Nasty Little Words, Nasty Long Words
From the oldest surviving epic poem, The Story of Gilgamesh (3000 BCE) to the, erm…poetry of Michael Jackson, the world’s first stone-washed human being–(Dancing the Dream: Poems and Reflections, it’s full of lyrical rhinestones like:
I looked for you in hill and dale
I sought for you beyond the pale
I searched for you in every nook and cranny
My probing was at times uncanny
and was published by Doubleday in 1993)–the debate (if debate it is) never ends: what is poetry? Is it, as Coleridge stated “…the best words in their best order.”? This definition is widely accepted–as much, I suspect, in exhaustion and resignation as in any belief in its adequacy as a definition.
Is poetry Marianne Moore’s ‘…imaginary gardens with real toads in them?” I’ve always liked this definition; it’s pithy and memorable–but universal? Hardly.
Is it, as The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has it:
The art or work of a poet; composition in verse or metrical language, or in some equivalent patterned arrangement of language; the product of this as a form of literature, poems collectively; the expression or embodiment of beautiful or elevated thought, imagination, or feeling, in language and a form adapted to stir the imagination and emotions.
Well, yes…and no.
Is it Shelley’s “…a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”?
Again, yes…and no.
Do we agree with Plato that “…Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”?
Was Mallarmé right to say “It is the job of poetry to clean up our word-clogged reality by creating silences around things.”?
Or does poetry have to have a job at all? Can it not merely ‘be’, without responsibilities or obligations or reasons?
Is a poet one of Shelley’s “…unacknowledged legislators of the world.”?
Or is a poet Kierkegaard’s “…unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music…”?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, so I reckon the only sensible thing to do is ask for poems about poetry and poets; keeping in mind, of course, Macaulay’s assertion that “…perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.”
I also want to alert you to a new collection, At the Fair, from our friend Tom Clark.
Iain Sinclair writes of it:
Doors swing open on this shock of light. Here you will experience scripts and mind-telegrams, shapely in nerve and essence, moving always, and moving on. A circus at the settlement’s edge: with memory-movies, new songs, and travellers’ tales. We are reminded of frontier days when poetry was the better politics, proud inside itself. As Tom Clark’s fresh voice echoes, and re-echoes, so beautifully, in the head. Across oceans and continents from Mediterranean California. And back. Mind kites in marine haze. Streaks. Showers.
In the meantime, I’ll leave the last word to Basil Bunting:
What The Chairman Told Tom
Poetry? It’s a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.
It’s not work. You dont sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.
Art, that’s opera; or repertory –
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.
But to ask for twelve pounds a week –
married, aren’t you? –
you’ve got a nerve.
How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?
Who says it’s poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.
I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I’m an accountant.
They do what I tell them,
What do you do?
Nasty little words, nasty long words,
I want to wash when I meet a poet.
They’re Reds, addicts,
What you write is rot.
Mr Hines says so, and he’s a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.
—from First Book of Odes by Basil Bunting (1950)