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Meddling with poems
I read, or heard, recently, I can’t remember where, that in John Donne’s day (1571 to 1632, to be precise) readers would often make edits to friends’ and colleagues’ poems in the process of copying them out into their own private anthologies.
The whole idea of changing someone else’s poem without them knowing about it would bring some poets out in hives. It doesn’t seem so strange to me, at least not in those circumstances. One of the myths about poetry is that every word matters. They do. But it doesn’t mean they can’t be swapped around.
In theory, anyway. With a lot of modern poems this kind of collaboration would be far harder. Sometimes it feels like poets are involved in an unspoken competition to write in the most individual, idiosyncratic, and therefore un-editable, voice imaginable. If you factor in the personal content of a lot of contemporary poetry, however it’s written, you can see why the idea of altering a word or phrase would feel invasive - like meddling with someone’s soul.
The poem you can meddle with, meanwhile, will likely be written in a way that someone else might say it better - which usually means it will have something in common with everyday speech.
I don’t mean to say that these poems are more worthwhile than the others - I like a lot of idiosyncratic poets (though sometimes a strong voice is like a spell - it wears off). The best poets tread a line between their own voice and langage as a shared entity - and besides ‘everyday speech’ means different things for different people. But I do think that there is a lot of pressure out there to sound, as the blurbs put it, unique - and that poets are much better at complaining about market forces than they are at recognising them in the wild.
Moving on. Sort of. This week I’ve been reading Jonathan Davidson’s very good book On Poetry which among other things is very, very good (insert more verys here) on the importance of making space for poetry to be heard - whether it’s Ted Hughes on vinyl, nursery rhymes in the kitchen or on stage.
I’ve also been listening to Alice Oswald’s brilliant (as in, literally sparkling) Oxford Poetry Lectures, which focus on poetry as a spoken art (she also has a lot of interesting things to say about similes). Oswald is an astonishing performer – I have never heard her in person but the lectures are akin to extended readings. I don’t mean performing as in acting – you can’t act a poem, though people try.
Oswald is not a performance poet, either. Rather, as Davidson puts it, she releases the poems: “The poets I like, really like rather than just admire, do this, they release their poems. They do not present themselves or their histories or their joys and disciplines, they do not set out their stall or display their garish feathers. They simply place the sounds into the silence.” Davidson is not talking about Oswald, only poets in general (and Ted Hughes). But Oswald is a releaser.
In her first lecture, Oswald makes a point of not showing the audience the texts she is quoting. Instead, she speaks each passage twice - releases the words into the room. These passages are often from Homer – Oswald is always thinking about him and the wandering bards who performed poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey. One of the most striking things about her poetry is the way, over the years, she has combined this immersion in a poet as impersonal as Homer with her own very distinct (idiosyncratic, even) phrasing and vocabulary.
In Memorial, for instance, Oswald’s stripped down version of the Iliad, she isolates Homer’s images and then transforms them into austere - yet clearly Oswaldian - phrases, each repeated the same way as in the lecture:
Like when a mother is rushing And a little girl clings to her clothes Wants help wants arms Won't let her walk Like staring up at that tower of adulthood Wanting to be light again Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted And carried on a hip Like when a mother is rushing And a little girl clings to her clothes Wants help wants arms Won't let her walk Like staring up at that tower of adulthood Wanting to be light again Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted And carried on a hip
The effect of the repetition is like making an impression in a wall before bringing in the drill, or (because Oswald’s world is a watery world) the first rush of water which carves the way for a stream. The first reading makes space in the world for the second – for the poetry – to flow through.
While we’re here
I almost shared one of my own poems here but thought better of it. I would like to start sharing other people’s, though - with their permission - like the ever-generous Mat Riches does (Mat has a book out soon, by the way). I promise not to edit them without the author’s knowledge.
Don Paterson reports in a recent Poetry Review that some poetry editors now don’t edit books as a matter of principle. This strikes me as mad, but also the inevitable extension of a certain way of thinking. Also, at a complete tangent, here is a very disturbing Dannie Abse poem about interfering with souls.