Saturday, October 6, 2007

The real life of a poem

A quote from a piece I really like from the October issue of Poetry - it's by George Szirtes, an essay called "Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes." (Yes, it references the wonderful Empson poem!)

"There is a twofold confusion that bedevils the reading of poetry. The first is the reading of poetry as articulated intention; that is to say, imagining that the poet intended to mean some specific bare thing, then sat down to dress it up in pretty, graceful, elegant forms that you could then strip away to find the naked meaning. Fancy talk. No wonder the plain-spoken sometimes hate and distrust it. Plain speech, if such a thing truly exists, is fine for instrumental and moral purposes but is of little use in registering experience as such. Plain speech is in fact never quite as plain as it seems. Tell me what you really mean, the plain-spoken demand. But a poem does not have a meaning that it then disguises: it discovers meaning in the process of being written and read, much as people discover meaning in places, in sensations, in other people. The poet has a broad subject, but he cannot know what line or what word will come next in his poem. The poet listens as intently as he speaks and sings.

The second confusion springs from the first. It involves the reading of poetry primarily in order to find out about the poet as a person in real life. This involves reading the poem as symptom or evidence. Poetry is useless as evidence. As far as I know, no poem has ever been adduced as evidence in court. The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths. Truths they are, and deep truths at that, but they are not in the form of falsifiable statements such as science or law demands. They do not lead back to the real life outside the poem: their truths refer to the real life inside the poem."

George has a few afterthoughts about the piece on his blog.

Currently reading :
Poems 1955-2005
By Anne Stevenson

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

George's first point -- it's something I've called "reading as decryption" -- the idea that the "craft" of poetry is something like an alogrithm applied to experience. I find in more "conservative" criticisms of contemporary poetry this to be the dominant (though unstated) mode of reading -- the average criticism of, say, a poem in Conjunctions or Fence or online amounts to something like "I applied standard decryption techniques and was left with nonsense."

(Some more remarks on this are here.)