Saturday, October 6

the music of what happens

There is a twofold confusion that bedevils the reading of poetry. The first is the reading of poetry as articulated intention; that is to say, imagining that the poet intended to mean some specific bare thing, then sat down to dress it up in pretty, graceful, elegant forms that you could then strip away to find the naked meaning. Fancy talk. No wonder the plain-spoken sometimes hate and distrust it. Plain speech, if such a thing truly exists, is fine for instrumental and moral purposes but is of little use in registering experience as such. Plain speech is in fact never quite as plain as it seems. Tell me what you really mean, the plain-spoken demand. But a poem does not have a meaning that it then disguises: it discovers meaning in the process of being written and read, much as people discover meaning in places, in sensations, in other people. The poet has a broad subject, but he cannot know what line or what word will come next in his poem. The poet listens as intently as he speaks and sings.

The second confusion springs from the first. It involves the reading of poetry primarily in order to find out about the poet as a person in real life. This involves reading the poem as symptom or evidence. Poetry is useless as evidence. As far as I know, no poem has ever been adduced as evidence in court. The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths. Truths they are, and deep truths at that, but they are not in the form of falsifiable statements such as science or law demands. They do not lead back to the real life outside the poem: the truths refer to the real life inside the poem...

Poetry is not symptom or evidence but state: it is not the result of what happened before but the music of what happens, and it is dangerous ever to forget that. The selves that inhabit poems are imagined selves, products of the imagination, and their great power derives from their ability to spread through our own imaginations like a music that is strictly itself. The life that moves in poems has enormous sharpness because it has been distilled into such a state that it is no longer possible to distinguish the universal from the particular in it. The real life in poems comes at us with the sudden clear cry of particularity as any phenomenon might, but it does not conduct us into the world of cause and effect, the world of biography. Biography is secondary to history, and history is secondary to those brilliant moments of perception that mere existence makes possible. There it is possible to be playful in the midst of tragedy, to pun on sickness and death itself.

-- George Szirtes "Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes" Poetry October 2007

George Szirtes