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.
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.