National Poetry Month — Day 21

Poet Marie Marshall, whose work you’ve seen featured and reviewed here before, wrote a charmingly sardonic collection of Gothic poems, some of which I’d like to feature on the blog this month. I like them because I like Gothic stuff in general — I do, after all, teach an AP English course in Gothic Literature — but also because these poems are contemporary (written in 2010) yet honor a very traditional style that we don’t often see being used in current American letters. (And no, Marshall is not an American; she’s based in Scotland.)

There are some who argue that the state of page poetry has become too esoteric for its own relatability. Maybe. I know there are poets I’ve read in the last few years whose work doesn’t really mean anything to me at all. Perhaps I’m too narrative-bound. Perhaps I just appreciate poetry that is trying to relate to the reader in a human way. Who knows?

Marshall’s poems, several of which I’m featuring here in a series, pay homage to rhyme and meter and form and traditional storylines, but in fresh ways. And that, I believe, has value.

 

***

 

Selena

 

For each night’s revelation here I stand
transfixed, to view the rising of the moon;
I take my aged wooden flute in hand
and play a lifting, lilting, falling tune.

I sound my serenade by softest breath,
in semi-silence, half-afraid to break
by step, by slightest movement, into death
the perfect mirror-image in the lake.

Selena is the secret name I give
myself at this deep, magick time of night;
in castle-clouds and hues of grey I live,
and sigh alone in silver, shifting light…

When sunlight comes, and reds and ochres whirl,
I am a very different kind of girl.

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “National Poetry Month — Day 21

  1. Angelique: I follow Marie’s work and often enjoy it, thanks for posting. Your point about “poets I’ve read in the last few years whose work doesn’t really mean anything to me at all” to me reflects the sad state of academically sanctioned poetry in Western culture. If poetry is not deeply moving or inspiring, if it doesn’t communicate, then why bother with it? If it’s not what Eleanor Wilner in the current issue of the American Poetry Review called “the poetry of engagement,” then it becomes little more than an intellectual toy for the elite or those who are trained specifically to understand it. The man or woman in the street is cut out of it and frankly doesn’t care about poetry. Thankfully articles like Wilner’s seem to suggest the tide is turning and what was once derisively dubbed “political poetry” is coming into its own again.
    Further, it’s time to shed our academically cultivated disdain for Romanticism. The Romantics foresaw the risks of industrial capitalism from the outset and warned of it, even as they tried to cultivate in readers a sense of connection with the planet. In the Age of Climate Change, we need a kind of Romanticism—what I call a New Romanticism—more than ever, not just in poetry but generally.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi. I think I would like to take some time to make this into a dialogue. As you have been following my poetry, you’ll know that I like to explore. I’ll look into areas that other people have already covered, and I’ll go where I think no one has gone, or gone far enough. I have experience of poetry as a reader and a writer.

      “If it doesn’t communicate, then why bother with it?”

      I believe that no piece of art in any genre fails to communicate, even if communicates very little, even if it communicates bafflement and courts dismissal by the viewer / listener / reader, even if it does so deliberately. This is because art is a human activity, it takes a human to make it, and because when we see or hear a work of art we instantly ‘read’ it. We ‘read’ everything that we see and hear anyway. I use the word ‘read’ the way others would use ‘interpret’ or ‘perceive’, because to my mind we not only ‘see’ or ‘perceive’ things, we instantly imbue them with meaning. The very fact that our experience of art is the reception of something made by a fellow-human makes communication, no matter how apparently minimal, inevitable.

      I’m not above making a test of this principle in my own work. I recently constructed a piece thus: Using paper, magic markers, and highlighters, I placed a rough, upper-case letter ‘F’ and a rough, lower-case letter ‘f’ into blocks of colour; I then scanned the image, and shredded the piece of paper; using a simple and standard programme from my computer, I then tailored the colour and size of the image, before posting it to a friend’s poetry blog[1]; my last act was to delete the image from my computer. The purpose behind this was multi-layered. Firstly, I was exploring the boundary of meaning conveyed by an identifiable character, the letter ‘F’; how much meaning could be conveyed by a single letter? How far could I reduce a component of language communication before it ceased to have meaning? What did the letter ‘F’ convey to whomever was looking at it? Secondly, I was exploring the boundary between poetry and visual art; if this was on a poetry blog, was it therefore to be seen as a poem? Or a piece of ‘colour field’ visual art[2]? Thirdly, was this an ‘original’ work or a ‘copy’? If it was a copy, then where was the original? What was it a copy of? Was it therefore a simulacrum – a copy WITHOUT an original? I was saying something about the current ‘hot’ mode in which artistic communication is made, the mode by which people now see Jacques-Louis David’s paintings or read Keats’s poetry more than by any direct medium – via electronic media.

      Now you could, and probably will, say – What is the possible use of THAT? Well, the answer is, of course, to provoke thought, to provoke questioning of ideas and perceptions and preconceptions. If nothing else, if REALLY nothing else, it’s a spur to intellectual calisthenics.

