Friday, June 08, 2007

Writing in Pencil, Writing in Code

I blogged a few weeks back about buying a superb ink pen which I was using for poetry. But all that has changed in the past fortnight, for I have discovered the Moleskin notebook. I'm told many writers have used the moleskin notebook, with its twangy elastic cord for holding in loose pieces of paper or photographs and a discreet little pocket at the back of the book for hiding away love letters, documents or tickets. But I'd never been a convert to the moleskin book until roughly two weeks ago when I was caught short in Costa Coffee at a Birmingham branch of Waterstones - not needing the toilet, but having forgotten my usual notebook! - and was forced to buy a notebook there.

I didn't care for any of the over-priced spiral-bound notebooks they had on display there, with their twirling patterns and bright colours, and decided to spend a few pounds extra on one of the 'famous' moleskin notebooks - as used, apparently, by people like Hemingway and Picasso. That annoying little promotional fact was enough to put me off, but I was surprised by how quickly I fell in love with the brownish-white paper and the feel of the thing in my hand, its simplicity, its sleek black cover.

Now I've found it's actually helping me to write. Since buying the moleskin notebook I've written a poem a day, pencilled out in draft in the notebook, usually out at some noisy cafe or other, then edited and rewritten as I transfer it to the computer at home. Pencil seems so much softer and forgiving than pen when drafting a poem; there's a sense that nothing is final, that the poem is more of a rough artistic sketch than a piece of writing. And after not writing more than one or two poems a month for several years, and before that no poems at all for more than three years, being able to write poetry every single day is miraculous. At least, it feels miraculous, but are the poems I'm writing at such speed now any good?

I've been reading Jacob Polley's new collection of poetry over the past few days, as well as writing these new poems of my own. The book is from Picador. It's called Little Gods and is a truly lovely collection of poems. It never really steps beyond the traditional short lyric, but what it does within those limitations is tremendous.

Re-reading Little Gods in bed this morning, it struck me what a gulf there is between different 'types' of poetry being written today. Yesterday on Raw Light I blogged about Annie Freud's debut collection, The Best Man That Ever Was, also from Picador, and what I'd taken away from it as a reader, in particular the title poem itself. Naturally enough, I made certain assumptions about that poem based on what I had read and was able to understand. I then received an email from Roddy Lumsden late last night, a friend of the poet's, pointing out that the title poem is in fact about Hitler.

(Latest update: I had assumed this meant it must therefore be written in the voice of Eva Braun, as you might expect from a poem about Hitler and a woman, but I now realise that the woman in the poem clearly finishes the relationship with the man in the last stanza, which means she can't be Eva Braun, who dies by his hand. So I'm even more confused now, as I can't imagine how anyone can be expected to know who this poem is about, under these circumstances. Maybe someone with some inside information could explain, since it's been made clear that the background history to this poem is common knowledge, but I'll be damned if I've got a clue what it's about now.)

Reading the poem again with Hitler in mind, I soon saw the hints that I had missed. Too subtle for me, I'm afraid, as someone who has never felt the need to study that topic in depth and whose knowledge of Hitler's love life is strictly limited to what I've seen in the occasional film. But I also saw that my comments on the voice in the poem had been, by and large, accurate and in keeping with the tone of this woman's secret relationship with Hitler. However, I did feel that the subject of the poem was not made at all obvious, either in the title or in the poem itself. No names are mentioned, and although there is a single line in German - not a language I speak - and some mention of 'Party rings', that last reference meant nothing to me and I did not pick up on the significance of other hints dropped along the way.

It seems to me that poetry which deals with a subject taken from public life, rather than the poet's life, especially a subject as fraught with emotionally and politically sensitive baggage as this, but which does not specifically position itself as such for readers who may not know the topic as intimately as the poet, must become a poetry of code. Coded poetry is essentially elitist and thrives on making the clued-up reader feel like they've cracked it, they're 'in the know', and that others out there are still struggling with an impossible riddle - impossible because, unless you have those particular social, cultural or political references hot-wired into your brain, you will never understand the deeper implications of that poem without support or guidance from someone who does.

Reading Jacob Polley's Little Gods this morning, a book I'd like to discuss in greater depth at some point, I realised that I was not having to struggle at any point with obscure or unfamiliar 'popular' references, classical whatnot or political clever-clever, that none of his poems seem to rely on the reader being 'clued up' on any particular topic except the universal one of being alive and knowing how it feels to be alive, fighting against the constant threat of a failure of nerve, waist-deep in the human condition.

