25 January 2011

Riddles, Readers and the Unpopularity of Poetry

We’re writing riddles at the moment at my children’s Poetry Club. We’ve read some riddles together, and attempted to solve them, and the children have got a lot of pleasure out of ‘getting it’, particularly when they ‘got it’ faster than I did.

Riddles have been a sub-genre of poetry since poetry started being written down and presumably for centuries before that. The Exeter Book is a C10th codex of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and among the works contained within it are nearly a hundred riddles. Riddling seems to have been more than just a pastime for the Anglo-Saxons, however. It seems to have, at least in the works that we are left with, been indicative of the way they liked thinking. In Old English there are at least eighteen different words to describe aspects of thought: a fact which seems to indicate that the Anglo-Saxons valued and gained pleasure from cognitive effort.
The Exeter Riddle Statue, in the centre of Exeter, is by Michael Fairfax,
and features eight of the Exeter Book Riddles... with solutions for those who
can work out where to find them.

The kenning, for example, the compound noun which is characteristic of Anglo-Saxon as well as Norse poetry, could be considered a micro-riddle in its own right. Take the kenning ‘whale-road’ (from Beowulf). This is not an obvious or direct description of the sea. It is created in the same way that riddles are – by circumlocution, by describing something in a way that makes the reader look at it as something else. It requires some cognitive effort to decode, as it brings together two semantic domains, and requires the reader to make connections which then yield meaning. But yielding the meaning isn’t the only point – what’s also crucial is that, having worked out that ‘whale road’ is referring to the sea, the reader (or listener) will now have a whole new  way of experiencing the concept that is the sea. Wait! I hear you cry – you’re talking about common or garden metaphor, here, aren’t you? Well, yes.

Using a workshop idea from The Poetry Book for Primary Schools (Wilson & Hughes, The Poetry Society, 1998), I got the children to look really closely at an apple. I then asked them to tell me something about the apple, something that described it but used words as if they were describing something else. They came up with some great descriptions: perfectly designed to mislead a reader, but at the same time, extremely accurately observed. They loved the trickery of it all, the way they were disguising the apple with words, the way they were making the reader expend effort on their creation.

Riddles are very valuable when trying to get children to write poetry. Because riddles force the writer to make their readers do some work, the writer has to look at the object of the riddle in an entirely fresh way, in other words, defamiliarise it. But in riddles, this defamiliarisation needs to follow certain rules – the descriptions have got to seem strange, but be logical when ‘solved’. It’s all about holding two ideas about something in your head at the same time: our apple became a person wearing a pointy hat, with a freckled face, and flesh that wept when pierced by sharp white knives. Metaphors galore – and the children didn’t even realise they were creating them.

All this riddling fun set me thinking, though. Riddles are very much a sub-genre of poetry, and, within a contemporary context, a very distinct one. Unlike most poetry, riddles are about one thing. They can be solved. The cognitive effort expended is rewarded by measurable success. A nice mental tick. ΓΌ That’s not the case with other poetry: but there are many readers who don’t like poetry just because of this. These are the readers who think that all poetry is a kind of riddle: there is a ‘hidden meaning’ that the poet has wrapped in wordy flim-flam, and all they have to do is peel off and dissect the outer coverings to find what it really means. These are the people who are made uneasy by the fact that a poem doesn’t have to mean anything, it just is. It’s just there for the reader to make their own meaning. Basically, we poets make them make all this cognitive effort and then won’t tell them whether they’re right or wrong because, basically, we can’t. And if we could, we wouldn’t want to.

My sister, who’s a maths teacher, is made really uncomfortable by not being told what to think about a poem. An acquaintance who loves crosswords feels he is being cheated if a poem’s deliberate ambiguities will not allow him to settle on an interpretation. He reads a lot of poetry, really wants to love it, but finds himself frustrated when he can’t pin down what the writer intended. He’s not happy that the poet’s intent might have been to make him decide.

