I don't suspend disbelief very willingly. I like to stay close to the text. If there's something I don't understand I don't like skimming over it until I find something I do understand. When evaluating a poem I don't edit away the inconvenient mysteries. I'm prepared to blame the poet, even call their bluff. Consequently I struggle with some poetry, and read books that attempt to explain it to me. Amongst the books that analyse poems are
- 52 ways of looking at a poem (Ruth Padel). Contemporary poems explained for the benefit of intelligent laypeople. The material derives from newspaper articles. I like it.
- The poem and the journey (Ruth Padel). More of the same. Poems by Prynne etc.
- Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne (N.H.Reeve and Richard Kerridge). The deep end. See also J H Prynne and difficulty from Arduity.
Where these sometimes fail for me is even when they can decode a difficult phrase, they don't explain why a simpler phrase wasn't used instead, or why a more obvious interpretation is discounted.
I also read theory and articles, mostly to shake me out of my habits -
- Close calls with nonsense (Stephen Burt). An unpreachy look at the factors and fashions involved with recent North American poetry.
- How to write a poem (John Redmond) A book for beginners that provides building blocks more in keeping with contemporary poetry - a Jori Graham poem is successfully discussed
- Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed (Mary Klages)
- next word, better word (Stephen Dobyns). Includes in-depth analysis of poetry and prose, showing how some older methods of analysis still have a place.
- Problems and poetics of the nonaristotelian novel (Leonard Orr). A reminder that harmony and unity aren't unquestionable delights.
- Arduity: Clarifying difficult poetry A site with articles that help to ease the pain of supposedly difficult poetry
Occasionally I write articles to help me collect together what I've learnt
Then there's the poetry itself. Sometimes I just give up. Elsewhen I write about the problems I have with particular books, trying to provide details about where my gaps in understanding are. The posts below are amongst my most popular, as if readers enjoy watching me expose my ignorance -
- Best British Poetry 2011 (edited by Roddy Lumsden)
- School of forgery (Jon Stone)
- All the rooms of uncle's head (Tony Williams)
I suspect some of my troubles are caused by my lack of awareness of factors that affected the poet, though becoming aware of these factors doesn't always solve everything
- Maybe there are unknown aims that compromise my view of the poem. If I only see this drawing as a rabbit looking left I might criticise the execution, not realising that it's a duck looking right too. If I then notice the duck and point out that the duck's not very good either, the artist might respond by saying that accuracy of either image isn't the point. And they'd be right, but if accuracy doesn't matter one way or the other, the artist might just as well be more accurate in order to placate people who judge by measuring the realism. Or is the artist's technique lacking? (it's my drawing, and mine certainly is). A poem, like a picture, can do more than demonstrate an idea - it can also fulfil other aims. The criticisms of the piece might still be valid even if the critic missed the "main point" - why should the main point be the only one?
- Maybe the poem's constrained by a form that's hard to notice (it's an acrostic, or an N+7 piece, for example).
- Maybe the poem's a reaction to something - the poet's previous style, or a prevailing fashion. This might explain the poem (and its historical or personal importance), but doesn't justify its contemporary value as a poem. An old poem rebelling against end-rhyme loses much of its force nowadays. Besides, there are good and less good ways of reacting, however worthy the cause.