Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Poetry and Myth-Worlds

This month, the theme of the Guardian’s poetry workshop was set by Scottish poet, John Burnside:

For this workshop, I want you to go to a tradition outside your own, a way of seeing alien to your own, and write from there - not in an imitative way ("now, here's my pseudo-Aboriginal poem ... ") but by living for a while in someone else's myth-world in order to renew your own.’

I thought that was interesting. It’s clear that different cultures live by different myths, but how that affects their poetry is far from clear. Yet poetry varies from country to country. I know I’m speaking in a general sense and that in a country like the UK, there are countless poetic styles and obsessions, but if you compare UK poetry to Japanese, say, you’ll find a different tradition and different myths in the background.

What’s less clear is whether you’d find a significant level of difference between British and Italian poetry or between British and North American poetry. In the case of the former, I see clear differences, although it’s hard to express what these are with any great clarity. The influence of surrealism on Italian poetry has perhaps led it in a direction that the mainstream of UK poetry has been reluctant to follow.

Between UK and American poetry, I also see differences. American poems tend to come down very hard on all but the most necessary modifiers and strip every sentence to its bare bones. They often have a conversational tone, “conversational” in the sense of Hemingway-style dialogue. I also see more of a focus on logical progression in American poems, a distrust of quasi-surreal imagery and mystery. Of course, as soon as I write this, I think of many U.S. poets who don’t fit into these categories at all, but it could describe an overall sensibility that can be contrasted to the UK.

I’m not sure whether this can be explained by reference to our respective national myths or not. I did wonder whether I could have sent a poem to Burnside’s workshop claiming it to be in a modern North American style based on that myth-world. I didn’t do that though.

Still less would I like to speculate on whether there is a genre of Scottish poetry distinct from that south of the border. But if one can talk of the “New York Poets”, as expressing a distinctive style as well as a geographical unity, then maybe there is a “Scottish Poets” movement out there and I just haven’t recognised it.


Paula said...

Interesting thoughts, Rob. I'll post a few words on the differences I notice between American and Italian poetry. Agree that Italian poetry took to the surreal way at high speed; not only this, though. I have noticed a tendency to the "conceptually abstract" that very often leaves nothing to the reader. Another thing I noticed and dislike, is the
language "virtusismo" that, while it can be interesting on the aesthetic experimentalist side, it often remains a sterile exercise.

Hmmmm guess it is clear I am strongly critical toward modern Italian poetry. This doesn't mean I like all American poetry, but the greater variety it offers makes it easier for me to find poetry I enjoy, though the "war" to modifiers and stratified imagery leaves me perplexed.

These are generalizations anyway, but your post made me reflect on how I feel especially about Italian poetry nowadays.

Aruna said...

I'm not sure about "different cultures live by different myths." At least, yes, I suppose that makes sense in a broad sense, but I'm not sure how it translates to people. Different people live by different myths, and which myths depends on which culture they belong to? It's not that simple, is it? The Grimm fairytales, the Bible, Greek myth, the Mahabharatha, Gilgamesh... I can't really untangle which of those myths I "live by" and which I just know about. And I don't think "culture" is a helpful way of distinguishing between those myths that are 'mine' and those that aren't. But then I'm not really sure what "culture" means either, so...

But I do think there are problems with Burnside's assumption that there are clearly defined "cultural" borders between different 'myth-worlds', so that it's possible to make little touristy visits to different ones.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Paula - my knowledge of Italian poetry is very sketchy, so it's good to have your perspective.

I was asked a couple of years ago by an Italian poet who had translated his own poems into English to make these English versions better poetry.
It was a difficult task. I had both his Italian and English texts - just as well, because his English was poor. But I could barely understand what his poems were on about because of the continual conceptual abstractions.

I stuck to the task but I've no idea whether my "translations" were what he really meant to express or not. So I can relate...

Aruna - you make some good points. You are right that the situation is much more complex than my statement made it sound, especially in culturally fragmented societies.

I suppose Burnside's exercise was to explore, with empathy, a mindset that was foreign to your own and see how the other tradition might enrich or challenge the way you normally think or write.
I found the task interesting, but, yes, I couldn't be anything other than a semi-informed tourist.