No 39 - January 2001
An Approach to Poetry - 1
A Manifesto, and the Process of Poetry
In these articles (the 2nd to be published in the May Acumen) I would like to share some ideas about poetry. The context for this could loosely be described as ‘poetry as communication’. I have for the most part avoided using the word communication in what follows, because the word is too abstract; I will need to discuss more real and immediate realities, and what I have to discuss is wider than the normal meaning of that word. But to start with, I would like to quote some words of I. A. Richards: “The artist is not as a rule consciously concerned with communication, but with getting the work, the poem or play or painting, or whatever it is, ‘right’ ... To make the work ‘embody’, accord with, and represent the precise experience upon which its value depends is his major preoccupation.”(1) This view has obvious justification, but Richards’ statements go further than that; he argues that “the dissipation of attention which would be involved if he [the artist] considered the communicative side as a separate issue would be fatal in most serious work”. He goes on to say: “The degree to which it [the work] accords with the relevant experiences of the artist is a measure of the degree to which it will arouse similar experiences in others”. I will disagree with these statements. I suggest that a different approach is possible: it is possible not just to write, but to write with a wider awareness, one which can start seriously addressing Sartre’s question, “which nobody ever asks himself: – ‘for whom does one write?”’(2).
(I should briefly point out that the ‘New Poetry’ mentioned in the manifesto is not intended as a reference to A Alvarez’s New Poetry of 1962, nor other more recent uses of the term. It is used solely to denote a new beginning.)
A manifesto for a new poetry
The inspired poem is a faithful transmission of the language of feeling into words, the feeling one’s own feeling, the sensing of one’s own emotional life. The accuracy of the transcription is the accuracy of the poet’s self ’s experience to itself. It is what he or she wants to say, in the language of the heart.
Where a poetic genius is involved, or the poem has especial inspiration, the poem will have some degree of objective reality, and contain levels of communication that are potentially meaningful to all.
The poem always dies onto the page. In most cases, its resurrection will only be partial.
The new poet has to experience this death and consciously resurrect the poem. To do this, the poet has to become the listener without foreknowledge, to become an empty vessel into which the poet as poet wishes to place something. This something is an emotional statement, or story, or metamorphosis. The form of the final resurrected poem is the emotional form determined by the needs of the poet as listener, not the poet as poet.
The original poem, rooted or encased in the poet’s own emotional
experience, has meaning for the poet. It is only valid for the listener,
and can only be resurrected, insofar as it expresses in the listener the
intended emotional reality. The self of the poet, negated in the poet as listener, creates an empty space which is the vehicle for the conscious rebirth of the poem.
To resurrect an emotional reality for the listener, in a set of potentially wordless emotional experiences, the poet’s original words, and the forms of the words, are only appropriate insofar as they have meaning in the context of the listener’s soul, without the poet’s own self and experience giving meaning to the words. Where inspiration is concerned, even the necessary emotional experience of the listener may have to differ to some extent from the emotional reality experienced by the poet. It is the poet’s task to determine the appropriate emotional form of the poem, and to remove or reveal that which initially has meaning and resonance only for the poet.
The final poem is the poem that the poet has resurrected in an
objective form; it does not say what the poet wanted to say, but in the profoundest sense, in the ear of the heart, what the listener wanted to hear.
This is the foundation of a new poetry.
The Process of Poetry
The manifesto uses rather dramatic language, and I am well aware that at first sight it may seem to elevate the process usually termed ‘revision’ to an inflated level of importance, as well as focussing more on the reader than the poet. To explain the relevance of the manifesto, I will have to return to the basic process of poetry, to look at poetry not as a created thing, as a noun, but as an activity, as a verb, as something that happens in time. To do this I have to step back from the usual analysis of poetry, of rhythm, rhyme, and so on, to poetry as process, which happens between two people, the poet and the reader, or the poet and the member of the audience. This will at first seem simplistic, but it is a necessary basis for what will follow.
