According to some recent Facebook comments a review written by Martin Stannard is shortly to appear on Alan Baker’s excellent Litter site (leafepress.com/litter). The review contains the following paragraph:
“I have what can best be described as an ambivalent relationship with innovative poetry and poetics (I’m getting fed up of that phrase) which boils down pretty much to my approach to reading any kind of poetry: is it an enjoyable and maybe even an unforgettable experience, or the opposite of that, whatever it might be. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not put off by not getting it, or not understanding it – but I am put off by reading experiences that fall short of the pleasurable – bearing in mind that pleasure can come in any number of guises. I’m definitely put off when I don’t feel welcome.”
When reading this paragraph I was put in mind of the comment made by J.H. Prynne in his Keynote Speech given ten years ago at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China at Shijiazhuang when he focused upon the difference between obscurity and difficulty in poetry:
“When poetry is obscure this is chiefly because information necessary for comprehension is not part of reader’s knowledge. The missing information may be specific (a personal name, say, or some tacit allusion), or general (an aspect of religious belief, say); and finding out this information may dispel much of the obscurity. When poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response-patterns that challenge the reader’s powers of recognition. In such cases, extra information may not give much help.”
Prynne suggests that Pope’s The Dunciad is now obscure but not especially difficult whereas Stevens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ is difficult “but mostly not obscure”. I would add William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ to the list of difficult poems which are not obscure.
Jackie Litherland’s ‘Springtime of the Nations’ was commended in the 2011 National Poetry Competition and as I read this opening poem in last year’s publication of her seventh collection I was struck by the way its power in no way relied upon any awareness of the 1848 revolutionary world or of Hungary: its power is in the way it brings sound and place to experience that is not historically dependent.
“The lilacs were in flower, heavy, drowsy,
boulevards suddenly pleasant. And
I suspect the sun was out. You must
understand there was nothing we could
do. In the square hung the conspirators,
dangling effigies – the partying over –
how they caroused our masters,
the hubbub was like the explosions
of military battle to deafened soldiers,
we the defeated drank deeply while
the victors were clinking glasses.”
A reader of poetry may well find that the reference T.S. Eliot makes to “lilacs” in ‘Portrait of a Lady’ crosses the mind unbidden and, indeed, may well recall Walt Whitman’s elegy to Abraham Lincoln in which “lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” as he mourns an individual murder “and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring”. But this cross-referencing is not necessary for us to share the sense of peace haunting Litherland’s square in which the hanging bodies are “dangling effigies”. That peace is held with the words “heavy” and “drowsy” and a social sense of life’s continuance is caught with the geographical fixture of “boulevards” and the word “pleasant”. A feeling of helplessness in the face of horror is evoked with the matter-of-fact assertion that we must understand that “there was nothing we could / do”. The celebration associated with carousing, cheers that explode making the square into a battle-field, is present to us with the sharp “clinking” of glasses and “All
we could hear was the chink, chink,
like raindrops in gutters, of their toasts”
The poet (in the epigraph “A sympathiser advises a friend”) remains with a heavy and ominous silence recognising that for them the haunting memory will ensure that “glasses / will never chime” and that “All through the night
they were pushing the boat out, the oars
of a thousand hurrahs dipped into water,
chink, chink, chink, chink, chink,
came the replies of the tiny waves.”
There is a determined tone of resolution in the final lines which are Brechtian in their simplicity:
“…The twelve hung in the sun.
You must understand there was nothing
we could do but shun the moment,
to turn our backs on all that merriment.”
This is a poem which resonates off the page addressing the reader with clarity and leaving echoes of historical reconstruction which can be felt in our NOW.
As Jo Colley states on the back cover of this fine collection of poems Litherland’s poet’s eye is “as diamond sharp and unsentimental as ever”.
Ian Brinton 10th January 2018.