Monday, 21 January 2013

Hearing Sharon Olds through closed doors

Last autumn, Sharon Olds read from Stag’s Leap at Goldsmiths College in London.  The reading started earlier than most, I couldn’t avoid being late and, on arrival, couldn’t find the venue.  Goldsmiths is a nightmare in the dark. Eventually some kind person rounded up a few lost people, and took us up the fire exit stairs to the top/back of the lecture theatre.  We waited outside the closed doors for a break.  I could hear Olds’ voice coming from a long way down, but none of the words, only the cadences – rising, falling, inevitable, inexorable.  I wouldn’t have minded staying outside.  Perhaps one should listen like that to every poet, at least once, to get to the marrow of their poems. 

Despite this, and despite being let in to hear her read a couple of final poems, when I looked at the book while milling around afterwards I didn’t want to buy it.  Lateness, the crowds – something meant it didn’t get through to me, and I put it aside to try another time. Having heard her at the TS Eliot Prize reading on Sunday night a week ago, after which I wanted to read the book at once and wanted her to win, I can’t explain it.  But it’s a lesson in how much the mind, heart, soul etc (or mine, anyway) can vary in receptiveness.  How unreliable they can be. 

The book occupies its territory as if this were the most natural place to be.  A blurb on the back by Joyce Carol Oates describes Sharon Olds as ‘fearless’.  A better word might be ‘intrepid’, which allows for fear but overcomes it.  Divorce can’t be easy to write about well – it’s the subject of so much other, non-poetry, emotionally charged discourse.  (The same applies to politics, which those generations alive now and writing poetry have mostly failed at, a collective shame.) 

I think Olds does succeed in carving out a poetry space for her subject, using a mixture of metaphor, memory and description of those divorce emotions.  The poems that work best include several of the early ones written when the splitting up was in progress.  They have a front-line immediacy, aided by her usual enjambment-fuelled urgency of diction.  ‘Unspeakable’, a terrific poem, ends:
                     He shows no anger,
I show no anger but in flashes of humour,
all is courtesy and horror. And after
the first minute, when I say, Is this about
her, and he says, No, it’s about
you, we do not speak of her.

The simplicity of that ending makes it utterly brutal.  

The poems range across their theme.  ‘Tiny Siren’ recounts finding a photo of her husband’s girlfriend when emptying the washing machine.  ‘Pain I did not’ contrasts the feelings of a woman left, ”my job is to eat the whole car / of my anger, part by part”, with those of the bereaved: 

                                  I was not driven
against the grate of a mortal life, but
just the slowly shut gate
of preference.  At times I envied them –
what I saw as the honourable suffering…

My interest became personal here, having been in what Olds thinks is that enviable position, which made me wonder what impact the book has on people who have gone through divorce.   

Later, there’s a moving poem to a miscarried child:

Though I never saw you, only your clouds,
I was afraid of you, of how you differed
from what we had wanted you to be. And it’s as if
you waited, then, where such waiting is done,
for when I would look beside me – and here
you are, in the world of forms, where my wifehood
is now…

The poems work less well where they turn to generalities.  In ‘The Haircut’, Olds (still happily married) is cutting her sick husband’s hair; there’s some great description including this:

                                 On his shoulders,
the little bundles would accumulate,
like a medieval painting’s kindling
dropped when a meteor passed over.

But the poem ends:

                       Don’t be sick,
I said, OK, he said, and love
seemed to rest, on us, in a place
where, for that hour, it felt death could not
reach, and someone was singing, in my hearing, without
words, that no one can live without reaching
death, but I could have lived without having
loved almost without reserve, and for a
moment, then, I thought I lived forever with him.

