from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 17 January 2011

'language' poetry & the shipping forecast

I've belonged to a rigorously intellectual poetry discussion group for more than twenty years now (this is not the group of poets I tutor under the name of Two Rivers, in my posting about our anthology Confluence). Our discussions are very lively, and I'm extremely fond of many of the poets there. I admire the poetry of two or three of them in particular, and I really enjoy the breadth and depth of our discussions. But these conversations bring up potentially deep rifts in the meaning and 'purpose' of poetry – not irreconcilable, but difficult.

I should start by saying that my own position on poetry is complex (more anon!), but for me, while it can and indeed should be 'political' – challenging social mores and unthought responses, drawing attention to eg the environmental crisis – poetry for me is also more than that, and speaks to more than the cerebral. It is also a medium for integration, insight, conveying depth and meaning, and can be uplifting and transformative as an experience. I'm with Adrienne Rich: poetry can save your life.

In this group, we are all broadly speaking left wing (whatever that means nowadays in eg Britain and the US). But we fail to agree on what makes a poem successful. Many of these guys – and interestingly they're almost all men – subscribe to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetry, an important and largely academic movement that challenges, for instance, the lyric poem and the use of images; in brief, and crudely, the core idea here is that language is a sociolinguistic tool that determines how we see the world, and its unthinking use needs to be questioned. As far as that last clause from 'the core idea' goes, so far, so good – more or less.

The idea is that by placing complete emphasis on the language of the poem rather than the ascribed meanings we bring to that language, a reader can be brought to see the world differently. Lyn Hejinian says in her key text The Language of Enquiry: 'Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.'

I have a big 'but' though. Sure, a good poem can/should stimulate a reader into thinking differently; even into deconstructing his/her previous views of the world. But for me, I would suggest that we actually a priori 'think' in images, that context arises from relationship between images, and language grows out of that image-laden (even archetypal) context as an attempt to convey our experience of being alive. For that reason, I want my poetry to be more than a cerebral manipulation of words; I want it to be also a way of expressing – attempting to express – the full range of human experience; to fumble towards truth; to transcend the hollowness of a purely mechanistic and material view of reality, and I need it to work on more than my intellect alone. I want an 'aha!' moment. Indeed, I know that I've read a good poem when my heart, gut and mind all sing simultaneously. In fact I feel it as a physical and heartful experience a microsecond before my intellect kicks in to comprehend and appreciate it.

To a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet this is a reactionary position. Last session, we had a long and diverting conversation about the shipping forecast. For readers outside the UK, I guess I should say that this is an iconic posting on the airwaves, twice daily in the early hours of the morning, of storm warnings via a litany of place names that have become part of our national collective inner furniture. Some very good poets have used these names and the idea of the shipping forecast successfully and movingly in their work; for instance Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy (sonnets in both cases). The L poets in the group felt that the shipping forecast is not only a deeply conservative institution but it that it also encourages and reinforces nationalistic and even patriotic attitudes – and such a response to it is also deeply sentimental.

Well, I can see their thinking on all this, and I'm very well aware of the dangers of an exclusive nationalism. But I come from a very long line of seafarers (my great-grandfather on my father's side skippered the last tea-clipper, the 'Water Witch', out of Falmouth harbour over 100 years ago; my mother's grandfather was a trawlerman from Newlyn [both in Cornwall, in the far southwest of the UK; very dangerous coastline studded with wrecks, and tales of pirates, smugglers and wreckers] and was also on the lifeboat). We're an island nation, and it seems to me that in a country where you are never more than 125 miles from the sea, its movements are relevant. How much more so if you depend on it and its moods for making your living; and if you know that a flash storm can spell death?

detail from 'Many Waters', oils, © Roselle Angwin, 2010

In addition, I was brought up by the sea. And I believe too that the sea is a major archetype for us all; a source of inspiration, a source of awe, a source of terror, quite apart from all its material gifts. Its tides mirror – some would say cause – physical and emotional cycles; and water is also a symbol, as I've already said, for the feeling nature and the feminine principle. So when Carol Ann D speaks of the shipping forecast as a prayer, we feel that litany and resonate with it: 'Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer – Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.' And when I hear of storms in Viking, Biscay, North Utsire I'm only too well aware of what that means for trawlermen too far from home; and how glad I am to be here 'in the lamp's glow'...

And that wasn't at all what I was going to write about today. But hey.

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