Finding fault with poetry

There’s an interesting post on Bookslut today pointing out that reading poetry is a kind of theft in that most of us read in order to pilfer more tricks of the trade from those that we admire. This is perfectly true but there are several other dimensions worthy of consideration- we use poetry as a measure of our own abilities, the first question I have (before getting to the theft) is- could I do this any better? Being arrogant about my own abilities, I tend to lose interest if the answer to this is ‘probably’. If the answer is ‘no’ then I’ll look for what I can steal but in some cases I come across stuff that is simply out of my reach and any kind of theft would result in very poor imitation. There are passages in Olson and Matthias that are very skilled but also incredibly subtle and I simply don’t have (and never will have) that degree of skill/ability.
When reading we also look for fault, the stuff we wouldn’t have put in and the stuff we would express in a different way. This doesn’t normally detract from our pleasure in the work but does at least confirm our readerly independence.
I’ve been giving this some thought since Vance’s reply the other day and realised that I’ve made criticisms of bits that are clunky and bits that I don’t think ‘work’ in that I would have found ways to do them differently.
The first poem that epitomises the ‘brilliant but flawed’ issue is Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Triumph of Love’ which must stand as one of the finest poems of the last twenty years. I can see the point of the Frankie Howerd imitation, the theological obscurities but I do question whether the direct address to the critics is useful- he’s good enough to ignore those who wish to snipe. The other reservation is the repetition of poetry as “a sad and angry consolation”, as readers we don’t need to be told that it’s a beautiful phrase, nor should it be re-stated twice over three lines. This isn’t to detract from the staggering quality of the poem but just to point out that I wouldn’t have done it in this way.
Now we come to ‘The Orchards of Syon’ and my feelings about Paul Celan. I am of the view that Celan is the most important poet of the 20th century and that his work shouldn’t be messed around with. I recognise that I am very biased about this and should perhaps exercise more tolerance to others who are careless with his legacy. ‘The Orchards of Syon’ contains several attempts to translate ‘Atemwende’, a term Celan used in the Meridian Address and as the title of his most important collection. These attempts ‘feel’ gratuitous to the poem and none of them seem to be saying anything of worth.
Poem LIII is ostensibly addressed to Ingeborg Bachman who was Celan’s girl friend when he lived in Vienna. It contains the following lines:

I think I prefer you without makeup

as I suspect Celan did also.

I’m less sure of the plump Italian; he

loved young Jewish women – Irma Brandeis,

Dora Markus, but moved on, to Opera,

which could have brought you together……

I cannot see what this is doing in the sequence, nor can I work out the relevance 0f Celan’s taste in women to Hill’s overall thrust. I’m surprised by how strongly I feel about this but again it isn’t something that I would’ve done.

I’ve spent some time on this blog finding fault with Keston Sutherland, this isn’t because I think he’s a bad poet (‘Stress Position’ is another of the best poems in the last twenty years) but there are times when I feel he lets himself down. ‘Sonnet 18’s attack on middle class guilt is simplistic and not particularly useful, the line ‘cruising for a bruxism’ from ‘Stress Position’ doesn’t work and the Derrida quip from the same poem still reads like a triumph of form over content.

I used to feel the  same about the Lenny Henry footnote in ‘Hot White Andy’ but writing on annotation  for Arduity has made me reconsider. My jury is still out on the footnotes to ‘Stress Position’.

With regard to Prynne, the fragmented and rearranged lines in the ‘Word Order’ sequence seem a bit forced. I do recognise that I have a long way to go with Prynne and am thus not really in a position to judge but this kind of improvisation does strike me as a bit inept.

Moving on to Charles Olson, my first and second readings led me to feel that there was too much stuff about myth and that the experiments with the flow of text detracted from the ‘Maximus’ sequence. I’m now on my fourth reading and (having read David Jones) my view has changed. In fact, I find it really hard to find fault with any of this great work. I remain in awe of how Olson makes doing difficult things seem quite easy and natural.

So, those of us who write the occasional line of verse steal from those who are better than us but we also learn what we aren’t able to do and what we don’t think should be done. Then some of us feel the need to write about these findings to see if others feel the same……

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2 responses to “Finding fault with poetry

  1. As the author of that post admits near the beginning, the difference between prose and poetry in this respect is just one of degree. There exist people who read contemporary poetry without any ambition to write it (me, but also some who read a lot more of it); and many (me again) who do read prose of all sorts with that ambition at least in the background.

    While thinking this over, I heard again the proudly flaunted Tristan quotation in Faure’s first violin sonata, and fell into one of those moods where every cultural production seems a remix.

    • Perhaps I just hang around with too many poets and thus become blinkered to those who read verse exclusively for pleasure. I must confess to have had some aspirations in fiction but the fiction I read has tended to influence the way that I try to write poems.
      In terms of the cultural remix, isn’t that what’s good about the process of production? I’ve spent the last two years trying to re-define my own ‘mix’ and have rediscovered old ingredients whilst finding new treasures to mine.

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