Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Complexity and Shining Moments: Part 3

  • Well, I’m always happy to see some good-natured controversy erupt over my blog, so I hope I don’t put a dampener on it all now. First, a few thoughts:

  • I don’t think that all poems that close with shining moments are bad. In fact, some are very good.

  • I don’t think that writing about domestic life is bad either. Often these poems have a bearing on human relationships or on some way a person relates to the world. They may seem like small, unimportant subjects, but I agree with Julie that poetry is capable of revealing something captivating in what appears at first only mundane.

  • Also, poems that take domestic scenes as their cue often have more complex issues at their core.

  • What Peter Porter was meaning about David Harsent’s war poetry was that Harsent didn’t resort to using shining moments to end his poems. Nor did he simply focus on a detail and blow its significance out of proportion – to provide a shining moment in the face of unspeakable cruelty, grief and violence. Instead he grappled with the complexities necessary for writing on the subject of ordinary people with ordinary lives, caught up in horrific civil conflict. One of the complex juxtapositions was the fusion of domestic activities with the awfulness all around. Shining moments wouldn’t have been an adequate solution.

  • In a hundred years time, I doubt many of today’s “shining moments” poems will be read by anyone. A few no doubt will, but if you think of poems of past generations that still resonate with us today and are held up as “classics”, they tend to be poems that grapple with the complexities of human life, conflict, belief and endurance. And funny poems of course, as we always need a laugh.

  • Not that we need worry about this too much, as we won’t be around.

    I found a few examples of ineffective “shining moment” poems in magazines, but I don’t want to use them in case their authors (who I don’t know) stumble across this blog and get mad at me. Instead, I thought I’d choose a poem of my own. I wrote it this morning for NaPoWriMo and posted it to my PFFA thread. Later, I realised that, besides a bit in the middle being wholly illogical (the newborns, not the medic, need warned), the ending was a tagged-on shining moment. Now, OK, I wrote it in 40 minutes, but I suspect with a some nipping and tucking, I could get it published in a magazine, with the existing ending. However, I have now changed the ending and the bit in the middle, and edited my PFFA thread. It’s getting less shiny. But here is the original first-draft 40-minute version.

    The future buries itself in green lawns
    or blows like ash down universal corridors.
    Either way, it’s best not to get
    too familiar, because the future
    will let you down. The psychics
    who claim they know it well
    are bankrupt with gambling debts.
    One told me I’d be dead tomorrow
    but forgot to warn the little girl
    who stepped into a park
    livid with bushes and shadows,
    or the medic who smothered newborns
    while mothers slept. This psychic
    was up in court for fraud, but failed
    to predict his own defeat. I kiss
    my girl goodbye, tell her I’ll be back
    at 5. I talk as if the future
    is a friendly ghost
    who’ll walk through walls for me
    unconcerned that I can’t return the favour.
    But the future is ground in stone
    even if, now and again, it believes
    in something beyond itself.

    That ending (the last two lines) is awful. It’s a shining slither of hope slid under a crack in the door. Basically, I’d run out of time and had to end the poem, but I’ve written similar poems to this in which I have deliberately contrived such an ending (I’m ashamed to say). The ending doesn’t really tackle the issues and questions posed by the poem. It just tags on a little hope, a little illumination, but that hope doesn’t emerge from the rest of the poem. If there is hope (and I believe there is), the poem should struggle to it and not allow itself to be seduced by the easy solution.


Hedgie said...

I wonder if it might not be useful to define "shining moment" as it's being used. I say this because the original use of the term by Harsent seems simply to have meant "epiphany" without specifying that the epiphany necessarily be positive; there can easily be negative epiphanies, I believe. But it seems as if, during the comments on the previous post in this sequence, the meaning seems to have drifted somewhat and "shining moment" seems to have become about moments that are specifically positive in nature. (Of course, it's late and I'm tired and may be misreading, too.) I'd say there's a fundamental difference between the two and what's true of the second isn't necessarily true of the first. So maybe it would help to clearly indicate which of the two we're talking about at this point?

Rik said...

Epiphany is basically what I've been tought to look for in poems, and what I've been told is a good thing to have in any poem I write. It is the presentation of a scene or activity, often mundane, which then includes some detail which attempts to knock the scene off-kilter. The effect on the reader is to slightly change their perception of what's going on and hopefully open a few doors and windows in their head to that new way of seeing things.

