Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Breathing life into dead poems


What is this?




Maybe it's some kind of avant garde poem, Jim? It kinda looks poemy doesn't it? Okay, we'll go for it. (There's no money involved is there?) Okay. It's a poem.

And you would be wrong.
There is a line of logic that says:

If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck,
and looks like a duck, then it's probably a duck.

And that's a reasonable sound point of view to take.
When we see a shape like the one above all
left-justified with jagged lines and

split into blocks of text then we think
'poem' because we're used to that shape;
it's poem-shaped.

Only it's not a poem any more than what I just wrote is a poem. The first is a random selection of x's. The second is a paragraph of prose cut up to make it look like a poem. The thing is when we see a shape like this:




we automatically think 'horse' and our head is filled with horsey associations: galloping, whinnying, trotting, neighing. (You can tell I'm not really into horses when that's all that comes to my mind, can't you?)

People have squabbled for years over what a poem is. What they don't squabble so much about is what to do with a poem when you get your hands on it. A poem is something to be solved. Okay, prose is something to be solved too. You've having to 'solve' every sentence I write. You don't solve them individually. You solve them cumulatively. The meaning expands to fill your head as you read.

Okay, that's another sticky point. Some poets don't think that meaning should be the end result of a poem. Fair dues. But you cannot get wherever you think a poem should take you without going through meanings:


When you see those letters what do you think of? C-A-T means something. It will also make you feel something. That something might be delight. It might be absolute loathing. Or fear if you're a gatophobe. It is not meaningless. The end result of a poem may not be a nice neat meaning but a load of meanings are the rungs you have to climb to get wherever it is you end up.

What I believe is that when we see something that is poem-shaped our brains go into a different gear. To go all Worzel Gummidgey on you, we put our 'poem heads' on. Or I suppose Worzel would say: 'poemtry heads'.

A poem starts at the presentation level.

So, let me present a poem by W S Merwin:


Who would I show it to

In his short essay 'How Do We Make a Poem', Robert Scholes, the American literary critic and theorist, opens with this tiny poem and then asks:

One line, one sentence, unpunctuated, but proclaimed an interrogative by its grammar and syntax – what makes it a poem? Certainly without its title it would not be a poem; but neither would the title alone constitute a poetic text. Nor do the two together simply make a poem by themselves. Given the title and text, the reader is encouraged to make a poem. He is not forced to do so, but there is not much else he can do with this material. – Semiotics and Interpretation, 1982

dead_poets_societyposter He goes on to say that to make a poem out of this text one must first know “poetic code” specifically “the code of the funeral elegy”. If you hand this poem to a very young child he or she could read it without any problems. But I bet their first question would be: What's an 'elegy'? And that's a fair question. Elegies don't crop up much these days. There was one in Four Weddings and a Funeral (W H Auden's 'Funeral Blues') and there was one in Dead Poet's Society (Walt Whitman's 'O Captain! My Captain!') but these are the exceptions. It's probably just the word that's fallen into disuse. I bet more than a handful of poems were penned to the King of Pop when Michael Jackson died recently. In fact here's one. It's not called an elegy but that's what it is: a poem or song composed especially as a lament for a deceased person.

Of course there is a specific form that used to go with an elegy back in the day, the elegiac stanza, an iambic pentameter quatrain rhymed abab which acquired its name through its use by Thomas Gray for Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but no one bothers about formal stuff like that because even death has lost so much of its formality these days; no black dresses, or ties or armbands.

If Merwin's poem was merely a sentence it would probably fall at the end of a paragraph when the narrator of the poem, the 'I', would explain who the 'who' is, the audience if he were to write his elegy; this poem is not it, it is talking about an elegy that the narrator might write if he had a suitable audience. I get that. Every poem I write gets vetted by my wife before it goes in my big red book of poems. If Carrie precedes me into death (now there's an old-fashioned turn of phrase) who will I show my poems to then? What would be the point of writing an elegy if she couldn't be my editor for that poem?

