Sport 9: Spring 1992
♣ Bernadette Hall — Tiny Signals on Paper
Commissioned and broadcast by Concert FM, in the What Makes a Poem series.
What is a poem? That sounds like a leading question in a catechism, doesn't it? And the answer might be something like this: a poem is a construction made up of a number of tiny signals on paper. A clutch of words, chosen consciously, sometimes unconsciously, and set out in a particular way with regard to their meaning, their sound or musicality and even their appearance. With any luck, the words are as Samuel Taylor Coleridge would have it, 'the best words'. And they are woven with care into a net, as intricate, elegant and strong as the narrow-necked flax creels woven by Maori and set in rivers to catch a slither of eels. So, to complete Coleridge's statement, we have in a poem 'the best words in their best order'. The thing that intrigues me with poetry is this. Just what is it that the poem/net is set up to catch?
Words are our common coinage. We all use them casually, thoughtlessly, hardly noticing the frequency with which we turn them over, till they are rubbed smooth and indistinct like old pennies. We forget the physicality of a word like screwdriver which contains all the muscularity of actually driving a screw into a piece of wood. Or the pictorial quality of a word like broadcast with its central image of the circular swinging of an arm throwing grain for chickens, or grass seed on the burnt patches of the lawn where the little black poodle relieves herself each morning.
Yet some words manage to retain their muscle and their colour. Take for example the oaths and slang of the past. Accustomed to the rough and tumble of very real living, they have never become flabby or lost their nerve.
My mother has a treasure chest of such sayings passed on to her by her grandmother, a formidable woman who owned several hotels up Central and could clear them all with a flick of her sharp Gallic tongue: 'Me arse to you and that's behind me!' What a fabulous parting shot! Enough to silence any argument over closing time. Dressed up in your very finest clothes, you were 'done up like a dog's dinner'. So, you couldn't do a thing with yourpage 123
hair, or you had a pimple on your chin? Don't waste time complaining. 'A blindman on a galloping horse will never see the difference.' If something was only so so, you could bet your bottom dollar that it was still 'better than a poke in the eye with a bit of burnt stick'. I remember the excitement of breaking that code: inside a burning cave with the hero Odysseus driving a burning pole into the single gleaming eye of the Cyclops. And what a remarkable journey for a small cluster of words—from a palace in Homeric Greece to a pub in Antipodean Clyde!
Expressions like these, clear signs of 'the gift of the gab', may not be the ones we normally associate with poetry. Yet they have an energy which is real and earthy. They pick up particular details. They front up to life in concrete terms. They don't sink back into the soft cushion of abstraction. They put us literally where we need to be: in touch with things. And a good poem is just like that. It stares even when it is impolite to do so. It fingers the Royal Doulton with little thought for breakages. It eavesdrops behind curtains of silence. As brave as my Irish great-grandmother, a good poem takes risks.
As a child I gained a further insight into words, their power and their mystery rather than their liveliness, through the Latin that we chanted every Sunday in Mass. Here were words written in a secret code, a special language tuned to God's own ear: the only dialect He would listen to on formal occasions. By rote we learnt off the syllables of plainsong, vespers and litanies; Agnus Dei, Tantum Ergo, Panis Angelicus. We savoured the rich and ancient sounds handed down from the time of Melchisedech. We shone in rosy haloes that streamed through stained glass windows. Drama surrounded us. The power of metaphor was tangible.
After all, the words of the priest were enough, when breathed over a white flaky circle of bread, to turn it into the actual Body of Christ. Not an imitation but the real thing. And the wine, as sweet as my great-grandmother's sherry in its crystal decanter, regularly became His blood. Metaphor was not a game: the substance of things really could shift and change. The edges between things could shiver and blur. So we learned to look beneath the surface. And in this, although we didn't know it at the time, we were poets.
It is the task of the poet, after all, to chase after the substance of things, knowing all the time that the thing itself will elude the word-net, that truly a gesture can speak more than a thousand words. And words can be treacherous and tricky. But still the challenge is there. It might begin with a picture in your head, a technicolour shot of a particular detail, in a room, page 124 in a face. It might be a tiny movement, almost imperceptible like ants in long grass. It might be a jolt in the heart, a moment of recognition, a sudden fluttery panic: 'Hey, this is important.' And after the exhilaration comes the hard and lonely work of recreating the picture, the movement, the feeling in words. To give it the chance to live out on its own.
A good poem when it meets a reader recreates this experience. Maybe not in exactly the same way, but vividly and with a particular intensity. The poem then is like the conductor of an electrical charge between the writer and the reader. And it also adds something mysterious of itself.
