Voice and Syntax – (excerpt)
Jenny Bornholdt, The Rocky Shore (VUP, 2008)
Reading Dylan Thomas as a child was a troubling experience. On one hand, he’d lived nearby and roused the poetic senses about the familiar landscapes we shared. He invented Under Milk Wood’s Dai Bread, who dreamed of ‘Turkish girls. Horizontal’, and we had Dai the Milkie; an alcoholic who crashed his milk float into a parked car outside our house. I saw the ‘fishing-boat-bobbing seas’ at Porthcawl and at night I could imagine the sleeping bodies of our neighbourhood’s people deeply engaged in fantastical dreams.
On the other hand, I still felt like I’d been denied access to a world of language in his poetry; it was dense and his words so carefully chosen that it gave his poems the appearance of a well-built fort, with each adjective and adverb meticulously planted in an attempt to defend the poem’s meaning, which he’d hidden from me. I suppose I was also watching American television and reading Enid Blyton or Steven King at the time, so I was used to a quick resolution in any story. Eventually, I came to believe that this was the point of poetry – it was a chunk of text that was used to hide a meaning that the reader was supposed to look for. Reading The Hobbit for the first time, I couldn’t see the difference between what Bilbo Baggins was doing in his riddling and what we were studying in class, at that time Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’: ‘He clasps the crag with crooked hands / Close to the sun in lonely lands, / Ringed with the azure world, he stands’. We learned about alliteration (‘clasps the crag’), personification (‘crooked hands’), rhyme (‘hands’/’lands’), half-rhyme (‘crag’/’hands’), and above all, metaphor: the idea that something could stand for something else. That was the key to the poem – if you figured out what the metaphor stood for, you’d gotten the job done. To top it off, you were supposed to scan it like a wordfind after you’d figured it out and then look for examples of the techniques above, which were used to hide the meaning.
Later, I had my own re-discovery of poetry as a vessel for exploration rather than as a limiter. I realised that language was supposed to be used to expose meaning, and also that poetry didn’t necessarily have to mean anything anyway. But still, a question remained about style – there was a clear difference in diction between what I was reading in Ginsberg and in Pound that wrapped each author in their own stylistic worlds; Ginsberg’s much more simple and colloquial, Pound’s inexorably shrouded in linguistic mystery. The voices that the poets used to bring their ideas to life completely influenced the way I looked for the ideas when reading them. I seemed to trust a poet more if they spoke in plainer terms. But contrastingly, if a poet enjoyed the butchery of syntax and complete semantic freedom, and they could do it convincingly, I found myself feeling more rewarded if I could take something from it. In some ways, I still very much thought reading poetry a test of skill.
Now I acknowledge that it’s a much more cerebral process than at first sight. Not everyone who writes in ‘colloquial’ diction does so because that’s just how they speak. Poets clearly indulge and manipulate poetic distance for effect. Ginsberg, for example, might have chosen to speak to his readers in relatively ‘straight’ terms to arouse a sense of the unified meaning of his symbols, to reject the idea of a private language of poets. In contrast, some of the worst, most awkward and overrated poetry comes out of the attempt to dress up commonplace ruminations of the individual in unfamiliar scaffolds of language to make it appear elegant or challenging. I know as well as anyone that intellect can often be self-serving – playing with your intelligence on the page can feel like it’s justified sometimes by the mere fact that it sounds intelligent.
And so, in a roundabout way, I get to The Rocky Shore, and New Zealand poetry in general, which seems particularly caught-up in a struggle between the goal of authentic, personal realism and the need for a collective intelligence to draw from and manipulate. A shared project, if there is one, appears to be a real attention to the dynamics of compression. The most successful New Zealand poets haven’t veered too far in either direction – in sprawling or stripping their work gratuitously – but there’s an ever-present awareness of how and when to compress. In The Rocky Shore, Jenny Bornholdt points to the elephant in the room; at times painfully aware of its presence. As she diverges in ‘Confessional’, she stops and corrects herself: ‘I was also thinking about / personal poetry and how it’s not given much / time of day any more, and how / when people talk about poetry / they often mention compression – yes, it can / be that, but it can also be a great sprawling / thing. And Kenneth Koch has died.’
