Thursday, 4 October 2012

Poem for National Poetry Day

I don't read as much poetry as I feel I should. Which is a complex cultural position in which to be, especially for someone who once ran the Introduction to Poetry module. Why do I feel I should read more poetry? Perhaps because it's the oldest genre, and therefore privileged. Perhaps because it used to be the mode for high-achieving gentlemen (failed again…). Maybe because it's the premier literary field as far as the canon goes. Or is it because poetry is held to be the genre which gives the greatest access to the emotions? Being 'emotionally dead', as I was once described, perhaps spending some time with Rossetti, RS Thomas, Spenser and co will resurrect me? 

All bollocks, of course: a lot of poetry is vicious, forbidding and bitter: the idea that it's some kind of well of human kindness is a post-Victorian attempt to make literature 'nice' and tidy - probably for 'the kids', an entirely misguided effort given that a lot of children and vicious, forbidding and bitter, and like to read novels which offer them similar joys. I read a fair amount of poetry: RS, O'Donoghue, Millay and plenty more, and it's singularly failed to make me a nicer or more caring person. I read poetry for its reflective qualities - I don't often read plot-driven work, but go for those which take short-cuts to the core of an issue, and those which make me think about the complex relationship between language and thought. I don't read poetry for therapy, or for 'answers' - that's the kind of rubbish you get on birthday cards. I do think poetry's special because it's a way of making sometimes quite ordinary things strange, which is very necessary in a culture which has hijacked pretty much everything for the purposes of making us consume more stuff. 

As it's National Poetry Day, here are a couple of my favourites. First, Edna St Vincent Millay's 'Sonnet XLIII'. It's a female incursion into the previously masculine sexual history of the sonnet - but also a plangent reflection on a sexual life which has drawn to a close. 

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Although Simon Armitage stood up the Map Twats on his supposed perambulation of the Pennines, here's 'Poem', which was always received well on my Intro to Poetry courses. It's so deceptively shallow - inviting you to dismiss the narrator as a self-regarding young man - until the final couple of lines, when you realise (I hope) that he - and we (or men at least) - are brought face to face with mortality and our emotional denial. (A 'Sony Walkman', kids, was what rich kids had before iPods existed). And no, I don't know why the stanza breaks are there either. 

Frank O'Hara was open on the desk
but I went straight for the directory.
Nick was out, Joey was engaged, Jim was
just making coffee and why didn't I

come over. I had Astrud Gilberto 
singing 'Bim Bom' on my Sony Walkman
and the sun was drying the damp slates on
the rooftops. I walked in without ringing

and he still wasn't dressed or shaved when we
topped up the coffee with his old man's Scotch
(it was only half ten but what the hell)
and took the newspapers into the porch.

Talking Heads were on the radio. I
was just about to mention the football
when he said 'Look, will you help me clear her
wardrobe out?' I said 'Sure Jim, anything.'

Oddly enough, my colleague Paul McDonald has just won the John Clare poetry prize with a poem about another ageing Jim:

John Clare Poetry Prize 2012
Lucky Jim
Paul McDonald
1st Prize: Adult Category

I went to Brenda’s house for dinner
She’s clearing out the fridge which meant
A first course of fishcakes and yoghurt
Lucky they’re compatible, she said.

Main course prawns, peas
And croquette potatoes;
Angel cake with ice-cream for afters.

She’s clearing out her cupboards too: Jim’s stuff.
I scored a pair of Argyle socks.
Lucky they’re in fashion, she said.
We debated widow’s pensions

But weren’t sure of the details;
She plans to pick a booklet up from Age Concern.
She’s terminating Sky – making do

With Free View and knitting.
Lucky I’m a reader, she said.
She’s cancelling the Racing Post,
Arranging for collection

Of his hearing aid, tablets, and orthopaedic bed.
His Lotto numbers will survive: I just have a feeling, she said.

And finally one to puncture the rather smug jollity of National Poetry Day: RS Thomas's 'Death of a Poet':

Laid now on his smooth bed
For the last time, watching dully
Through heavy eyelids the day's colour
Widow the sky, what can he say
Worthy of record, the books all open,
Pens ready, the faces, sad,
Waiting gravely for the tired lips
To move once -- what can he say?

His tongue wrestles to force one word
Past the thick phlegm; no speech, no phrases
For the day's news, just the one word ‘sorry';
Sorry for the lies, for the long failure
In the poet's war; that he preferred 
The easier rhythms of the heart 
To the mind's scansion; that now he dies
Intestate, having nothing to leave
But a few songs, cold as stones
In the thin hands that asked for bread.


Anonymous said...

I like:-

Louis MacNeice - Prayer before Birth

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white waves call me to folly and the desert calls me to doom and the beggar refuses my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with one face, a thing, and against all those who would dissipate my entirety, would blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me

John Bellen said...

I think the idea that poetry was a 'well of human kindness' may have come from the fact that poems of the eighteenth century and previous times seemed, if not more upbeat, then written as if they were. Modern poets may be good but there are more pseudo-poets these days than the genuine article, and they all seem to think poems must be about figurative hells. I may be superficial but living in a figurative hell (ie. the modern world) makes me want to escape it not read more about it.

And, as someone observing Britain from Canada, I have to say I'm surprised that, after Tony Blair's administration, there are those who can still distinguished the Labour Party from either of the U.S. parties. Perhaps there's a reaction against Mr Blair's vassalage to America?

The Plashing Vole said...

I wish MacNeice was more popular than he currently is - an excellent choice.

Bellen - I think you're right about the origins of the poetry-as-nice approach, though I don't share your tastes: to me, if the world's going to hell, the poetry should tell us so!

I agree that Blair was the US Ambassador to Britain, but the current Labour Party, spinelessly neo-liberal as it still is, remains far to the left of the Democrats.