Usually You Are, That’s What Poetry’s For

“I can only contend with the power of men.”
Pablo Neruda – Every Day You Play

This summer I’ve read a fair bit of poetry, as may already be clear, and so I’m going to give some thoughts on the stuff that I’ve read. There’s a slight issue in that, for a couple of these, I’ve started them, left them a few weeks, then come back and finished them. The thoughts on these ones may be a bit vague – but here we go. (My review of Kate Tempest is here, and is lengthy enough to not require anything on this post.)

Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations 3/5

In short – this is gonna need some more reads. I reckon about fifty or so should do it. Some of it is undeniably beautiful, and some of it is way too difficult to grasp anything. Because of this, some of it did kind of feel like well-written nonsense, and the rereading will be important. Beautiful moments are scattered throughout, though I don’t know if I’m a convert to prose-poetry. I feel poetry would’ve said a lot of this very differently – these individual pieces encompass much more, but they often spend too long or not long enough focussing on certain things.

I’d recommend ‘After the Flood’. It opens the collection, and it stayed with me throughout the whole thing. The closing poem ‘Genie’ is lovely too. It’s definitely encouraged me to read some Rimbaud though.

James Baldwin’s Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 3/5

It’s hard to pinpoint my thoughts on this, much as it was with Rimbaud’s Illuminations. It’s very powerful and often very political poetry. It’s easy to read, it’s honest, and it’s occasionally funny. It’s also very bold. But it’s not quite ‘Giovanni’s Room’ – Baldwin’s stripped down language is less effective than his prose, which has eloquence akin to poetry itself.

Ultimately, I can appreciate the power of this poetry, and I enjoyed much of it. However, it comes down to the fact that I know I’ve enjoyed other poetry more. Maybe this just wasn’t ‘me’ enough.

Kevin Reid and George Szirtes’ Wordless Yet Another 3/5, Though Hard To Rate

I feel like it’s cheating to give this book a review. Or even to call it a book. Yet it’s a bit grand to call it an ‘experience’. It’s more just… something that’s happened. In fact I’m not sure it’s even happened. It’s just sped past, leaving nothing really to grasp onto, except something faint, like a smell. This photo-poem book wasn’t on Goodreads until I added it, and there’s probably a fair reason for that. I found it in an obscure place in The Book Hive in Norwich, where it looked a little like someone had just left it to be found. Maybe it was.

I have an obsession with including bowler hats and masks in my writing, and me and my other bowler hat-obsessed friend felt that it would be criminal not to buy a book that was basically our imagination made flesh. But it doesn’t really add anything to my obsession, and I feel remarkably unchanged by it (the man who provides the cover quote, which is the book’s blurb, clearly was not though). I haven’t found my purpose for it yet – and it doesn’t provide an immediate one (which is not a bad thing). It’s closer to art than literature.

The book lies in how you interpret it. What is the bowler hat? What is the mask? Clearly the bowler hat and death are linked (Death’s Bowler Hat? Is the hat Death? Why is ‘death’ never capitalised if it has a bowler hat?) and there’s a link between the mask and ourselves. Also, there’s something about dreaming in there. Like the poems are accessing thoughts we didn’t know we had and couldn’t quite formulate. It needs a lot of looking at – but even then, it would be hard to come up with an interpretation that didn’t sound over the top and pretentious. Still – it would be a good book to give to a class of A-Level or Uni students and say, ‘go’. Cos I can’t work it out on my own.

On a simpler level – some of the pictures are really cool, and some of the poems did make me think. The majority, on first reading, just flew past me. I think it’s trying to be something by not really being anything – and it just comes off as not feeling like anything. Wordless is probably the most apt title for it. Because that’s how I am about it, currently.

Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair 4.5 Stars

I didn’t think this was going to be my kind of thing. Initially, the repetition of the same metaphors and imagery seemed a bit boring. Each poem said something different but was using the same techniques to do it – and they sounded lovely, but they didn’t sound dynamic. They weren’t something that appealed to me.