      How does that compare to your proposal that we reignite the flame of Romanticism, and press it into use in the cause of fighting anthropogenic climate change? Well, I would say that in narrowing the purpose and mode-of-expression of the art form, you risk turning what was, in its novel state, an expression of the sublime, into something that has no function other than the utilitarian, turning Romanticism into something eco-Stalinist. I said that was a risk, NOT your intention. Romanticism was never that.

      My point is that we need the whole field of art, the whole spectrum of expression, and we need to go on pushing the envelope. We can do it playfully (as I did with my ’Gothic’ poems), minimally (as I did with my colour-field / letter experiment), in deadly earnest (with overtly political work), and in a hundred, maybe a thousand, maybe a million other ways. Maybe in as many ways as there are individual artists. In tandem with that, we need to ditch the idea of elites. We need to ditch the idea that because something is ‘hard’ it isn’t for the masses – to my mind that denigrates the intelligence of ordinary people. Back in the day trade unions sponsored the education of their members, not as a factor of individual social advancement (as so many people see education, I’m sorry to say) but to prove that an ordinary working person has an intellect, has sensibilities, can appreciate, can be communicated with not just by simple means but also by sophisticated means – education as a profoundly civilising thing in which we can all share without danger to ourselves, without making of ourselves something we are not. At the same time we need to ditch the idea that what is simple is beneath the dignity of the bourgeois and the ‘intelligentsia’ – why should I not like Country & Western, for example, just because I’m middle-class and well-educated? Again, the simple is for everyone. One of my all-time favourite poets, Frank O’Hara, celebrated the demotic, the mass-market pleasures of his day, the hamburgers, the news-stands of New York City, and at the same time the sophistication of avant-garde French drama, the esoteric jazz of the NY jazz-lofts.

      All art is ‘political’, because it takes place in the ‘polis’. All art is ‘political’ because it is an expression of the ‘politikos’ of the artist. Rather than trying to make art accessible in content, we should be working to give greater access TO art, by breaking down the barriers of intellectual mystique. In that way we aid our brothers and sisters to their intellectual birthright, we allow them to discover and realise the emotional and psychological tools that they have, but which they have been discouraged from using. In that way we give them the critical faculty necessary to be our judges when we polemicise about, say, climate change.

      Shelley once called poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. That in itself was surely an elitist view. The Romantics were, by and large, a privileged sect, who had the leisure to sit and write, to experiment with drugs (de Quincey), to dabble with foreign revolutions and pretend Gothic fantasies by a stormy foreign lake (Byron), to shut themselves away in rural retreats and be transported by riparian flowers (Wordsworth)[3], all as good as a million miles from where the compassion and humanity was needed – the satanic mills of the cities.

      To my mind the Modernist movement(s) was(were) the most meaningful development in literature and art, and a chance squandered, a discovered land that has never been properly explored. Yes it ushered in the kind of difficulty of communication that you disdain, but again I say that is a question of our not granting access to it, rather than anything innate in the movements. Yes it had its elitist element – very much so. It had its upper-class snobs, its Virginia Woolf for example[4]. It had T S Eliot[5]. But also it had things like James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ collection and the stories of Katherine Mansfield, which showed that fiction did not have to hurtle towards a climax, but could simply be a slice of life. If we are to revisit anything, to my mind, then priority should be given to the ball that was started rolling in the early 20c[6]. I wish I could have read Imagist poetry when it was fresh, read ‘Orlando’ or ‘Finnegans Wake’ in brand-new, crisp, first editions. Equally I wish I could have been there to hear Miles Davis and John Coltrane blowing weird in a jazz club, to hear Ginsberg’s first public reading of ‘Howl’, to shake hands with Frank O’Hara when he caught me buying Ann Bannon’s latest paperback at a newsstand, to see the first staging in English of ‘Waiting for Godot’, to have the frisson of hearing Gil Scott Heron declaiming ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. All of these are life-giving experiences. They should be opened to all. Until then the mere stating of climate-change issues becomes so much spit-in-the-wind agitprop.

      Offered in friendship.
      Marie.
      __________

      Footnotes:

      [1] At the time she was sharing it with about five other poets, myself included.

      [2] I have to admit I love the art of Mark Rothko.

      [3] Maybe I’m giving the impression I don’t like the Romantics. In fact I do. I acknowledge that Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ has probably turned more children off poetry permanently, which has more to do with the way it is spoken or memorised, i.e. with a hackneyed ‘di-dah di-dah di-dah di-dah’ of endless, chinese-water-torture iambs instead letting it come out in the rhythms of natural speech. But that’s a misfortune of presentation, not anything to do with the qualities of Romantic poetry. I have to say that I adore Shelley, I consider him one of the most engaging poets in the English language.

      [4] I enjoy her writing very much, especially ‘Orlando’ and her feminist essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, but she was also a frightful snob!

      [5] I can’t abide ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’! I have tried! But getting access to something does not necessarily mean that one is going to like everything.

      [6] I’m aware one can trace Modernism back further than that. It is, in fact, often cited as a reaction to ‘modern’ life, to the rise of capitalism and mass-production; hence the mid 19c Communist manifesto of Marx and Engels is often cited as an early Modernist text.

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