Kevin Saving choosing one of 52 ways of looking at
Ruth Padel's 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem
Published by Chatto and Windus (2002)
An admirer of Wallace Stevens, Ruth Padel takes her title from one of his poems which suggests a finite number of ways one might look at a blackbird (13). Of course, though there are both more (and less) than 52 ways to look at poetry, there are indisputably 52 weeks in any calendar year, this book being adapted from a year of the author's well-received weekly column in the Independent on Sunday.
Padel discusses 52 poems by 52 modern poets, for each of whom she gives brief biographical details. Quite coincidentally, a good percentage of the material under discussion was written by colleagues from The Poetry Society whom, naturally enough, she has come to admire after years of association. Michael Longley, Helen Dunmore, Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, Fleur Adcock, Paul Muldoon, Les Murray and Moniza Alvi (among others) have contributed individual poems. The book itself has been lavishly praised by both Lavinia Greenlaw and Jo Shapcott (current Poetry Society president) the latter of whom writes:
Her introduction will come to be seen as the summary of the age. I haven't seen
any description of where and who we are that's as clear, balanced and inspiring".
Greenlaw and Shapcott each also happen to have a poem amongst the chosen 52.
But then, as Padel writes in her text, the poetry world is a small one.
The introduction IS well-written, confident and stimulating. Apparently, we are in the middle of a poetry renaissance. The author notes some of the trends modern British poetry has been influenced by - which include (anti-) Thatcherism, Post-Colonialism, Regionalism and Feminism. The current preoccupation with Post-Modernism is given an airing, with its hip, 'filmic' references and cavalier disdain for both standard English and end-rhyme. She could equally have added that end-rhyme lost its cachet around the same time as the first, modish influx of publications began, translating the dissenting Eastern European poets of the Cold War era.
Quite a number of the selected poems are, indeed, very good - particularly Paterson's 'Imperial', Carol Ann Duffy's 'Prayer', Simon Armitage's 'The Fox', Michael Longley's 'Ceasefire' and Thom Gunn's 'Still life'. Gunn, especially, is a fascinating example of how a poet can build up a formidable critical reputation BEFORE writing anything of substance. However, the book's credibility is somewhat marred by some speculative and occasionally fanciful interpretations of rather ordinary work. For instance, Fred D'Aguair's 'Mama Dot Warns Against An Easter Rising' (which is written in a Carib patois completely devoid of punctuation) is likened to W.B.Yeats' 'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death'. Fine, except for the fact that Yeats' brilliant ventriloquise-ing of his acquaintance, Major Robert Gregory's attitudes and motivation prior to his death-in-action (killed by so-called 'friendly fire' in Italy in 1918) has little to do with the historical Easter Rising of Dublin in 1916. D'Aguair's poem is about flying a kite. Another example, 'Giant Puffballs' by Neil Rollinson, concerns itself with an act of defecation in a wood. Padel purrs over the poet's 'physicality' and opines "Runs of three consonants or vowels are another way in which the poem holds its lines together: F ('sniffing', 'muffled', 'offensive'), T ('shit', 'squat', 'walnut'), I ('bright', 'rice', 'spice'), short O ('moss', 'dogs', 'drops')". Yesss...er...thanks for that, Ruth.
Though clearly of enormous technical awareness herself, Padel is too easily convinced of the artfulness and 'daring' of quite arbitrary line-breaks; of the expertise behind such consonant rhymes as 'tendrils'/'smile' (which few readers would recognise as rhymes at all) -and by the ingenious structure of poems that are patently structureless. From time to time we're offered some highly acute readings/observations, but this book's prevailing tone comes close to suggesting that we should count ourselves fortunate indeed to be in possession of so many works of genius, imbued with deep knowledge and meticulous skill, and to be found presented here by Padel (R) and her coterie of literary-insiders.
One question this author doesn't seem to ask herself is: "Should poetry NEED to be explained?"
I have the feeling that if it does, then it's already failed. To adopt a rather legalistic-sounding formula: no poem has any right to presume more than a 'reasonable' amount of intelligence or knowledge on the part of a potential reader, or that these should be deployed beyond a 'reasonable' investigatory period. After that, it's on its own.
Ruth Padel appears to subscribe, implicitly, to a rather 'whiggish' perception of poetry: that it is somehow obeying an inevitable Darwinian law - she numbers Charles Darwin among her ancestors - which insists upon a natural, qualitative progression. Whilst it is deceptively easy to believe that 'newer' implies 'better', humanity's far from measured path as often as not places a new artistic Dark Age after a Classical, Golden or Elizabethan one. Put bluntly, Bartok isn't better than Bach, Jackson Pollock didn't out-paint Poussin and Jo Shapcott's certainly no Shakespeare.
Under the heading "Why has poetry lost its audience?" Padel admits "...most college educated people, and the wider literary community, see poetry today as elitist, irrelevant, obscure".
She suggests some plausible reasons for this - a disinterested, possibly jealous media; the time-consuming pressures of industrial society coupled with the allure of other, previously unavailable pastimes. Hmmm, perhaps. But with all due respect to this well-intentioned and thoughtful publication, I wouldn't be quite so ready to absolve modern poets themselves.
Kevin Saving © 2008