Sunday, June 06, 2010

Paradox of Poetry

There seems a paradox to being a poet; to writing poetry. For though it is a perfectly malleable form, it's also not capable of doing everything - or at least not everything well. The paradox is there in prose as well, but you can get "poetic prose" that can be as breathtaking as anything in the best poem. Poetry, it seems, is an art of abstraction, yet - again, paradoxically - it aims to be precise in a way that other forms aren't. I don't, I think, write poetry to document the quotidian but to find a response to something that can't be said out loud, or  in a purely linear way.

Yet, in many ways, writing poetry, which I've always done - since seven or eight years old - has other functions as well. It's an outlet for instant emotion; it's a way of capturing sadness - and elation - in a state of permanence, rather than losing those emotions to memory; it's about a certain musicality of words, that prose can achieve, but is better when it does not. It used to be said that poetry was a young man (or woman)'s game - but I'm not sure that can be true these days, if it ever was. Indeed, though the "stuff of life" with which you fill a novel can accumulate over the years, the sheer bravado of the longer form seems more difficult to fit in with life. Poetry, for me now, seems better turned to express more complex emotions, deal with less everyday moments. It is also, perhaps, easier to do, because it only needs to be done when the muse calls - or rather I can put it aside, and not write a poem for a week or a month or more, and it won't feel wrong to have done that.

Larkin wrote more prose when he was younger - fictional prose in the novels "Jill" and a "Girl in Winter", as well as the other stuff. Larkin slowed down his poetry production during the last decade of his life to virtually nothing. Thomas Hardy stopped writing novels after "Jude the Obscure" and began publishing the poetry he'd written throughout his life. Poet-bloggers like George Szirtes and Katy Evans-Bush write reams of words every week, though make it clear that the small poetry triumphs are the real work.

I'm stymied in writing prose fiction at the moment somehow - as if the language of prose has somehow grown tired and old in my hands. It seems that I can't now think above the language that I use everyday, and create an imaginative prose. I'm sure the internet is somehow to blame, and the endless words we have to write for "work speak." Having always had a disdain for journalists-turned-writers, I'm wondering if I'm a writer-turned-journalist. Poetry, on the other hand, is untainted. I can still hear a different tone when I begin a poem, and, when it's finished, marvel somewhat at it's mysteries.


litrefs said...

David Kennedy once said "When I sit down to write I often don't know whether it's a poem or a critical piece that's going to be produced". When do you commit yourself? Or do you have no choice?

When you reach the moment when you know you're writing prose, what feeling comes over you? What are your expectations? Would you consider a 300 word piece a fragment or a finished piece? Does your fiction ever turn into poetry? Ever tried writing a Golden Gate or Autobiography of Red (or parts of The Golden Notebook or Portrait of the Artist ...)? Ever tried what Armitage is trying nowadays?

Bournemouth Runner said...

It's an interesting series of questions. I think in general I think my sensibility is different for poetry and fiction. When you want to write a story, or explore characters I'll do it within fiction, for instance. However, I know there are poets (who may write non-fiction prose) who feel drawn to poetry for whatever they do. I think, in many ways, that's why there are so few writers who are equally strong as poets and fiction writers. Armitage, I almost mentioned, as having written a number of prose works - not necessarily that satisfyingly - he's now writing prose poetry in his verse. I think he's a writer who is deliberately exploring the limitations of his forms/styles, and is not afraid to create some interesting new hybrids (such as his 9/11 anniversary film-poem.) Several years ago I wrote an experimental novel, which I've extracted various pieces from over the years and called certain bits poetry, and certain bits prose. My recent pamphlet "Extracts from Levona" is a case in point, I call it a poem, yet its' reference points are novelistic. I'm impressed by poets who are not "precious" about their work and will write a poem for any occasion, because that's what they do; yet also by writers who choose a different form depending on the subject. One of the challenges, I think, is not deciding whether an idea should be produced in one form or another, but recognising that something you've maybe expressed in one format might actually work better, revisited in another.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m much the same. I write, on average 1000 words of prose every day, but only two or three poems a month and yet I think of myself as a poet; I feel I sound pretentious calling myself a novelist but I can live with ‘writer’. To my mind my poetry is, and always will be, my real writing. That doesn’t mean I don’t have multiple copies of my prose backed up all over the shop because I do but I’m well aware that any real success will come via the novels, if at all, but I still think my best work is in poetry. I wrote poetry for twenty years before I ever attempted a novel (although I never set out to write one, it happened by chance – honest) and it was quite a surprise to me. Now I’m comfortable writing in a variety of forms. They’re different, complimentary. I don’t think one is easier to write; they exercise different artistic muscles.

Bournemouth Runner said...

"They exercise different artistic muscles" - exactly.