Poetry Red in Tooth and Claw

Poetry is undoubtedly something I’ve come to in later life. All through my undergraduate career I steered clear of it because prose seemed to me to be something I could grasp hold of so much more easily, and I guess my introduction to it at school hadn’t been too enthralling. To this day I dislike epic poetry intensely and cannot find the heart to read screeds and screeds of iambic pentameter. Gradually I began to find poetry I could relate to; short, pithy poetry that didn’t seek to obscure, that was funny or poignant or wry. Poems that elaborated a metaphor, or focused on a scene, or linked together punchy images. If a poem went over a page in length I’d stop reading, unless it had really grabbed me. But reading poetry at all meant that I started to come alive to its enigmatic universe. I began to develop a method whereby I considered a poem like an intense dream, a collection of vividly imagined moments put together in a way that made time and space elastic, but that clouded the causal links. A series of images that begged for interpretation and resisted it at the same time. I’m still very picky about my poetry, but I do have a very tender place in my heart for poets like Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and the recently discovered Anne Sexton. I love the way that they tap into the roots of women’s experience and draw out something dark but vital. They make poetry make sense for me, as an expression of the kind of experience that resists articulation, of emotions so fierce and complex that they call out for a different configuration of words than the ones we use everyday.

I’ve got another poet to add to this particular line-up now, the Canadian poet Beth Janzen, whose work I’ve recently discovered. Janzen is wonderful at mixing domestic and daily experience in with archetypal female figures. Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, the Bride of Frankenstein, Desdemona and, most notably, Persephone, stalk through her poems, on the lookout for vengeance, singing the parts of their stories that were neglected on the official song sheet, and bewildered at the shapes they have been obliged to take. They embody the spirit of fairy tales gone awry, showing the happy ending up as a patriarchal construction in which being owned by the man is not necessarily the point of joyful closure. I particularly liked ‘Persephone at 30’ for the lines

I try to be stern with myself,
give long, rudderless lectures to the mirror.

Every sock has a hole burned through.
Every vet in town has a slash through my name.

I really like the visceral place that Janzen speaks from. I thought about the poetic voice a lot; it’s crisp, often brutal, erotic, bitter, and unresolved. It’s a voice that seems to seep out from the very margins of consciousness, like the thoughts that come unbidden to the mind on the point of sleep or in the strangeness of distraction. I wanted to call it a voice from the entrails, as it’s far from cerebral, but in the end I decided I thought of it as a voice from the hormones, from those odd, unpredictable but fiery coded messages that hold you captive beyond reach of the rationality of experience. Here’s another stanza I loved from a poem that follows, from a heartbeat’s distance, the entwining of love and hate in a relationship:

I look in the mirror and see her,
this curse. You look, see nothing strange.
But put your hand to the glass
and she’ll start to pull you through.
Scream all you like – there’s blood,
but she will not break.

I also appreciated the placement of the poems on the page. I often can’t persuade WordPress to let me have line breaks between stanzas so I’m hardly about to attempt to reproduce more complex typography here, but I liked the way that a brief couplet in italics often appeared like a voice out of left field, the way her short, short sentences snaked sinuously down the page, or the choppy rhythm of a line that contained a break or a gap, a pause or a hesitation. The form fit beautifully with the lush intermittent pulse of desire (a subject on which Janzen writes particularly well), the compulsive captivation of risk, and the melting transitions of metaphor as images slide through patterns of association. The clash of body and mind in the interiority of the soul is just wonderfully orchestrated in her poetry. Like in this opening stanza of the poem ‘Kisses Easily Obtained Are Easily Forgotten’:

But not the kiss we wait for
by the tracks, ear pressed
to damp earth, quietly sensing,
absorbing vibrations,
whispering It comes.

The relationship between the body and the material world around it is also a subject that comes up repeatedly in these poems. Janzen forges a tight, throbbing link between bodies and nature, emphasizing the bestiality underlying our civilized veneers in the poem ‘Your Nature’:

Your nature is dangerous
when you’re at night in a shack
somewhere in moose country
and you haven’t seen people
in almost a week.

But emphasizing also a kind of fraternity between mankind and nature bound up with the immediacy of the external world against our skins, the uncontrollable response we have to it, the very intimacy, I suppose, of the effect the elements have upon us. One of my favourite poems is ‘Invitation’, which I’ll reproduce here in full:

Come today onto the ice,
out on the river.
Find the point where the whiteness
buckles, breaks
forth its cold.

This water’s real –
worth panic, a force
to strike your blood,
heave your life in half.

Let go the mast,
drop your daily oar,
try the test –
the sticking-place,
the invitation underneath
to stinging salt.

The gulls will cry you home.

