Sunday, June 29, 2008

Second Turn

I like to master things. I find it challenging to read contemporary poetry, because I learned to read poetry, really, as a student, and established poetry is always wedged in between magisterial introductions and learned footnotes. I didn't always agree with these things, of course, but they oriented me, and gave me a sense for what people, in general, thought the poetry was doing. And they were boxed up. The Complete Poems of Wordsworth really is the complete poems of Wordsworth. He's not going to blindside you by suddenly writing a new book. A living poet might do all sorts of unpredictable things. And the jury is still out. You might stupidly admire something contemporary that the cognoscenti despise, or dislike something they admire. That would be fine -- my taste has always been eccentric -- but only if you knew it. If you know it, you're unorthodox; otherwise you're just dim. But there's no way to master a contemporary poet. (I'm sure academics try, very hard, but you really can't.)

Which is why, probably, this sort of sidling into reading contemporary poetry by reading the poems in people's blogs, was the best, possibly the only, route for me into reading it. If you know somebody, their poetry becomes a personal communication. You don't try to master it. You just listen to it. And it brought into play for me the long-practiced skills of sympathetic critical reading I developed as a teacher. What are they trying to say? Where are they trying to go? How can I help them get there? It was an unexpectedly rich experience.

My taste is extremely old-fashioned. It's taken me a long time to accustom myself to poetry that has no regular meter. My initial -- and still active -- response is, why should I call this poetry? Isn't this just prose in tiny paragraphs, with a ragged right margin, borrowing solemnity from its betters?

And the answer, as always with contemporary poetry, is -- well, it depends. There's no reason, of course, why prose shouldn't be written in tiny paragraphs. And no particular reason why poetry should be written in lines: there are other ways of marking rhythmic divisions and pauses. Some people have a keen sense of the rhythm and music of word-sequences, and some don't. As I've read more of the anarchic poetry that rules the roost nowadays, I've become more tolerant of it. It takes a little longer to evaluate, is all. Someone writing truly vile iambic pentameter betrays their incompetence within a line or two. But it can take twenty or thirty lines of anarchic verse, or even more, before you can safely conclude that the poet has a tin ear. It's hard to be sure; you might just have your metronome set wrong.

I had to become more tolerant of it, though, because it turned out that it was the sort of verse I wrote myself. I experimented a lot, and still do, with meter. But on the balance my metrically regular poems are simply worse than my irregular ones. I'm glad to have the skills, to be able to count out the stresses and patterns; it gives me a shortcut sometimes to understanding why something doesn't work and what I have to do to fix it. And I clue in quicker, perhaps, to the way that iambic pentameter still dominates English poetry: every reader of English can feel the sense of relief when a poem wanders into it for a few lines, the ease and comfort and smoothness of it, even if they don't know why. It helps to be able to put your finger on it.

No comments: