Sunday, February 8, 2009

What Makes a Good Poem?

A lot of talk about Elizabeth Alexander’s inauguration poem, “Praisesong for the Day.” Some people liked it, some didn’t. If you pass by over the next few days, do participate in our poll! I’ll save my comments until the results are available. I’ve been thinking about poetry, though, and my ruminations benefited yesterday from a conversation with Dan Varrette, one of the editors at Insomniac Press (thanks, Dan), as well as some eavesdropping online today.

I’ve often found myself remarking, in discussions about poetry, that soldiers in WWI took books of poetry with them into the trenches. Poetry was that important. So, like, maybe that would be a good criterion to apply to a poem? Would you take this poem with you into a war? Would you have wanted to take Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, or a piece of that poem, with you into a war? That’s kind of a tough test but, since some poems at a previous time have passed it, maybe it’s not an unfair measure. How high? That high!

(Worth noting that a lasting body of work emerged from the pens of soldiers in both World Wars…)

There are actually poems that I remember, and am glad to recollect, some from when I was at school, and other poems or bits of poems encountered since. So maybe that could be another criterion. Is this poem, or a part of a poem, something I want to remember? We do remember songs, after all, the truth being that some songs are fine poems: think Bob Marley, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen.

What I’m wondering is whether it’s inevitable that people’s taste in poetry, their expectations of a poem and their ideas about the good-and-bad-of-it, be determined by where they are from, their history, their language(s) and their culture. For some people, poetry is a way of finding out who they are (Césaire’s "Qui et quel nous sommes?"), and thinking through their history. There’s the famous Walcott quote from “A Far Cry from Africa” that puts the matter up front and personal:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa, and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

Brother Bob’s “Redemption song” reports that never mind our history of being stolen and forcibly relocated…

Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.

…because of the strong, uplifting hand of the Almighty, triumph is ours and so “We forward in this generation.”

Should all poets address concerns like these? Or is it only people whose history includes oppression and the horrors of slavery, deracination and forced relocation across oceans and continents — and if not those precise subjects, versions thereof?

Is England’s Philip Larkin looking, albeit with a much tighter lens, and from a somewhat different angle, at who we are and how our history informs us in his bad-behave poem, “This Be the Verse”?

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

These and similar questions beg to be asked. Does white people’s poetry have to be different from the poetry of black people? Does the poetry of black and white people have to be different from the poetry of native people? What about gay people? Women? Men? Do they all write separate poetries?

Are some poets preoccupied with ‘new and different’ because for them poems need no longer bear any serious burdens? If, after all, poems struggle with issues of justice, of unequal relations within and between nations, of racism, classism, gender relations, it would seem that they hardly need to set out to be different. Must they not get there under the terrible strain? And if they don’t, what does it matter? Isn’t the issue whether the words make your hair stand on end, or fail to?

It’s interesting to compare the excerpts from these three poets. Derek Walcott sounds almost histrionic, set against Bob Marley’s laconic recounting of rapine and Larkin’s mischievous — and deadly — counsel to us to abandon the reproductive enterprise. But the anguish that wrenches Walcott’s questions from his gut emanates from a history of capture, abduction, and plantation slavery that more than supports it. The shrieks are warranted. If Bob’s tempo is different, he’s singing the same tune. And Larkin’s little nursery rhyme delivers the most terrifying verdict of all: misery is our inheritance, and so we should just stop. Period.

Interestingly enough, all three use rhyme (Bob’s rhyme of ‘Almighty’ and ‘triumphantly’ is missing here), and three better practitioners of the Muses’ art it would be hard to pick. More on poetry soon.


Sweet Caroline said...

When the poet was reading her work I was not much taken by it. But now that I have been able to read it in my own tone, it is more like a story which I more appreciate. I figure that the poet has her own way a & definte idea as to how she wants her words to be heard, but I much more enjoyed it listening to it in my own head.

FSJL said...

Walcott's poetry, and Marley's could be compared justly to the poetry of Yeats and the angry songs of the IRA (think 'My Little Armalite') arising out of a parallel historical experience). Just because some of our ancestors were enslaved does not make us worse or better, just experiencing a slightly different form of the same old khaki socks...

As for Larkin, well, each generation does seem to do its best to pass on the misery to the next. He, at least, didn't pass it on.

I wasn't all that taken with Elizabeth Alexander's poem. By and large, though, I find that poems written for formal occasions don't work that well.