The pinpoint focus on the extremity of experience, the moment of giving or releasing or chancing, the split second where what lies beneath is not simply guessed at but thrusts its way forward into consciousness (even if it is the kind of emotion or thought that is mostly felt in bemused silence), that’s the kind of moment that Janzen’s poetry makes its own. The collection is called The Enchanted House, and I loved the whole theme of enchantment and captivation that runs through it, the sense in so many of the poems that they spoke of the moment when forces almost beyond us compel us into action or response. I think that’s what I felt most, reading these poems: that they described not static moments, but dynamic ones, the moments when something shifted in the plate tectonics of the soul. I thought this was an extremely intriguing collection of poems and I’ll certainly be watching out for any other books this author publishes.

17 thoughts on “Poetry Red in Tooth and Claw

  1. I’m always berating myself for how little poetry I know and yet when I then turn to an anthology I find that in fact I know a great deal more than I give myself credit for. However, Janzen is a new name and I shall definitely look out for her. I’ve been talking myself into a project based round reading award winning books, mainly to give some shape and purpose to my reading which, now I’m no longer teaching literature has become rather haphazard. Like a coward I’ve omitted the poetry awards from list. I’m now going back to add at least the Costa winner and perhaps look for another as well. Have you read Elizabeth Jennings work? She is one of my real favourites.

  2. Ann – I have indeed read Elizabeth Jennings and it will surprise you not at all to know that I love her poetry too. You remind me to dig her collected works out and have another look at them. I do appreciate how, with poetry, you can return again and again to authors you love and find something new in them every time. I know you like Sophie Hannah’s novels – have you read her poetry too?

  3. I come to poetry in fits and starts – I read a lot of Plath and Sexton in college, and then rather tired of the whole confessional sort of experience. I’ve come to enjoy the poets that can take a moment in time and capture it’s effect on the soul with words and images in a way that seals the meaning forever. I particularly like Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Sharon Olds.

    I did enjoy these snippets of Jantzen’s, and agree that they are full of “dynamic moments,” when “something shifts in the plate techtonics of the soul.”

    Thank you for the introduction – I’ll be looking for this collection.

  4. I enjoy the epigrammatic possibilities of modern poetry. While the disciplines of the classical forms are interesting and challenging, the freedom to use “White Space” in a creative and expressive way in association with words and phrases to create both a physical and a visceral experience is much more satisfying. I agree that WordPress has a failing in this area. Perhaps a solution is, for shorter works, to create the poetic image in “Word” and scan the result prior to uploading it to WordPress as an image. Or, since we are speaking of poetry, as a meta-image 🙂

  5. Ravenous – thank you so much for your comment and particularly for your list of recommended poets, none of whom I have read. I shall have to do something about that, I can see! Archie – ha! loved the meta-image moment. I’ve found that transferring my posts from word to wordpress via the notebook helps a lot – cleans up the code, so I am told. But I still don’t trust it for complicated arrangments – no Apollinaire here, alas!

  6. I see your title is borrowed from one of Tennyson’s long poems, ‘In Memoriam’,a protracted elegy on the loss of a friend and the loss of faith in Victorian England. Not exactly an epic, but it did make me ponder on what you say about the poetry you do and do not like. I think what you say reflects a more general shift, but it may be a shift in the forms and functions of poetry as much as anything else. In one sense the audience for poetry at all was historically the educated elite, a largely male elite, I suppose. As such it could serve as one of the cultural structures of the aristocracy and later the middle classes and above. Its form, as you mention, the avowal of regularity, might well been seen as regulatory too. The epics and other works of the classics were the staple of the grammar school and university education right up to modern times. In early England it was supported and supporting of the court – like Spenser’s ‘The Faery Queen’. I’m sure lots of recent scholarship has looked at this. What you refer to as obscurity is more likely a need to know the points of reference being used in the poems, going back to that education based on translation of Latin and Greek again. Perhaps the epic is a male form. The actual style is more straightforward, linear, even prose like in that respect,than in much recent poetry, almost more masculine in a way. The poetry you like is in one sense less encumbered by needing a tool kit of references, although I notice Janzen evokes a lot of her own literary references which you mention above. In another sense without reference points of this sort and with the clashing and melding of images you point out, this poetry could be seen as more difficult. That could be a product of the complex and baffling feelings it is dealing with as much as anything else. As always poetry is a means of expression and its shifts reflect the wider concerns of its writers and readers, and the purposes they are pursuing. These comments are of course pretty general on a huge topic, and musings rather than scholarship, and no doubt off the actual point, but I did like the poems you quote, especially the extract about the image in the mirror, how it can be viewed differently depending on the knowledge and expectation of the viewer and how the surface can conceal its opposite. Do you think women poets like the mirror for this, as well as its connections to their historical role as viewed objects and sitting before mirrors creating the desired image as required of them? I’ve noticed quite a few mirror images (including the surfaces of water), in Plath.

