Monday, November 20, 2017

'I Only Knew His Poetry Moved Me'

“Ever since childhood, I’ve always been instinctively contrary, reacting against groups and prevalent opinion.”

My kind of contrarian, a species threatened with imminent extinction, and one I thought already extinct among poets. The speaker is Matthew Stewart, an English-born poet and vintner who for twenty-four years has lived in the Extremadura region of Spain. I discovered him on Sunday thanks to a tweet by A.M. Juster, who linked to Stewart’s interview with Paul Stephenson. It’s rare to find contrarianism mingled with maturity and good taste:

“When I started out in the mid-90s, I felt hugely alone in my poetic tastes, as anthologies and magazines at that time were full of poetry that was anathema to me. Larkin was my point of reference and departure. I didn’t care about his political and social opinions. I wasn’t bothered that most of the poetry world had turned their back on him. I only knew his poetry moved me. It was accessible yet layered with complexity, and I aspired to that achievement. Over the last few years, the attitude towards Larkin has shifted slightly in the U.K. scene. There’s now a new generation of poets who studied him at school and who embrace his work without fear that they might be tarnished in some way by his views on other issues. I’ve even noticed his influence on poets from the U.S., especially the likes of Joshua Mehigan.”

Let’s remember that outrage is easy. Any backward toddler can throw a tantrum. How many can muster the experience, empathy and equanimity to read Larkin with the attentiveness and understanding he deserves? In his review of Larkin’s Selected Letters (1992), Joseph Epstein acknowledges some of the dubious (and often very funny) things the poet included in letters to friends, and writes: “I wish Larkin had never said such things because they can only be used against him by people who along with being impressed with their own virtue cannot stand too much complication in human character.”

Stephenson asks Stewart what wines and poems have in common. This might have been an invitation to utter pretentious blather (wine snobs are even more impossible than poetry snobs), but Stewart replies:

“There are wines I admire technically but cannot bring myself to like. The same goes for certain poems. There are wines that aren’t objectively great, but they just fit a moment perfectly. The same goes for certain poems. Moreover, I expose myself to constant judgement and rejection every day of my life thanks to poetry and wine. In both cases, I send off samples: to wine importers and poetry magazines. In both cases, rejection is far more prevalent than acceptance. I’ve had to harden myself to this fact, to learn that a dozen rejections don’t matter if a single excellent wine importer or poetry journal accepts what I’ve offered.”

Since 2009, Stewart has maintained a blog, Rogue Strands, and he has common-sensical things to say about blogging: “For me, good blogs avoid self-obsession and axe-grinding, while also pulling off the awkward balancing act of remaining a personal project. Blog posts live longer than social media but should remain brief, encouraging readers to make discoveries for themselves.”

Finally, Stewart has something to say about his own plain-spoken poems: “My poems begin with the truth. They then reach out for an authenticity that lies far beyond the truth, aiming to generate a jolt of recognition in their readers.”

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