Saturday, May 07, 2016

`Through You They Speak'

“Poetry is so often regarded as the expression of the heartfelt feelings and beliefs of the poet and I wanted to show that, like a novel, a poem could equally engage with notions and ideas that the author does not personally hold.”

The words are reassuring. Most of the best poems I know, most of the best literature generally, claim no one-to-one correspondence between writer and written. Only the soft-headed think Larkin deemed books “a load of crap.” Is Shakespeare Lear and Cordelia? Reading a poem with a literal mind is like pretending to understand a language you cannot speak. Good poems are out there, pieces of work autonomous and impersonal, not ventriloquist’s dummies. The passage above is from the Australian poet Stephen Edgar, who runs an unusually well-stocked web site. He is commenting in prose on a poem, “The Secret Life of Books” (Corrupted Treasures, 1995), I have written about before. Why do readers assume that poems, more than novels, constitute autobiography? And wouldn’t it be more interesting to speak in another’s voice? His poem, Edgar says,

“. . . explores the notion that human beings are not always, or even at all, the independent actors they take themselves to be, but are the vehicles for forces unknown to themselves. And I suppose that, if the books of the poem are taken as a figure for the sum total of human experience, since nothing is new and all our feelings and actions repeat what innumerable earlier people felt and did, all our lives are in a sense quotations from or allusions to a pre-existing text.”

That’s not how I have read the poem. I thought it concerned our serial promiscuity with books, the way we dance from one to another. Some partners remain fond memories. Some we marry. Others we forget. The good ones change us and suffuse the way we look at the world. To them we can go back any time: “Through you they speak / As through the sexes / A script is passed that lovers never hear.” It’s easy to disagree and remain cordial with so eloquent a writer. 

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