I’ve been reading Don Paterson’s ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ lecture and am just so thrilled. I would love to include it in my reading packet, no matter what the reading packet turns out to be on!
The first part that really caught my attention was his discussion of the importance of ‘risk’ as poets. It really reminded me of Rosanna Warren’s advice to ‘find your danger’. Paterson:
Risk, of the sort that makes readers feel genuinely uncomfortable, excited, open to suggestion, vulnerable to reprogramming, complicit in the creative business of their self-transformation is quite different…
He means different from risk as an outpouring or diatribe, for example against the war in Iraq, which he describes as ‘reverse sentimentalism’ – basically about making a grandiose statement about one’s own emotional response to something.
He then goes on to say,
But risk is also writing with real feeling, as Frost did, while somehow avoiding sentimentality; simplicity, as Cavafy did, and somehow avoiding artlessness; daring to be prophetic, as Rilke did, and miraculously avoiding pretentiousness; writing with real originality, as Dickinson did, while somehow avoiding cliché (since for a reader to be blown away by the original phrase it must already be partly familiar to them, if they are to register the transformation; a point fatally misunderstood by every generation of the avant-garde, which is one reason they are stylistically interchangeable).
I find this guy on the one hand slightly formidable and verging on pompous, but on the other (and I’m looking at this second hand) an inspiring visionary and very clever.
He has a lot of tall orders though and definitely is not keen on the ‘layperson’ having access to poetry as a serious art. He also regards any form of writing exercise to be useless, which I find unnecessarily patronising and elitist. However, this simple idea of taking risk as meaning writing with feeling, simplicity and originality is a wonderful premise. Obviously, the most intimidating idea on the list was ‘daring to be prophetic’, which I have been trying to do and miserably failing at. (Duh, I wonder why. Not exactly a prophet.) I think if I can do the first three to the best of my ability, then the ‘prophetic’ element will kind of be there in the space between the words.
Then this from Paterson, ‘… the poets’ beautiful tightrope-walk, is the one between sense and mystery – to make one, while revealing the other.’ Woof, this man can write!
This is something I’ve been thinking quite a lot about recently. There is still so much poetry out there that I feel I would put down with as bemused and annoyed an expression on my face as someone off the street whose only interest in poetry is sticking ‘Desiderata’ on the wall at the family beach house. However, as a reaction to this, I think I have been writing poems that are so clear and explanatory that they almost verge on being prose. There’s a certain ‘skin’, it seems to me, that sits around a poem and gives it a different density or buoyancy, a different air, and this skin has been dissolving for me at times, or else it feels like I’m keeping it together only by inserting an odious kind of artful obscurity or some nice sounds. I shouldn’t be too hard on myself, as this is NOT an easy business. But the point is, I would love to make some inroads into the tension that Paterson describes between sense and mystery. Actually, that’s it: the mystery has to be there for it to be a poem. That gives it that special skin, air, density etc. My issue is that I don’t know how to get mystery into my poems. I’ve tried, but they turn out to be vague and abstract or confusing. It is indeed a tightrope, as Paterson is describing a kind of writing that is absolutely clear and makes sense about a topic that the poet doesn’t know everything or even much about. Phew! No wonder I feel bloody intimidated in the mornings.
Yet it’s not like I haven’t written good poems that have a hint of mystery in them, or at least are accurate in their descriptions of something that I have experienced, and, for an experience to be knocking at the poet’s mind, it usually means there is an inherent mysterious / unanswerable / unknowable / elusive element or truth that is giving the whole thing heat. So I don’t need to produce the mystery, just let it come out in the space between precisely described and chosen scenes. Got it.
My concern is that normally these sorts of experiences come few and far between. The Masters has definitely heightened my awareness of the mysteries behind a whole lot of facets of the world and my life, but the problem is that isolation for writing means that I haven’t actually been experiencing much other than work and the kettle and the loo.
So, in conclusion, Don Paterson, I have to leave my writing desk now.
I have found and been delighted by Fleur Adcock’s 2013 slim volume Glass Wings. The first poem, from which the collection partly takes its name is ‘At the Crossing’:
The tall guy in a green T-shirt,
vanishing past me as I cross
in the opposite direction,
has fairy wings on his shoulders:
toy ones, children’s fancy-dress wings,
cartoonish butterfly cut-outs.
Do they say gay? No time for that.
He flickers past the traffic lights –
whoosh! gone! – outside categories.
Do they say foreign? They say young.
They say London. Grab it, they say.
