Some of us had dinner with Gieve when he was in town and the discussion, predictably, revolved around poetry. Poetry is always difficult to talk about — so much of it is subjective and it’s difficult to exactly pinpoint what the elements of a good poem are. Some say sound; the words should resonate when read aloud. Others say meaning; whole universes of truth must be contained in a single line. Honesty, original imagery, innovative use of language…there are so many aspects to a good (a hopelessly banal word but it will have to do) poem. Auden said:
One demands two things of a poem. Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honor to the language in which it is written. Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective. What the poet says has never been said before, but, once he has said it, his readers recognize its validity for themselves.
On the other hand, Poe defined poetry as beauty: “I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever with Duty or with Truth.” These and countless other definitions are usually limiting. Which is why it’s so hard to define poetry or boil it down to its constituent parts or teach it.
Gieve explained how he runs his workshop by doing the only possible thing — reading poetry to his students. Extensively and exhaustively. Read like that, he said, “it seeps into you somehow and helps you become a better poet.” Then, aware of the futility of trying to trap this particular beast, we read some Ramanujan aloud.
We also talked about the thematic concerns of poetry and how in each era, some themes are privileged over others. In our times, the poetry of social consciousness is considered much more important than the poetry of the personal. David Harsent who won the Forward Prize in 2005 for his collection Legion, discussed the suspicion that personal poetry arouses and argued against it in an article here. He wrote:
Although many critics disapprove of confessional poetry, my impression is that the general public loves it. It has been observed that people not involved in the poetry scene want full-blooded poems about feelings. If poetry has a poor image it is precisely because it so often isn’t about feelings but about aesthetics the public do not understand and therefore view as irrelevant to their lives. Most poems are about feelings, but the emotions may be so carefully disguised that they could appear absent to the non-initiate. Being over-concerned with aesthetics at the cost of content could itself be viewed as self-indulgent – the poet writing to another poet about writing poems, the lifeblood squeezed out. On the other hand, the aesthetic qualities of confessional poems shouldn’t be overlooked.
Personally, I sometimes have a problem with poems that are too ‘intellectual’ (for want of a better word), the ones that have been cogitated over so much that they resemble over-chewed cud with all the real stuff sucked out of them. Which is probably why even though I like Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds continue to speak to me in a way that few other poets do. Does that make me more self-centred than most? I believe that everything starts with the individual so any attempt to unravel the mysteries of the individual psyche cannot be irrelevant. And who decides that war is more important than sexuality, political conflict more worthy than the violences that take place at home, or in the mind?