Helen Ivory and George Szirtes (eds) (2012) In Their Own Words Contemporary Poets on Their Poetry.
It’s poetry week on BBC 4. Last night I watched a drama that uses Simon Armitage’s poetry to dramatize the life and death of Sophie Lancaster in 2007. She and her lanky boyfriend were attacked in a park by a group of feral boys. Their attackers shoe prints and the pattern of their laces were left embedded in Sophie’s head. Black roses were the imprints of the bruising on her body. She died in hospital; her boyfriend survived. Their crime was to be different. To be Goths was their putative death sentence.
There’s a vast ocean of words, nouns, adjectives, prepositions and alliteration, pushing and pulling with powerful undertows, but very little of it washes up on BBC, or is generally read. The days of carrying poetry in our head is long gone. School syllabus shepherds survivors to A level and sometimes beyond, but rarer still does the bond survive, a C grade, or less, it sinks, it stinks and who is to blame for making poetry so flint hard and insufferable its only eggheads that gain immortal fame. I must admit here I am to blame.
I can’t tell the difference between carrots or poetry. But these contemporary poets can. They offer words of wisdom. Every prose writer should read this book. Open it at random (even though there’s no such thing):
[Helen Mort]I’d been reading Rilke earlier in the day and had set off running with an idea, or rather with a set of questions in my mind – what would beauty look like personified? Would it be a terrifying thing? The poem’s first line (or form) came to me about a mile into the run, and from then on narrative began to present itself, led by the rhymes (which were insistent early on).
[Rilke] Beauty…is nothing but the beginning of terror.
[Helen Mort] When beauty stumbled down my road, tapped on my door
I saw her from the lounge and hid – her eyes were raw
from smoke, her cheeks like risen dough from where she’d wept
and worse I didn’t like the company she kept:
a red-faced drunk who towed a dachshund on a string.
I like this. I appreciate what Helen Mort is saying, but like many others I’m no initiate or intimate with the language of poetry. My response is often what’s it got to do with me? Or indeed the likes of me. T.S. Eliot that great pillar of the poetry establishment life may have been measured in teaspoons and church candles, but I don’t understand the man or his work. And to me it is work, reading poetry. The contemporary poets in this collection do make sense to me. Perfect sense. But here’s the rub, there commentaries of how and why make sense, but when it comes to poems on the page, there’s no aha moment, no heavy water that blows me away. There’s sometimes lines stringed together that was quite nice. Bravo old boy or girl. Sometimes I think I’ve opened a Chinese cracker and I’m reading it upside down and the answer will come to me. Poetry like prose washes through and sometimes over you. Poetry should change the world, but it doesn’t. That’s a familiar pattern. Something we should recognise, but don’t. I guess God or Old Possum knows. I’ll need to begin reading this good book again. Maybe one day, I pray, I’ll understand poetry.