Ask a poet what it means and you’ll get short shrift. You might get a bit of background, or an admission that they are addressing a certain theme, but you’re unlikely to get anything more specific. There is an anecdote which tells how Robert Browning was once asked the meaning of one of his more’ difficult’ poems. ‘Madam,' he is said to have replied, ‘When I wrote that, only God and I knew what it meant. Now only God knows.’ And T.S. Eliot said ‘What a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author’. I’ve heard that Carol Ann Duffy, when visiting schools, refuses point-blank to answer questions about what a poem means. And I think all three of them are right.

But, I wonder – as poets, poets who presumably would like more people to enjoy poetry, do we need to think a bit more about this? Are these readers wrong? Are they just not ‘sophisticated’ enough? Or are we being too demanding? I wouldn’t want to write poems where the ‘meaning’ is hung out like washing on a line, because what I value in poems I read is the way that I am a co-constructor of meaning, the way that a poem doesn’t think I’m thick, leaves me space to make up my own mind. I don’t want my poems to be solved like a riddle, and then discarded from the mind. But – and it’s a big but – I want more people to enjoy reading poetry as much as I do. I also want them to buy my book.

Theories of literariness place cognitive effort and schema refreshment high in their characterising factors. Riddles might be seen to fulfil those criteria. But in addition, polysemy, ambiguity, space for each reader to inhabit a poem and own it for him or herself are also vital.

I think it would be fair to say that the majority of people don't read contemporary poetry. And presumably that’s because they don’t enjoy it. And a lot of them don’t enjoy it because they don’t understand it. And they don’t understand it because they can’t work out what it means. And that’s because they’re not really meant to – at least, not in the sense that they expect.

So maybe we need to get people to move on from thinking of poetry as a glorified riddle. We need them to value their own contribution to the writer-text-reader relationship. But how we’re going to do that, I don’t know. Any ideas?

11 January 2011

Books of 2010 (Part 2)

Five More 'Not-Reviews'

Some books I like a lot. Some I know I won't like, so I don't read them. Some I like more than others. If I enjoy something I like to share it. So this is just a little pre-blogpost (and post-the last blogpost) warning. These bloglets about books I have enjoyed are simply that. I'm not going to analyse the books (well not much), I'm not going to pick them to pieces, I'm not going to rank them, or place any relative values on them: I'm just going to let you know why I enjoyed them. And hope you might enjoy them too.

Josephine Dickinson: Silence Fell (Mariner, 2008)

Josephine Dickinson's poetry is poetry of the moors and mountains, of the farm, of the rain and the mist, of the seasons. It's poetry deeply rooted in place, in the often harsh reality of rural life, and it's poetry deeply rooted in sound. Sound patterning is woven through each poem like coloured silk. A poem called  'How Can I Explain to You That He Was Real?' starts
In a lump which banged as it humped,
the last of the lamb came out of the freezer,
deliquesced in the summer heat
in a bowl overnight. Next morning
it slid from its bag, unwrapped
from its thick aroma...
You could be hearing this through a wall, only picking up part of the sense, but you'd still be getting the thuds and the awful slick oozing. Your guts would know something about what was happening even if your intellect couldn't quite put a finger on it. The reason I find this sound patterning particularly interesting is that, from the age of six, Josephine Dickinson has been profoundly deaf. In the Foreword to the collection she explains to Galway Kinnell that '...when I see and write words, I experience their sound, rhythm and meaning with my whole body...' and 'the possible range of human experience is so vast that in losing one sense, one gains a new dimension in the others.'

I'm particularly interested in Josephine's deafness because I have worked with deaf children in poetry workshops, but her deafness is not why one should read the book. One should read it because of the poems: poems that tell the story of a place, a way of life, and a relationship, and that invite the reader to come along and experience these things too.

Fiona Benson: Faber New Poets 1 (Faber, 2009)

Fiona Benson's slim pamphlet is a gem. Her poems are beautifully crafted, every word exquisitely chosen, poised, and placed. Water, blood, fish, animals, religious allusion, all thread through this elegiac collection in its attempt to address and come to terms with loss. In 'Prayer', she describes how
I saw you like a hare, stripped and jugged
in the wine of your own blood, your tail a rudder
and in 'Corpo Santo'
I could dedicate myself to this:
the pursuit of cadences in salt and warmth
and the sinuous will of this many-ribboned shoal 
I've met Fiona several times, and had the privilege of her feedback on some of my own poems. She's lovely, and quietly brilliant. I'm looking forward to her first full-length collection - if this is anything to go by, it'll be fabulous.

