Sport 9: Spring 1992
♣ Elizabeth Smither — Head or Hat?
Commissioned and broadcast by Concert FM, in the What Makes a Poem series.
It may seem perverse to discuss a poem which contradicts many of my ideas ofWhat makes a poem. My belief, for instance, that an impression is not enough and that some sort of digestion is required. That the poem works best if some immediate impression is allied to buried material. It seems to me there must always be something partially formed and prepared—for the image, the incident, or it may simply be one memory, called to mind, ignites a deeper one. We are all familiar with sounds or tastes or smells that set memory alight in us. I can remember a medicine I took as a child that still causes me to shiver.
Poetry, because it is so compressed, so undiluted, lacks the facility to conceal or postpone that prose has. Every part of a poem is visible, like one of those ornate clocks in a glass dome: pendulum, springs and weights open to view. A poem is a concentrated collection of parts, with a technique ready. Therefore the richer the material to hand, the more contradictory and puzzling it is, the more it needs to be given some clear exposition, worked out to the poet's and the audience's satisfaction, the better the ground for a poem. One dimension or two are not nearly as good as three or four.
Another idea I have and like to follow is that each stanza or section of a poem should represent a slightly altering viewpoint. A poem is not polemic but an argument or a piece of reasoning. Obviously what has been expressed in the first stanza leads on to something else, just as when one is having an argument with a person. What is stated boldly at the beginning perhaps needs softening or contradiction. Perhaps, since the poem I have chosen is about Catherine Howard, it might be useful to imagine a group of her ladies-in-waiting. Each slightly different, with a different way of proffering advice.
My third idea is that the poet should not know the answer. He bursts through the door like a courtier, carrying a piece of news or a rumour, but page 119 he hasn't yet worked out the implications. If we knew instantly why something halted us in our tracks there would be no need to go on and make a poem out of it. We could just say Catherine Howard had her head cut off and leave it at that.
When I try to analyse the poem 'The Tudor style'* I can pinpoint its beginnings in an article I was attempting to write on outdoor bowls. I was reading a history of bowls and had come to the section on the Tudors. The passion for bowls was so great in this period that arrests for treason might be made on the bowling green and partners in a game would simply go on playing as though nothing had happened. Later on, Charles I, while he waited for his execution, had a green especially made for him in the grounds of his prison. I began to sense something that was rather horribly fascinating. Someone taken away discreetly, and a game closing ranks and going on, as if the game was more important than life or death. Or maybe it was just a way of keeping sane.
A few months later I read in aSunday Times book review that Catherine Howard, the night before she was executed, had asked for the block to be sent to her cell so she could practise placing her head on it. It didn't seem death was worrying her so much as style. Which would be the best profile for the axe?
All these thoughts put me in a kind of passion. How could Catherine Howard do such a thing? Did she summon the jailer several hours later and say she'd got it right and he could take it away now? What was this emphasis on style above everything? Was style in fact a kind of violence? Did extreme style mean extreme violence?
I was beginning to feel pretty violent myself by now. I was determined 'The Tudor Style' would use the word 'violence' as often as possible. The violence of the King partying down the river, the violence of the summons from games, the violence of knowing how your head would fit onto a block and how your gown would fall out behind you. I was beginning to have an awful respect for the Tudors and their speeches from the scaffold.
The poem starts with Catherine Howard's strange request. In fact I was wrong, it turns out, in thinking it was a typical example of Tudor hardiness. In a new book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir, there is some evidence that the jailer was as startled by the request as you or I would have page 120 been. Probably he went off and talked to some other members of the guard. Perhaps they thought the Queen deranged. However, I wasn't going to stop for this. I considered I had plenty of examples for my new-found association of Tudor violence and style and I was determined, taking Catherine's behaviour as a lead-in, to proceed.
So in opposition to the idea of a poem developing from stanza to stanza, expressing a variety of viewpoints and contradictory arguments, 'The Tudor Style' expresses just one viewpoint, unremittingly. It poses a question and it doesn't wait for an answer. Is this what the Tudors believed? it seems to insist. Does this violent style underpin everything, like the air they breathed? The Queen practises putting her head on the block so it looks natural, the King 'with equal violence of forgetfulness'—even forgetfulness can be violent and not just careless—goes partying and returns, long after the execution is over, up the Thames by barge. Style calls to style and receives nothing in answer. The fate of those taken from a peaceful game of bowls or tennis doesn't bear thinking of, they become something like meat. It's impossible, reading so many elegantly constructed and well-phrased speeches from the scaffold, not to believe that the way of doing things was important to the Tudors. Sir Thomas More as a young lawyer watched a group of priests going to their deaths like a clutch of bridegrooms. This was a very different age from our own.
What buried material could this be connected to? I can't think of anything but the sharp initial surprise when I read of Catherine Howard's behaviour. Whatever the poem is about is contained in that first shock. And instead of development, the nearest movement is a kind of courtly dance. The Queen goes to the Tower, the King goes down the river. It's all rather like 'The King was in his counting house counting out his money / The Queen was in her parlour eating bread and honey.' Could it be true that Catherine's request, so bold, strange, and going to the heart of the matter, was already almost a poem in itself?
Perhaps there is a minor category of poem that might be categorised as 'shocking news'. Someone's death, a dastardly deed, an extreme act, which allows no softening, but a bald statement. But if such a poem seems vehement and unreflective on top it may describe a greater shifting underneath, a positive unease. Violent news sends the poem rocking and its parts, which are little more than a catalogue, attempt to join up but cannot. The King goes down the river in his barge, organising his timetable so a page 121 death, already in rehearsal, shall not disturb him. The players go on playing in the way a herd watches, seemingly indifferent, one of their number seized by a lion. The common things are violence and graciousness and we don't know if they connect or even if they mean anything, even to the perpetrators. We know that Catherine felt a moment of blind panic when she realised the King meant to have her executed and she refused to get into the barge that was to convey her to the Tower. For hours before she spoke of her desire to make a good impression on the scaffold she wept without ceasing. In Catherine Howard's reaching for style in extremis we have something like the whole point of writing poetry. Not every content will be as extreme—in fact I think such 'shocking news' poems are fairly rare, since they are oppressive—but the desire to shape the ingredients of a poem into style is a common aim.
In the end the poem becomes clogged by violence. The word violence repeated at every opportunity, especially in the last two lines where it becomes an adverb as well as an adjective: absorbingly violent, calmly violent, graciously violently . . . brings it to a halt. The mysterious Tudor attitudes are no closer to resolution because they remain imperfectly understood. In fact the poem could be a round and you could go back to the beginning, with the Queen in her cell, summoning the jailer for the first time, commanding him to fetch the block. The second verse: 'Violence and style together / Violence in style the creed' is a kind of reprise. To really understand the Tudor period one would have to immerse oneself in histories, read the life of Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas Cromwell. Just this one blinding and strange incident stands out: a Queen wishing to die in style, perhaps imitating Anne Boleyn. She was a Queen, if only briefly, and a Queen must die well.
Ultimately with poetry there is no theory that fits every case, no recipe that always guarantees a poem at the end of it. The digestion I talked of at the beginning, the judicially corresponding stanzas, like counsel and prosecutor, are sound enough. A bigger mystery is why one idea, image or even sentence from a newspaper is enough to start the process, and why in so doing the impulse or content is enough to overthrow any theoretical base or invent a new one.