Part 4. Beauty and truth

sharon olds

continuing the text of the talk I gave in January to the Contemporary Theology Group in Canterbury on contemporary poetry and spirituality

Another way in which contemporary poetry can relate to spirituality is through the way it can tell the truth about experience.  Emily Dickinson recommended, ‘Tell the truth but tell it slant.’. That’s one way of doing it, and works in the way myths do, conveying the essence, the ‘facts’, so that the reader locates his or herself by analogy.

But it is, of course, possible to tell the truth directly.  A poem that recounts experience honestly can be cathartic both for the reader and the writer.  You may have heard on the news that Sharon Olds has just won this year’s TS Eliot Prize for her poetry collection Stag’s Leap.  The stag of the title refers to her husband, who left her after 30 years of marriage, when she was 55.  Her poetry is often described as ‘confessional’ – which is, of course, a noun as well as an adjective.

One of the uses of this kind of personal and direct poetry for the reader is to offer a comparator for experience.  Often reading poetry in groups, there’s a kind of collective aha, or even gasp of recognition.   Sometimes, someone might say ‘that’s my poem’.   One aspect of ‘missing God’ that was highlighted by the ‘atheist church’ mentioned at the beginning of my talk, is the idea of the collective.  Even though poetry is usually read by one person on the page, if the poem successfully articulates an experience it can reinforce a sense of human connectedness.  The reader can feel less alone.  Discussing poems in a group can then reinforce this sense of common ground whilst also acknowledging difference.

I’ll read a poem from Sharon Olds’ prize winning collection.  It’s called ‘Telling My Mother’ and perhaps as I read you might recall a time when you had to give someone unwelcome news.

The poem is reproduced here.

Unlike Mary Oliver who recently developed a traditional faith, Sharon Olds was raised as a ‘hellfire Calvinist’, as she describes it. She says she was by nature ‘a pagan and a pantheist’ and notes ‘I was in a church where there was both great literary art and bad literary art, the great art being psalms and the bad art being hymns. The four-beat was something that was just part of my consciousness from before I was born.’  She adds ‘I think I was about 15 when I conceived of myself as an atheist, but I think it was only very recently that I can really tell that there’s nobody there with a copybook making marks against your name.’

I’d like to pick up on that distinction between bad art and good art later.

By winning the TS Eliot prize, the world’s most prestigious for poetry, Sharon Olds has met the approval of the poetry ‘establishment’.  This can be variously described but includes academics, the TLS and a handful of mainstream presses.  However, the audience for poetry is growing beyond those groups. I was lucky enough to attend the main public event for the prize at which the 10 short-listed writers read.  It now takes place in the Royal Festival Hall and on Sunday attracted an audience of 2000.  Until three years ago, it was in the Bloomsbury Theatre which seated a fraction of that number.  That is heartening but still the market for new single authored collections by contemporary poets is tiny.  It’s estimated at 0.06% of total book sales with print runs for all but a handful of writers in the hundreds rather than 1000s.   Very few books get reviewed outside of specialist poetry magazines.

Far more prevalant, though, are poems that operate virally, outside of any establishment.  It could be argued that these are taking the place of prayers, becoming detached from their writers and typically, stuck on fridges or pulled out of wallets or handbags.  This is the theme of my next and final post of this talk …