Saturday, February 10, 2007
Permeable or Impermeable
I remember someone (it may have been one of Don Paterson's aphorisms) comparing a good poem to a kind of secret door in a rock-face; once you found the way in you were presented with an unexpected vista, a whole, roomy landscape you hadn't expected. Then you left the poem, without quite remembering the way in or out. I think I remember Heany talking about something similar, which he might have referred to (riffing on Larkin) as the "poem with a hole in it"; the poem with a certain 'extraness' that resists easy elucidation: once you try to break it down into its constituent parts the door (or the hole) vanishes.
That's one way of putting it, perhaps to close to cod-mysticism for its own good. My point is that I prefer poems with some permeability, that allow for a little absorption. I don’t mind if I am slowed by some surprising linguistic texture, so long as I am able to reach in and explore around it; and so long as its shape seems pertinent to the rest. I can certainly enjoy a poem whose meaning eludes me or at least "resists my intelligence"; I don't think Bishop's At The Fishhouses is 'easy' (not to me anyway), but I trust where it takes me. Its sensuous but exacting imagery has what Reginald Shepherd might call "palpable texture." So does Komunyakaa's Facing It. So does 'The Waste Land'. So do short stretches of The Cantos.
Some poems are all but impermeable though; deliberately flat, fragmented, disassembled then bodged together again with parts conspicuously missing. You can solve such poems in the way you can a crossword puzzle, if you're good at cryptic clues and allusions. But it seems a thankless task to me (I'll admit I'm crap at crosswords).
Auden (who sang the praises of the permeable limestone landscape) called poetry "memorable speech." I think great, or even just good, poems should have at least an element of this; they should resonate in the way that a good song or piece of music does. If they manage that I will forgive them much, including a good deal of impermeability.