Lynn Davidson

Referencing the world: excerpts from a reading journal, 2007

I was just reading Therese Lloyd’s reading journal on Turbine and she was talking about how she thinks that current New Zealand writers don’t write really ‘bold’ poetry with ‘universal themes’. She sees a lot of our poetry as ‘self-focused and localised’ — she also acknowledges that this is a sweeping generalisation with a grain of truth in it. She quotes Charles Simic who says ‘The task of poetry, perhaps, is to salvage a trace of the authentic from the wreckage of religious, philosophical, and political systems.’ She fears that there is no such subtext in her writing and wonders if she is living in a ‘fools paradise’ in terms of greater context to her writing.

She wonders if her comfortable suburban upbringing means that she doesn’t feel she has the right to write poetry that makes statements about the world. She writes, ‘Obviously Simic isn’t saying that experience of war and the subsequent writing about it will clear me from my status as fool’s-paradise-dweller, but he does make a convincing argument that historically, poetry is a more reliable record than any history book. I guess all I’m trying to say is that Simic’s argument has highlighted one of the key concerns I have with my poetry: that my poems focus on the domestic and don’t illuminate anything more global.’

Of course, my eye was caught by the world ‘fool’ and ‘fool’s paradise’. More and more I think that writers are magpies, our eyes light on something shiny and we steal it from its context and play with it. We see how it sits beside all the other things that have caught our eye. So, I think, in this respect, in the respect of continuity and order, Therese is probably right to be worried about context and subtext. I looked up ‘A fool's paradise’ in my wonderful Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable that my parents recently found at a garage sale — I come from a long line of magpies — to find the definition of ‘A fool's paradise’. It said ‘A state of contentment or happiness founded on unreal, fanciful, or insecure foundations’. Therese didn’t sound fanciful or unreal to me as I read her journal entry. That Therese is thinking about context and subtext in terms of where she is in a big and often brutal world, and whether her poems are ‘just domestic’ makes me want to run and find her … somewhere in Iowa probably… and say ‘they’re not, they’re not just domestic’. It’s probably a truism to say that what you care about, what touches you, what makes you angry or sad or frustrated will infuse your work. Poets do have to look up, I think, and see the rest of the world. But they have to look down again, at the page, and find their own way of writing what they have seen.

I like what Charles Simic says about poetry being a more reliable record than any history book. And I think the fact that the writer observes and takes their observations to the page, not necessarily putting ‘b’ after ‘a’, in fact most often not putting ‘b’ after ‘a’, means that the complex truth of things, a truth that is not orderly, can sometimes be thrown into sharp relief.

Therese may well be right that some New Zealand writers write poems that are just domestic, that are too narrow in scope and reference. I just don’t think she’s likely to be one of those writers — comfortable suburban upbringing notwithstanding.

I also need to say something here about the ‘domestic’ poem. At the risk of sounding like an old feminist, I think the domestic unit (for domestic unit read family) can, at times, be as operatic, as wild and as brutal as a war. You can write about domestic events and be referencing a big, wide world. Look at Jane Austen. Look at Sharon Olds, look at ... God, don’t get me started. A poem works because it works, whatever the subject matter. You are not writing about yourself, you are writing a poem. As Matisse said when asked why a woman in his painting was green, ‘I am not painting a woman. I am painting a picture.’

In her recent workshop, Lavinia Greenlaw talked about the importance of being precise about images. Even if the poem is about confusion, you need to be sure you are using the right image; that you have thought the image through properly. She talked about ‘unpacking’ the image and making sure that it is working for the poem. Don’t be satisfied just with images (no matter how strange and/or wonderful), ask if they are doing something for the poem.

She also talked about getting the balance right between discipline and imagination. Sometimes you should let the language lead you. Paul Muldoon talks about ‘The great adventure that is language’. Letting the language lead you can sometimes clarify the intent of the poem. I think she means we should follow the images, be a little wild. I did this with one of my poems, I let the images loose a bit, and it opened the poem out.

She also said (the balance here between discipline and imagination) when you are reworking your poem, ‘be like a lawyer, interrogate each image/word’.

And on working around a ‘theme’ for a collection of poetry: ‘find the voice and the world of the poem. Don’t worry so much about themes in a collection. The worry is more that the poems may all be doing the same thing. The important thing is to see how the poems are talking to each other when your back is turned.’

I’ve been reading Janet Frame’s The Goose Bath lately. Her poems turn down the lights, grab a wine or two and have a party the minute you turn your back. Recently I was walking up this farmy road by where I live and stopped by a paddock where there are two horses. It’s a pretty part of the road and I always stop there. One day I was looking at the paddock and the light on the hills and the two white horses in its far corner. All seemed quiet and uneventful. I turned to walk away and then had to have one last look. When I turned around two rabbits were running across the paddock, and a small flock of birds had lifted up from the grass and were flying away. I hadn’t noticed the rabbits or the birds the first time I looked, or maybe, by some weird coincidence, they’d all decided to move in that moment that I turned away and then turned back again. It made me think about how a poem, a poem that is working, acts inside its fenceline. What happens within its borders is sometimes hard to pin down or define. I know there are elements in there that will shift and change, the sun will go behind a hill, which will highlight the pines at the far corner where — surprisingly — sheep are huddled...etc etc. I’m talking about form, I suppose, but also that X factor thing about poems where they have a life different and sometimes stranger than you ever would have imagined.

