Patricia Nicol writes a great story, in today’s Times, about the re-launch of Penguin’s Modern Poets series.
I loved the original Penguin Modern Poets when I was teenage reader, and still have, though can’t today find, my copy of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Selected Poems (see it here). So hurray for Penguin for this collectible rethink, and thanks Patricia Nicol, because I had not noticed the new Modern Poets, I am ashamed to say. I haven’t been browsing in a poetry bookshop for a while. Must rectify.
Of the 12 poets Patricia Nicol offers as a sample of current riches I only know the work of three or four, so lots of new stuff to try when I get to the poetry shelves.
Of the known, two to mention. I was lucky enough to be present in the Royal Festival Hall when Sinead Morrissey won the 2017 Forward Prize for the Best Collection for On Balance (Carcanet). She read ‘Perfume’, an outstanding reading which had the audience hooting with stunned pleasure – Morrissey has a measured, knowing, intense reading voice and knew we’d enjoy the story of her aunt cleaning the Nottingham Odeon after The Beatles had performed to an audience of screaming teenage girls.
Another poet mentioned in Nicol’s list is Denise Riley. I’ve heard her read her work too, and found much of it moving and incomprehensible. I don’t mind incomprehensible at all, if I’m moved.
So this morning I’m reading ‘A Misremembered Lyric’ and trying to think about the problem of facing those of us who might be leading a Shared Reading group for a long while, for years, when the tendency is often to go for easier things. Why? Because we’re all a bit lazy and there’s a fear of hard poetry most people aren’t ever over, and easier seems, well, easier. But as anyone who has ever done anything hard knows, hard is sometimes a bigger experience.
Denise Riley reads ‘A Misremembered Lyric’ here.
I’m reading the poem in All The Days of My Life – my husband Philip Davis’s anthology ‘to console and inspire’, found on Amazon at a bargain price!
Why I don’t bother with context
I can see the potential value of context: it’s like doing the dishes before you sit down to write: context puts off the awful moment of confrontation that is necessary for the act of creation that is reading. But the dishes are not writing. They are a precursor that may become part of a ritual of off-putting that is part of the ritual before writing. But still it is not writing. So context is not reading.
It’s a way in, someone will say.
No, it’s a way round, I’d reply.
It’s a sideways shuffle that tries to pretend that some facts help. But facts don’t help with the fact that at some point you are going to have to get in there and make it your own.
Context says: Yes I do help! There is a day-to-day world and we can understand things in it.
Poetry says: Experience this.
As Denise Riley has said, ‘Who anyone is or I am is nothing to the work.’ (Denise Riley, from ‘Dark Looks’)
Because the direct confrontation of the poetic experience is usually unsettling we might try to avoid it, even though we have decided to try to read a poem. That’s a clue to why we need poetry: we are not rational creatures. We both want to read a poem and don’t want to read it at the same time. So we reach for ‘context’, some outer thing that might tell us who the poet is, or who we are, or where we are, but all along, being lost is the point. Forget everything and feel around in the dark. Trust the poem to find you.
Read the poem. I can’t reprint it here because I don’t have permission but find it here. Find someone to read it with. Read it aloud, read it a few times, take it line by line or take it sentence by sentence, or take it sometimes word by word. Give it an hour. It will repay.
I know the experience Denise Riley begins with, that soft catch you almost sing when a long forgotten lyric comes to mind. So far, not so scary. And then the word ‘conscience’ appears, line 3, and I wonder what she’s troubled about. Line 4 continues:
presence is clean gone and leaves unfurnished no
Now comes the dark! What’s gone or who is gone? As the reader here I am know nothing and have not one fact. The poem swirls dark around me, the lyric (by Dusty Springfield?) beats its presence in an echo-chamber behind the words. I take each little piece and meditate/read. I know it doesn’t matter if I am wrong because there is no wrong, there is only the poem and myself trying to reach each other in the dark of unknowing. ‘Rain lyrics’, she writes. I think rain, lyrics, I think leaves, I think tears , I think falling. Am I beginning to get a feeling of immersion in an emotion of loss and yet ‘I don’t want absence to be this beautiful’.
Then a thought begins to emerge, Riley calls it ‘ the fear thought’.
you get no consolation anyway until your memory’s
dead: or something never had gotten hold of
your heart in the first place, and that’s the fear thought.
The sadness stays, of loss or breakage, it stays and only fades because we let other noises drown it out. If you let it back, there it is, as unconsoled as ever. Only not loving could prevent it and that would be a terrible thing, perhaps the worst thing.
I do not know the facts of where the next line comes from. Maybe she was reading a newspaper. Maybe she was watching a documentary, maybe eating shrimp. But however it came, the thought occurred:
Do shrimps make good mothers? Yes they do.
Any mother will make a connect here, any parent, anyone who has wanted to love well. Shrimps can do it! Love pervades and disappears through the universe like spots of light, as does pain, loss, no consolation.
There is no beauty out of loss; can’t do it –
There are leaves, there is rain – I must have known it at the beginning from having read it here at the end. Is the ‘rhythm of unhappy pleasure’ the song? Is melancholy a pleasure? Sometimes it is, but behind Denise Riley’s experience here is ‘bossy death telling me which way to/go.’
The end of the poem seems to straighten up, pulls itself together as if leaving a graveyard and stepping back into the high street:
me know. Looking for a brand-new start. Oh and never
notice yourself ever. As in life you don’t.
Talking to someone? Perhaps the dead. Talking to self? Perhaps some part of oneself that feels dead. But the last two sentences seem like after-thought advice. Keep going like this. Do this.
Think there are two people in the poem – her and someone not there, either dead or lost. Love is gone, perhaps died. She is still there, still, watching the rain, the leaves. Is this ‘life’ or this consciousness, self-consciousness? Is she noticing herself and at the end remembering that when life goes on you don’t notice? Is the end sad? Should be, but it feels kind of sensible. Keep going like this.
I reread the poem. The fear thought at its centre. What if something had never gotten hold of your heart in the first place?
Is she a good mother? Would you havethe thought in mind if not worried about it? I don’t know! I think of my own self reading. The thought that shrimps might be good mothers is both delightful – motherhood, a universal ! – and seems to set a bar I might , as an evolved mammal, still be missing. Do I make a good mother?
The fear thought and bossy death seem to provide two deep places in the poem to which I must return. Still not knowing. Be there. Face it. No context.