Of all the things I try to review, poetry is the most problematic. For context, let me mention that I have a degree in English Literature. I’ve studied literary criticism, I’ve written degree level essays on poetry from the last couple of centuries. I’ve read a lot of poetry, historical and more modern. Compared to an academic working in the field of poetry, I’m a lightweight. Compared to the average reader, I’ve read and studied a lot of poetry. And yet, when I look at how other reviewers respond to some books, I can often be stumped.
I’ve just fallen out of a collection. I don’t think I can face reading it to the end. It felt like hitting and sliding down glass walls, with occasionally a sense of meaning implied, but always unavailable to me. Individual lines seemed well wrought, charming even, but added together to make… nothing I can figure out how to respond to. My only emotional response has been frustration.
And yet, other reviewers have heaped praise on it. “A gorgeous, brilliant book,” says one. “Complex sensuousness and deep intelligence.” “Unintrusive precision” – what does that mean, even? “Her almost painterly imagery implodes gracefully.” Ah, so that was what I was missing.
When other critics respond in this way, it’s hard not to feel that as the reader, I must be the problem. I’m too ignorant, no doubt. I couldn’t spot the graceful implosion of a poem if it splattered itself all over my face, I expect.
As an ordinary reader of poems, I’m basically looking for something I can connect with – images, moods, ideas… Some point of meaningful engagement between me and the text. I want something to happen, other than me feeling confused and dense. I can handle ee cummings and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and the metaphysical poets. I can cope with complexity, I think. I can cope with metaphor and surprising juxtapositions. In the realms of story and non-fiction, I feel confident saying when something doesn’t add up. The nature of such writing makes it easy to point at problems. We have some collective ideas about what stories and essays are. But what is a poem? What does a poem do? At what point can we safely say ‘this poem is not doing the things’?
A continuity error in a story is easily flagged up. A failure to resolve a plot in a satisfying way is easy to talk about. An argument that isn’t logical, or well founded can be taken apart. ‘I do not get this poem’ can be answered with ‘you didn’t read well enough’. I’m wary about picking holes in poems for this reason. Am I an insufficiently sensitive reader? Am I too old fashioned, too low-brow, insufficiently read and educated. I look at my qualifications, and my reading experience.
Back when I was writing Fast Food at the Centre of the World, I had a poet character. He’s a charlatan. Let me write you the kind of thing John Silver would write…
“In the withheld breathe, a moment of iniquity,
Longing becomes a windmill, exacerbated
By time, for the wind is change and I am the eye
Of a storm that caresses immortality.”
I can do this all day. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s designed to sound like poetry and that is the sum and total of what it is for. Sometimes, in matters of poetry, I am deeply suspicious that the Emperor has no clothes on.