Abegail Morley: How to Pour Madness into a Teacup (Cinnamon, 2009)

Abegail Morley's poems inhabit the realm of metaphor in the same way that people inhabit the realm of their own skin. And the people in her poems inhabit their own skins in the way that fish inhabit knives. Her collection is not a comfortable read. It addresses breakdown and mental illness with the delicacy, the beauty, and the ruthlessness of a scalpel.
She snatches a letter, a word,
and harvests her head,
finding the middle of a sentence.
           (from 'Misplaced')
It was very deservedly nominated for the Forward First Collection prize last year. Beautiful cover too.

Brian Turner: Phantom Noise (Bloodaxe, 2010)

In an article in the Independent, Fiona Sampson posed the question 'Where are the war poets now?' Reading that article led me to the work of Brian Turner, an American soldier-poet who served in Bosnia and Iraq. I found this collection, which deals with war from the perspective of 'afterwards', completely gripping.

No moral judgments are made, but unflinching observation brings the reality of the war right into the reader's head. War experiences and post-war life bleed into each other with horrifying and surreal clarity. In a poem called 'Helping her Breathe' the speaker focuses in and in to a single experience in an arena of noise and fear:
Subtract each sound. Subtract it all.
Lower the contrailed decibels of fighter jets
below the threshold of human hearing.
Lower the skylining helicopters down
to the subconscious and let them hover
like spiders over a film of water...
This is the war poetry for today.

The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems , edited by Michael Hofmann (Faber, 2005)

It took me a long time to be keen on translated poetry. I think I had been too exposed to the kind of 'parallel text' text that gives you literal translations without actually producing any poetry. I did a substantial amount of Latin literature for my degree in English and European literature, and as I wasn't particularly confident in Latin, I have to confess I did an inordinant amount of checking my own work by way of other people's translations. But literal translations just don't get what poetry's about. Who was it who said that 'Poetry is what gets lost in translation'? (Robert Frost, apparently, according to a quick Google). This anthology does get what poetry's about: poems are translated by poets, and thus the poetic possibilities of English are explored and exploited as well as the literal meanings. There are some great translations. For instance, Robin Robertson translates Rilke's 'Spanish Dancer':
she is a struck match: sparks,
darting tongues, and then the white flare
of phosphorous...
There are translations from Derek Mahon, Michael Hamburger, Michael Hofmann, Christopher Middleton, Robert Lowell and other practising poets, as well as such poetically sensitive translators as Margitt Lehbert and Susan Bernofsky. The book ranges from Morgenstern and Rilke, through Brecht and Gottfried Benn, to contemporary poets such as Matthias Goritz and Ian Wagner. There's also a parallel text version available, which is interesting even if you don't read German (which I don't, apart from menus and road signs) because it's fascinating to see the original poem on the page and see non-lexical parallels and differences. After all, the shape of the poem, and the white space around it, are such a large part of the experience of poetry.

I'm still dipping into this one, and enjoying meeting new poets. I see there's a Faber book of C20th Italian Poetry too, (edited by Jamie McKendrick). That's next on my wish list.

A belated happy new year to you all. And if you have any recommendations from your own reading last year, please feel free to add them here in a comment. I'd love to hear from you.

5 January 2011

Books of 2010 (Part 1)

My house is full of piles of books. They teeter and totter on tables, on shelves, beside beds, on the floor. I ought really to start tidying them up and sorting them out. My attempt to alphabeticise all the fiction books in the house failed last March at about G, but I do feel it would be good to know approximately where a particular book might be found.