Kiss the winged joy as it flies.
Traffic swings around the corner;
gusts of drizzle sweep us along
the Strand in the glittering dark,
threading to and fro among skeins
of never-quite-colliding blurs.
All this whirling’s why we came out.
Those fragile flaps could lift no one.
Perhaps they were ironic wings,
tongue-in-cheek look-at-me tokens
to make it clear he had no need
of hydraulics, being himself
Wings, though; definite wings.
I’m enjoying how classical figures and references weave throughout the collection. The Hermes moment is where the poem really ‘takes off’. Also, I like the way Adcock uses rhyme in the poem, in its gentle, elusive patterning almost echoing the scene of the street where ‘never quite colliding blurs’ form a visual representation of the flickering rhyme. This is a great example of form matching content.
‘Vanishing past me as I cross
in the opposite direction,
has fairy wings…’
The line break after ‘cross’ gives a visceral sense of that moment of crossing; it’s almost as though the speaker is looking over her shoulder after it at the figure with the wings. How clever, Fleur! To underline this, the assonance on ‘o’ in ‘cross’ and ‘opposite’ acts like a flash of recognition in a blur of busy sound, which aurally reflects the visual experience of following an individual through the blur of faces at a London crossing.
Having established the scene in stanza one, Adcock then shifts into a reverie about youth and urban culture in stanza two, but it takes her back to a memory of Blake. This foreshadows the universalisation of the man as a Hermes figure later in the poem. Then, in stanza three, I love how she brings us back just as she would have been wrenched from such a reverie by fast traffic ‘swinging around the corner’. Indeed, the poem swings fast around a corner at this point too, (there are wings inside that swing) and the pace accelerates in real time before becoming once again airborne through the image of the two wings (‘flaps’ rhymes with ‘perhaps’ in the next line, like two flapping wings of possibility) to the actually airborne image of Hermes. The enjambement before ‘Hermes’ acts like that moment of flight. If ‘Hermes’ came on the previous line, there would be no moment of leap, no defying gravity, no wonder in landing in this new place, which is also an ancient place.
‘Ironic’ is gently rhyming with ‘hydraulic’ and the rhyme nicely reinforces the idea of wings as toy things, mechanical things before the shock of Hermes establishes otherworldly wings at the end of the poem.
Finally, we return to the toy wings, which are ‘definite wings’. It’s as though the poet speaker is convincing herself of what she saw, which is by this time both ethereal and real, both Hermetic and a shred of common street culture.
‘Do they say gay?’ Adcock is present as the speaker, an older woman, who is both connecting with this new culture and its freedoms, linking it to her own understanding of ‘kissing’ youth, time, joy as it flies, yet also revealing her position as an out of touch onlooker in this world. I love its lightness, its personal yet universal sense of a very fleeting moment of the magic in the ordinary.
I have been really interested recently in gentle rhyme schemes that don’t announce themselves in my poems but rather provide a subtle pattern of echo and also dynamism. Reading Paterson’s ‘Dark Art of Poetry’ has influenced me as to the power of this practice, which I always felt was rather ‘read into’ by critics.
Echo is perhaps self-explanatory, but the dynamism part is a new exciting thought for me. I have taken the principle of ‘pararhyme’, whereby rhyme may not just be ‘same’ with ‘game’ but also ‘same’ with ‘Siamese’, ‘mace’, ‘some’, ‘mice’, ‘measles’, ‘slime’, ‘Simon’, etc. This is a great way to source a list of words that are gently connected through sound. Using them not necessarily in quick succession, but throughout the poem as ‘sonic stations’ or ‘sonic stepping stones’ has proved a fun and helpful (though not always successful) means of navigating where a poem will shift. It has helped with a problem I have had this year where the pressure and anxiety of producing poems even when I haven’t necessarily heard a voice or felt inspired has sometimes made me stall and doubt myself in taking leaps in poems. By following the sonic stepping stones through pararhyme, I have a fresh, naturally generated path ahead of me and it’s then my job to find the way to those stations. This has actually been quite fun.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Connor is a teacher, puppeteer and writer from Greytown. He spent much of this year hugging a hot water bottle in a poorly sealed hut he built at the edge of his garden, working on poems for his Masters at the IIML. These are some of the survivors. William was the recipient of the Story Inc Poetry Prize in 2015 and has had poems published in takahē and the 2016 New Zealand Poetry Society anthology Penguin Days. Next year, he will move to Berlin and has an itch to write and produce a marionette play for adults.