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.