Inspiration is the first stage of poetry. When oral tradition was the norm, inspiration was considered to be external to the poet. Homer’s poems start with “Sing, Muse”; it is the Muse that inspires Homer, the Muse that sings; Homer does not consider himself to be the originator of the poem. There are numerous other examples; Pindar writes of the muse, Dante invokes Apollo. In more recent times poets have been well aware of inspiration that comes from outside themselves. Burns said “I have two or three times in my life composed from the wish rather than the impulse, but I never succeeded to any purpose.” The wish that Burns refers to came from himself; the impulse from elsewhere. The view that poetry can be inspired by an external reality, once called the Muse, extends through the twentieth century into our own time. In 1931 John Masefield could state “it is not possible to speak of poetry without submission to something not understood, that is greater than the perishing self ” (3). Two years later, A. E Housman described the process of his inspiration; he states quite clearly that “there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once” (4). In our own time, Peter Levi said, describing poetry, that “there is an intensity about it which is not the normal condition of consciousness” (5). It is still the experience of poets that something happens at the genesis of a poem, and many still call it inspiration, though some would disagree about an external muse. Gillian Clarke for instance calls it “an excitement with language” (6). Andrew Motion has described how there is a rhythm that comes before he has the words to put into it (7); it is still the experience of some poets that there is some form, part of the form, or words, that act as a ‘given’ – that come to the poet, rather than being consciously constructed (nonetheless, the poet of course remains fully conscious of the process). As a last example, Fleur Adcock says “It starts with a line or a phrase, but it always begins with the sound of it ... for me it’s something I hear my voice saying” (8). To state it in a way that will be widely understood: there is a stage in the genesis of a piece of poetry that comes before the normal thoughts and feelings of the poet. It may come as words ready-made, or as an unaccountable feeling, as an excitement or a desire; this is the stage of poetry that is called inspiration.
The second stage, after inspiration, takes place within the thoughts and feelings of the poet. Something has entered the experience of the poet, and becomes part of the inner life. Inspiration can generate new thoughts and feelings, but it is the inner life of the poet where those thoughts and feelings then live, and where they are translated into words. Where the words have not been received as a ‘given’, the strength of that inner life will dominate the words chosen; a poet with much experience of life, or a wide reading and vocabulary, will probably produce a wide variety of expression, although the power in the words comes more from the poet’s strength of feeling. Of course many poems are written directly out of the thoughts and feelings; there may be no external inspiration. The poet may have ideas to take to a wider audience; a need to write to work out an emotional crisis, or a simple desire to provide words to meet an occasion, such as the death of a friend. Experiences of repression and suffering may not only need expression, but communication as a statement of protest. In all of these cases we are still talking about poetry, whether it be political poetry, confessional poetry, or the rest. The point is that there is a distinct stage of the process here. This happens in the inner life of the poet.
Thirdly, the poem is recorded. There may be revisions, but there is an act, singular or extended, of recording the poem in words. When oral tradition was the rule, the poem was, presumably, not written down, and the act of producing the words of the finished poem was the performance, was the poem as drama. That time is gone. Nowadays the poem is written down, and becomes fixed.
The fourth stage is the poem on paper, which is a dead object. It resides firstly handwritten, then later possibly in a book, ink on paper, and does not participate in human life.
Fifth, the poem enters human life again when it is read. When the poem is read by the poet in performance to an audience, the poem becomes drama. The words that in an older time would have been spoken from memory by the bard are now (in general) reproduced with the aid of the written record.
Sixth, the poem enters through the experience of the listeners, to become part of their consciousness. If the poem ‘speaks’ to them (not guaranteed), they relive the thoughts and feelings of the poet, or at any rate they experience the thoughts and feelings that form their reliving of the poem. Their experience is not of course just engendered by the explicit meaning of the words; rhythm, tone, the musical quality of the words, and not least the speaker and the way the poem is spoken, can be much more important than the ideas content in the creation of the experience. But the essential point here is that the poem stirs the inner life, and generates an intellectual and emotional reality for the listener. In the words of W.S. Graham – “to each man it comes into new life. It is brought to life by the reader... ” (9).
The seventh stage may not happen. If a poem has the power to do so, and if the resonances in the listener’s soul strike home in the right way, then the poem can take the listener to a level of meaning that lies beyond the everyday literal meanings of words, and beyond everyday thoughts and feelings, into a level where we can speak of other realities – such as beauty, truth, and goodness. This stage corresponds, in the listener, to the stage of inspiration in the poet, and raises similar differences of opinion. The point I wish to make about this stage, which again I will try to put in a widely acceptable form, is that successful poetry, poetry that ‘works’ for the listener or reader, can lead to something more intense and more meaningful than everyday thoughts and feelings. This can become strong enough to be a physical sensation as well as a psychic one. Housman describes how a line of poetry could cause his skin to bristle, constrict his throat, and affect the pit of the stomach. I don’t for a moment suggest that we read poetry to cause the skin to bristle (!), but that is an illustration of the intensity of the emotional experience that poetry can produce.