It's clear to me that a book of poems - especially from a 'mainstream' press like Picador - needs to work for everyone, or at least for a pretty broad cross-section of readers, not just a small group of people able to decipher the very specific field of coded references within which the poems operate. If it doesn't do this, then it runs the risk of failing as poetry, i.e. something beyond ourselves which we can nevertheless all relate to and identify with. I'm talking in general here, of course, rather than pointing a finger at Annie Freud's debut collection as an obscure book, which it isn't.

But this is a new face, if you like, to the age-old problem of poetry that's too personal to be universal. Aunty May's rambling homage in verse to her dead cat. The poem about the marriage break-up which speaks to no one but the two unfortunate individuals involved. Something I've always loved about more abstract poets like Yves Bonnefoy, for instance, is that their work is purified down to that point of simplicity where the language is transparent, not opaque, and the reference points are those which are universal: water, stone, light, dark, love, death, desire.

So perhaps I missed the point in The Best Man That Ever Was. But I'm not convinced that it's my fault that I missed the point. I was not aware of the details of their relationship mentioned in the poem. I was not aware that Hitler beat his women with birch twigs. I tried googling Hitler - Eva Braun - sadism and turned up nothing but a few thousand porno sites. I tried googling Hitler - Best Man That Ever Was, in case that was a nickname which I should have known, but got nothing of any relevance back.

Perhaps being less deliberately evasive in the text of the poem would have helped me decipher those clues, as someone whose knowledge of Hitler's private life is probably on a level with that of the average British poetry reader. Perhaps a judicious subtitle would have been in order. Or some elucidatory notes at the back of the book.

These things matter. Poetry should not be a code based on a key which is not given, a series of impossible ciphers hidden beneath an apparently innocent text. I accept that some poetry will always be difficult, and that the 'hard' in poetry can sometimes be breathtaking. But it would be even better if the code was universal and needed no key except the general life experience that any reader brings to the poem in question, if the poetry could work on both a 'hard' and 'simple' level at the same time, as it tends to do in those classics that we learnt as children, the poems that last.

It would be interesting to know how many people, picking up that book in Waterstones and reading the title poem, would know instantly what it was about. I certainly didn't, and still didn't even after having read it with some attention. There was failure on my part there, agreed. But it was a failure which was 'set-up' for me in advance by the text itself, a trap of sorts, a test designed to reward the code-breakers and expose the outsider.

I shall be going out later tonight to do a reading at Birmingham University. They have asked me to read some poems and discuss any women who may have influenced me in my writing career, though not necessarily writers. Amongst others, I have chosen my late mother, who was the romantic novelist Charlotte Lamb. Her novels were universal in that they spoke to women in a way that all women could understand, even if some were sceptical of her methods as a writer. She was always at pains to make sure that the average reader would not be put off by her writing, that her prose was as transparent and simple as she could make it, whilst simultaneously describing a highly complicated and painful emotional hinterland, the internal landscape of a woman in love ...


Ms Baroque said...

Party rings? Aren't they pink with yellow squiggles, and cause hyperactivity if eaten in quantity?

As I've just commented on your last post, Jane, I don't think this was a "code" that could be worked out if you only had the right knowledge. I had never heard about Hitler being a sadist, either. I too have trouble with the chronology in reference to it being plausibly Eva Braun.

I didn't think it was the strongest poem in the book.

Jane Holland said...

I agree absolutely that the poem worked on its own without the Hitler connection. It's just that the email I received suggested that I might need to change some of my comments in the light of that information. However, I think you're right: the only thing that might need changing is my comment about the 'Edwardian' tone of the poem. At least I spotted that the setting wasn't contemporary!

How much easier it is when poems don't require all this nonsense to accompany them.

Since there's no indication in the book or the poem itself of the poem's background, it seems fair to assume that the poem is meant to stand alone without it. Which - as I said before - rather suggests that all's fair in love and criticism.

Interesting that Annie Freud herself hasn't thought it necessary to step in and comment here. Perhaps interpretation of her poems is something about which she's entirely indifferent. Or perhaps the poem's obliquity was always intended to spark this kind of debate ...


Jane Holland said...

P.S. Those Party ring biscuits really hurt your teeth ... too much sugar!