Friday, 7 January 2011

Marginalia, or "The Universal Right of Literary Dissent"

I love poetry.
But, there's poetry, and there's poetry.

As I think I may have mentioned once or a hundred times,  way back, far back in my distant memory, I set out on a path as a student of english literature, which seemed a good idea at the time. English was my favourite subject at school, i was fascinated by language, words, the ways in which humans have communicated their thoughts and feelings.
Whilst the other kids in our row of caves were learning to shout "Ug!" whilst throwing a rock at pretty much anything that bounded, soared, wriggled or scuttled, I was sitting with the old guys, who were certain some scratches on a bit of rock weren't random.

Well, it seemed there was a wise man in the next valley who had views on this, and one day he came over, and showed us how you could use scratches to keep count of stuff. Like how many rocks you had, even if you couldn't see them.
That was cool. We graduated onto scratching outlines, that, if you squinted a bit, looked like animals seen at a distance. Eventually, we got scratches that we all agreed each had a noise. And every time you saw that scratch.. you made the matching noise! And that was pretty much it. No more cries of UG! ug! ug?, you could have a hunter send a message back saying... "I'm following a mammoth along the side of the stream which smells funny, near the black-burned tree, toward the hill of good rocks for bashing with. Send six hunters with sharp pointy sticks, forthwith. Signed "Og".
Oh yes, writing was a good invention. Pretty soon we had lectures in the big cave, where visiting professors would draw antelope, bison, koala bears, and other stuff we didn't know about. The talks were popular. People used to scratch brief versions onto bark and send them down-river to the marsh-dwellers. We called it texting.
Anyway, a few millenia passed, and i found myself studying Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Dickens, Ted Hughes, T.S.Eliot, Robert Browning, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolfe...
It started out with the pretext that it was all very good stuff, to be revered, because it was written by famous, mostly dead,  people.
But then my teachers set about turning all those certainties upside-down, by telling me to challenge, to break down and reconstruct, to try writing it in my own words.
What I wrote, oh how embarassing it would be now if I still had all that stuff.
And to criticise myself, harshly, and my peers. I'll tell you, getting an essay sent back with negative comments from a tutor doesn't hurt a fraction as much as being savaged by your peers. It's a way we learn not to be too precious though. Write it,  read it back, try to see it through fresh eyes.
I was a bit thin-skinned then, but I learned that "critics" are not gods. That just because the critics love it, doesn't mean it's good. And vice-versa. History shows us that the critics are often proved wrong, long afterwards.
Charles Dickens, in his day, was immensely popular, a superstar, but the critics pursed their lips and muttered nasty words about penny-dreadfuls, here today and gone tomorrow. Seems old Charlie's had the last laugh.
Shakepeare, oh yes, I had to learn plot, subplot, learn about Elizabethan history, learn how he was dangerous and subversive, satirizing current affairs, I'd learn of Elizabethan views on classics, greek and roman mythology, navigation. Everything Will wrote, i was told, was masterly multilayered subterfuge.
Yet I couldn't help sometimes thinking of Shaksper getting a brief "We  want two hours for seven men, two women and a donkey... We can borrow a chariot, and two of the boys look vaguely alike, and the thin guy can sing. Can you have it ready for thursday?"
Sometimes, I think, it's just a story. Stop trying to read hidden messages into it.

This is rambling, isn't it? Blame the medication and lack of sleep. I did go back to work, on the 4th January,  but the following day i saw my doctor, who gave me a bucketful of pills and told me to go back to bed for a few days.
Where was I?
Oh yes. What I learned was that my opinion is valid. That I don't need to assume that if it's in print it must be good.
Cue link.
You see, I've been challenging this poem at "Through the Garden Gate", I first read it as a nice but unspecial love-poem, but then, in every line, almost, I found something that annoyed me. Maybe I'm a ratty tempered curmudgeon, but I really think this is one the poet should have screwed up and tossed in the bin.
Now the blogger who posted it is herself a poet, (this one isn't one of hers) her poems are better than this, by far. I'm always a little afraid to criticise anything on the web, and I don't want her to think this is a criticism of her.
It's a challenge, a challenge to the idea that a published poem is unassailable.
Get in there! Challenge what you read.
Scratch under the mammoth drawing on the cave wall "Og's crap at drawing trunks!"

 Here's a poem, from a man who, it seems, is not afraid to disagree with the printed word.


Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

Billy Collins


  1. I don't like Billy Collins, but I do like this poem of his. Even a mule can change her mule-shoes from time to time !! You'll find the rest of my ponderin' thoughts back in the garden.

  2. Sometimes poetry sounds a little pretentious, but maybe it's me?

    I have to confess there is poetry that I love, but I'm not sure that it is ever the proper kind.


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