Some people may find this beautiful.  I don’t find that the rest of the poem has earned it, or indeed needs it.  But Stag’s Leap is, among other things, a celebration of what was, a boast, and finally a burying.  The book’s last section is called ‘Years Later’; I think it is rather mixed, some poems taking a rationalising tone that makes them less powerful than what went before.  But the poem called ‘Years Later’, which Olds read at the TSE evening, an account of a meeting with her ex-husband, is full of exact emotional description:

                 … patch of bandage on the cheek
peopled with tiny lichen from a land I don’t
know.  We walk.  I had not remembered
how deep he held himself inside
himself – my fun, for thirty-two years,
to lure him out. I still kind of want to…

A favourite poem is ‘Sleekit cowrin’’, a metaphor for what she’s doing with the book.  A forgotten trapped mouse gets eaten by various life forms, including “a beetle striped / in stripes of hot and stripes of cold / coal”.  The poems ends:

      And I know, I know, I should put
my dead marriage out on the porch
in the sun, and let who can, come
and nourish of it – change it, carry it
back to what it was assembled from,
back to the source of light whereby it shone.

I think there’s humour here, not always a big point with Olds.  And maybe a reference to the strong emotions she seems to arouse as a poet – both for and against, I’ve listened to both in the past week.  The Againsts are critical of her behaviour – an occupational hazard, for anyone who writes poems that can be taken as so viscerally personal?  (I’m not going to go into the question of how close the ‘I’ of the poems is to Olds herself, though from interviews her own answer is, close or identical.)

Having read about half the book, and then listened to / read some Fors and a couple of Againsts, I went back to the book and realised: I don’t want to know about Olds and what she has or hasn’t done.  I just want to take the poems on their own terms, good, bad or indifferent. 

This reminds me of a more general recent conversation (nothing to do with Olds), where some people were saying they always want to know about the person behind the poems, and others of us were saying, No, we don’t need to, and what’s more, the poet can sometimes get in the way of the poems!  Not that I could maintain the No argument in every case (Heaney being a prime example where I flip to Yes), but I maintain it as a principle.              

There’s a 2009 interview with Sharon Olds by Michael Laskey, here.  About the writing, not the life, unlike some of last week’s press coverage. 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The essence of poetry: Glyn Maxwell’s book

Glyn Maxwell’s book about poetry is called On Poetry, but In Poetry might have been truer.  I don’t mean he doesn’t have perspective – there’s plenty – but the book feels written from deep inside poetry.  I read the first couple of chapters, which I think are the best, on a morning commuter train going out of London, against the flow, so all the calmer for the opposite direction’s chaos.  I had to force myself to focus on not missing my stop.  I was In Poetry.  On a good day, where would one rather be? 

Maxwell goes right to the essence of poetry in those first two chapters, called White and Black.  He shows the reader an early human gazing at a savannah view, with everything needed for life; and then a white page / screen, without or with black marks. 

Poets work with two materials, one’s black and one’s white.  Call them sound and silence, life and death, hot and cold, love and loss: any can be the case but none of these yins and yangs tell the whole story.  What you feel the whiteness is right now – consciously or more likely some way beneath that plane – will determine what you do next…  Don’t make the mistake of thinking the white sheet is nothing…  For a poet it’s half of everything. If you don’t know how to use it you are writing prose.  If you write poems that you might call free and I might call unpatterned then skilful, intelligent use of the whiteness is all you’ve got.

Put more practically, line-break is all you’ve got.

Yes!  Nothing new about this final statement (though not every writer of poetry gets to it straight away, if asked).  But the context, Maxwell’s description, gives it much greater resonance. 

The white / black context also enables him to explain, shortly and simply, why song lyrics aren’t poetry.  Write out one of your favourites, he says.

Song lyrics are not written upon whiteness, so the whiteness is alien to them, a corroding air, you can hear it eating those sweet lines away.  Song lyrics are not composed to take the form of black signs upon that whiteness, therefore the blackness itself is alien, doesn’t have the blood the sung words have…

The other half of everything for the songwriters is music.  For the poets it’s silence, the space, the whiteness.  Music for them – and silence for us – does the work of time.

Yes!  Next time this comes up in conversation, that’s what I’ll say, if I can.  Though I think the boundaries are more blurred than his argument allows for.  

As for the blackness,

The form and tone and pitch of any poem should coherently express the presence of a human creature. Content, matter, subject, these all play little part.  Form plays almost every part, which is why I continue to say that who masters form masters time… a poet can shape time in a poem, and form is how that’s done.

