Thursday, April 20, 2006

Complexity and Shining Moments Revisited

Both Eloise and Ren have brought up interesting questions on my post below about complexity in poetry.

Peter Porter gave me pause for thought with his quote. I don’t find it easy to place a firm dividing-line between complex poems on difficult subjects and poems that isolate shining moments.

If you take Derek Mahon’s famous A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford , you have a poem about mushrooms growing in a dark shed, but in reality, the poem is a cry of the dispossessed and persecuted, a raging against evil, and incorporates some of the darkest references in history. The poem works on many levels and doesn’t shirk from tackling the horrific and unaccountable.

The same with many of David Harsent’s poems from Legion. The first half of the collection contains war poems, often how ordinary people are affected by the horrors of war. It’s clearly a complex subject and Harsent doesn’t simplify it or offer merely “shining moments” as solutions.

Choosing a subject like war or oppression hardly guarantees an effective poem, but a poem written well on a big subject stands a chance of having a more lasting effect on a reader than a “shining moment” poem.

The Waste Land handles its complexities with depth and skill, but there again, so does Shakespeare’s “Let not the marriage of true minds…” Human relationships can be as complex to write about as any poem on ‘how I feel about the state of the world today’.

But so many poems in current poetry magazines are of the “I was looking out of the train window and I saw a tree and it shone in the sun and suddenly I knew myself to be part of something bigger than this poky little carriage when I saw myself reflected, with the tree, in the window frame” variety.

Or one I picked up just now at random, and I paraphrase of course – “a woman throws bread into a dirty pool and sees other people doing the same, but the river is so polluted. She puts her fingers in the water and senses a hunger than affects her to her very soul.”

Exactly how these moments of illumination are justified by the rest of the poem, I’m not sure, but lyric poetry is full of such examples. The lyricism carries the reader along, but when you actually think about what the poet has said, it often amounts to nothing much! I’m sure that my own poetry is full of such examples too.

Perhaps it’s the isolation of the shining moment that’s the problem, if it feels tagged on for the sake of conclusion, or emerges too easily, rather than stemming from a complex struggle within the poem.

I don’t know Ted Kooser’s poetry, but I fully believe it’s possible to write about ordinary things at one level, but really be writing about something extremely complex on another level. I mean, you could write about hanging the washing out, but really be writing about your lover whose washing is no longer around because she is dead or gone, and you could enrich the poem with all the complexities the human heart has to offer, with a brilliance of writing to match.

On the other hand you could write about hanging out washing and have a shining moment when a bird lands on the line and you think “I am just like that bird, wild and free, but hanging on a thin line in mid-air. That is how I feel too while I put the washing out.”

I bet you someone has written that poem, and has had it published in an important magazine too.

12 comments:

Julie Carter said...

I believe in shining moments poetry. It's how my brain works, how I relate to the world. I like small poems, poems that make the mundane beautiful or at least worth looking at. The biggest meals have to be eaten one bite at a time.

Larry said...

That might be the difference between a masculine and a feminine approach to experience. Nothing wrong with crossing lines either.

Heather O'Neill said...

Interesting topic. I find that I like both "shining moments" poems and the other type. I read both for different reasons.

What I have noticed is that if you look at the paraphrased:

"I was looking out of the train window and I saw a tree and it shone in the sun and suddenly I knew myself to be part of something bigger than this poky little carriage when I saw myself reflected, with the tree, in the window frame"

or "She puts her fingers in the water and senses a hunger than affects her to her very soul.”

and your made up example:

“I am just like that bird, wild and free, but hanging on a thin line in mid-air. That is how I feel too while I put the washing out.”

they almost feel like the same poem crystallized by a general concept. The narrator relates to what they are seeing, becomes what they are looking at in terms of the analogy, or, in the case of the polluted water poem, feels the emotion deeply, but it doesn't rise higher.

I need more time to think about it while reading other(both types of) poems, however, and at this point my opinion isn't well-formed.

Eloise said...

That Mahon poem is wonderful.
I wouldn't discount 'shining moments' but because of its popularity at the moment it is becoming harder and harder to write one that really feels original and breathtaking. I think that poems that try and tackle complex human dilemmas where never easy to write, but still retain that elusive quality of life changing, which most SM poems could never reach.

Eloise said...

*were--oops!

Julie Carter said...

Larry,

I think that might be a reasonable way to look at it. I'm not a big believer in sex differences when it comes to something like poetry, but I think that even though I rarely say "This narrator is female" most people reading my poems would suspect it. Maybe just because of my name, but maybe also becuase my poetry falls into the expected "feminine."

Considering how frankly unfeminine I tend to be, it's a conundrum.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Gender might have something to do with it. But I don't know. I like poems where mundane things take on a new significance or become beautiful. That's OK. Bite-sized, pithy poems are OK too, and are hard to write well.

It's when the "shining moment" is isolated, tagged on, to give a poem significance that otherwise wouldn't have any, that I become suspicious. A poem has to earn its shining moment.

Just as a poem on a complex topic has to be equal to its task.

Julie Carter said...

Rob, the problem I'm having is difficulty in deciding what exactly is a "shining moment" poem as you describe them.

Can you point to a specific example? I'm willing to be the goat if it's one of mine.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Julie

I'll get back onto this soon. I've been quite busy recently. I wouldn't consider any of your poems. I've probably overstated my position, so thanks for pulling me up, although I think there is still some value left in my proposition.

EParsons said...

I share your frsutration with this ubiquitous style of poem, Rob. It's related closely to anecdotalism, and I'm suspicious of both variants for the minimal artifice they suggest on the poet's part: ultimately it can be a refined version of the journal entry.

Which is not to say that this sort of writing is never done well, but because it's so widespread, its failures are more visible; and I think one reason that it is so widespread is that it requires minimal imaginative work by the writer. It's also the poem's most novel-like form, inasmuch as both are centred on the depiction of subjectivity from the inside. Well, some novels, anyway.

I think it's significant that Mahon's poem has no real lyric subject, only a more self-effacing 'us' - it's not about the experience of shining moments or anything else, its about the actual stuff of the world. Not that the lyric 'I' isn't enormously powerful, but its use could be a factor in limiting a poem's purchase on the wider world.

Dick Jones said...

Er... I wrote a poem about hanging out the washing a week or so ago, although minus bird & (so far) without interest expressed by important magazine. I'd better check my reader stats to see if you paid a visit, Rob!

And in the debate, I'm with Julie re shining moments. I'd write more but I have a 2-year-old on my knee seeking out a shining moment with my biro on the tablecloth...

Rob Mackenzie said...

Thanks for all those interesting contributions. Tony, thanks for some stimulating thoughts.

Dick, I remember that poem of yours, but wasn't thinking of it at all! I must go and re-read it though. I'm pretty sure I liked it first time around.

I've had another shot at this subject. Maybe one day I'll get it right.