Porter's quote was: "Harsent’s commitment to lyricism has caused him to fight hard over difficult territory, since he is not content to isolate shining moments, but is driven to tackle complex subjects." Having never read Harsent I'll have to take Mr Porter's word on this.

Now I can see a poem being short and mundane with an epiphany-like close. I can also see a poem being short and mundane with several points of epiphany woven within its lines. Is it fair to say that the second example is more complex than the first? Even if the mundane subject was the same in both poems?

What about a poem with a long extended bout of epiphany - is this sort of poem better than the ones that fit their epiphanies into short bouts?

A Blackbird Singing
(R S Thomas)

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes'
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history's overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

(Mr Thomas likes blackbirds. But the poem I wanted to post - Blackbird - is not available on the net for copy'n'paste: Its eye a dark pool / in which Sirius glitters / and never goes out - I think there's more epiphany in those three short lines than there is in the whole of the other poem).

Personally, I'm more intrigued by this idea of a "complex" poem. What makes one poem more complex than another? The depth of the metaphor? The subject matter? Is it one of those cases of "I know complex when I see it!?"

I think a good poem needs some sort of epiphany (or volta): like I said, that's what we're taught to look for in poems nowadays. But I don't think the epiphany alone can make a poem complex. I think you need epiphany, and a well developed metaphorical lexicon, and good sonics and rhythm that appeal to the reader beyond the borders of language, and a good story to tell, and good characterisations and pen portraits - and only when all of them are working together do you end up with a "complex" poem.

Them's my thoughts, anyways.

ps: I liked this bit of your post: I found a few examples of ineffective "shining moment" poems in magazines, but I don’t want to use them in case their authors (who I don’t know) stumble across this blog and get mad at me.

Harry said...

"I think a good poem needs some sort of epiphany (or volta)"

I found this an interesting comment. Perhaps you're not suggesting that an epiphany and a volta are more or less the same thing, but it sort of reads that way. To which I'd say: I perhaps expect a volta to be an adding of complexity, an open-ended development, whereas I'd think of an epiphany as a conclusion.

I'd also say, in passing, that one of my uneasinesses about napowrimo generally is the way that the deadline encourages you to jump for the easy solution to a poem. The easy solution being anything that springs to mind that will produce some kind of response, rather than the truest or best way to make the most of the material.

Rik said...

Harry - I'd say an epiphany offers a different way of seeing the world, while a volta offers a broader way of seeing the world. More often than not they end up having the same sort of effect on me when I come to the end of the poem.

re: "one of my uneasinesses about napowrimo generally is the way that the deadline encourages you to jump for the easy solution to a poem" - I've found the opposite to be true. NaPo has led me to largely abandon the search for the solution, to write the poem and see if it works without offering an epiphany of sorts. But then I seem to be doing a lot of character poems where the description of the character is the point - the epiphany - of the poem.


Rob Mackenzie said...

Thanks for all these comments.

I have probably overstated the case against epiphany. I guess my problem is when the epiphany feels tagged-on, rather than engaging with the real world and real emotions, which always have a degree of complexity. That's that easy solution, of the kind Harry is referring to. Such an epiphany can sound good, it can offer hope or despair (positive or negative), and its imagery may sweep a reader away into believing in it, but sometimes an epiphany can be a shallow solution to a complex reality.

I think Harsent avoids the easy solutions. Porter is right about that, but his subject-matter is so gruesome that any hint of easy solutions would have been met with derision.

On the other hand, I was reading Norman MacCaig's True Ways of Knowing the other day, a poem of epiphany if there ever was one, and it works fantastically well. And I love it, which no doubt means I'm all wrong! Here it is:

Not an ounce excessive, not an inch too little,
Our easy reciprocations. You let me know
The way a boat would feel, if it could feel,
The intimate support of water.

The news you bring me has been news forever,
So that I understand what a stone would say
If only a stone could speak. Is it sad a grassblade
Can't know how it is lovely?

Is it sad that you can't know, except by hearsay
(My gossiping failing words) that you are the way
A water is that can clench its palm and crumple
A boat's confiding timbers?

But that's excessive, and too little. Knowing
The way a circle would describe its roundness,
We touch two selves and feel, complete and gentle,
The intimate support of being.

The way that flight would feel a bird flying
(If it could feel) is the way a space that's in
A stone that's in water would know itself
If it had our way of knowing.