Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Poetry Appreciation

Today I want to share with you a couple of poems about writing. Both of them were quoted in a daily email I received from a website called The Writer's Almanac. The first arrived in December last year, and is called "The Mind is a Hawk". It's written by Walter McDonald and this is it:

The Mind is a Hawk

The mind is like a hawk, trying to survive
on hardscrabble. Hunting, you wheel
sometimes for hours on thermals

rising from sand so dry no trees
grow native. Some days, you circle
only bones and snakeskin, the same old

cactus and mesquite. The secret
is not to give up on shadows, but glide
until nothing expects it, staring

to make a desert give up dead-still
ideas like rabbits with round eyes
and rapidly beating hearts.

"The Mind is a Hawk," by Walter McDonald, from Night Landing © Harper and Row.

The second poem arrived in yesterday's email from The Writer's Almanac. It is called "How to be a Poet (to remind myself)" and is specifically about writing poetry, but I think it can be applied to all kinds of writing. It's written by Wendell Berry and this is it:

How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill--more of each
than you have--inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

"How To Be a Poet" by Wendell Berry from Given New Poems, © Shoemaker, Hoard, Washington, D.C.

Both poems speak directly to my emotions - there's a feeling of recognition with both of them, the "I know what he's talking about" feeling that for me is the best experience of poetry. It was this that led to my interest in Siegfried Sassoon (which, if you've looked at my website or if you know me, you'll know is a long-term interest in fascinating man of letters). Sassoon wrote a poem called "The Grandeur of Ghosts" and it was the first poem of his I ever discovered. It was read out on a radio station by a presenter who was leaving and he read it to express his love of composers of classical music. When I heard the poem I felt a kind of electric thrill in my brain because I understood exactly what Sassoon meant. This is the poem in full:

The Grandeur of Ghosts

When I have heard small talk about great men
I light my two candles; climb to bed; then
Consider what was said; and put aside
What Such-a-one remarked, and Someone-else replied.

They have spoken lightly of my deathless friends,
(Lamps for my gloom, hands guiding where I stumble,)
Quoting, for shallow conversational ends,
What Shelley shrilled, what Blake once wildly muttered...

How can they use such names and be not humble ?
I have sat silent; angry at what they uttered.
The dead bequeathed them life; the dead have said
What these can only memorise and mumble.

Siegfried Sassoon - The Heart's Journey, 1928 (© George Sassoon)

In a way, there's a certain irony in me quoting this poem, since I am doing just what Sassoon condemned in his poem - although I'm not "quoting for shallow conversational ends", but to make a point about the way poetry speaks to me. One of the reasons why I've become reluctant to write critical analyses of poetry I love (and therefore one of the reasons why I've moved to writing about fantasy fiction), is that analysing a poem doesn't tell you anything about the emotions it contains. For me, poetry is about emotion, passion and feeling - and in an obscure way I feel that analysing a poem kills it. I realise that this is a rather irrational response, but it is nevertheless how I feel. One of the things I do in my spare time (such as it is), is moderate a Poetry Discussion Forum, and we recently had a series of messages from a group of students who were studying in Belgium. For me, their posts made a refreshing change because they were emotional - the students didn't write lengthy analyses of word choices, or rhyme schemes, or what have you, they simply talked about why the poems they had selected appealed to them. That, for me, is the point of talking about poetry; about 20 years ago I went through a phase of writing angst-laden poetry and the reason I wrote it was to express my feelings and emotions, not to be clever or to convey a hidden message. I worry that the teaching of poetry these days (like so much teaching of English literature) focuses too much on "intellectual" analysis, rather than teaching readers how to appreciate a poem as a thing of beauty.

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