Tuesday, September 25, 2018



 The art of poetry? Look at the trees,
an old discovery. The wood
is what you cannot see. Your work
is finished when the words
protect something!

Gösta Ågren, from Hid ("Hither"), translation by David McDuff.

In art something is always concealed, even if it's only the occasion of making, or sometimes not even that, but only the acquired skillset that produces the making, or the thought behind it.

But "protect" implies more than "conceal". The hidden substance in the poem has life of its own.

Or rather.... (thinking of Ågren's tree image) it's the poem as a whole that is the living entity.

You can imagine the poem protecting its vital organs... or its cambium... but it's the act of protecting that reveals life.

I'm not getting metaphysical here. A poem doesn't live in the same way as a living creature. It can't wander around on its own, it needed writing and it goes into suspension until it's read.

But all life depends on others to a large extent. I even believe that a poem has some rights. As an artefact it deserves my reverence, I think.

Ågren's trees, we must suppose, are the tall straight timber trees of the north... pine or birch, spruce or aspen. But this reminds me that readers, like country folk who depend on wood stoves to get through winter, always have their own motives for coming close to the forest of poetry. Readers are practical in that respect.

And indeed without some motive the reading is apt to be anodyne. In the same way that though we don't much like a friend who wants to change us, we soon grow frustrated with a friend who doesn't have an interest in what we do and plainly doesn't want to do anything with us apart from completing a thin social ritual. Who just wants us on their list.

When I was younger I read vast numbers of poems in that spirit, and it didn't do either them or me much service.


But on this matter of the poem protecting, concealing, or at any rate containing something. It raises a question about honesty in poetry (I am talking about poetry though I think it applies to all the arts).

Ordinary, open, transparent language is the language used by dishonest people. I am one of those. Most often, the dishonest people believe that they are honest.


But Gösta Ågren's poem doesn't I think refer to the inevitable inscrutability that all artefacts possess. He talks about a quality that comes into existence only eventually, signalling work as complete. It must mean that the poem protects something other than its own circumstances.

The something is valuable but cannot be seen directly. We can provisionally call it content,  not inscrutable content but specifically unparaphraseable content.

This is quite a good description of Ågren's kind of poetry. As is usual with such prescriptions, it doesn't fit other poetry so easily.



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