However, picking through the piles today, I have been sidetracked into contemplation, and now find myself sitting at the laptop with yet another pile: a small selection from the books I read or acquired during the last year. A pile that wants to be a list. So here goes – musings on some books I read last year, and would recommend to you. Part one is all blokes, but that’s chance – just the way I picked up the piles. Watch this space for Part 2 to follow.

Don Paterson: Landing Light (Faber 2003)

Okay, this wasn’t published in 2010, and I didn’t even buy it last year, but it’s probably the poetry collection I’ve been back to most often over the last twelve months. ‘St Bride’s: Sea-Mail’ is one of my favourite poems ever. It’s beautifully balanced, subtly rhymed and patterned, and is one of those poems I just don’t want to analyse, and I certainly don’t want to influence other people’s readings – I just want everyone to read it and appreciate it for themselves, to find their own significances. It’s also one of the few contemporary poems that successfully centres the text, a practice which is usually scorned as suitable only for the interiors of greetings cards. Nothing Hallmark-ish here, one feels, just the perfect appropriateness of the shape of the stanzas on the page, and an apt allusion to Herbert’s Easter Wings. Except – I wonder whether Don might be having a little wry smile at us. This is, after all, a poem about sending a message – although a very different one from those one might find in a greetings card. As the speaker says:

I post this more in testament
than hope or warning.

Mario Petrucci: Heavy Water (Enitharmon, 2004)

I picked this up in the Oxfam bookshop in Durham in October, and on the six-hour train journey home I read it from cover to cover. Then I went straight back to the beginning and read it through again. It’s probably the purchase that has most affected me this year. It’s a collection-sized sequence of poems based on eye-witness accounts of the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath.

There are the ‘Grey Men’:
They thicken to a second skin – grow on us –

our clothes. A grey rind. Only teeth show through. Our
teeth only. White and shining and in the moment.

Today a man with a box and shoulder strap
waved his wand over our empty boots. Jumped back.

The slow deaths:
In the dark    she goes to him
    for his crusts        of hipbone

‘The Room’:
…There is

a room for weeping. How hard
the staff are trying. Sometimes

they use the rooms themselves. They
must hose it out each evening.

The state is watching. They made
this room for weeping.

It’s horrifying, wonderful, and important. The poetry feels so true to the voices that although the language is far from ‘every-day’ they seem strangely unmediated. It’s as if the poetry has clarified and distilled them. Read it.

Alasdair Paterson: On the Governing of Empires (Shearsman, 2010)

I heard Alasdair read a good selection from this book at its launch in Exeter, and was hooked from there on. He pulls and shapes his poems, his stories, his fragments of possibility, out of texts that had no idea that they might have poetry within them: princesses are analysed through the discourse of furniture catalogues, an unwanted tattoo becomes a riff on the manipulation of language. Definitions are stretched and pulled, verbs are juggled like eggs about to hatch. I love this collection for its language play, and what it allows us to apply to the world we live in. As the speaker in ‘on verbs’ says:
we’re picking their language over
like looters with a bolt of cloth
a thing of the finest weave

Louis MacNeice: Selected Poems (Faber 1988)

I’ve come late to Louis MacNeice. I put this on my Amazon wish-list on the strength of having recently read ‘Soap Suds’, ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Bagpipe Music,’ and was given it for my birthday. It’s like a box of very expensive, very rich chocolates, and I’m still dipping into it, making time to savour each one. But oh, it’s full of wondrous stuff.

Read ‘The Brandy Glass’. I don’t often learn poems off by heart but I want to have this one inside my head for ever.

Michael Donaghy: The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions (Picador, 2009)

I wish I could have met Michael Donaghy, or just attended a reading or a talk or a lecture by him. His essay ‘Wallflowers’, subtitled ‘A lecture on poetry with misplaced notes and additional heckling’ is just a joy. Erudite, witty, original – an absolute pleasure to read. The whole book is a pleasure to read. Another one I read cover-to-cover on a long journey, and have gone back to many times since.

So - that's the first few books from the pile beside my laptop. The new pile that I have just created. Part 2 will follow soon, and then the contents of this pile can be repatriated to their original teetering stacks. Hey ho.