I have made Merwin's poem my own. I don't know who in Merwin's life this was for and I'd rather not know. I have made it mean something. I have decided what this poem means. That doesn't happen so much with prose; the poetry gets lost in all the words. Let me illustrate with a whole chapter from Shadow Child by P F Thomėse:


A woman who lives longer than her husband is called a widow, a man without his wife a widower. A child without parents is an orphan. But what do you call the father and mother of a child who has died?

It's a profound bit of text. It deserves to be a chapter on its own. It's every bit as profound in its own way as Merwin's poem. But it's not poetry. For starters it is a part of a much longer work. Even if it is the second chapter we've still learned that the narrator is the father and that he lives alone with his wife after the death of their only child, a daughter.

People approach a poem differently than they do prose, with a little more caution, respect even. They don't expect things to be explained to them. They expect to be asked to do some work. Even plucked from its place in his novella, Thomėse's three sentences – shorter than many poems – explain themselves. What is there to add? Well, a little. Just because it is prose doesn't mean that what you see is all you get. What he's asking, in part, is how would it feel to be an unnamed thing? Why would something not be named? There are hundreds of thousands of names for things, how did this one thing get missed out? Was it so awful that no one could bear to name it? If you name something then it becomes real. Denying this a name is an attempt to keep it at a distance.

I could go on. But I think I've made my point.

In a poem you, gentle reader, are its context.

Scholes wrote his essay in 1982. I wrote the following poem in 1996. There are only so many truths out there I guess and we all get to them in our own good time. I've always felt that this truth was mine though, exclusively. It rather disappoints me that I wasn't the first to put it into words. That said, Scholes expressed his thoughts in prose, this is a poem:


Writers are all liars. We all are.
But at least they are honest liars.

They write down those necessary lies,
the kind that move men to leaps of faith
or excuse us when we fail to jump.

In the end it doesn't matter that
they let us down in the cruellest ways.

August 18, 1996

A poem, any poem, is an artefact, a relic, a thing abandoned by the past. 'Reader Please Supply Meaning' is thirteen years old. The person who wrote it is 'dead'. Someone else is writing these lines, someone who has read a bit more and lived a bit more than he had. I feel sadder when I read this poem that I do reading either the Merwin or the Thomėse. I understand them in an abstract way. I can put myself in the shoes of the writer. But I remember who I used to be when I wrote my poem. At least I have an idea who I used to be. Who I used to be then is not who I am now.

I'm often amused when, on shows like The Antiques Road Show, the experts can't agree of the function of some item maybe less than a hundred years old. They look at it and fiddle with it and make their best guess based on their experience. We can only understand things up to the limits of our own experiences and so no one will be able to fully understand Merwin’s poem who has not lost a loved one in death. The relationship between the narrator and the person he has lost may not be the same as ours – that is not so important – but first-hand knowledge of loss is. The same goes for Thomėse's chapter. I have lost neither wife nor daughter and I am grateful for that but I have lost both parents and so I can understand what these two men were on about up to a point. Beyond that point I have to project, to imagine, to create a scenario in my head where those words can play themselves out.

T S Eliot wrote:

The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. – Tradition and the Individual Talent

It is entirely possible that Merwin had not lost anyone in death. My assumption was that he'd lost his wife. I projected my own relationship with my wife onto the poem. I was wrong. I'm wrong on both counts. The poem was written after the death of his friend James Wright. Or maybe not. I know he wrote him an elegy, just not necessarily that one. I don't even know if Wright died before the poem was written. And I don't need to know.

The poem should stand or fall on its own merits.

A poem is a dead thing. I know many hands will go up in the air when their owners read that. “Oh, no! A poem is a living thing!” No, it's not. There are preconditions that need to be satisfied before anything can be labelled 'alive' The poem exists, that I'll give you, at least a copy does because what you're reading just now is not the original – that's in my big red book, although, if I'm being honest, that one is also a copy; the original was probably a scribble on some scrap of paper long binned. So, this one and the one you have just read are reproductions and the ability to reproduce is one of the boxes we need to tick to decide if something is alive but really that is the first hurdle at which our argument falls flat. The rule is that the thing must be able to reproduce itself and all the poem has done is lie there and think of England while I made a fair copy of it.