And I’m not sure quite why it changed. But around the 13th poem, I noticed something else in them. Suddenly, the metaphors and imagery that were being repeated were being used in a different way – they seemed much more alive. And I found this kept going until the end of the book, meaning its second half is a strong and beautiful collection of poems. Some of the lines in these are utterly breathtaking and some of the poems are amongst the most beautiful I’ve ever read.

If I re-read the first half, which I will, I might well find that these are as strong as the second half. It may have just taken me a while to get use to Neruda’s style before I could appreciate it. But this collection really does house some stunning poetry, amongst the best I’ve read, and I’m keen to reread it to see if I can move the rating up to five stars.

Richard Siken’s Crush  4 Stars

This is the most intense poetry I’ve probably ever encountered. It’s brutal and unrelenting, its passion comes across in a suffocating force – for both the reader and the people involved in the poems. It’s fascinating to read, especially for someone who is a writer, to see how the poems are constructed, but also how they deal with the ideas. Many phrases and ideas are repeated across, the same events told, restudied, developed. The language is very powerful, and the last poem ‘Snow and Dirty Rain’ unexpectedly builds a breathtaking force towards its close. The collection is full of brilliant phrases, and the whole book uses language masterfully. There are moments of passion pushed down into memories, which are brought up to the surface, and lived with the same force in which they happened. It’s pretty incredible.

It’s not the kind of thing I can say I would read for enjoyment. It is the sort of thing you would read for the experience – but you can’t sit down and read it all in one, because it will leave you a wreck. The second section is particularly intense. But the language is worth experiencing, despite the fact that there are barely any moments of pause or hope in a sea of violence and intensity.

It’s not quite the poetry I was looking to read – nor is it the type of poetry that I could say is a favourite – but it’s showing how powerful and amazing poetry can be, and it puts a large number of other poets to shame. Even though it’s not always my sort of thing, it is totally deserving of its rating.

What is interesting about this, though, is that about a week after I read it, I can remember fragments of events and I can remember its intensity – but I can’t remember how it made me feel. If I think about Rimbaud, or Baldwin, I can feel a general gist of what the poetry was, and where I was when I read it. Crush, amazingly, hasn’t left this. Because of its intensity, its impact is perhaps a short lived thing. It happens in the moment, and then it goes. It definitely warrants a reread at some point though.

and some other poems I’ve read/collections I’ve started…

Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters

I’ve not got very far with this, and I think it needs a bit of the Neruda Magic ™ to keep me going. It’s a very large collection of poems and they are all very similar – in structure and content. It’s not doing a very good job at keeping my attention, unfortunately, and it needs to kick into gear to keep me interested. It’s looking to be one of those collections I dip in and out of, which is no bad thing, but it’s too samey to read like I’ve read those above.

Ted Hughes’ ‘Lovesong’

I’ve become a little bit obsessed with this. There’s something about it that’s stayed with me, and cropped up again this summer, and I’m not sure what it is. But it’s an interesting contrast to the other poetry reading I’ve done.

No one tells you how to read poetry. Should you read it, or listen? Is it there to be dipped in and out of? Is it there to read in one? I think each collection, each poem, is probably designed to be slightly different, and I think I’ve approached the things I’ve read in roughly the right way. I’ve got Philip Larkin’s Complete Poems – I’m not going to sit and read that in one go, but I don’t dip in and out of it, which I should. The disadvantage of reading poetry in one go, or in several stages over a short period of time, is that individual poems rarely stand out.

Neruda’s ‘Every Day You Play’ has stuck with me and I know I love many things about that specific poem – but I couldn’t reference any off the top of my head. Maybe reading poetry in one go takes the edge of its individuality. Who knows? I read Tempest’s Hold Your Own in five stages (there are five sections), and I suppose the individual poems only stood out when I’d gone back to them.

So maybe that’s it. Poetry requires both reading and rereading to work (not a ground breaking statement, I realise). But as I often say on this blog, it’s a bit like an album. You listen to it through the first time, then you listen to the songs on shuffle to learn their differences (that may just be me). I think that’s what I’ll do.

I think my Summer of Poetry has been pretty damn successful. I am a bit lost that I now don’t have any new books waiting for me. (But then, I think a second year of English Lit at Uni will take care of that…)

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