  7. Well, for someone who has come late to poetry and remains picky about it, you certainly know how to read it and write about it! I have never heard of this poet either — thanks for drawing attention to her. I love poetry, always hugely enjoyed teaching it (even to people who found it enormously challenging) but rarely sit down and read it for any length of time, though I do enjoy a dip from time to time. So it’s great to be pointed in new directions, as you have done here.

  8. I am downright lazy when it comes to poetry. I know there are poets and poems I would really love but I never seem to put any effort into looking after the ones I already appreciate or discovering new ones. I just seem to avoid the whole business altogether. Guiltily, I feel this is nearly irresponsible considering how much I love vivid prose.

    The poems you’ve selected for this post are wonderfully engaging. Janzen. I am writing the name down!

  9. You seem to grasp hold of poetry just fine to me 🙂 I’ve not heard of Janzen, I will definitely look her up. I second Ravenous Reader’s list of poets. I think you would like Jane Kenyon, especially her later work. Have you ever read Emily Dickinson? Her poems are short but pack a lot of punch.

  10. Oh, I am so happy to hear someone else describe their relationship with poetry exactly the way I’d describe my own relationship with it. I used to think there was something terribly wrong with me when friends of mine would gush over poetry and quote memorized lines (and I’m talking here about lines they CHOSE to memorize). I’m getting better, though, have been challenging myself to read more poetry, and discovering I not only know more than I thought (although don’t ask me to define such things as iambic pentameter, which as soon as I no longer needed to remember what it was for tests, I promptly forgot), but can actually love it (even John Milton!). Just goes to show you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I will be (this week) posting on Emily Dickinson (funny Stef brings her up). You might like Billy Collins, if you haven’t already discovered him. And now I must find Beth Janzen and read her.

  11. Dear Bookboxed – your comment is quite fascinating, and I found myself agreeing vigorously with the difficulty of following the myriad references in epic poetry. Now when it comes to female archetypes, I’m up to speed, but the Waste Land, for instance, intimidates me, because I feel there is so much Great White Male culture that passes me by. It’s true that the poets I like (who are French and I won’t quote here) are very complex imagistically and syntactically (not a bit like Tennyson, who in fairness, I quite like at times) and could be seen as more ‘difficult’, but with a bit of imagination you can get into them. Your question on mirrors is an excellent one and worthy of a blog post in itself. Let me ponder on that one. Thank you for giving me (as ever!) so much to think about. Harriet – coming from you that is a lovely compliment, thank you! I don’t teach it quite so joyfully, but I do like it and do like dipping into it. Perhaps you might post on poetry on your site one day? I’d be very interested to know more about the poets you appreciate. Verbivore – well I’m wholly sympathetic! I find I have to earmark the right time span for poetry, or perhaps more accurately, the right situation for it. I was in the car with my husband driving and we were discussing the Janzen poems I read to him. That’s the kind of moment when poetry is just right – so months can go by and I don’t read any! Stefanie – if you and Ravenous both say Jane Kenyon then I need to look her up post haste! And no, funnily enough, Emily Dickenson, who appeals theoretically, isn’t someone I’ve ever read. I will have to do a poetry challenge, I can see! Emily – never feel bad! There is so much to read, that keeping up with what one loves is hard enough. And I feel exactly like you do about being an old dog with a new-ish trick. I’ll be watching for your post on Dickenson with even greater interest than I usually await your posts! And I’ll look up Billy Collins too.

  12. I’ve come to appreciate poetry more as I’ve gotten older; a lot of the poetry I’m teaching in my British literature class I wasn’t too thrilled with when I studied it in college, but it means so much more to me now. It’s partly time and maturity, I think, and also familiarity — poetry is not so strange and bewildering to me now as it once was. I too love the poets mentioned above — Oliver, Olds, and Kenyon.

  13. Gentle reader – it’s hard enough to get through the novels by authors you really love, isn’t it! If only there were more hours in the day, I’d get more reading done, is what I tell myself. I’m glad you like the sound of Janzen – she’s very cool! Dorothy – yes, I really need your class because that classic British poetry is where I fall down. I’ve never really got to grips with it. I shall certainly be seeking out the poets you mention, however!

  14. I, too, came to poetry later in life, and need the likes of Elizabeth Bishop to light my fires. What a lovely tribute to Janzen!

    I have found that typing my posts in Word first and then cutting/pasting them into WordPress makes it easier to format as I would like.

  15. Pingback: March Bookworms Carnival « The Armenian Odar Reads

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