I’ve been inspired by that blog goddess Stefanie to write about my relationship to poetry (and you should check out her original excellent post here). I think that if there is a genre for which the word ‘relationship’ is appropriate, poetry is the one. No other form of writing inspires such extreme emotions of love, fear, fascination and repulsion. Nor, I think, do readers ever develop and change so much with regard to what they are reading. For a lot of people, poetry is something you come to late in life, like the priesthood, or holiday cruises. It was certainly the case for me that poetry was something I avoided for many years, because I felt so uncertain what it was I was looking at. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with this thing, the poem, and I wasn’t at all sure what it was giving me. It’s not so surprising that it was precisely the sense of a ‘relationship’ to poetry that I was missing.
Poetry was not what you would call ‘taught’ at my school. We read a few poems out in class, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Eve of Saint Agnes. For a thirteen or fourteen year old these were dreadful choices. Screeds of dusty-sounding epic poetry about lives, feelings and experiences to which I could not possibly relate. I was not even sure what was happening in the poem for much of the time, that awkward way poetry has of backing up to its point, with all sorts of digressions and diversions, made it hard to hold the narrative arc in my head. The only poet I could cope with was Tennyson, whose Lady of Shalott did at least tell a story, although the words
Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Was perhaps, I felt in my ignorance, a story of particularly bad PMT. This is the problem with poetry – you can make some howling errors with it.
No I had reached university before I had to tackle poetry, and my first experience was little better than school. I sat in a 19th century literature supervision with several pages of photocopies on my lap while our supervisor read out in his sonorous French a lengthy poem by his favourite Romantic poet Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle. When it was finally over, he asked (fortunately for me) my supervision partner what he thought of it. And after some consideration my partner said: ‘It was very nice.’ This was both funny and awful, as I seriously doubted I could say anything more cogent myself, except that in all honesty I hadn’t even liked the poem enough to call it ‘very nice’. It was just a glassy river of words that went flowing past, with no means of gaining traction on it, just this relentless, featureless torrent whose depths and undercurrents were so very opaque to me.
And then came Rilke. If it hadn’t have been for Rilke I would probably still avoid poetry to this day. But Rilke I fell in love with, and love neutralises fear.
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
Rilke and his angelic orders showed me that my mistake was to think of poetry as a more troublesome form of prose. A poem is more akin to a piece of music or a mathematical equation. You either ‘get it’ on a different level of understanding altogether or it remains forever cold and closed to you. For me, at least, poetry involved love, admiration, a sort of sensual attraction to the words involved. I don’t to this day have any clever ideas about what Rilke is saying but the glorious thing is that it doesn’t matter. I love the way he says it. I feel sucked into his voice, and its urgency, the feel of the words striving to tell me something powerful and essential but enigmatic. I feel as if I am receiving a strident call to let go, to abandon the rational realm, and simply to thrill to the power of a phrase. This is not the sort of thing I am comfortable with generally, so it has to involve love, for me.
Over the years, I have come to enjoy poetry by allowing myself not to like the vast majority of it. I will never be fundamentally a poetry person, because my heart is with the interesting explanation, the clever plot twist, the brilliant sentence of characterisation, and the harmonious closure of a satisfying ending. But there are still poets I love: Rilke, Yves Bonnefoy, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Louise Glück. I feel it is a little unfortunate, but when a poet is mad, it helps. No one beats Plath on a bad day:
Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother.
Although Anne Sexton in her wonderful sarcastic-ironic voice comes pretty close in her retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves:
This time she bought a poison comb,
a curved eight-inch scorpion,
and put it in her hair and swooned again.
The dwarfs returned and took out the comb
and she revived miraculously.
She opened her eyes as wide as Orphan Annie.
Beware, beware, they said,
but the mirror told,
the queen came,
Snow White, the dumb bunny,
opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time.
The thing is, I need a poem to be telling me some kind of story. I can’t do (or at least have not yet found) the kind of poems that get lost in the beauties of nature, or some vague cosmic awe. I like poetry that tackles the problems of identity and I like poems about love, and I especially like poems that make me laugh. I can suffer from finding poetry pretentious to my ears (which I must insist is a kind of tone-deafness on my own part), so poems that are funny are a wonderful antidote. Wendy Cope, in particular:
Two Cures For Love
1 Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter.
2 The easy way: get to know him better.