I have finally had time to read the copy of the TLS that I bought over a month ago. There’s a piece entitled The brick-wall moment – What is poetry about? And other puzzles, which appears in a section labelled ‘Commentary’.
I’m not sure I’d have read it with quite the same attitude if I’d realised it was an edited extract from a book, but it was a lot more interesting than the formal review in the Independent of Who is Ozymandias? And other puzzles in poetry by John Fuller.
There was a lot in the TLS piece that interested me, but the first point I reached for my pen was to mark this section (the italics are mine):
a poem is quite unlike a promise or a lover’s vow or street direction. You cannot act on it or expect anything further from its author. You do not even need to know who its author is. It may be deliberately fictive, even misinformed. It is quite likely to be hypothetical.
That ties in well with my belief that the poem should stand alone without the reader needing to know the life history of the poet, or anything about them – the whole don’t-confuse-the-narrator thing.
On a side note, the poetry book I picked to dip into yesterday while I was travelling to and from Madrid was Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. I’ll admit I’ve never read it, though Hughes was one of my favourite poets from the brief selection of his work that we read when I was at school.
When Birthday Letters came out in the late Nineties, of course I heard about it, but I wasn’t doing much writing of my own and was living in Spain, so it was fairly easy to choose to ignore it. The more I heard, the less I wanted to read it, as it seemed to be so surrounded with ‘baggage’ outside and beyond the poetry. On my last UK trip I saw a copy in a charity shop, though, and didn’t feel I could put it off anymore.
As I said yesterday, a single poem can provide thought for a whole day, (which is why I think airport book shops should specialise in poetry books). So, I have begun at the beginning and not got very far. And I’m finding that the background and context is very much getting in the way of the poetry.
Right at the start of the book, the two Caryatids pieces have me wondering which of Plath’s poems are referred to, rather then reading the Hughes poems for their own sake.
Fuller talks about poetry and puzzles, and perhaps this is simply one of the puzzles posed by Hughes’ poems. But if the back story hadn’t been so hyped, I could read and be satisfied without further details. If I chose to investigate further, it would be because I wanted to, not because the poem was inadequate without that information.
And even if these – or other – poems really are the poet’s account of a personal relationship, what are the chances that they are accurate anyway? It’s only a single side to the story, and if we all have different motives for making our stories more readable, more sympathetic, more dramatic etc., why should the poet be any different?