Saturday, September 03, 2011

What's a poem about?

I've been spending the last week organising and rearranging the poems I've written since "Playing for Solitaire for Money" was finalised in Spring 2010; so close to 18 months of writing.

Do we have particular obsessions at particular times? I guess so - though the subject matter reappears. I think that some of the topics of that collection I've wanted to explore more; contemporary paranoia, nostalgic memory, engaging with the world, love, the absence of love. Additionally, there's something I've always been edging towards, a certain "metaphysicality" where situation and emotion are layers rather than explicit. Can you be a metaphysical poet in the contemporary age? If so, its not so much the connecting with the real world with the mystical, as extracting the debris of a spiritual sensibility from the consumerist nature of modern life, and finding some meaning in that life, however hard.

But without analysing my new work too closely (and its not yet available anywhere, anyway), I've noticed a certain pulling away from trusting words on their own, to trusting the poem. Form has become more important, at least in the shape of these lyrics. I've begun to distrust the glittering power of individual words, at least where they don't offer us a genuine sense. When we talk about "meaning" in a poem, I don't think its always about the literal sense, but for me, at the moment, the poem has to have meaning, even if its obscured (or layered). I've a jaundiced view of words for their own sake, or images that are beautiful but static. No great change here, anyhow, as I've never been much of an "imagist", never followed Stevens (or even Ashbery). Conversely I've dumped the more literal poems, however neatly they've stacked up.

What I want, I think, is a poem to stand up by itself, to have meaning without being explicit about that. The metaphysical poets were clear, direct, demotic, yet highly open to interpretation within that framework. Its why they're still read, I think, as approaching something of the contradictions of human consciousness, and utilising words with an awareness of how inadequate they are as tools.


Jim Murdoch said...

When I was young and had a rather romantic view of inspiration I used to believe that a poem’s function was to contain a meaning and that if people didn’t get my poem, didn’t understand exactly what I was getting at, then I’d failed. Nowadays I still try and imbue my poetry with meaning but I acknowledge the fact that all writing, but especially all poetry, is a collaborative process and I have no control over what my readers are capable or willing to contribute. People look at clouds and imagine they look like things or animals but if you’ve never seen an elephant how would you know if a cloud looked like one? Of course you can be considerate to your readers. The last poem I wrote I named ‘After Sisyphus’ because most people are familiar with the story. My preferred title would have been ‘Tabernacle’ because I’m talking about a place one enters to perform ceremonies and I was thinking about what the apostle Paul said when he called the body a temple but I’m not sure too many people would make that particular connection and if they were going to they’ll do it naturally because all the information is still there. I wrote a poem once and called it ‘Unholy’ – about a six-legged beetle – and the editor who rejected it did so because he didn’t think his readers would make the connection; numbers are significant in the Bible and whereas seven is a holy number, six (one short of perfection) is not.

Just because we live in a modern world doesn’t mean that all the questions metaphysics posed have been answered. Most were probably unanswerable in any absolute way but even those answers that were proposed have needed modification. For years my whipping boy was the nature of truth. I think I’ve got that one out of my system but there are so many others.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Some good points as ever, Jim, particularly about how people understand poems. I sometimes read reviews and think they must have been given some gloss from the author. I had a poem in my last collection called "The Borrowers", and it wasn't about the little people from the story, but to kind of evoke something about childhood.