I cannot even argue that the poem is “alive” in my head because I couldn't in all honesty write it down from memory. I can't remember where I wrote it or under what circumstances. No, the only place it exists is on the page and backed up on my office PC, the external hard drive attached to it, my laptop and the external hard drive attached to it and uploaded on the Web. There may well be a copy on a zip drive somewhere. Oh, and there’s a copy on the flash card in my camera.

Reading is reanimation, a breathing of life back into something. When you read your own thoughts intermingle with the words on the page and produce something new. I say 'words on the page' and not 'my thoughts' because all that is left of the thoughts that went into that poem are gone. Only the words remain with the potential to mean something to and to cultivate feelings in the one reading them.

So, the next poem you see, keep this in mind. Remember what's required of you. The breath of life is in you.


Dave King said...

The bit that struck sparks off the anvil for me was your mention of the title and the line together encouraging the reader to make a poem. That is the point at which the approach to poetry often falls by the wayside I think: the reader has to make the poem for him/her self. The written poem is a kind of knitting pattern, but the reader has to knit the thing together.

One other part that resonated with me even more than the rest your remembering of who you used to be. It happened to me only a couple of days ago. I found a poem I wrote years back, at a time when I wasn't writing poetry, except for this one, very pessimistic one. It reminded me of whom I was then and how far I've come. Many thanks for a totally absorbing post.

Sorlil said...

I love reading your posts, Jim. They're always a conversation, like having you sit next to me. You anticipate what questions I'm going to ask and answer them also. You'd make a fantastic teacher / lecturer.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Dave, and that's not a bad analogy, a knitting pattern, where you can adjust colours to suit yourself.

And, Sorlil, you never know we may even get round to a real conversation one of these days. As for a teacher, I wasn't a bad one as a matter of fact, my students seemed to think so, but that was IT, not poetry, besides now the brain's mush I wouldn't be much of an IT teacher either any more.

Rachel Fenton said...

There are so many things I want to say about this post but I would be here for days - seriously - I really enjoyed this. I've been back to re-read about four times now!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Rachel. If you have that much to say then why don't you write your own post about it? I'd be keen to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Rachel Fenton said...

Jim, I might just do that! As soon as I stop churning out prose that is! I've done so much writing recently (and having so little time to write in my daily life) that my posts have been no-brainers for a while! Must get back on the case soon! Don't want all my potential readers to think I'm dull!

Shelly said...

Excellent post, Jim. I think the development of the understanding of reading as a process, and of meaning being located in that process, is one of the most profound things. I love reading literary people talking about the reading process.

You've provided excellent texts here to illustrate the context. I thought the Merwin poem and the Thomese chapter both give a good feel for the way a text can be somehow more meaningful than just the collection of words on a page.

Jim Murdoch said...

That's the thing about words. Just look at that first poem, Shelly. Could the words be any simpler:


and yet look at the depth of meaning when you put them in the right order. When you look at it that way, each and every one of us has the capacity to say the most profound things because, let's face it, the wisest things that men have said have mostly been in words of one or two syllables.

And yet new things keep getting written. Why hasn't everything that could be said been said by now?

Iain said...

attempting to create descriptive definitions of various types of poetry can be an intellectually rewarding exploit, however, I'm not sure what the point of your prescriptivist definition is exactly.

as if poetry or prose existed in the natural world apart from human construction (like horses)?

some poems are true poems?
others are only depictions?

perhaps i'm reading you all wrong (and forgive me if this is the case), but do you intend to devalue any particular bit of writing that doesn't, at least for the most part, fit either your definition of prose or of poetry?

or do you propose new names, new categories for the heaps upon hordes of great work that--over the centuries--has fallen outside your working definitions of poetry and prose?

