Wednesday, July 11, 2018

D major

The chord of D major went sounding

from my fingers and plastic; clammy.

The brook trickled;  I stood on the tree's brow,

pulling at my shirt.

Leafing through a file of papers about my Spanish mortgage, I found this unfinished poem from 2003.

The poem doesn't make its statement: I never discovered what I wanted it to say.

Fifteen years later I'm scrutinizing it, but not with any thoughts of finishing it... Indeed it seems to me as unfinishable as our past histories are unchangeable: an action photo of a poem forever in mid --  Well, mid-what?  That's the question.

The image of a leaping deer brings to mind another cliché : the unfinished poem is "fair game". Having failed to develop its own congruence, it cannot put up much resistance to reckless interpretation: everything, in that line, is permitted.


The tree's brow, I do remember, was supposed to mean the knobbly surface-roots around the base of the trunk. That expression doesn't really work, though if a brow connotes intelligence, well, they say that plant intelligence is located in the root surfaces.

So there I stood, evidently no longer playing the guitar.  (D is a particularly easy ringing chord.) Perhaps that first half of the poem is a teenage memory. At least the sound rang out in those days, however empty-headed and solipsistic, however badly executed.

But now I'm pulling at my shirt, hot and bothered, recalled by the word "trickle" to my own discomfort; or perhaps, as I think now, with a sense of having swallowed some large sharp-cornered object -- a paving slab, for instance -- that I needed a bit more room to accommodate.

The self-absorption remains, but no longer the expression. The poem gets jammed, half a line short.

Several things had conspired to break a poetic, if that's the right word, that I might have summed up in Albert Lee's words:

Gonna tell it like it is,
And how it was, as I remember...*

All my poems -- all the ones I thought were any good --  began from my own experience and feelings... I don't mean they were always or mostly about me.  I wrote about family and lovers and friends, things I'd seen and places I'd been. But they were always  controlled by and nourished by a certain dogged fidelity to circumstance.

Some of the things that broke this poetic were personal stuff, of which, suffice it to say that I learnt that there are many people who don't feel they can speak frankly about their own lives, and that I had very much taken that luxury for granted.

Perhaps even more critical,  I had been belatedly taking on board the implications of new poetries and the ideas behind them. Among these new poets, whose work I instantly embraced, all of my ideas of the kind of poem I seemed to be able to write were under attack. Anecdote; personal narrative; autobiography; clearly identified pronouns; unbroken syntax; domesticity; family; the celebration of nature ("conservative pastoral"), the mourning of transience; irony, evocation, epiphany ...  -- Every one  of these poetic approaches, I discovered, was being assailed, and on troublingly persuasive grounds. In fact I thoroughly agreed with these arguments, so far as they seemed to explain my long-felt frustration with the worthy poetry books that I encountered on the shelves of Waterstones or Borders: Ian Hamilton, Douglas Dunn, Oliver Reynolds, Peter Scupham, Fleur Adcock among a hundred others.

The kind of poetry I wrote was not how my favourite poets wrote, it was not how John Ashbery wrote, it was not how Jackson Mac Low wrote, or Alice Notley or Lisa Samuels or Bill Griffiths or Ken Edwards.

But as for me,  I couldn't do what they did. I just couldn't write like Ashbery or Harwood. In a way I didn't even want to: what I loved about their poetry was precisely that it took me beyond my own expression: that every few lines I'd have the feeling Gosh, I'd never think to do that...

If I tried, as I sometimes did,  I felt weary and the results didn't detain me for long. Fake, I pronounced (with that utter lack of prissiness that we reserve only for our own work). What I now produced, it seemed, traded questionable fidelities for something more radically dishonest, a poem that was in costume, a poem pretending to be a different kind of poem, a poem that was pretending not to be saying the only things that it defiantly intended to say.

There were other troubling factors, too.  The events around 9/11, as nothing before, had woken me up to a realization of the limits of Eurocentricity: I could no longer excuse an implicit sidelining of Islamic or East Asian or African experience,  the world could not be normatively evinced through the experience of an educated white northern European.  How that should or could play out in the poetry of other northern Europeans I didn't know. But there seemed something decidedly odd and quaint about me writing poems, in these times, about family holidays in a summer cottage in the north of Sweden... It seemed no longer a matter of course, it required some explanation... maybe even recantation.

Finally, such questions about our writing are never just about writing; they are about our whole lives. That's what I believe now. At least I'm sure that's how it was in my own case. I perhaps didn't see it as clearly in 2003. Now, fifteen years later, I see that my issue about writing poetry was only the visible nub of a much deeper problem about my own inner congruence; a problem about living a less timid and more fruitful and more honest life. Idling on that tree-root, it was another sort of journey I needed.


*In justice to Lee, the song as a whole presents a more complex scheme. The singer, recounting things conscientiously, is himself in a constant process of change. Furthermore, he uses words he thinks are his own, though they unknowingly repeat things planted in his memory. In the song, both these elements testify to a greater faith.

("I won't let you down", from the 1973 album Old Soldiers Never Die by Heads Hands and Feet.)

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger