It’s more like a house
Here’s a snap of the Canterbury Festival Poet of the Year event at St Gregory’s Centre for Music. It’s a newly converted church and looks stunning but has all kinds of quirks that make for unexpected comedy – for example the only way for the bar staff to leave after the interval is to walk in front of the audience – and potential tragedy in that the stage is raised only far enough to ensure people keep tripping up the step and there’s nowhere to plug cables in on the floor. You have to be extremely strong to turn on the taps in the loo and the sound technician was too remote to fix the mikes so lots of the readings were inaudible.
A poem often seems like a space, one that we enter like a building, getting a first impression – glorious red paintwork, high ceilings, polished floors, and then experiencing the detail. I’ve always enjoyed Alice Munro’s famous description of short stories:
‘A story is not like a road to follow … It’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows … You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It has also a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.’
Come into the poem! Then what? For me there’s an impression of white space and black ink, reminiscent of trees in winter where in my local and lovely dark deep woods, the Welsh oaks look knobbly against the sky and very different from the straight telegraph-pole-like sweet chestnuts.
Then what? Almost immmediately, the voice of the poet and in a few lines or two at most, his or her location – sometimes geographical, almost always cultural and invariably, although more difficult to analyse, the emotional, intellectual, imaginal world the poet inhabits.
There’s a kind of feng shui of poetry, a mysterious art which is what occupied the discussions – which I miss – at Falmouth Poetry Group – sometimes focused on detail such as the colour of the curtains in a bedroom, at other times, major renovation is called for – knocking down walls and ripping out the bathroom. Sometimes, the only solution is to move house.
Don Paterson talks of poems being machines for remembering themselves. And some of those machines are exquisitely wrought and polished. Other poems are porous, more like atmospheres than buildings, far from ‘sturdy’. Others seem like suitcases, carrying the personal effects of the writer, either tightly or loosely packed. And so on and so on.
How do poems do what they do? I’ve just been reading two online by Kathryn Simmonds in Poetry Magazine’s latest issue that have got under my skin so that I have to go back again and again, asking myself what is the poet doing that is so amazing. Very few words, plenty of white space and an invitation into worlds within worlds. In I go, looking for trip hazards, admiring the scenery and the architecture.