Paul Git­tins

Sound and Sense in Po­etry

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Paul Git­tins

A re­cent spat in the po­etry world as to the al­leged am­a­teur na­ture of per­for­mance po­ets has di­verted at­ten­tion away from a more se­ri­ous is­sue – that of the in­creas­ingly one-sided ap­proach to writ­ing po­etry which is be­ing en­cour­aged in schools and po­etry man­u­als.This ap­proach starts at pri­mary school level where po­etry is equated with pro­fi­ciency in class work in­tended to help pupils ex­press them­selves and in primers like Ted Hughes’s ‘Po­etry in the Mak­ing’ with its ex­er­cises af­ter each chap­ter aimed at de­vel­op­ing pupils’ imag­i­na­tive writ­ing as, for in­stance, in his sug­ges­tion for com­pos­ing ‘a free poem of sorts where gram­mar, sen­tence struc­ture, etc. are all sac­ri­ficed in an at­tempt to break fresh and ac­cu­rate per­cep­tions and words out of the re­al­ity of the sub­ject cho­sen.’

Leav­ing aside the thought that these ex­er­cises in self-ex­pres­sion could equally well be ap­plied to the prac­tice of prose writ­ing, it is teach­ing pupils to run be­fore they can walk as more at­ten­tion should be paid to the way in which sen­tences are put to­gether, which is to say, the ac­tual words them­selves. For it is words that make up the build­ing blocks out of which sen­tences are formed and it is the char­ac­ter­is­tics of words that need to be stud­ied: their phonic qual­ity (how they sound), their ac­tual phys­i­cal shape and their re­la­tion to the words on ei­ther side of them. The abil­ity to value these prop­er­ties is best learned from po­etry lines that are ten­sioned by some form of met­ri­cal ar­range­ment as there is a greater con­cen­tra­tion on the sound of words than in the more loosely con­structed prose-po­etry lines. A lack of this abil­ity is like ask­ing a pi­ano pupil to play a tune be­fore he or she has a ba­sic mas­tery of the key­board. As Robert Graves said: ‘Po­etry is the pro­fes­sion of pri­vate truth, sup­ported by crafts­man­ship in the use of words.’

This fo­cus on the imag­i­na­tive side of writ­ing po­etry more than the ‘me­chan­i­cal’ skills is fur­ther en­cour­aged by the sort of po­etry that wins

prizes. Al­ice Oswald’s col­lec­tion Fall­ing Awake that won the plau­dits of com­men­ta­tors last year, il­lus­trates the dan­gers of this ap­proach with its ten­dency for bizarre and of­ten dis­con­nected images as in her poem ‘Vertigo’, where the first fif­teen lines con­tain the fol­low­ing un­re­lated images – ‘a fly­ing car­pet, an eye open­ing af­ter an oper­a­tion, a sui­cide from the tower-block of heaven, as if sculpted in por­ridge.’ Else­where, a dead swan is likened to a crashed plane and a dead badger to a fall­ing suit­case – all images that bring to mind Sa­muel John­son’s com­ments about the Meta­phys­i­cal Po­ets that ‘Na­ture and art are ran­sacked for il­lus­tra­tions, com­par­isons and al­lu­sions.’ How dif­fer­ent is her beau­ti­ful open­ing poem ‘A Short Story of Fall­ing’, where no ex­trav­a­gant images in­ter­rupt the sense and an un­ob­tru­sive rhyme scheme helps the quiet for­ward move­ment of the lines.

In Amer­ica, the Amer­i­can Academy’s ‘Poem-a-Day’ se­ries (for po­ems that have not been pub­lished be­fore) also il­lus­trates the con­se­quences of this over-imag­i­na­tive ap­proach to writ­ing po­etry with sub­mis­sions that are so choked with im­agery that all sense is lost. An ex­cerpt from a re­cent piece (‘Not Verb, but Vertigo’) is a good ex­am­ple: ‘I scratched down the word ‘flower’ & felt/ the parts draw away from the tongue./ Not gnomen, grown man, but ghost:/ to gnaw on the crisp/ skin once it’s been stripped/ down from the meat ….’ The notes that ac­com­pany these po­ems are of­ten more con­fus­ing than the piece it­self. The fact that in many cases the po­ems fea­tured in ‘Poem-a-Day’ are by univer­sity teach­ers must serve to prop­a­gate the view that po­etry is just self-ex­pres­sion with no need to ar­range it into a form that is com­pre­hen­si­ble to any­one read­ing or lis­ten­ing to it and which brings to mind E.E. Cum­mings’s teas­ing com­ment that ‘If po­etry were any­thing …. which any­one did, any­one could be­come a poet merely by do­ing the nec­es­sary any­thing; what­ever that any­thing might or might not en­tail.’ It should be more fully rec­og­nized that writ­ing po­etry is not a uni­ver­sal en­ti­tle­ment, although there is an un­will­ing­ness to ac­cept this both in Amer­ica and Eng­land, where the mul­ti­tude of po­etry out­lets and com­pe­ti­tions en­cour­age a ‘have-a-go’ ap­proach, en­cour­aged by en­try con­di­tions that of­ten state ‘Any style, any form.’

There is a strong case for per­for­mance po­etry be­ing cited as a counter to this self-in­dul­gent ap­proach to writ­ing po­etry, as poet and au­di­ence are car­ried along in a rapid and im­me­di­ately ac­ces­si­ble form. It cer­tainly re­ceived Si­mon Armitage’s vote when, as the newly elected Ox­ford Pro­fes­sor of Po­etry, he com­mended per­for­mance po­ets as be­ing the in­her­i­tors of the an­cient tra­di­tion of bal­ladry. Un­for­tu­nately, he then went on to crit­i­cize any­one who was un­sport­ing enough to ex­am­ine their lyrics too closely. But per­for­mance po­etry has the great as­set of mak­ing peo­ple lis­ten to the sound of po­etry – the one qual­ity that is li­able to get lost in the writ­ing of so much po­etry to­day.

There is, how­ever, a com­mon fac­tor and bridge be­tween per­for­mance po­etry and more ‘se­ri­ous’ po­etry – recita­tion. Recita­tion is not only about the sound of po­etry but also its co­her­ence as it is not pos­si­ble to main­tain the in­ter­est of an au­di­ence if it is con­tin­u­ally fall­ing be­hind through in­abil­ity to fol­low the sense. In France, recita­tion is still a val­ued and im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent of pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion. In Eng­land, the Po­etry Ar­chive’s ‘Po­etry by Heart’ com­pe­ti­tions, in which pupils com­pete in recit­ing two po­ems (one from pre-1914 and one post-1914) now has over a thou­sand sec­ondary schools signed up to take part in them. Their pop­u­lar­ity em­pha­sizes the im­por­tance of speak­ing po­etry aloud and in demon­strat­ing that in the com­po­si­tion of po­etry sound and sense need to be suc­cess­fully com­bined.

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