What Governs Your Writing?

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Sunday, 29 July 2007

As Rob Mackenzie has begun discussing on Surroundings, the issue of what informs your writing as a poet, or even what brought you to writing in the first place, is an interesting exercise and topic to consider for two important reasons. Firstly, it helps a writer to clarify what their aims and ambitions are; what poetry means to them and where they think it should be headed (or, at the very least, where they think it achieves what's closest to its full potential). Secondly, it makes them feel like they know what they're doing. Which in the often dim workings and illuminating mysteries of poetry, is extremely helpful as it gives you a visible handle on the overall project. Perhaps this is a more common issue in the world of poetry, but I think prose is much the same in this way: the way in which words come together in the mind and on the page being a process so rich and layered in the communications between your conscious and your subconscious that it's often hard to step back and consider them in any productively objective way. Just think of the times when you've been writing prose, poetry, or even an essay, and how your mind and entire being become absorbed and focused on the topic in hand; on the transmission of thought and turn of phrase from mind to page.

I'm unashamed in my belief that poetry should be complicated. Before you shoot me down, let me explain. As the excerpt from Paterson's 2003 T.S. Eliot lecture that I've chosen below illustrates, poetry by its very nature seeks to illuminate the startling new perspectives that our everyday lives almost evolutionarily protect us from in our blinkered and subjective view of the universe. For this reason, poetry has to be complicated: it can't describe things like prose does, it needs to draw on the fullest resources of language to offer the reader something that they're not going to fully understand in one reading. And let me clarify something: I don't think poetry should be complicated in the sense that it is alien from the experiences of readers, or non-contemporary, or uses words that you'd only pick out from a thesaurus. That's not what I mean by complicated. The problem, as far as I can see, is that 'complicated' is a dirty word in our modern society of instant communication and accessibility. I think that's why many poets, even though their poetry itself is complicated in the sense in which I wish to outline a definition of it is, attack the idea of complication. But how can poetry be uncomplicated? Well, as i see it, the balance that the poet must strike and the aim which they must set for themselves is this: to offer a poem that can be read and enjoyed for what it is at face value, and yet offers so much more beneath the surface; that is, it is a pleasant flower to see in the first instance, but its roots go right down into the gritty, rich soil of its subject matter. Is that a crap metaphor? Perhaps. Either way, sometimes it is hard to work towards such a poem. Sometimes, when faced with a difficult subject that the poet wishes to communicate something new and refreshing from, the poem may seem, initially, more difficult and complicated than it needs to be. But isn't it better to sacrifice the instant accessibility of the poem to some extent, rather than to do away with the probing questions and startling new outlooks the poem offers? The aim, as I say, is to combine both, yet the latter, in my opinion, is more important to salvage. The depths to which the roots descend is more important to the flowers life and longevity than the beauty and allure of its petals. Complication is tied up in poetry's objectives and purpose. Complication isn't a bad thing. It's how many times you can return to the poem and gain something new from it; how much it shakes you up and, as I think Kafka once said, how successfully it 'smashes the frozen sea within us'.

For this reason, when I first read Don Paterson's T.S. Eliot lecture, it was like hearing my own thoughts about poetry echoed in the mind of someone who knew exactly what they were doing. It didn't so much shape my writing, then, as make me sit up and think, 'Yes, that's what it's about! That's what I'm trying to do!' Of course, I'm open to the idea that the way in which Paterson writes, like the philosopher David Hume, is so alluring and persuasive at times I fail to question whether he's right or not. But then I've read the transcript of this lecture enough times, and almost all of it, particularly the wonderful passages quoted below, still ring clear and true in my mind. Put simply, the poet's duty is to revel in the failures of language.

Don Paterson's T.S. Eliot Lecture, 2003 (excerpt)

It's important that poets remember that our first perception of the world is already a misinterpretation. Incarnated souls all get off to variations on much the same bad start (especially boys, those sobbing vessels of karma, whose first act is to penetrate their mother) and are given only the perceptual equivalent of a pinhole camera through which they are supposed to experience the universe. We are born, then, into a condition of metaphor, a metaphor really being a contextual restriction of sense. We are attuned only to a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the universe our senses conjure up for us is not the universe. We know that the ears of the bat, the eyes of the bee, the nose of the dog, the sensitivity of the bird to magnetic field (to say nothing of the bird's infinite angles of approach to what it beholds, unlike the three ways we have to walk home) shape a perception of the world wholly different from our own, yet no more or less true.

But having fallen into a mammalian dream of the universe, we fall slowly into a much deeper human dream. The human dream is one of all things first recognised, and then named, in accordance with their human utility, translated and metaphorised into the human realm. It is just as flimsy a consensual reality as money.

I'm an admirer of the Post-Freudian theorist Ignacio Matte Blanco, and a travesty of his position is this: when we were born, everything was pretty much everything else. The breast was you, your mother the breast, and the back garden your mother, the world was an absolute and indivisible unity. There was nothing to tell you otherwise. This perception is atemporal, since the perception of the passing of time is dependent first on the perception of difference, of an asymmetrical and consecutive series of events, which we did not then know.

This sense of unity was gradually overlayed with the perception of discrete, causally successive and asymmetrical things and events. With the acquisition of language, this goes into overdrive. Now here's the important part; this new perception does not refute the observations of the first, but is necessary accommodation of the fact of our consciousness. That is to say in the fall into language, asymmetry, the observation that we are other than the breast, the mother and the back garden, the moon, the sea, does not occur at the expense of that first knowledge, of everything as everything else, of a unity; this continues running, mostly under the limen of our consciousness, as a kind of spiritual DOS programme. Why? Because it was true.

This is easy enough to verify. Stripped of their human presence and meaning, we can see in the cup, the bath, the shoe, the bicycle, how many strange, lonely and often ugly things we make for the world. The category-instability of the thing is easily made apparent: a chair suddenly looks like firewood when it gets cold enough. If a chair were in an art exhibit, you would be disinclined to sit on it; if it were persistently referred to as a bed it will start to look like something to sleep in. To a man with terrible piles, certain chairs will look like a reproach, and to an alien with no arse . . . it would be an incomprehensible object.

All this, for the poet, is much more than a little perceptual game. When we allow silence to reclaim those objects and things of the world, when we allow the words to fall away from them - they reassume their own genius, and repossess something of their mystery and infinite possibility. Then we awaken a little to the realm of the symmetries again, and of no-time, of eternity. And when the things of the world that we have contemplated in this wordless silence reenter the world of discrete concept, of speech and language - they return as strangers; and then they declare wholly unexpected allegiances, reveal wholly unsuspected valencies. We see the nerve in the bare tree; we hear the applause in the rain. These things are, in other words, redreamt, reimagined, remade. This I think is the deepest meaning of our etymology as maker.

Poetry then, remystifies, allows the Edenic, unified view to be made briefly conscious - and re-entered via the most perverse (but perhaps only) tool for the job: language. Poetry is the paradox of language turned against its own declared purpose, that of nailing down the human dream. Poets are therefore experts in the failure of language. Words fail us continually, as we search for them beyond the borders of speech, or drive them to the limit of their meaning and then beyond it.