Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Poetry and Emotional Impact

Just spotted this curious review of Lavinia Greenlaw’s new collection, The Casual Perfect, in The Independent. Its curiosity isn’t altogether the reviewer’s fault. She’s obviously been given a maximum word count and 281 words is hardly sufficient to review a poetry collection with any real insight. It may even have been edited down by someone else to emphasise an attitude that might not have been prevalent in its original draft. Maybe. It’s impossible to tell. The attitude is represented by:
"There is some emotion to be gleaned from these cool, opaque poems."

So the reviewer is analysing the poems to glean emotion from them and largely isn’t succeeding. When she does glean some emotion from a poem, she writes:

"Nicely earthy, it contrasts with the cerebral tone of much of this collection."

Now, a poem’s emotional impact is one measure of a poem’s success. But it is hardly the only measure. We can enjoy poems because they turn our brains inside out, because they transform the way we’ve always looked at something, because their words sing in a way which isn’t merely clever but somehow invigorating, because they coolly hit the nail on the head, because they connect ideas and themes in ways we’d never before imagined, and so on and so on.

I have read some of The Casual Perfect and I think “cool” and “opaque” are both fair words to describe the poems I’ve read, but their payback doesn’t depend so much on a gleaning of emotion as a surrender to and engagement with mystery. Why demand emotional impact when a poem is offering something else entirely?

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