These seven stages form the fundamental process of poetry. It is the same when the poem is read off the page – the act of reading is the stage of ‘performance’. In earlier times, as I have mentioned, the fourth stage (the poem on paper) did not happen as part of the process (10). These days poets must reckon with the fact that the poem has to die into material form and then be resurrected.
Examining poetry in this way, as process, raises a significant question, significant because the answer to the question forms a fundamental statement about this approach to poetry: Where actually is the work of art? Our civilisation reckons with the poem on the page, the frozen words, as the artistic object; by the success of the words on the page is the work of poetic art primarily judged; the whole focus of critical attention is on the recorded text. I suggest that it is time to challenge this received wisdom, and overcome the limitations of a view that holds the work of art to be contained in the form of the material through which it is transmitted. With drama, it is obvious that the words of the text are not the finished work of art; it is the embodiment of those words into a performance that is required. In poetry, a judgement of the poem rarely extends to the reading, and although we do talk of good and bad readings, the words of the poem are considered largely self-sufficient. This approach is not the only possible approach. The transmission of a work of art has the artist and his or her inspiration as source, and the audience as its place of reception, its place of renewed being. There is an alternative view of what a work of art consists of: that the work of art is not the material of transmission, nor the performance of it, but the result of the whole process, the creation in the inner life of the audience. It is a creation of thoughts and feelings, and can also go beyond that, to a more intense level of consciousness, which (for those who can accept the word) can reach the spirit of the listener. In the terms of this view, if there has not been a culmination of some sort in the listener, the process has not succeeded, it has not become art.
The framework outlined above is a poetic anatomy at the most fundamental and simplest level. Later articles will expand on what this approach might mean for the task of the poet, new poetic forms, and other aspects. But I hope that the importance of the manifesto has already become clear. In order to achieve an art which has as its canvas the inner life of the listener, it is necessary for the poet, as artist, to take that canvas as the place of work, as the material for the work. The words of the poem are the means to the work of art, not the finished article. I hope it is obvious that I am not in any way trying to say that the poet must be limited to the vernacular, nor in any way pander to the whims and prejudices of the audience, nor, least of all, be “politically correct”. That would be to suggest what W.S. Graham describes so well – “The poets set up fish shops to sell fish to the people who want fish and they call the fish poetry and the fishmongers they call poets. And poetry is not fish but another stuff entirely. People want always just to do with the stuff they can weigh, the mapped part where things always fall down and never fall up into Heaven” (11). What I am suggesting here is an extension of poetic technique that can serve poetry in the deeper sense.
(1). I.A. Richards. The Principles of Literary Criticism Ch. 4, 1924.
(2). J.P. Sartre. Qu’est que c’est la Littérature? Ch. 2, 1947.
(3). John Masefield. Lecture on Poetry, Queens Hall, London, 15 Oct. 1931. Heinemann 1931.
(4). Quoted by A.E. Housman in his lecture ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, Cambridge 9 M ay 1933. Cambridge University press, 1993. In this lecture Housman describes his inspiration as a ‘morbid secretion’. In my view this statement does not necessarily imply a materialist interpretation, as might seem at first sight.
(5). Peter Levi. The Noise Made by Poems Anvil 1977.
(6). Gillian Clarke. Poetry reading, Bristol 1998.
(7). Andrew Motion. Poetry reading, Bath 1999.
(8). Fleur Adcock. Interview with Robyn Marsack. 3 Feb. 1993, published in ‘Talking Verse’, Verse (Univ. St. Andrews), 1995.
(9). W.S. Graham, ‘Notes on a poetry of release’. Poetry Scotland July 1946.
(10). I think this is a reasonable presumption, and is certainly a common one, although I admit I am not familiar with the evidence.
(11). W.S. Graham letter to Edwin Morgan 22 Sept. 1943. The Nightfisherman, selected letters, Carcanet 1999.
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