The Critics’ Corner
What Is Poetry?
with Oonah V. Joslin and John Stocks
[John S.] Emotion recollected in tranquillity?
[Oonah J.] Emotion recollected in tranquillity is like the modern sound bite; high on aural texture. Emotion crafted with hindsight and intellect, methinks. To me Wordsworth is his own “Happy Warrior”:
’Tis he whose law is reason; who depends
Upon that law as on the best of friends.
[John S.] Increasingly I feel that the meta rhythm and the oral texture of the words transcends the content or narrative.
[Oonah J.] I find it interesting that you say this. I think that for most people it is that; that they first recognised as poetry, and yet it was those narratives like “The Highwayman,” “The City in the Sea” and “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” that captivated me as a child, and still I go back to them again and again, perhaps because they incorporate all these qualities.
It’s true that people like rhythm and a good story. I’m not sure that everyone would understand what you mean by ‘oral texture’; those hard and soft sounds, plosives, alliterations and rhymes that play so well on the tongue when read aloud or performed, not just end rhyme which can kill all emotion with its hammer blows.
[John S.] “Prufrock” induces an alternative state of consciousness in me despite the babbling nonsense of content.
[Oonah J.] I wished I could go back fresh-eyed to the first time I read “Prufrock” and find out whether it produced then “an alternative state of consciousness.” But at 16 I think I was more up for intellectual challenge and existential angst.
Do you think that perhaps your altered state has come about with familiarity? I reread “Prufrock” when you put this to me and what I found was an old friend, a familiar voice, as I do when I read “My Last Duchess.” They are both dramatic monologues and that in itself makes the poem accessible. Both invite you in, and you go willingly, because that is a common literary device and irresistible — to be let in to someone else’s living space, their world, their mind, their secret landscape.
But as to the ‘babbling nonsense’, I think that despite Eliot’s many allusions and sometimes because of them there has always been enough that is recognisable in the landscape of “Prufrock” to allow us access to this kindred spirit.
I mean there’s toast and tea there, for goodness sake, and women talking about Michelangelo, high-flown things, things they know nothing about, things Prufrock knows nothing about, and we know nothing about because how can we really know and how much do we really know of Michelangelo or anybody else?
There are overwhelming questions in us all. Eliot just takes us to where we can see them. When someone tells you it is impossible to say what they mean, you can only empathise, and that is the point where Eliot, Prufrock and the reader meet... and with such a degree of social awkwardness that even I don’t feel out of place. I mean just listen to me now...
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous —
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
Eh? And don’t we all feel sometimes like that insect on a pin?
But here, John, here I am with you.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
That is lulling. That has all the qualities we expect of a poem. It is beautiful and lingers on the tongue and in the mind. It is soporific. But of course that is exactly the kind of sleepwalking effect Eliot wants to trap us in his amber. Because in the end all those questions about what it’s all about and should we do this? and do we do that? lead to why bother; until it is too late and we drown. So he rests his case... Existential angst enough to keep any teenager in spots, I’d say. How about a rousing chorus of something else?
As to :texture of the words transcends the content or narrative I confess that with my editor's hat on I look for poems that are going to mean something to the reader. Do you think surreal poems work in terms of language alone?
People who'd claim to not understand Prufrock and not like poetry are quite comfortable with the lyrics of, say, “Strawberry Fields” or “I am the Walrus” or the kind of trite doggerel you get inside greeting cards; or they like rap even when you can't understand the words. But I can't think of a poem or what I'd consider a poem that does that... Just occurred to me it’s another Dramatic Monologue... “Let me take you down ‘cos I’m going to...” Another landscape of the mind!
[John S.] Verse is a starting point. From vertere, ‘to turn’. So each poem is a kind of a journey, but it does not necessitate narrative flow. The journey can be a drift inwards, exploring the personal flow of consciousness, but as soon as a poem is written it belongs to the reader.
[Oonah J.] That’s a bit of a show-stopper really, John, because if the poem belongs to the reader and each reader is different, then no poem has any meaning and we're back at “Prufrock,” which admittedly is why “Prufrock” is brilliant but only if my interpretation is correct, which it can't be because I am only one reader.
But on the other hand who are you to dispute that? And again wearing my editor’s hat, poets frequently dispute the interpretation put on their poem by others and if you’ve ever tried to get a poet to change a line of a poem they’ll often say, in true Prufrock fashion, “That is not what I meant at all!”
[John S.] By “mean something to the reader” I suggest that, unlike non-poetic prose, poetry can have a self-reflexivity and a degree of ambiguity that enhances the reader’s investment in the words. Elliot talked of the need for poetry to become “more allusive and more indirect” as society becomes more complex.
It is dangerous territory however, because there is a sterility in his poetry that is inaccessible to the reader. The greatest poetry I suppose offers something to every reader. The fact that people are prepared to ”skip a light fandango” as they walk down the aisle is indicative of a general tolerance to allusion. “'No idea what it means, but I like because it sounds good.”
[Oonah J.] I know what you mean, John. Would I really have embraced Elliot had not my wonderful teacher Anne Titterington taken such care in introducing me to the intricacies of all that allusion? And come to that, is society any more complex than it used to be? We are at best a few meals away from a good deal less “complexity” than we could wish for! And that sterility is something I keenly accept as a distancing factor.
I would concur that the greatest poetry, I suppose, offers something to every reader. That is a difficult thing to deliver. Sometimes you come across a piece where you think either this is very clever or a total cover-up for lack of thought. This dilemma exists in visual arts as well. That fire hydrant in the art gallery that is placed just right.
[John S.] I had a random encounter with a Slovakian poet yesterday, Bibka Zlata Rybka Horvath, who gave me an unexpected slug of vodka and incidentally has the same name, 'Horvath', as a close friend of mine, a case of “You wait ages for a Horvath and then two come along at once.”
She nosed at a couple of poems and had a read of my Soul Feathers poem, “Autumn.” Her verdict was that it painted a pretty picture but didn't really offer anything new, which I thought a pretty fair “nut shelling.” The greatest work I suggest, should tilt the mind set; briefly intimate the possibility of drifting into an alternative state of consciousness...
[Oonah J.] I am increasingly conscious in choosing poems for an international audience that cultural referents can make all the difference. In a way you have to know where the poet is “coming from,” as it were, if you are going to interpret. But fantasy and the surreal can sometimes sneak past those guardians of the mind. And maybe, as you say, we should allow language to do the work directly.
You have me thinking, John, as both a poet and an editor and what I am thinking is that I am glad I have a team of people to help me with these decisions. But had you sent that poem to us I would have taken it because perhaps it doesn’t say “something new” but it says things that are very recognisable in terms of nostalgia, middle age, thankfulness and longing and for so short a poem it says a lot.
I stroll down some half-remembered lane
Knowing I could belong here now.
For it is late autumn; and I am blessed.
That’s not just a pretty picture, John. It’s part of your landscape. These things are not new (even Shakespeare couldn’t find something new) but they are significant and I, for one, liked the way you said them.