I find liking poetry more difficult than I used to. What a confession!
But there are certain things I know I like. One of these is memory. I know that sounds old hat: poetry as anecdotal memoir. But I like it.
Ruth Marden harvests scraps of her life particularly well in The Little Jockey, one of the two new HappenStance pamphlets out this month. In ‘Visiting’, for example, the poem – a short one – is book-ended by a simple verbal exchange. We’re in a nursing home (at least that’s the implied setting) and a son and daughter arrive to visit an old lady. The capital letters let us know either that she’s somewhat deaf, or that they habitually shout at her: ‘They say you are WELL!’
Perhaps ‘shouting’ is right, because these are the words they ‘assail’ her with, ‘forcing words in her good ear’.
Maybe that’s also what poems do. Force words into our good ear(s). And maybe our response is not a million miles away from the old lady’s: ‘And did you / BELIEVE them?’
So: I think ‘Visiting’ is a good little poem. It’s not ambitious. It doesn’t try to do anything clever. It doesn’t, apparently, take risks, as we’re increasingly told poems should. But it makes me smile, and from when I first read it, I remembered it. I’m on the side of the old lady. We are all – if we live long enough – on the side of the old lady.
But why would I like Ruth’s opening poem, ‘Enamelled Box’? After all, it’s in two-line stanzas, and I’ve belly-ached quite a bit about two-line stanzas lately. And it isn’t even about much.
The poet has a curious little box. She’s fond of it. She takes it out in the sunshine and puts it on the lawn. She describes the box. I have an impression of its impression on her, more than of the box itself:
Blockings and angles and lines
all jostle, all engage
in oranges, greens,
kaleidoscope-shakings of blue.
The two-line stanzas create space around the box, as I try to ‘see’ through the description, to visualise the object. Why do I like this poem? Why one earth would anyone want to read a poem about an enamelled box?
I had to think about this carefully, because I wasn’t at all sure. But I think it’s because ‘Enamelled Box’ is about liking a ‘thing’. Not a person, or animal, or even a great artwork. It’s about liking a little box enough to ‘spirit it out for an airing, / letting it shine on the lawn’. Human beings do this, don’t they? Form affections for objects that aren’t in the least logical. The affection is in the action, and in the close attention to the detail of the box, and in the jauntiness of ‘spirit it out for an airing’.
All this tells me something about the poet, which tells me something about myself. Surprisingly hard to explain my liking. But I like it a lot. And the opening lines, for me, connect with the whole pamphlet of poems (this is the very first poem in the booklet after all):
Even now, from time to time,
I am drawn in, and the pattern
When you publish poems you like, you don’t have to explain why you like them. But maybe publishers should. In this world of competing poems, why should these ones win your attention?
We all read differently. What I see is not what you see. I hope you’ll see enough of what I see to share some of my pleasure at least, but it doesn’t always work like that. Delight for me may represent ‘duh!’ for you. I’ve been reading Tim Love’s blog of May 2013 (I catch up with things late) about the way we read, and it’s curiously comforting. He says: ‘I think my poetry appreciation is a patchwork of blindspots - from poem to poem or even from line to line. I approach texts with a mishmash of innate and learnt behaviours, but usually act as if the unevenness is all in the text.’
So what we regard as ‘unevenness’ in a poem could be unevenness in us, as readers. And not reacting in the ‘right’ way doesn’t matter. What matters is reacting at all.
I spend ages trying to work out what it is that makes certain poems distinctive for me. After all, I am selling these poems. I write something on the back jacket and I want it to be both interesting and true. Not much is worse than the feeling of being cheated when you fork out for a book that has had a great write-up. And what happens? It’s just words on pages, and then more words on pages.
Tom Cleary’s pamphlet, The Third Miss Keane, has practically nothing in common with Ruth Marden’s. Chalk and cheese. (Actually, chalk and cheese can both be hard and crumbly, though you can’t grate chalk. And they both start ‘ch’, of course. But I’m wandering.)
There are memories in The Third Miss Keane. But sometimes it’s hard to know what’s memory and what’s invention. (Some of it must be invention.) But Tom Cleary handles memory quite differently. Even just flicking through the publication, the shapes contrast.
Ruth Marden’s texts occupy about half of the A5 page, tall oblongs. Tom Cleary’s are much fatter (long lines), and the rhythms are prosy – closer to the short-story end of the poem spectrum.
Ruth’s phrasing strikes me as traditionally poetic in its gentle assonance and the way line breaks draw attention to sound echoes, whereas Tom’s method is more of an easy flow: the speaking voice of someone sharing an experience that could go anywhere.
Ruth’s poems inhabit a world I know. Tom’s take me into a world I don’t. Sometimes, in fact, I am totally creeped out, as they say these days. And then, of course, I’m fascinated by the power the poem had over me.
I don’t have any difficulty knowing how to read Tom’s poems. They invite me in with no fuss and then I just keep reading them on their own terms, inside their own world. Here’s the start of ‘Birth Control’, for example:
She had her eighth baby, little Jude,
when all the students had gone home for Christmas.
She named him after the patron saint for lost causes
and hopeless cases. While she warmed
the spitting teapot, swishing it about, she told us
she wore six scapulars next to her skin
dedicated to her favourite saints. It made you itch
to think of it. We tried to keep our thoughts
away from those trussed breasts.
And here’s the opening of ‘The Wheelbarrow People Get a New God’:
The wheelbarrow people had a god who lived behind a wall.
He spoke to them every day and gave them reassurance
but he was an old god, and one day he announced his succession.
He had a son he said, James, who lived in the community.
James would soon be required to kill his father.
Wanting to know what happens next is not a bad reason for reading a poem, though not a reason I remember being mentioned in literary circles. And what happens next has to be worth discovering, of course. But it is. Try ‘Hobgoblin’.
I love it.
But will you?