of course get this wrong but hope to get it right most of the time.
An hour or so of quiet afterwards then Kathryn and I do our readings followed by some Q and A, then simple conversation. It's a long day. Tomorrow it's Kathryn's session, with Hannah Lowe to come in the evening.
I have in the meantime written a few half-ironic precepts relating to all the above. Time for that on another occasion.