Monday, August 15, 2016

What are your poems about?

Nature, love,'s perhaps no surprise that poets come back to these fundamentals so often.  You have to write about something don't you? In a recent interview for online magazine Prac Crit, Matthew Welton says "One poet I met said when he was writing his second book that ‘the trouble is that now I have to find fifty other things I need to say’ and I thought ‘well, I don’t have anything to say’." When Welton first appeared in print in the late 90s in Faber's "First Pressings" and Carcanet's "New Poetries" he seemed very out of sync with the contemporary idiom of British poetry, which had by that stage taken literalism as far as it could go. The "poetry of things" - as in this poem is an anecdote about something, or, if a metaphor was a literal metaphor - so Duffy's onion, or Armitage's tyre were equally explainable, paraphrasable, seemed to have created a false accessibility, in that the best poems are often allusive, yet meaningful.

At 14, studying the metaphysicals, I think I was suspicious already about the idea that "this poem means this" - I rebelled a little against literalism. It wasn't the metaphysicals I disliked, but this reducing of them to something they (in particular) were not. Later, I realised that metaphysicality, that most of elusive of poetic movements, was something plainly and patently missing from much contemporary poetry. In contrast, in a blind reading in an exam I remember being given (I found out later) Matthew Arnold's troublingly beautiful "Dover Beach." Here metaphor hides meaning, or rather there were layers to unfold, with no certainty of what was beneath. No wonder McEwan uses the poem in "Saturday" as the captured family try and puzzle and disentangle from their tormentor.

Contemporary British poetry has had some shift away from literalism, a surprising jump if you look at the generation beforehand, yet in doing so, the question that Welton articulates - "you have to write about something" - has been answered in a certain negative; that there is more to the poem (like a painting, like a piece of music) than in the literal or the purely figurative. Yet at the same time there has been a tendency for the more successful books of recent years - think "Dart", "Her Birth", "Night", "Look! We have coming to Dover", "Rain", "The World's Wife", "Stag's Leap" "Drysalter" - to be most distinctly about something; the sequence as book in particular offering that certainty, that literalism that we seem to need, even if the poems themselves provide some more devious pleasures;  as before, death, love, nature.

The truth I suspect is that we need both these things. An allusive and elusive poet such as Luke Kennard has often provided much pleasure, some understanding - pop cultural references next to the higher brow - whilst at the same time rarely giving us a poem that is simply paraphraseably "about something." I can't find the quote, but Ashbery long ago said something along the lines, that he didn't want his poems to be closed, but to offer an openness that perhaps didn't represent the reality of a specific thing or image, but instead reflected the reality of how we perceive  the thing or image (fragmented, juxtaposed with this other thing etc. ) A poem, once read is not unlocked, but can be returned to. Yet in Kennard's new book "Cain" despite much cleverness (and it is clever, and a joy to read), there is a subject of sorts. This, like the list above is actually sold as being about something. That the poems are also about other things - not just divorce, estrangement, breakdown - is not so much their byproduct but their point. Similarly, Andrew McMillan's "Physical", with its frankness about gay love/gay life is patently about something.  Within that particular house of course are many different rooms.

I remember reading many years ago a biography of Adam Ant (don't judge me), where Goddard/Ant admits that what he did take from McLaren who managed him briefly then stole his band, that all his good ideas needed to be not in the slogans of his art work but in his songs. From this, came "antmusic for sex people" - so McLaren unplugged this jukebox and did us all a favour. Its a reminder that sometimes we need to make sure our thoughts are on the page, especially if they have a good line with them, if they have a good joke attached to them, if they can last beyond the poem and the page. If I have a difficulty with the literal in poetry its that it doesn't often repay the attention given it, by forsaking something - maybe language, maybe something more visceral. If I have a tendency in my own work to get buried by an aesthetic its worth remembering that we all like to hum a good tune now and then, that it doesn't necessarily have to be the chorus. I suspect when Welton, for example highlights an unwillingness to have poems that are "about" something, its because its a dislike of reductionism: I don't want the poem to be just about this one thing. Elsewhere in the same interview he's asked about his references to coffee (e.g. in the title of his second collection) and he says, yes, he drinks coffee, he likes coffee. This is the detritus of our life pulled into the patterning that any poem ends up being. Perhaps a poem about coffee would never really be about coffee. Just as in the iconic Frank O'Hara poem "Why I am not a Painter" his painter friend has a painting which has something that looks like "sardines" in it because "it needed something there" - which he then removes because "it was too much", yet the painting ends up being called "Sardines". In Armitage's "The Tyre" or Duffy's onion poem "Valentine", the main image is there, it is immutable in the picture. The metaphor an accessible one. I think this is partly why poets love things such as the Shipping Forecast, because the naming therein has a beauty that has both explicit meaning, and acts as a rigid metaphor. It's much harder in some ways to take out the "sardine" and yet still hint at its essence - yet surely we want to do this, unless we are wilfully obscure?

A poem doesn't have to be about anything, but because it's a poem, it now is about something - if only itself. The literal path is as frustrating as the one that's off-road. I'm actually impressed when poets manage a sequence about those weary subjects - love, death, nature - as I feel I don't have an honest lexicon to deal with them - my love, my experience of death, my urban landscape are not accessible via poetic cliche, or direct metaphor - the real things are too strong or (worse) too prosaic. Yet if I talk about something else - lets call it the ineffable - then how to write that down. When I read "Dover Beach" blind, I seem to recall that I went over the top in my description of what the poem was about - as about unfulfilled sexual desire. It became about my response to the poem, as much about the poem itself. So that when I ask a fellow poet what they write about, or someone asks what my poems are about, I should hesitate about the answer: they are about something, even when they aren't.


Jim Murdoch said...

In the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street there's a humorous scene during which Barrett tells Browning she was confused by a section of one of his poems and seeks clarification:


ROBERT BROWNING: Well, Miss Barrett, when that passage was written only God and Robert Browning understood it. Now, only God understands it.

I don’t know if you’ve been following my blog of late but for about the past year and a half I’ve been posting poems from the seventies and eighties in pretty much chronological order and trying to say a few words about each and it is AMAZING just how little I can remember about most of them or what was even happening in my life at the time. I’m reduced to a reader like any other and God only knows—I refer you to Mr Browning above—what the hell I meant when I wrote them. It’s a strange position to be in. What are my poems about? They not about a lot of things. That’s an easier way to approach the question but once I’ve taken away all that I’m not sure what’s left. Or that defining it matters all that much.

No one asks what’s a car about but cars mean different things to different people. For some they’re convenience, for others freedom or a way to pull birds.

If you’ve not read it—I can’t remember if I sent you a copy—you might find the introduction to my last poetry collection as good a response to your question as any. It’s where I first used the quote from Besier’s play.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I will take a look, thanks for the Browning reference.

Adrian Slatcher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim Love said...

Writing about something is useful as a marketing ploy - if people can summarise your book/pamphlet in a sentence, you're more likely to get mentioned. As a trigger it's not useful to me, thought thinking that way has sometimes been of use while re-writing.

I don't think anyone here's quoted from Little Gidding yet, so allow me - "And what you thought you came for/ Is only a shell, a husk of meaning/ From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled/ If at all. Either you had no purpose/ Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured"

Adrian said...

Eliot at his most metaphysical.