Tuesday, 27 October 2009


The idea of this blog is to share some ideas about and around poetry.   This is partly just for the sake of it and to see what other people think, and partly as informal contacts with students and friends about issues, set books, drafts, and the like.

I begin with an announcement (!) of a poetry workshop primarily for beginners, but hopefully it'll provide a  bit of a workout for more experienced writers.  

I've called this Listening to the Words on your Lips

The idea is to encourage people to develop (further) their 'wise passiveness' and to let the poem they are working on 'speak back' to them, not to be too much in control, and so to miss (evade) the most important things in it, which I want to say without falling into romantic mysticism, is to do with the language itself, the language in the writer or speaker, which has that strang ambiguity of being totally public and yet intensely private at one and the same time.  It's everybody's English and yet it's mine 'in my head'.

So the workshop will consist of some games (thought experiments) to do with listening, and doing so with the aid of the traditional  mechanisms of poetry, things which as the Russian Formalists and the Prague School used to say, 'impede' the language.   I've deliberately avoid the traditional mechanisms of metre and rhyme simply because for beginners it calls up scary things from schooldays, and have  introduced some 'impediments' more often used in free verse, such as sound repetitions of different kinds.

The workshop is run by the WEA and is at The Omega Centre, Omega Street, Portsmouth this Tuesday and Wednesay from 10 to 1.30 each day.

Connected to this is an idea that's coming into my head quite a lot since I was working with my GCSE doing son, watching Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, especially the bits of Pythagoras,  who relates maths and music so beautifully, and somewhere calls music 'the sound of numbers', and that got me to remembering Shakespeare's references to 'numbers' as verse, and the connection between numbers and poetry, most obviously through the counting required for metre, but also a connection between poetry as 'emotional',  'associational'  'dream',  on  the one hand and the idea of 'logical' and 'rational' on the others, the 'prose meaning' perhaps.  

Our own age does not mainly see numbers 'deep' in the way that say Pythagoras, or even Marlow's Faustus would have done. And yet there has always been this close relationship between counting and music. Counting time, keeping in time, are essential to music, and for Pythagoras and Plato were associated very closely with Maths.  The connection between counting, music, numbers, verse and 'poetry' as a genre has held until comparatively recently, when the whole idea of poetry was challenged in the free verse movement, or at least some versions of that. My own reading here was the 'organic' theory of Herbert Read in which the idea of 'poetry' merged from being a description of a genre (a kind of text) to a quality of 'true feeling'. T S Eliot's idea of free verse, while to some extent it subverted 'counting' syllables or stresses, still kept in touch with 'numbers' since he thought of free verse as variation on a norm, the norm being a metrical 'home' to which the rhythms of the poem returned, departed, returned and so on, not unlike the variations a jazz musician would make - not on the numbers - bars - of his tune - but to the melody, and harmonies.

In poetry there's always been some sort of 'pressure' from the typical 'devises' of the genre, towards the typical kind of understanding,  'emotional',  'expressive',  'musical',  'cadential' or whatever.      Strange that these devices are so rational, so logical, so bound up with counting and numbers.

It is as if the 'logical' (shorthand term) component of language has somehow been displaced from organising the structure of the thinking, to organising the structure of the discourse as a whole.  How and why should this be?    Is it that imagination - associative 'dream' connections - get set free to gambol when the logical and restrictive connections are shifted?  Not really, because they can still be brought into prose can't they?   So what is it.

Perhaps - and I know I'm dodging sideways from the above issue, but for a while -   perhaps there's a metaphorical (apparently metaphorical at least) connection between necessity and invention,   Fate and the Trickster?   Somehow the 'limits' that verse (and that includes free verse) impose are like the physical limits that gravity, time, materiality, impose.  The poem is a 'thought experiment' in which the formal limits are the equivalent of the physical and biological laws - and so ultimately mathematical laws, and the sound of those numbers coming back to us in the 'numbers' of verse.

I know I'm in danger of seeing verse form as an 'outer casing', and that the romantic approach to free verse will have it that the 'pressure' from necessity comes from elswhere such as the collective unconscious.  But in that view, especially, the wise passiveness, the negative capability where you wait and see what the language inside and outside is going to do,  forms it's own kind of arbitrariness -  muse, memory, invention.

The Workshop I mentioned earlier is related to such thoughts as these but of course - participants will be glad to here - it comes out as some exercises and ideas to make you play around with language and 'interrogate' it in an entirely hands-on way.

So much for what might pass for 'theory' for now.

I'm writing something at present in which I'm trying to make the form take the lead over what I might want to see.  Not exactly 'automatic writing' or an aeolian harp (too much wind!) [an interesting Freudian typing error just then:  I typed 'aeolian hard']

The poem is called 'rondo' and is a sequence of medieval 'rondel' stanzas, which are interlinked by having repeated lines taken across from one poem to the next in something like villanelle style.   And the theme is all about cycles, circles, recurrences.