All writers use words as the tools of their profession: the novelist patiently unravelling 400 pages of text; the cartoonist setting a single exclamation mark inside a speech bubble; the copywriter designing the fine print at the bottom of a parking ticket. They all have to use words accurately and effectively, if they want to communicate, if they want to be understood. So what is it that marks a poem out as being something different?
In some ways the task is exactly the same: to be accurate, to be effective, to communicate clearly, to be understood. But there is a significant difference. I think that W.H. Auden got it right. 'The poet,' he said, 'is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.' For the poet each word matters. Each is held up, checked out, polished to a fine lustre, tested against its mates. There can be no freeloaders on this trip, tagging along for the sheer hell of it. Each word must work its passage, carrying its own weight, making itself indispensable.
To write like this is clearly an act of insanity. Apart from a very occasional bolt from the blue from the god Apollo, extremely rare even for a Sagittarian like me and then somehow untrustworthy because of the speed of its arrival, the output is bound to be slow and unprofitable in terms of time expended and monetary rewards ensuing. Don't think for a moment there's money in it. But for the writer and the reader the payoff is something else.
Sometimes it is the shock of being caught off guard, sent spinning by surprise head over heels, choking with laughter perhaps, or anger, with sadness or with delight. Sometimes it comes from a mix of all these things. Whatever the feelings, they leap like salmon twisting up a creek. The effect for writer and reader is I think much the same. There is a sudden excitement, a sense of being utterly alert and utterly aware. 'Of course, of course! I have always known this very special thing! But never before have I been able to get it clear in my head, let alone clear in my own words.' Suddenly here it page 125 is, caught in the fine, strong mesh of a poem which is at the same time serious and exhilarating, subversive and ecstatic, poignant and perverse, and unresolved. It has been worth the effort.
This sounds all very well but how are we to recognise a poem when we meet one? It used to be easy. A poem was a column of words in marching order that never quite made it all the way across a page. And there were signposts all along the way, full rhymes, half-rhymes, rhyming couplets, to ensure that you kept to the track. But now experimentation and hybrid-isation are changing the rules. Odd creatures have emerged like the prose poem, strong enough to make it all the way across from the left-hand margin to the right. How can we be sure that a squad of words set out like this is not a mini-novella in disguise? Or a short-short story?
I think that the quality that still distinguishes a poem from any other form of writing is that of song. The rhythms may be very subtle but they will be there, in the internal music of the piece itself, held together by echoing words or syllables sometimes at quite a distance from each other and delicious in the suspense this separation causes; and they will be there too in the individual musical quality, sometimes called the voice, which makes the call of one poet quite distinct from that of any other. There is an intensity in this voice, a pleasure in the sounds for their own sake as well as for what they mean. A pleasure similar to that of playing around with grammar, testing the stitches that hold the fabric of a poem together, seeing how far words can be pushed around before they topple over.
Words do spark off each other. Where they bump the unexpected happens. Sometimes they leap together spontaneously without the approval of the writer. The process then takes on a certain inevitability and the word inspiration surfaces. But I believe the meeting has somehow been set up all along, in the richly dark corridors of the subconscious. And I have a story to prove it.
One day I sat listening to a friend who was calmly and very rationally unravelling an emotional tangle. As he talked, he peeled a pear, fastidiously stripping back the skin with the long slow sweeps of a kitchen knife. I remember thinking, 'Hey your solutions are too neat. The real world is full of mess and muddle.' And being mischievous, I wanted to show him some.
I wrote two sentences on separate sheets of paper which lay apart in a folder for over a year till one day I introduced them to each other. They page 126 huddled uncomfortably in a skinny little poem which never looked much until one day my typewriter grabbed it and threw it sideways into the shape of a dart. Just like this:
|1||such is the language
|3||you wash and cut
& core yellow pears
|5||you could do
with a pig
|2||white & cool
|4||the lawn is
littered with them
Checking up on it a few weeks later, I suddenly realised that the poem was in fact just like a reversible jacket. It could be worn three different ways: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; or 1, 3, 2, 4, 5; or 1, 3, 5, 2, 4. Somehow this gaggle of words had insisted on their own structure and in doing so presented me with a joke I could never imagine.
'Poetry is the great enemy of chance in spite of also being a daughter of chance and knowing that, in the last resort, chance will win the battle.' (Italo Calvino) Such is the mystery of the process. And better after all to just 'Cut the cackle and get weaving!'