Friday, June 16, 2006

‘Words Fail Us Continually’

One aspect of poetry that I am fascinated by is the process of how a poem comes into being. It would seem that the poet is the right person to talk about the ways in which an experience is transformed into verse; but it is a rare poet who will avoid the pitfalls of slipping to the grand formulation of a theory to accommodate her work.

On the other hand, the reader of poetry has lost her nerve. A poem no longer merely speaks simply or directly to the reader; instead, it is to be revealed by the study of poetics, by the unravelling of what appears to be deliberately obscure word play. Daunted, the average reader abandons all attempts to read anything more than what s/he is forced to while being schooled in a language.

And yet, it is in the craft of the poetic form that all our ancient literatures have been transmitted to us; poetry is the original zip-drive into which all learning was compressed and stored for easy retrieval. If poetry has lost its power, the fault perhaps lies with those who make it, rather than those who no longer want to read it.

In his T S Eliot lecture published in The Guardian Review, in November2004, Don Paterson makes a powerful case for the return of the poet to her throne.

Only plumbers can plumb, roofers roof and drummers drum; only poets can write
poetry. Restoring the science of verse-making would restore our self-certainty
in this matter; the main result of such an empowerment would be the rediscovery
of our ambition, our risk, and our relevance, through the confidence to insist
on the poem as possessing an intrinsic cultural value, of absolutely no use
other than for its simple reading.

"Risk" needs some redefinition. To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how dreadful the war in Iraq is, even if you are the world's greatest living playwright. This kind of poetry is really nothing but a kind of inverse sentimentalism - that's to say by the time it reaches the page, it's less real anger than a celebration of one's own strength of feeling. Since it tries to provoke an emotion of which its target readers are already in high possession, it will change no one's mind about anything; more to the point, anyone can do it. Neither is "risk" the deployment of disjunctive syntax, crazy punctuation or wee allusions to Heisenberg and Lacan; because anyone can do
that, too. 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.

Real danger flirts with the things we most dread as poets. Real risk is writing with real feeling, as Frost did, while somehow avoiding sentimentality, or simplicity, as Cavafy did, and somehow avoiding artlessness; or daring to be prophetic, as Rilke did, and miraculously avoiding
pretentiousness; or writing with real originality, as Dickinson did, while somehow avoiding cliché (since for a reader to be astonished 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 often seem stylistically interchangeable). The narrowest of these paths, though, the poets' beautiful tightropewalk, is the one between sense and mystery - to make one, while revealing the other.

When I read this lecture more than a year ago, I was struck by the clarity with which Paterson stated so many of the dilemmas of a practising poet. If the poem is to be more than the sum of its parts, as it were, it has to fall back into language and make it new each time. The power of poetry is in its ability to name; the same sort of power that magicians and necromancers have over their world which they transform by a code or an invocation.

Paterson says:

The human dream is one of all things first recognised, and then named, in
accordance with their human utility, translated and metaphorised into the human
realm. It is just as flimsy a consensual reality as

When we allow silence to reclaim those
objects and things of the world, when we allow the words to fall away from them
- they reassume their own genius, and repossess something of their mystery and
infinite possibility. Then we awaken a little to the realm of the symmetries
again, and of no-time, of eternity.

Poetry is the
paradox of language turned against its own declared purpose, that of nailing
down the human dream. Poets are therefore experts in the failure of language.
Words fail us continually, as we search for them beyond the borders of speech,
or drive them to the limit of their meaning and then beyond it.

‘Words fail us continually’. Indeed they do. And it seems to me that the great work of the poet is to reach beyond the failure of what is received, into a place where the act of placing an empty frame over a portion of the world will transform and renew it.

Don Paterson’s website is, unfortunately, under construction. So the link to the essay, ‘The Dilemma of the Peot’ that appeared in ‘How Poets Work’ (ed. Tony Curtis, Seren, 1997) is not available at the moment. Paterson’s latest is a book of aphorisms. The Book Of Shadows (2004) won the T.S. Eliot Prize.


equivocal said...


Thanks for this-- by a not so surprising coincidence, I had just suggested Paterson as a candidate for Quickmuse. If it happens, that should be really interesting to watch.

The Book of Shadows is actually fairly easy to get a hold of in India, since it's published by Picador. It's a very cool book, funny, profound, flippant, serious and vulnerable by turns. Its big risk is also in its choice of form-- the aphorism-- a more worldly, didactic form not often favoured today. Put this together with the latest of book of an American poet I admire very much, Kent Johnson, who has taken up the equally unusual (for today) form of the epigram (which is also concerned with wit and cleverness) and we have sure proof that the idea of risk far exceeds both the (outdated?) idea of the avant garde, and that of the "emotional" unthinking poet as well. Not that, on the Indian poetry scene, we have a lot of people who are even midly concerned with either risk or the avant garde.

equivocal said...

One thing though-- what do you mean when you say that "the fault perhaps lies with those who make it, rather than those who no longer want to read it"? What "appears to be deliberately obscure word play" may be neither deliberate, nor obscure; it may not be an invitation to literary decoding but, instead, an invitation to the reader to lay aside her theoretical armoury, relax, and-- horror of horrors-- enjoy herself. Too much pontification about "difficulty" misunderstands the very idea of difficulty: a poem has to release the reader from her intellect, and grapple with the failure of words, and this it may do in a number of different ways. A poem is shy, more than we realize: the reader may have to approach one several times before it begins to give itself wholly to her, not through analysis, but of its own mysterious accord.

Space Bar said...

Equivocal: you say, 'A poem is shy, more than we realize: the reader may have to approach one several times before it begins to give itself wholly to her, not through analysis, but of its own mysterious accord.'

and I couldn't agree more. When I said the fault perhaps lies with those who make the poem, I meant that the connection between the reader and the poem is often more visceral than we imagine; we ought to give the reader some credit.

On the other hand, a number of people who write poetry (as opposed to poets) whose work I have seen on writing boards and on other fora, veer wildly between the facile and the frankly incomprehensible.

Poems have to give up their meaning slowly; I agree. But the same theoretical armoury that you would have the reader leave behind, is also something that the poet must do before she can write a true poem.

Thank you for the comments. I wanted to say more about the aphoristic style of the lecture itself that I've linked to, but I thought that would make the post too long.


Thank you for drawing my attention to this fine essay Space_Bar! Although you seem to have used poets purely in the feminine I presume what you've said holds for the male of the species too. And yet, something tells me that the impulses - or perhaps impetuses - are different for the two. I'm not seemingly making a case for feminine or masculine poetry, merely sending this up as a speculative balloon.

And I almost entirely agree when you say that the loss of poetry's power is largely the fault of the poetry makers: with one observation, however, viz. that if something has lost its power (or never had any to begin with) its continuance as 'poetry' is questionable.

And I'm not awfully sure about the leaving behind of what "equivocal" calls 'theoretical armoury': to my mind if the poet needs an allusion to a literary or cultural heritage he/she is at liberty to use it PROVIDED that the poetry is not trampled underfoot by the weight of such 'baggage.' The enrichment for both poet and reader would be greater for the latter's immediate perception of the connect.

A very fine essay indeed, and thank you!


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