Saturday, 12 April 2014

Little Chocolate Prizes

In a long essay (skip to page 45), David O'Meara looks at poems by George Mackay Brown, Tim Lilburn and Fanny Howe and ponders the way poets understand and use information, which he defines as "the concrete details and news we share in a poem":
Poetry resists paraphrase, it’s been said. But with the best intentions, we are often taught to read it this way, like a treasure hunt with a little chocolate prize at the end. “Oh, Jane, that’s correct. The poem means you should always be nice to animals.” “Oh, Jimmy, you’re right. The poem means death is inescapable and all our experience will one day be reduced to mere data. Here is a gold star for your booklet.” This kind of reading is something like those tourists who hop off the bus in Agra, take a few photos before hopping back on, just so they can say they were at the Taj Mahal. Likewise, if we are only reading a poem to get the point, we miss all the landscape, history, architecture and food stands along the road. We do come to a poem for meaning, but that meaning is bonded to the act of reading it, made cumulative through our interaction with the texture of the poem, its diction, images and associations.
O'Meara elaborates:
The best poems tell us something in an interesting way, but confound our expectation of it. It’s a delicate balancing act of uncertainties and recognitions and the more effectively the reader is dangled in the interstice, the deeper the transmission. The three poems I’ve discussed are all successful in their own way. But if a poem is too easily graspable, if we “get it” in one go, like “Taxman,” it exhausts itself of any requirement to re-read. It’s consumed, but there’s little digestion. And if a poem is too elliptical, like “Inescapable,” it edges into the nebula of incomprehension and might exhaust the reader’s patience and be abandoned. For a poem’s effect to be profound, it must also initiate a breach in our cognitive confidence and then restore it partly. Which is a fancy way of saying it needs to surprise us. 

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