Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Listening to poetry, discovering poets




A glade can be elevated to poetry by a 'browsing deer'


I don’t read enough poetry. I mean that generally, and as a writer, and as a lover of lyrical, poetic use of language. The best poetry for me finds utterly original ways of expressing or describing familiar things, and can unleash surprise torrents of emotion without a whiff of cliché or sentimentality.

That’s what I enjoy; obviously poetry is capable of many other feats, but it is always interesting to discover what does and doesn’t work for you in a form not regularly encountered.

In the past few months I have listened to much more poetry than I have read, by going to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in late 2012 and attending the recent T S Eliot Prize readings, an annual event where all the nominated poets read from their work the night before the winner is announced. This year Sharon Olds was triumphant with Stag’s Leap, a description that I’d apply to her reading as well as her actually winning. I was surprised to find myself enjoying her poem, about her breasts and their imagined view of her husband leaving her. I winced at the conceit, but was then carried away by it, something silly becoming profound but the transition so delicately done, resulting in a completely original expression of a common human experience.

There I also heard for the second time a poem by Julia Copus, which she also read at Aldeburgh, about a couple dining in a gastro pub after a round of IVF treatment. I was irritated by this poem because its surface plainness did nothing for me, and yet the images stuck and it would not leave me alone. There is nothing particularly unusual in the descriptions of sea bass and crème brulée, but the quiet reference to the eggs, lying far away down the road in the dark, works far better than I feel it should. I take this as an indication that Copus is cleverer than most at what she is doing, I just cannot see how she is doing it.

At the start of the T S Eliot readings I had set myself the task of transcribing just one phrase that I loved from each of the poets, hoping to use them in a sort of review on this blog. I admit that I struggled. Many of the poems, though not all, were more like prose than I expected, flowing in natural patterns of language rather than condensing images. I wondered whether this was an indication of a current fashion in poetry (and still wonder, being in no position to judge) or simply reflected the tastes of the T S Eliot Prize panel. Possibly I have an arcane notion of poetry myself.

Afterwards, looking back at the phrases I had managed to scribble down, I realised that listening to the poems rather than reading them, so that they wash through you once and you cannot go back to re-read a single line, alters perception considerably. The denser, more febrile poems – like those from Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal – were harder to process in this form and so did not stick so well. Those that were looser and less lyric-laden allowed the mind to wander into their scenes more easily whilst listening, making the odd incredible line stand out.

So, a few of those phrases I did love were Gillian Clarke’s house that ‘naps in the plush silence’; Kathleen Jamie’s ‘deer browsing in a glade’ (that word browsing is genius); Sean Borodale’s honey tasting like the ‘wild liquor of ecstatic work’; and the voice of Olds’ husband, ‘still pushed around the level bubble of his throat.’

I’ve since bought Kathleen Jamie’s The Overhaul, and found far more beauty than I remembered from her reading; but as a way of sampling different kinds of poetry side my side, like wine-tasting, a poetry reading is a good way to discover what you like, along with the pure pleasure of listening to careful words.

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