Thursday, 11 March 2010

Poetry: what's the use?

In times of hardship our tolerance for poetry, or any form of art, wanes. It could be said that they provide the ultimate test for its viability. It is during such conditions that the most necessary poetry comes to the fore while the kind simply borne of luxury fades away.

In his article ‘Night Thoughts’ Fred Johnston writes of how, during a period he spent in hospital, he was let down altogether by poetry: “I had absolutely no use for poetry,” he writes. This is an astonishing – and brave – admission from a poet. To be exact, the piece’s central thesis rests between this admission and a raging against “the industrialisation of poetry” with its “plots, the board-room coups, the malign intent, the graven ego” and “glittering prizes, residencies, competitions and festivals in exotic places” that makes poets view “the ordinary as banal and beneath us.” But Johnston looks mainly at his inability to create in an uncomfortable state, and less at the solace that words can offer. “Language, when it did emerge, came out of me in tight-throated squeaks, plaintive and urgent; ‘Let me go!’ not, ‘Let me create!’”.

Poetry usually comes unbidden. The initial impulse to write a poem comes from a place that can’t be accessed at our behest. Maybe certain conditions make us more likely to connect to it, but in the main poetry can’t be forced. The craft required to make a poem out of the initial impulse is what provides the ‘conscious effort’ part of the composing process. This is what can be worked at, over and over again. The first part of the process depends only on our openness to voices and the receptiveness of our mind and body.

And so it is with the ‘use’ of poems. The Greek folk singer Mariza Koch has described how she automatically began to recite poems by Nikos Kavvadias, one after another, while stranded in an abandoned tower at the tip of a small island
during a stormy night. She says that his poems (which she regularly put to music and performed) became her “barrels” onto which she held for her life like someone shipwrecked. Kavvadias’ poems of life at sea became at that moment a matter of life and death - for her. And she explains that, by the morning, when the storm had died down and she could inspect the extensive damage to the marina adjacent to the tower, she knew that she would no longer be able to perform those particular poems, that they had been washed away like so many other physical things around her. Those specific poems promptly disappeared from her repertoire.

In her book ‘The Poem and the Journey’ Ruth Padel describes how Emily Dickinson’s “Civilisation – spurns – the Leopard!” came to her – to her mind and body – during a time of extreme fear, while in the jungle in Laos. “I felt I now understood physically why Dickinson put dashes in her poems,” she writes. “Each phrase was just enough for a breath, enough to say before the next search for a snake-free handhold. The dashes helped me find the next firm root, get my toe out from a liana, unhook a sleeve from a thorn, slide ten feet on bending bushes, dig a hand into leaves hoping no vipers were among them.”

Padel feels that the dashes became her momentum and her rhythm. During moments of extreme concentration I unknowingly construct a rhythm in my head. It is only in the moments immediately after relaxing that I become conscious of it, and realise that this rhythm may be made of just a beat or of words from songs or poems. Those particular rhythms and those words seem to come from a mysterious and inaccessible place.

Is this place also the hub of language? Coming round from an operation many years ago I began
(I was subsequently told) in my semi-anaesthetised state to speak in English to my Greek/Cypriot-speaking family. We laughed this off, but I put it down to my experience of life in the Greek/Cypriot language finding no adequate way to express my feeling of relief at the success of the operation: that I could only do so through the set of linguistic rules I had previously used in conditions approximating those.

Such a shift in perception is what happens during extreme conditions; our need to deal with them brings us to a place where we may find the tools to do that. Words, silences and rhythms – the necessary ones, the ones that work for us – may or may not be there. Sometimes we may even need to invent this place. Going back to Fred Johnston’s piece, we find him writing that he now works poems through French. “Just as, in hospital, I found that I’d lost the voice necessary to create anything out of what I was experiencing, I’d some time since felt that I needed a different voice, a different tongue, to describe what I’d experienced in the world of Irish matters… I had to go outside of English to see anew the things I wanted to write about.”

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