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Hello and welcome to the rambling rollercoaster of useless ponderings, strung together in what the internet calls a "blog," and the voices call a waste of everyone elses time.

Please check your sanity at the door (along with your dignity, logic, principles, good taste and prejudices against daftness.)

"I am here to seduce you into a love of life; to help you to become a little more poetic; to help you die to the mundane and to the ordinary so that the extraordinary explodes in your life." -Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

Monday, 9 June 2008

Poetic Ponderings

I was reading some poetry recently by a semi-professional author (in a pre-publication workshop for her anthology) and there was one piece which has been very well received in the literary community, and had mostly glowing praise from some particularly respected writers. Almost everyone who had read the piece was being very complimentary, but I didn't feel it worthy of nearly the same reaction.

It was a human rights piece - and so had a strong message - and I think that was one of the reasons why others had been so eager to support the work. I have found that it is often the case that people will review literature far better if they think they need to be seen empathising with the traumatic scene laid out in the piece. A young girl dies, it's very sad, it's a true story, and therefore people fail to be as harsh as they would if the same level of skill or technique were applied to a less 'worthy' subject.

For me, poetry isn't just about having a strong voice, valid message, and correct literary style. It is often necessary for a good poem to conform to certain rules of meter and/or rhyme - and it must have a deliberate, crafted rhythm - but far more importantly, it must have an inner timbre. Virginia Woolf said "Language is like wine upon the lips," and she was absolutely right - but poetry should also be a liqueur for the mind. Some poems bubble and splash like the sound of wine being poured into a glass. Others are rich and velvety, burning your throat, and warming your soul as you imbibe them. More still should knot your stomach with that urgent clawing-at-slowed-time as you watch a dropped crystal wineglass plummet to the floor.

That extra, indefinable something was missing from the piece I read today. I was at a loss to explain myself to the author, and she'd had so many compliments on the piece that my criticism was dismissed as the opinion of a lone voice - the whitterings of an uneducated, inexperienced girl who fails to realise the works' humanitarian validity.

That I recognise all this makes it harder to be a writer of poetry myself, as I often doubt the motives of my readers’ reactions to my work. Are their positive reviews because they agree with my sentiments - not because they are seduced by my style? Did they react negatively to other poems because they found the subject matter uncomfortable, and not because the standard was poor?

Every poem should mean something to author and reader, and it's for this reason that I am most unhappy with my latest foray into that fickle talent. I haven't had a single damning response to it (unusually) but conversely, this has made me even less pleased with - or indeed proud of - the work than I have been about my more divisive pieces. It is a poem revealing why we write poetry, and why sharing the skill is significant. Those writers of my acquaintance connect with the piece, and feel it tackles the subject well. For this reason they identify with the work, and I feel that they are reluctant to rate it badly because they fear it will appear as if they are not as dedicated to the art as others who purport to have really felt a kinship with the message. Those non-writers who have experienced the piece believe it allows them a glimpse into the fascinating-but-unattainable world of the author, and I think they have been so uncritical because they like to convince themselves that they understand it, that they "get" what I am trying to say, however obscure the meaning is at times.

Poetry is subjective - and as such it does not always have to give definitive answers to every line. It is one of few mediums that invite interpretation, but people forget this because they assume there must be a right and wrong meaning to everything. Instead it is more like classical music - it must be judged on how it feels to experience. Music shares a similar need for that same 'je ne sais quois' that poetry must posses: for even if every single note is perfectly placed, the harmonies exemplary, and the story evocative, it is possible for the piece to leave you feeling nothing unless it has that special something.

Anyone can write poetry, but good poetry is much more of an elusive skill. I hope it is one I will learn - but considering just how subjective the genre is, am not certain I will ever know if I have reached the heady heights of poetic proficiency.

In place of the personally crafted work I feel is still unfit to share, I present you with those works of others: both those long retired from the art and of those still to write their signature piece. They are a small selection of poems I enjoy reading, and are all by well known authors, though some are more widely feted than the rest. (There are of course many, many more wonderful pieces, but these are a few I have re-read recently.)

The Hug by Thom Gunn.

It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who'd showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.


THE HARLOT'S HOUSE by Oscar Wilde.

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot's house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The "Treues Liebes Herz" of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille.

The took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
"The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust."

But she--she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.


Do not go gentle by Dylan Thomas.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because there words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Warming Her Pearls by Carol Anne Duffy.

Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I'll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,

resting in the Yellow room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.

She's beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.

I dust her shoulders with a rabbit's foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.

Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head ... Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way

she always does ... And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.


MADONNA MIA by Oscar Wilde.

A LILY-GIRL, not made for this world's pain,
With brown, soft hair close braided by her ears,
And longing eyes half veiled by slumberous tears
Like bluest water seen through mists of rain:
Pale cheeks whereon no love hath left its stain,
Red underlip drawn in for fear of love,
And white throat, whiter than the silvered dove,
Through whose wan marble creeps one purple vein.
Yet, though my lips shall praise her without cease,
Even to kiss her feet I am not bold,
Being o'ershadowed by the wings of awe,
Like Dante, when he stood with Beatrice
Beneath the flaming Lion's breast, and saw
The seventh Crystal, and the Stair of Gold.

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