UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO LINKS
This needs a long essay or book, of course, but, immediately, two words come to mind - commemoration and clarity. It has seemed to me for many years that one of poetry's most marvellous qualities is its ability to commemorate, and make stick, the important things which happen to us or which we apprehend, somehow, about living life. I have, ever since I first saw it in print many years ago, recognised Philip Larkin's words about this as being exactly what I believe: "I write poems to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and others, though I feel that my prime responsibility is to the experience itself, which I am trying to keep from oblivion for its own sake . . . . I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art." Yes to that, I say. The poem, if written well, can, by shaping that experience and going past peripherals to as near the core as is possible, create a lasting commemoration of that which would otherwise be lost, let go of, unknown about to others. The crafted poem, through its sound, sense, silence and suggestiveness, embodies (rather than just describes) the experience (grief, joy, whatever), and thus recreates it and preserves it, allowing others to participate.
It may not seem important to preserve one person's hopes, horrors, loves, hates, uncertainties, happinesses, but how else can we come to know the range, the power, the importance of what happens to us and to others? How else to to sensitise ourselves, and ultimately society, to the meanings and puzzlements, the heights and depths, the subtleties and crudenesses of what humans feel? I think it matters very much that the writer preserve these things. Preservation implies a past and future, and most poets have written about the past, their early life, often juxtaposing past and present, seeking balance, value, insight. I write much from memory, aware of memory's inaccuracies, but trying to preserve and commemorate, especially as I had a fairly dramatic early childhood in a big war. Echoing as it does Larkin's words, Donald Justice's comment on preservation is very persuasive to me: "To remember an event is almost to begin to control it, as well as approach an understanding of it . . . . It becomes accessible to memory, repeatedly accessible, because it exists finally in a form that can be perused at leisure, like a snapshot in an album." I agree fully with this, but, of course, it is far more difficult than it sounds to create such a lasting monument. It requires technique, manipulation of sound and image, the right words in the right order - things which take a long time to master.
I said clarity was the other word I was thinking of, and this, today, seems to me more and more important. The impulse to create art, writing, poetry, is about a lust for order, shape and controlled feeling. Poets started writing, and readers reading, because of some urgency to understand and shape the randomness of experience and thus become more aware of shades of possibility in our feelings and thoughts. Also to obtain a singular and very special pleasure, of course. We go to poetry to have our understanding of experience enlarged, to be made richer and fuller people, and this is simply not consistent, in my view, with obscurity or experiment which holds the reader out. The purveyors of so-called avant-garde, experimental, or theoretical poetry are of little interest to me. Their exploded or deconstructed or tricksy language is often a case of technical obscurity taking precedent over content. The clothes have no emperor. What is such obscurity for? It is not to preserve or commemorate, nor to make us feel more finely and deeply. It is, at heart, to show off, to perhaps wish to revolutionise poetry. But it doesn't work. People just don't go to poetry for tricks. They go for humanity and feelings. And language, as well as people, have such a powerful built-in insistence on MEANING that the non-meaningful language-tortured poem cannot rise to the required level. The best way to hide emptiness is to package it in a strange and complex ways, as people are too often afraid to question it for fear of seeming ignorant. If there is complexity in poetry - and, of course, there is - it must, I think, come basically from the complexity of feeling and thought created inside the poem by use of technical skill to release it. And that complexity may be, with increasing benefit, visited time and time again. I insist that a poem of mine be intelligible on a first careful reading. I then hope that it will reveal more and more on subsequent readings. Baffling the reader is, to my mind, a failure, ultimately, of imagination, and often an admission of experiential emptiness or incoherence.
Preservation and clarity. The two words I started with and which seem so crucial to me as poet and reader. Within these two seemingly dull words can reside, for our great benefit and enjoyment, amazement, reassurance, intrigue, emotion at a deep level. I suspect, kind reviews apart, that the greatest compliment I have had about my poetry illustrates perfectly what I am saying here. A college teacher who had attended a reading I had given called me the next day to say that, on her way home, one of the poems I had read just hit her and she pulled her car over, stopped, and cried. "It was good crying, and I'm better for it," she added. Now I don't write with the intention of making people cry (or laugh or anything specific), but, when it happens, as it happens to me as a reader at times, and I know it's not a maudlin or dishonest poem, then I am pleased and honoured and convinced that what I have tried to preserve will remain preserved in that reader or listener. Sharp axe, frozen feelings. Preservation of the best in us. Clarity. Craft. Lasting monuments to the voice inside which urges us to be, again in Larkin's words, "more serious."
Christopher Wiseman's works copyright © to the author.