Yes! to the lack of importance of content.  How much of a poem, and what, does one remember afterwards, and for how long?  I like his four ways of meaning in a poem:

Solar: what the poem’s actually saying, in daylight, on the surface. “Poems deficient in solar meaning are quite easy to spot in the field, because vast trapezoids of critical scaffold have been constructed around them to clank in the wind.”

Lunar: what the poem means, below the surface, meeting in moonlight, “the resonance, the echo”.  Poems deficient in lunar meaning may be full of surface emotion or comedy, maybe strong performance poems, but “written down the words are flat, go nowhere else, are waiting instructions from their leader”.

Musical: the sound.  Poems weak in music “sound like prose, are dull to read and hard to memorise”.

Visual: “poems with prime visual force”.  Not “weak on line-break, weak on the causes of line-break”. 

There’s lots more that’s good.  He is good on form.  I think he could have explained the basics of stress better.  He says

If you think every syllable in poetry is only stressed or unstressed, you must dwell in some binary realm where it takes 10 to tango.

Yes, of course, but some help-in-thinking-through might be good, with examples of how stress can change in the same line and change with any change to the line.  It does seem to be conceptually quite difficult.  A separate point: syntax deserves more space than it gets in this book.

There are some good poetry workshop parlour games.  One of the best is: write the screenplay of a great poem.  So that, for example, stanza breaks become cuts, fades or dissolves.  Maxwell is also a playwright, which serves to sharpen some of his analysis.  The parlour games are played by a quartet of made-up (he assures us) and usefully archetypal creative writing students.  Sometimes a certain irritation comes through, as if Maxwell has had to teach such classes too often. 

There are many illuminating passages, a pleasure to read, on particular poems, eg Edward Thomas’ ‘Old Man’ and the start of Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’.

I do think Maxwell misses one big opportunity.  His examples all come from the canon, almost all pre-1950 (and almost all male).  What he doesn’t do is address contemporary poetry, of whatever degree of formality or freedom, and discuss how, and how well, it works against his criteria.  There’s a summing-up passage near the end of On Poetry that shows both the book’s strengths and weaknesses (the extract below is much-cut):

Any form in poetry, be it meter, rhyme, line-break, is a metaphor for creaturely life… The sound of form in poetry, descended from song, moulded by breath, is the sound of that creature yearning to leave a mark…

[on the need for form:] You breathe the whiteness, you know lines have to end, you seek out words that fit the music.  Your brain, freed from its dull day-job of serving up the next thing you WOULD think, because you’re you, delves deep into the vaults and libraries instead.. sorting and rummaging for a word or phrase that not only means right but sounds right, looks right, fits right…

What’s called ‘free verse’, writing that has broken clear of either the metrical or musical phrase and uses the word ’free’ for what it thinks it is now, just isn’t up to that. Because nothing is standing in for what makes us creatures in a time and place.  Whether it’s breath, pulse, night and day, footsteps, seasons….

Of course there is a lot of lazy writing around, one might call it the free verse equivalent of doggerel from the old days. 

But there are plenty of contemporary writers whose poems (it seems to me) do what Maxwell extols, and show possible ways forward for poetry.  What does he think of.. oh, where to start?  The first ones that come to mind: Olds, Graham, Doty, Howe (M), Shapcott, Paterson, Heaney, Walcott, Prynne, Oswald, Jamie, let alone the younger generation.  (My guess is that he likes some of these more than others; also that we’d start getting into discussions about the elusive boundary between free verse and the rest…) 

It saddens me that he doesn’t talk about poetry now, partly because this is such an insightful book that I’m greedy and want more; and partly because there are a lot of people around who really think that no good poetry has been written since Eliot, or even Yeats, and if anyone could persuade them otherwise, a writer as eloquent as Maxwell could.

Perhaps he shares their view.  Or, much better, perhaps he’ll write another book, a book that engages with what’s happening in contemporary poetry and where it might go.  I hope so.