Tuesday, April 06, 2010

My Girls

Here's a short poem from Robin Robertson's collection The Wrecking Light:


How many times
have I lain alongside them
willing them to sleep
after the same old stories;
face to face, hand in hand,
till they smooth into dream and I can
slip these fingers free
and drift downstairs:
my face a blank,
hands full of deceit.

This one struck me because it so deftly captures the experience of lying down beside a small child who can't fall asleep by herself, complete with the bad conscience of the father who tells his girls that he will stay with them all night even though he knows perfectly well he is lying to them, not beside them.

But something crossed my mind when I read the poem: it describes an experience, but there is a way in which the poem does not become an experience itself. I suspect that those who have not shared the experience Robertson describes will not get that much out of the poem; or rather, they will learn something from the poem, but the poem will not be memorable for them as a poem, but only in terms of its content.

I've recently come to realize that many contemporary poets and readers of poetry don't particularly like this kind of poem: the one that presents an experience but in a sense does not become an experience itself. But I'm perfectly happy with poems like this, which capture a feeling and communicate something about that feeling, even if they don't create a feeling of their own through their shape or the process of reading them.

It may seem as if I am describing Robertson's poem as lacking something, but I am not: to me, it is complete, even if I recognize that there is a perspective from which it might seem lacking.

I better stop trying to make sense here, and just hope that I have made sense to others, even if not to myself. :-)


Marion McCready said...

I think I know what you mean :) And I think Pound's 'show don't tell' is largely to blame for it. It's so ingrained in my thinking, for one, that I stuggle to really value this kind of poem in the collection.

Andrew Shields said...

Jonathan Mayhew happened to address the same issue yesterday:

"Poetry cannot just talk about this marvel of being consciously alive discursively; it has to actually embody that experience in the density of its language. It is not talking about ecstatic experience as a theme that interests me. In fact, what I like oftentimes is poetry that does not seem to be talking about this at all."


Poetry as *embodying* an experience, not "just" describing an experience. That's the position I was trying to articulate. But again, even though I am willing to admit that Robertson's poem does not "embody" the experience it describes (it does not make the reader experience a similar trajectory of love and a necessary deceit), I still find poems like it to be completely valid as a form.

Padraig Rooney said...

What's at issue here is the anecdotal quality of so much poetry - this happened to me and I felt deeply about it and I wanted to share it. I sympathise with the view that a poem has to do more, otherwise it becomes wistful and flat. I'm not sure Robin Robertson's becomes that. The other question your post brings up is the way readers identify with particular experiences - trying to get children to sleep - and not others: a boy with wax wings falling out of the sky. The former will have more takers, though not be better, necessarily, thereby. I like Gide's comment: les familles, je vous hais!

martine said...

Thank you for the very interesting discussion. The distinction seems to be very subtle. Perhaps you could point me to an example of a poem that does 'create a feeling of its own'. I think maybe individual response to any poem is often dependant on one's own experiences, that you relate to what you read in the light of them.
Thanks, I always learn something reading here.

Andrew Shields said...

Martine, one example that keeps coming to mind for me is a poem by Paul Celan that John Felstiner translated as "The Vintagers." I can't find it on-line, but it's in John's "Selected Poetry and Prose of Paul Celan" book, and there's surely a version by Michael Hamburger, too. If you can't locate it, I can send you a copy.

That poem describes an experience while also creating an experience for the reader that is quite similar to the one the poem describes.

martine said...

Thanks for the recommendation Andrew I have asked the library to get me a copy.