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Posts Tagged ‘auden’

writer pasternak

Well, if you’ve made it this far you probably already are a poet, though you may not know it. But wait, let’s check! Do you know what iambic pentameter is? How about an Italian quatrain? A Shakespearean sonnet? Yes, okay, they’re definitions of poetic structures; beats per line, order of rhyme, number of lines, that sort of thing. How about a foot? That’s the basic unit of measurement of accentual syllabic meter. Of course it is! There are different types of feet too: iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, and pyrrhic, all to do with the stress on the syllables.

Still want to be a poet? A poet would be well up on all that stuff wouldn’t they? Except, I write poetry, which makes me a sort-of poet, but to be honest I had to look all that terminology up on Wikipedia. If I’d been a Lit student having to field questions on it, I’d surely have failed. Well, I did fail actually – not that I was ever asked those questions, specifically. Log tables made more sense to me, but I still liked writing poetry. Log tables are obsolete now, while poetry remains pretty much a constant throughout time. And do you really need to know about all that structural theory stuff anyway? Well, the poet Robert Frost thought so. He said: there can be no fair tennis without a net, that without proper structure, poetry seldom yields works of beauty.

And he may have a point:

He watched with all his organs of concern
How princes walk, what wives and children say;
Reopened old graves in his heart to learn
What laws the dead had died to disobey;

That’s W H Auden writing in 1940. Plenty structure and rhyme there, and a silken beauty in the flow of it.

But then how about:

A shattered army, Thames’ filthy tonnage, tumbrils of carrion,
Not a beautiful spectacle
For the drinkers of history, or for me
Or my friends, this island’s parallel issues.

That’s Ted Hughes, writing in 1963. No structure, no rhyme, like being hit in the face with a plank of wood, leaving you with multiple splinters to pick at, which I presume is what he intended. So, maybe Frost was just an old fuddy duddy traditionalist and you can play tennis without a net after all, that indeed certain poetic themes demand a freer form if they’re to achieve their desired impact.

I used to strive for structure in my own poetry, but sometimes the struggle took over from what I was trying to say. Rhyme and structure are satisfying to achieve, like completing a literary puzzle, but they can also cheapen a poem, so why push for rhyme if you don’t have to?

How about this:

I remember sitting together in parks
leaning over bridges
counting trout and swans
holding hands under arches
kissing away suns
and moons into darkness.

I remember platform good-byes
last-minute trains
slamming us apart
and my non-self walking back alone.
I remember smaller things:
a pebble in my shoe
and you throwing a match-box on the Serpentine

That’s Phoebe Hesketh. No structure, no rhyme except for that last poignant hook between “shoe” and “you”. A friend of Herbert Edward Palmer, an English poet and critic, his advice to her was never to let the conscious mind force a poem into shape. That’s important, I think. It can be pleasurable exploring traditional patterns in poetry, and good practice trying them out, and if a poem falls into such a pattern, then let it be, but if doesn’t want to, don’t make it.

According to certain psychological theories, we exist upon a seething mass of unconscious energies that seek to become conscious through us. They are our life’s work, whether we know it or not. And poetry, indeed any form of creative expression, is a good way of achieving that, and it’s not like we have any choice in the matter. For a creative person to ignore the pressure from within is a very bad thing, and will backfire with more neuroses than we know how to handle. But to sit a while with pencil and paper, jotting the lines that are offered up, seemingly from nowhere, is worth years of therapy, whether you know an iamb from a trochee or not.

Poetry has always been an important aspect of any civilised culture, and not just for the professional – if indeed there’s such a thing as a professional poet any more. But can anyone really write poetry? Well, okay, not everyone wants to, not everyone gets it, but I suspect if you’ve a hankering for it, you can write it well enough. As a way of expressing the seasons of your life, there’s no finer way of honouring your self. How to start? Start with your life. Imagine you are a bit of the universe seeking to discover the meaning of itself through your eyes. So you capture a moment in time as if to bookmark it, and you say to the universe, okay mate, this bit’s important. Let’s remember this. Then you look back over the stuff you wrote twenty, thirty years ago, and you can see the change in yourself, the smoothing out, the growing up.

However we should beware the trap of thinking poetry is a road to fame and fortune because of course it’s not. Even the Poet Laureate only makes £6000 a year, which doesn’t get you much of a mortgage, does it? Fame and fortune are their own path, with their own rules, and only about one in ten who seek it, by whatever means, succeed at it. But in the business of writing poetry what we’re really looking for are glimpses of meaning, which boil down to those occasional and all too often elusive personal gifts of insight from the unconscious. Sometimes those insights are beautiful, sometimes they’re ugly, and mostly they’re of no interest to anyone else. But as always, in the writing of anything, the person most served by the effort is you, the writer. Poetry, however you define it, helps us grow a little. It’s just occasionally we’ll hit upon something that’s of a more universal appeal, so it’s not always true we should give up on the idea of publishing altogether. But as ever my advice these days is just to blog your stuff, thus calling it “sort of published”, and be done with it. Poetry can heal all wounds, but pursuing, through poetry, the eternally precious bane of fame and fortune is pretty futile, and worse, it will tear your heart wide open again.

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