The same things make them go right as make them go wrong.
Maybe the poem is in couplets and it has to be couplets. Maybe the prose rhythms are essential. Maybe the plod of iambic pentameter is just right. Maybe the leaning verbs lean like no others. Maybe the line breaks are all broken and that’s the point. Maybe it’s like Keats and still not like Keats. Maybe the poem jumps all over the page and I don’t even notice because I’m too involved. Maybe the poet is simply having fun.
I don’t know what makes them go right. I only know how it feels. Which is as follows:
I am inside the poem and I don’t know how I got there.
The poet vanishes.
The form (which I haven’t noticed anyway) fuses with mood, matter and meaning.
Whether or not I understand the poem, the poem understands me.
I am unreasonably excited.
I want to read it again. Now.
I want to copy it out and carry it round with me.
I want to share it.
I'm nearly at the end of the HappenStance July ‘window’. I’ve read 75 sets of poems, 47 by women and 28 by men, and I have come across a handful of wholly magical texts in that time.
There are never many poems that create the experience I describe above, though there are some that could, I think, and others that do it in little patches. And there may be a few I miss. I know from experience that some quiet (but vital) poems can slip past when you’re tired.
Much of the time, I am thinking ‘oh, another villanelle’, or ‘oh what a pity she spoiled her effect there’. Or ‘duh?’
But thankfully (or I would have to stop ), I like doing all this. It appeals to my analytical self. I’ve been trying to write poetry all my life. I keep thinking that if I can fathom what other people are doing, especially when it works, I’ll learn something I can use.
There is a mystery at the heart of it though and all the analysis in the world will not solve it. Poetry, whatever it is, rises from the roots of language itself, and language is a mind-boggling phenomenon.
Anyway, there's nothing unusual about me as a reader of poetry (except possibly in my relentless analysis). My experience of reading poetry is the same as yours. When you read a book (or a magazine or anthology) full of poems, it’s rare to find one that does the full-on, magical thing, isn’t it? In fact, often there aren’t any.
But there are some.
This week, thanks to Andy Philip’s guest blogging feature about poems to take on holiday, and in particular John Glenday’s introduction to Heidy Steidlmayer, I read Fowling Piece – a whole book of poems on top of the others.
But it is a fabulous book, with all sorts of intrigue, fun, design, contraption and inspiration. And several times I found all the things on my list happening. She even has a poem in one of my favourite genres – the ironing poem – a beaut. Here it is:
Because it is late
and a man’s white shirts
gleam as if frozen,
the woman ironing
dreams of skating in circles,
on edge, leaning in.
Always there are more shirts
before her skating away.
If she is not careful, she will
scorch them as she glides the quiet
length of an untouched lake.
See? It even has an as in its final sentence and it didn’t impede me in any way. In fact, I didn’t notice it till this very moment.
And then there is Hilary Menos’s new book Red Devon. I first met a Menos poem at an Aldeburgh Poetry Festival (2003, I think) where an unpretentious little sonnet got the full treatment in a master class. I think the Master was Paul Muldoon. It was a bloody good poem. When it appeared later in a Smiths/Doorstop pamphlet, I was delighted to see she hadn’t made any changes. She doesn’t finish a poem easily, or lightly.
In fact, my money is on Hilary Menos. Sometimes I forget how good she is, and then I start to read one of her poems, like I did earlier today – when I wasn’t supposed to be reading poems at all – with a shock of recognition, and a little shiver of delight. The magical thing can still be done, and there are people doing it.
And to demonstrate that truth, here’s Hilary Menos’s ‘Long Pig’, particularly good poem for a Sunday:
We eat the flesh only in wartime, when enraged,
and in a few legal instances. Theft. Treason.
Adultery. When the elders deem fit, revenge.
When a captured prisoner cannot pay ransom
in coin or woman or pig. And we find nothing
animates missionaries like being eaten.
When we introduce you to the village elders,
you men, with your degrees from Oxford or Eton,
must squat at the far end of the hut from our king
due to your woeful lack of pigs. Still, be at ease.
But when our women gather salt, and limes, and rice,
hanging coconuts like sucked skulls from the palm trees,
it might be prudent to invoke the Lord’s Prayer twice,
or whatever prayer, to whatever God you please.