Saturday, 16 October 2010
Letters, Sonnets, Out of Body Experiences and Jumping the Synaptic Tracks
So long time, no blog reader. Busy, busy writing, reading, working, sleeping, walking, having visitors.
My friend from Philadelphia, S, came to stay whilst she visited her elderly mother and celebrated her 95th birthday (they build them to last in the fens). One evening I unearthed the sheaf of letters she has written to me in the 32 years she has lived in the States. We in fact only knew each other for a little over two years before she found love with a lovely American and moved stateside. She has an equally big pile of my letters back at home. Strangely she felt re-reading them wouldn’t feel right and I think I would feel the same if she gave me my letters. Our younger selves, our lives, up and downs were all poured into these letters. Things and people we have long forgotten or consigned to some box way back in the storage depot of our brains are held in blue biro. She always wrote either on airmail paper, that tissue bordered in white, red and blue or on yellow lined legal notepad paper. The physicality of them so easily fixed in the brain, the handwriting hardly changed and the English spellings doggedly refusing to give way to color or center.
What is it about our own old letters that appeals and yet at the same time seems dangerous, I have to admit to hanging onto a number of old love letters but never reading them. Maybe it is their fixed nature, the moment of writing pinned to the paper for all time or until they fade or are destroyed. Barthes often talks about photographs in this way, a moment pinned like a butterfly for constant re-examination. Letters have this same quality but words are somehow different. A photograph is I know never totally objective but certain things are available to every eye. A letter contains a striving for conversation; a striving for the creation of a dialogue that can only be one sided. Even a response from the recipient is delayed and often changed by the passage of time it takes for it to materialise as an answer. Is a personal letter a monologue to an audience of one whose response you invite or predict from past knowledge? Placing some things on paper can quantify and qualify experience, words becoming not the butterfly itself but the pins which try to hold it down in the cabinet of curiosities.
That’s why those Christmas summary letters that some send you , whilst being welcome as news about someone can also jar as you know you are not the sole audience. This person did not sit down and write this solely for me, they did not take time, effort, or go through the whole physical experience of writing and posting a letter just for me.
I have just re-read some of Elizabeth Bishop’s and Robert Lowell’s letters to each other and sometimes in them I detect that they too were writing for an audience bigger than one, for posterity or whatever they saw as passing for that.
Do we write a poem for an audience of one, a sole recipient or are they those Christmas round robin missals? Are or should we write with an audience or reader in mind at all? Are poems a letter to ourselves that we allow others to be privy to in some game we play with our own mind set that avoids the question of readership altogether? Would we really like to be Emily Dickinson and place them in a trunk for no-one or posterity, which ever is the first, to give them credence?
As I read at the Toddington Poetry Society this week to a lovely audience I did at one point have one of those out of body experiences that I am sure other poets have ( or if they do I’d be interested to hear from them as it may highlight that this is not some peculiarity of my own). The experience in brief is that moment when you find yourself standing at the back of the audience watching yourself read your poem and being acutely aware of the moment, the feeling, the whole physical process that brought that poem here to this place, at this time and coming out of your mouth. This is not something to do just with very personal ‘memoir poems’. In this case it was a poem that had sprung from one of those synaptic connections that happen in a blink of an eye that you manage to catch before it bleeds away into the brain or the ether. A chance conversation lurching into something I was reading and the poem whilst not written had some private and individual moment of fertilisation.
At the reading I had one of those, ‘Where do you get the ideas for your poems from?’questions. This openness to those moments when two synaptic pathways in the brain suddenly jump their own track and make a third, is maybe the only true answer I can give. Even if writing about something you think is heavily focused on one thing the best poems have some element of something other weaving into it.
I have just been reading Don Paterson’s article in the Guardian about Shakespeare’s sonnet and have thought that form can sometimes be the way we are made to discipline ourselves to be open to the something other. It makes us observe and focus in such a precise way that rather than closing ourselves down to other thoughts it pushes us to engage with them via its very structure thus opening up those serendipity synaptic cross overs.
I have a feeling Shakespeare , being a genius, was able to engineer those crossovers at will and yet his social context alone made him have to write one thing in terms of another, love for another man, how he felt about women, politics etc. This conceptual juggling in order to stay this side of the law and public condemnation must have led him into areas he may not otherwise have gone. The Dark Lady of the sonnet may be one person, several people, a concept, and several concepts all at once but in the end it is the reader’s experience of the poem that counts. Some would get more if they take it apart, strive for the minutiae of meaning ; others are happy without that knowledge to exalt in the language and what it means to them alone. Here’s a link to a website that has all of Shakespeare’s sonnets with commentaries ( which I can’t necessarily vouch for as insightful) if you want to look some of them up.
I started my reading at Toddington with something Dylan Thomas wrote in 1961 in his Poetic Manifesto which always gives me pause for thought.
‘You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick.... You're back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps... so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.’
Shakespeare knew all about holes and gaps. He must also have had those out of body experiences standing at the back of the Globe listening to himself coming out of another’s mouth.