There’s almost a feeling of guilt in her self-awareness at times – she prefaces her caveat for the reader in the second section: ‘A good example of wasting time thinking about / trivial things:’ she says, before casually inserting a memory that sets the perfect undertone for the remainder of the poem. In the third, she announces ‘I’d like to mention my children. I hope they know / that I love them even though I yell sometimes.’ The movement between sections is done with this kind of self-noted storytelling, which is clearly conscious of the fact that its subject matter isn’t typically considered poetic, at least not introduced in this casual a manner. It acknowledges its own rule-breaking as it breaks them, but it doesn’t seem contrived or surgical. There’s still a very believable, human voice narrating these off-hands that no doubt savours the emotional catharsis that poeticising provides. It doesn’t feel like Bornholdt is really studying poetic form at the reader’s expense. In the fifth section of the poem she describes a red t-shirt falling down the shaft of a crane: ‘like… / like what? Like a red T-shirt falling down the inside of a crane’. It could be taken as unnecessarily provocative, but instead it comes off as a statement of heartfelt reluctance – at times, she shows compression in action as process rather than end.
She does several things in this colloquial voice that I’m not used to seeing – rephrasing her sentences in parenthesis, example: ‘(I loved that – all this technology and the crane driver / still opens the window and hollers)’ or ‘(hey, how about that, I would say / if I were American)’. Here, she seems to be attempting to mimic conversational speech, and it does feel authentic, although a little dorky at times. In ‘Willow’, she opts for a shorter, freer line, though there’s not much change in the narrative voice. Most of these poems are assembled in unnumbered sections that build to a coherent whole – ‘Willow’ takes a more fragmented approach, with some sections as short as ‘Planes nest in the mist and Eric Fonteyn / what a name / for the captain / of a plane’. This poem is more playful, despite the spattering of darker subject material, and operates on a much more meandering and insular level of communication. There’s not so much care for the reader’s sanity here, and though this works well in context, I feel it’s the weakest of the six poems simply because it doesn’t have the punch that ‘Confessional’ and ‘Fitter Turner’ do… it lacks the same within-stanza strength that these poems have. With the others, it feels like a few of the stanzas could stand alone as poems and work in isolation if they wanted to. In ‘Willow’, the back-and-forth, now-and-then narrative is a little too eager to complete itself, and the return to the dilemma of the planting in the last couple of stanzas is a little predictable.
One technique that compliments the colloquial voice used in the book is the inclusion of a couple of documents in their entirety. In ‘Fitter Turner’, it’s a detailed medical history of the narrator’s father; in ‘The Rocky Shore’ are a series of shopping and preparatory instructions for a Hindu ceremony. These add another touch of realism that centres the narrator in a familiar, tangible universe that the reader could well inhabit. But to focus purely on the voice that The Rocky Shore utilises wouldn’t do justice to the work as a whole. In their best moments, poems like ‘Confessional’ and ‘Big Minty Nose’ do something quite remarkable. The anecdotal, off-hand linking of stanzas hints at a greater meaning that ties each story together, but the narrator seems well aware that no wider truth is revealed. The project itself seems to be illustrating this fact – exposing the aching sensation that such a lack of coherent order produces. By offering these fragments, the narrator wants to arouse the reader’s internal desire to solve puzzles, only to show that experience is ‘un-solvable’ in any useful sense. It’s not a cynical project, and in fact, Bornholdt seems to celebrate the ambiguity that arises from competing pieces of life information; only prescribing that the search for form and fit within human existence is what defines our curiosity.
This issue of the ‘sprawl’ and the appearance of mental clutter on the page is no accident. Behind every idiom is the feeling of dense and elaborate poetic architecture. When its self-consciousness gets too palpable for me, it seems like the sculpted-to- imperfection haircut – not necessarily a bad thing, but it breaks the poetic fifth-wall or sixth-wall or whatever without necessarily intending to. It’s when the personal tone starts to feel self-acknowledging to the extent of seeming ‘dumbed down’ or intending to encroach outside the normal audience for poetry. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does feel unnecessarily airy in places.
I’m surprised by my reaction to this book – I didn’t enjoy ‘Confessional’ much when it was discussed in class – but after buying the book and taking all six poems as a collective project, I’m a little astounded by how much it has lingered in my mind after reading. It tackles the neuroses of writing poetry as a response to the world’s indifference in gorgeous detail. In The Rocky Shore, nothing is ever really completed – death and illness come and go but there’s no mental resignation or surrender to these processes. The narrator continues to make art, and though nothing is solved in its pursuit, it offers the reflective distance at which life’s smaller details can be re-examined.