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Iain. The one thing you must remember about most of my posts is that I am investigating things not throwing out opinions that I expect to become laws. I have never hidden the fact that my literary experience is rather limited. I've pretty much found what works for me – as both reader and writer – and stuck with it. Since I began this blog I've been deliberately opening myself up to new experiences and I've also been trying to put into words things I feel about poetry.

If there is one thing I've learned is that as soon as you start to spout off about how knowledgeable you are there will always be someone more knowledgeable ready to stand up and cut you down to size. So, when I write an article like this I'm encouraging people to think perhaps about things they’ve not thought about before because these are things I've not thought about before.

There are a number of debates that catch fire online every now and then. What is poetry? is one and What's the difference between poetry and prose? is another. And I can't say these two questions don't fascinate me because they do. When people ask me what I am I tell them I'm a writer; within myself I think of myself as a poet who happens to write novels. I think these debates are interesting but I don't think they're important. At the end of the day it's all writing.

So, I'm not out to devalue anyone's writing. I am curious – incredibly curious – why people do things differently to me. I want to understand. Okay, I've left it a bit late. I should've been doing all of this in my twenties but I was too busy earning a living. What I am sure of is that every reader brings themselves to every different written work they encounter. The main point I was making in the opening to this article was that one cannot avoid meaning no matter how hard be try, we're hardwired to look for meaning in words; we may resist that urge but it's something we have to work at if we want to understand a poem on a purely emotional level.

For myself the two are inseparable but I always approach a piece of text intellectually first. Oftentimes if I can't grasp it then I don't give myself a chance to appreciate it in any other way. I don't know how to get around that. Maybe one day it'll dawn on me.

Hope this makes things a bit clearer. If not, let me know.

Iain said...

clears it up quite a bit actually. i'm all for throwing ideas out and seeing what sticks.

sometimes, when people make definitions of "poetry"/"art"/etc. it's for the purpose of "discounting" certain types of work. so i was just asking is all.

liked a lot of things you said. especially that the reader is the context for the poem: YES.

dig the blog.


Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for coming back to me, Iain. Glad to have you on board.

(Best Show)Watch said...


Two things

1) I’d like your permission to (re)print your article on ‘Charlie Rose’for our website

2) I was hoping we could use your ‘scribing’ talent for our website.

The Best Shows Youre Not Watching (dot) com [all one word]
‘Charlie Rose’one of our featured shows. We’re hoping to round up a few people who can occasionally contribute perspective (via an article/blog) on the shows – maybe a recent episode, future direction, plot shortcomings etc.

What’s in it for you?
Primarily a larger audience back channeled to your blog. We don’t pay but the site has a lot of promise and we're pretty excited about getting it off the ground. Let me know what you think.


(Best Show)Watch said...


Two things

1) I’d like your permission to (re)print your article on ‘Charlie Rose’for our website

2) I was hoping we could use your ‘scribing’ talent for our website.

The Best Shows Youre Not Watching (dot) com [all one word]
‘Charlie Rose’one of our featured shows. We’re hoping to round up a few people who can occasionally contribute perspective (via an article/blog) on the shows – maybe a recent episode, future direction, plot shortcomings etc.

What’s in it for you?
Primarily a larger audience back channeled to your blog. We don’t pay but the site has a lot of promise and we're pretty excited about getting it off the ground. Let me know what you think.


Jim Murdoch said...

(Best Show)Watch - as long as you provide a link to the original post you can quote what you like. I've also had a wee look at your site and I'll see what I can do.

Henry Lawson Poems said...

I agree with Dave, the title and line together can inspire.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment Henry Lawson Poems - nice to have another visitor from south of the equator. I have to say if there's one aspect of writing that I think we could all pay closer attention to it would be titles. I have an article in draft on that very subject but it'll be next year before I look at it again as I'm having a bit of a break over the holiday period.

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