Voice and Song, Voice and Story

Reading both Anne Michaels and Theodore Roethke is ‘good for me’ right now, as I try to wrestle my big, rangy narrative voice into something more poetic. It is strange to be far away from my usual more lyrical writing at the moment. Anyway, Michaels and Roethke tell stories but don’t let the language get too prosey, they keep it in line. Roethke (from what little I’ve read so far) is great with rhythm and rhyme, Michaels has stunning imagery and often the sounds of the words she uses ‘chime’ against each other, like this, from ‘Rain Makes It’s Own Night’:

The human light in our windows, the orange stillness
of rooms seen from outside. The place we fall to alone,
falling to sleep. Surrounded by a forest’s green assurance,
the iron gauze of sky and sea,
while night, the rain, pulls itself down through the trees.

The sounds are so right, fall/ falling/forest’s, also ‘gauze’ with ‘fall’ and ‘trees’ with ‘sea’ and the assonance — all those lovely ‘s’ sounds. And they all make the right sound, the falling, heavy sound.

Here’s a quote about voice from Eavan Boland:

Bishop interests me so much because she opened this fascinating space between voice and tone: her tone was so talky and throwaway in her poems. Her voice was so dark, so achieved. The poem you hear happens in the space between those two. Did she do that because she was American, feminine, a formalist who de-stabilized forms by using them in new contexts? All of the above, I’m sure. So it’s hard to make the lines and draw the boundaries. They’re also precious to me, I won’t deny it, because they opened the identity of the poet up for me. They made that identity include their womanhood, and they found ways to explore and articulate their womanhood through that identity. One of the reasons I feel so confirmed by some of what has happened in American poetry is because of them. I found the courage to be a poet in Ireland and it was a given that I was an Irish woman. But they gave me the courage to believe that one identity need not limit or edit the other.

This is what I’d like in my collection, a ‘talky’ tone with a ‘dark, achieved’ voice. Sigh. The voice, or speaker, in the Duino Elegies is so fluid and confident. This reminds me of something else about Lavinia Greenlaw’s workshop. She got us to write three poems about the constellation of stars that forms our star sign. One poem in our own voice, one in the voice of a scientist, and one in the voice of a child. The poems in our ‘own’ voice sounded a bit determinedly poetic and, interestingly, there was a similarity of voice in the different poems. The scientist voice sounded authoritative and strong. Even though most of us didn’t know what we were talking about in terms of science, we knew that a scientist would sound definite. The child poems allowed for humour and whimsy and ‘foolishness’. I thought how I wanted to bring the definite sound into my poems. I think I have done that to some extent with the poems I’m working on now. Again, it’s about artifice. It’s about making the noise of rain out of grit and dry seeds in a cactus.

Here’s a quote by Bernadette Hall (I can’t help collecting quotes, they’re so comforting, divorced as they are from all the clutter around them):

Poems are fictional things. They’re made up. They answer to an internal music and the demands of an internal narrative. In other words, they’re neither history nor biography nor autobiography. In many ways I’d rather read a collection of poems by a writer than their autobiography because I think the poetry, if it’s really good, will take me further into the inner workings of that writer. Also it will open up a magical world for me, one that I can walk around in and pick the fruit that I want.

Joseph Brodsky said that poets’ biographies are present in the sounds they make. Heaney quotes this when he writes about translating Beowulf. He talks about how, without thinking, he had been ‘writing Anglo-Saxon from the start’. He quotes from Death of a Naturalist to show how he was using lines made up of two balancing halves, each half containing two stressed syllables — ‘The spade sinks   into gravely ground:/ My father digging.   I look down...’

Does it do to start wondering about your own cultural inheritance and the sounds you make?

I have been looking at Phyllis Webb’s book Water and Light ‘Ghazals and Anti Ghazals’. I have read a complicated explanation of what a ghazal is, with lots of rules. The first line of the first couplet should introduce the theme of the poem, if there is a theme, and then there are rhymes and refrains. The most important thing, I think, and the most interesting is that each couplet is like a separate poem. I think the original ghazals were only one couplet. But I like how these separate couplets drift in and out of each other making meanings and changing each other slightly. It’s kind of magical. Like freezing that moment when you are revising a poem, and there’s a threshold where you could go one way or another. I like this couplet, ‘Come loves, little sheep, into/ the barricades of the Fall Fair.’ I like the words ‘Fall Fair’, the sounds and the possibilities. The ‘little sheep’ makes me wonder about her tone, there’s something chilly there, I think. Or maybe they are clouds drifting into autumny trees. I also like the word ‘barricades’. And just above it, this couplet, ‘The universe opens. I close./ And open, just to surprise you.’ That definite fullstopped first line, and the openness and delight in the second.

Words are shape shifters, only momentarily pinning something down. In this way, words are like memory. Poetry reminds us of our memories. That’s what poetry can do, and particularly lyric poetry, I think. It can provide a momentary stillness, like a memory rising. It can bring ideas, or half-remembered things or observations back to the surface. Not divorced from context or modern-ness or conflict, but not lost either.

This year I have been a student of poetry and a teacher of poetry at the same time. To be honest, I haven’t always been comfortable being a student again. This year has been fantastic, but occasionally there has been tension between form and content ... (the content being me and what I’m used to). This slight tension has been good, I think. I have had to practise being a writer. I mean I have put my own writing at the centre of my life. It’s hard. It’s also very exciting. When I write things like ‘very exciting’ I think of myself telling students to be careful of words like ‘very’ and ‘really’. Make the strong statement, I’ll say. And if I’m feeling a bit ‘Natalie Goldberg’ I’ll say, ‘who are you trying to convince?’. And here I am saying it. It’s very exciting. Very very exciting. I’m not trying to convince anyone.

More from The Reading Room:
Pip Adam | Sarah Bainbridge | Rachel Burt | Eleanor Catton | Medb Charleton | Brent Kininmont | Chloe Lane | Lawrence Patchett