Saturday, 15 January 2011

That Scottish Play, the Wholeness of the Poem or is it a Polo Mint ?

There have been some very interesting and challenging posts by George Szirtes on his blog about ‘subject’ in poetry plus some interesting comments. They run from January 4th 2011 to Saturday January 8th

They are well worth reading and then re-reading again more slowly in order to digest the points more carefully. It made me think a lot about subject, about ‘the about’ of a poem.

I have just finished watching the film of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart an shown on BBC 4 (you can still see it on BBC iplayer if you are quick at the time of posting, it’s well worth a watch). The Scottish play is of course always seen as a study of power and corruption and what constitutes destiny, do we shape our own or is it already mapped out for us? Do the witches create or simply see the future? Without their prediction would Macbeth have become king, would his wife have embraced the prediction with such ardour that it becomes the engine that drives them to regicide which propels them over the edge, literally in the case of Lady Macbeth? Macbeth loses all sense of any morality in his fight to retain power and even the murder of children in seen as a necessary evil. So I found myself re-examining what this play is about, what is its subject?

Subject and purpose may not be the same thing, purpose implies a considered intent. The dramatist’s intent may be solely to tell us a cracking good story with a few spooky witches and walking woods thrown in as crowd pleasers, a wife who nags and nags and appears very ballsy but who cracks under the pressure and a central character that accepts that the acquisition and retention of power requires that his moral compass always points to the self. However does the beauty and use of the language in which the story is told demand that it becomes in itself embedded in ‘the subject’ of the play? How Shakespeare tells us the story is as intrinsic to the play as are the themes which may or may not underlie it; the plot or story drives the language and vice versa. It may read as if I am simply stating the obvious, Shakespeare uses words so well in his plays that they can come to encapsulate something we acknowledge as important to life itself, that they can exist and be embraced out of the context of the play itself, hence so many Shakespearean quotes that have found their way into everyday parlance without many having any notion of the play they came from.

“Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Yet it is the whole play, that makes of that language something ‘other’, makes it greater than the sum of its wordy parts.

If we take this experience of Shakespeare and apply it to the poem any poem, for me it serves to clarify something. What the poem is about, its obvious subject and its underlying themes have to merge with the how, the wonder of the language, in order to become a ‘whole’ poem. I like the concept of the ‘wholeness’ of a poem, the poem with its own gestalt. Some could argue, and I am more than open to this argument, that the experience of unique and wonderful language is sufficient. There does not have to be a narrative, a subject, an intent, a purpose other than to excite the synapses that connect all those areas of the brain that are capable of dancing and firing in glorious technicolour. There are poems such as The Windhover that I loved as a teenager long before I had any idea about what they might be about, the subject was immaterial or sufficient explanation was as simple as ‘it’s about a man looking at a bird’, the lush language rolled around in my mouth and brain and yet I knew that it was underpinned by something other than the title and the words. There was something that contributed to the ‘wholeness’ of the poem, its life in the world. Hopkins created all that glorious sound and rhythm to be a joy to the senses yet also to praise what he believed was a Christian spiritual experience without the ghost in that language machine the poem is less that it can be for the poet if not the audience. The gestalt of the poem maybe requires an honest exploration of intent, even if that intent is not clear to the reader and sometimes the poet themselves.

How the poem becomes ‘a whole’ perhaps require something as small and as vast as a sense of the total engagement by the poet with the poem. The search for meaning may be the meaning in itself. Sometimes I have written poems which are sometimes more than I meant and frequently less than I meant but I always try and use the best words I can and have the full intent of not cheating the poem or the reader of my full attention. Even if a poem is not ostensibly ‘about’ anything, if is solely about the sound and the use of language then that in itself gives it a meaning, some point of engagement.

Just thinking out loud about it all and need to go and apply this thinking to the collection I am re-reading at the moment...The Complete Works of Amy Clampitt. An American, she published her first poem in the New Yorker at 58 and her first collection at 63 and followed it up with four more before she died eleven years sort of girl in terms of being a late starter like myself. Brought from Beyond is one I am hoping to fathom a little more, but not once do I sense a throw away line or word, Amy is giving me her full attention. I might be being picky but sometimes there are poems I read that seem to leave you wondering what's missing.

I am sounding a bit pompous, off now to watch Star Wars as I have never seen Attack of the Clones, although all those prequels were probably less than Lucas meant them to be.There was a hole in there where something better should be..the film as polo mint. Will be on the look out for polo mint poems