Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A Note on 'Song', a poem for Helen Suzman:
1. The Nightingale

Song was written on request for a magazine, The Liberal, to commemorate the death of the South African political activist, Helen Suzman who had worked tirelessly for black rights and was several times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was, in other words, a commission and the poem is, what is referred to as an occasional poem, that is to say a poem written for an occasion.

The occasional poem is a problem from the traditionally romantic point of view according to which a true poem arises spontaneously from the heart or spirit and takes its destined but unpredictable course, carrying the discovered urgency of its undeclared and unarticulated mission. A poet may be inspired by listening to a nightingale but would not deliberately go out into a wood to seek out a nightingale in order to praise it for qualities he already knew it possessed. A proper poem has to be a surprise: no surprise for the poet no surprise for the reader, said Robert Frost and I think that he and Keats (the poet with the nightingale) were essentially right. A proper poem should arise out of a naked unguarded experience that elicits surprise in the imagination by extending the consciousness in some way. Poetry is not what one knows but an adventure into what one apprehends.

On the other hand it is customary to offer verses for particular causes or occasions: for births, for birthdays, for weddings, for anniversaries, for funerals.  People seem to feel that poetry, primarily as verse, is appropriate for such occasions. Its memorability, its concision, its perfect formulations seem to convey something of the ritual aspect of events.  There are times when poetry seems downright useful. Satires serve a political purpose. Song lyrics can maintain a community spirit: military marches, chants at football grounds, old campaigns and battles round the camp-fire.  Advertisements use rhyming and rhythmical forms to sell products. Verse may be used to explore rational ideas or describe processes. In all these cases the sense of deliberation, of precisely delivering what one knows, assumes prominence. Keats rejected poetry that ‘had a palpable design’ on us and preferred poetry that came as naturally as leaves to a tree. And it’s true: we don’t necessarily want rhymed advertisements for our views yet there is a kind of joy in the sheer sociability of occasional poems.

The poetry of unguarded experience provides adventure and excitement, ideally the shivers. The poetry of achieved purposes produces logical structure and satisfaction.  Both are valuable in their own ways

Song for Helen Suzman belongs more to the second category than the first, hence my original discomfort with it, even more in being represented by it as somehow typical of my work or being an instance of the best of it. But why should I feel that?  The poem, after all, has a clear function which is to draw attention to Suzman and to celebrate her work as an activist on a specific sad occasion.  Why, if I believed in he work - as I do - would I not want to do that? And isn’t it a delight to write something well-made for the sheer pleasure of writing it?

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