Rethabile said...

My experience of Ms Alenxander's poem was the film that friends tell you is great great must-see, or a good toucher-kisser who is bad in bed.

During the reading of it, nothing happened. I heard the words and understood the poem, but that was it.

I chalk that down to two things, mainly: good foreplay and nothing to back it up, plus her reading style which was too obviously someone reading an important poem. None of it her fault: I'd have gone under a desk and stayed there till my mum came to get me.

"What makes a good poem?" is more difficult to answer than "What makes a poem good?"

Remembering a poem counts, because it means we've read or listened to that poem that many times, enough to remember it. When I was younger I could recite by heart many Frost poems, because I was compelled to read them again and again.

I think where we come from must necessarily come into play somewhere down the line. I grew up on praise poetry in Lesotho and only discovered other forms of poetry later on in life. Prose poetry (in Lesotho) rarely resorts to rhyme, especially end-rhyme, but uses images and rhythm heavily. I must say that Sesotho is not a language for end-rhyming.

Some poets write "globetry" -- poetry that must move everyone everywhere at any given time:

"I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?"


"This is what I am
empty sockets despairing of possessing of life
a mouth torn open in an anguished wound...
a body tattooed with wounds seen and unseen
from the harsh whip-strokes of slavery
tortured and magnificent
proud and mysterious
Africa from head to foot
This is what I am"
Noémia de Sousa

Thanks for an interesting post.

clarabella said...

Hi Sweet Caroline: Thanks for stopping by, and for the comment. A lot of people share your view. The thing is, the poem has been lost to those people who didn't get it the first time around, but who haven't been able to look at it again, for whatever reason. Still, the poet has certainly got people's attention, and you know the saying: any press, good or bad, is great press! Love, love...

clarabella said...

FSJL: Us and the Irish do have lots of grief in common — as you say, "the same old khaki socks". I suppose, in a way, I expect poems, stories, literature, to grieve. I write for children and even those poems and stories, almost every one, have their small griefs. Now that orrible events ave overtaken all of us, maybe we'll see it reflected in the poetry — who knows? It perhaps comes down to comfort zones... Que dices, amigo?

clarabella said...

Hi Rethabile: I'm glad you liked the post. Many thanks for a great response. I'll remember especially the metaphor of the poet under the desk waiting to be rescued by mum! I think your comments about poetry foreplay vs lousy poetry sex relate to what I am trying to say in the most recent post. The heating and reheating of the poetry — or perhaps, better, the microwaving of the poetry — has in many cases made it limp and dysfunctional. I had not previously heard the term "globetry". It captures the idea of poetry with broad, deep, planetary resonances, poetry that grieves. Thanks too for the quote from Noémia de Sousa... "tortured and magnificent". Indeed. Be warm and well. pam

FSJL said...

Comfort, as I learnt in confirmation class, means 'strengthen' not 'ease'.

One of the things I learnt while working as information officer at the Gleaner was that the Jamaica Constabulary was modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary. Just reading that told me a lot about the history of both countries.

Poetry is, in so many ways, a distillation of experience and understanding. Grief follows inevitably from that, but so should hope. Otherwise, why bother?

clarabella said...

FSJL: They have the same root, from the Latin, via the French, yes? And thanks, it is a most useful insight, and applies, for it concerns the degrees to which we feel 'strong'. Those who live at the mercy of wind and rain, earthquake and hurricane will perhaps know comfort in a shared kind of way? Those who have endured the whip, scourge, gas chamber, killing fields, versions of the heel of the oppressor's foot, will perhaps be of like mind as far as the degree to which they are cum forte? Those who are more and more equally without?

The Creole speaks with Irish rhythms too, so they say.

As for your comment concerning grief and hope, an observation from a long time ago now:

..........Is many
Me see go into de
Grave and me see many
Many dawtas weep
And in de midst of
Every lamentation
Yuh hear a sound of
Comfort and of hope. But
Not dis time. No hope
Inside dat grief.

Samuel to Naomi in "VIII The Women of Jerusalem Mourn for Jesus" from DE MAN: A PERFORMANCE POEM (Toronto: Sister Vision Press) 1995.

FSJL said...

The Irish rhythms of the Creole are, I suspect, a coincidence, since the deeper rhythms of the Creole come out of Africa.

Yes, the English word comes from Latin via French probably (though it might come directly via the Church).

Powerful little poem, that.