Halfway through the reading window

Photograph of the Hebridean coast taken through the window of Ron King's holiday house. It is divided into three sections with black frames, and is a horizontal rectangle. Through the window is amazingly turquoise see and fantastically green coastal stretches. In the sky fluffy white clouds. It looks fabulous.

There is a pile of envelopes on the stairs, ready to post back to their owners, and another pile on the sofa unread.

The poems that were sent by email are on the dining room table – my task for this afternoon. I was going to read them on the screen but then I decided not to, and printed them all out in a font that suits me. I can read on screen but I don’t do it so well.

The letters people have sent (I love the letters) are in a clear plastic folder. I keep them all, though not in any meticulous fashion. It doesn’t seem right to shred them. Each is unique.

Sometimes the poems seem less unique than the letters, which is a peculiar thing to say when you think about it. Nor can it be true. But given the infinite possibilities in which poems might be written, it’s surprising how similar some of them look at first glance.

From age to age, we share ideas of what poems are meant to look like and, perhaps more importantly, what they’re not supposed to look like. Our common understanding starts to be a convention.

Art, in general, both observes and resists convention.

Resistance is great: it has its own energy. Give me a rebel any day. But you don’t get poet rebels unless there’s something to rebel against. Rebellion is only convention in reverse – unless you rebel against yourself, which I think is useful. First you would need to recognise your habits. Habits make you feel safe, and safety is risky for poets.

There’s safety in neatness, for example. Neatness is a widely shared habit. People like to divide poems up into even-sized chunks, and then sometimes add a little decoration like Master Chef.

Sometimes I like this. Sometimes there’s a sense of fun about it.

Sometimes I find neatness wearisome.

Sometimes I suggest that the ‘form’ of the poem – whether it’s neat or sprawly – doesn’t convince me.

Sometimes I suggest dividing a sprawly poem into two-line stanzas.

Sometimes I suggest the poet is using too many two-line stanzas with no organic rationale.

I shouldn’t use the word ‘organic’. It’s starting to be a habit. But what I mean by it is this: each poem has a driving impulse. Some phrase or idea or feeling that drove it into existence. That central impulse looks for a form that suits it. Out of the innumerable ways of expression open to us, what will that be? It could be anything.

But for some writers it can’t be anything. It can be four-line stanzas (left justified), three-line stanzas (left-justified) or the long thin left-justified block that stops about two-thirds of the way down the page. It’s a habit.

I was at the launch of Magma 65 on Friday. It was in the LRB Bookshop in London. There were about 16 readers, every single one distinctive in her or his method of projection. I didn’t hear any stanza breaks, though it’s likely there were some. I couldn’t hear the justification (in terms of page format) either.

There was a lovely variety of accent and intonation (people had come from many different parts of the UK, and one from Germany). Some readers stood very still to read. One strode about joyfully and put the microphone behind him. A couple held the paper in one hand but delivered by heart. Some wore a little smile when reading. Others were extremely grave. Some delivered the words as though there was a push of air behind them. Others let them float out over our heads like bubbles.

When you hear poetry – poetry you haven’t read before – you don’t get it all. You get some of it. Our ears aren’t very good at making sense at first hearing, unless the words themselves incorporate significant repetition. One of the Magma poets deliberately exploited that technique, and the audience responded with delight. Repetition is very enjoyable because (ironically) it allows you to listen for difference. It’s one of the great oral conventions.

Repetition in neat chunking is one of the less great print techniques. But it does allow the reader to pace herself and see the white-space ‘rests’ coming up. These appear to divide the poem into a journey with stations (though it’s a new habit to enjamb every one and thus undermine this idea).

Sometimes, in my reading window, I get poems that are word-dense, with lines that extend right to the right-hand margin, and hardly any stanza breaks. Before I start, I take a deep breath. In fact, I invariably flick through the pages and choose the shortest one first. It looks like it might be hard going. And indeed it may turn out to be. Or it may not. In which case, you can start to love that poem quickly.

Have you noticed, at poetry readings, how often the reader tells the audience, as a sort of placation, ‘it’s only a short one’? As though we all agree that short is better because it means we won’t have to concentrate for very long.

During the reading window, I am concentrating for long periods on poetic text. I like it very much. It’s sustaining for the spirit to concentrate wholly on only one thing, one piece of human expression. Reading is an art too. We know this, but we forget it all too easily. There is no arts funding – that I know of – for poetry readers, though (done well) it takes a long time, quality time. The reward is what you get out of the experience. And what do you get? You learn. These words are what human beings have made of their lives. I am trying to make something of mine too, and it’s hard. It sustains and heartens me to see the attempts of fellow travellers.

Usually when you read poetry, you read but you can’t reply. You have a response but you can’t give it back. So although poetry is a communication, generally that communication goes only one way. In my reading window, it goes two ways.

Though only for a little while..

Because the window is only half open now.

Photograph of the Hebridean coast taken through the window of Ron King's holiday house. It is divided into three sections with black frames, and is a horizontal rectangle. Through the window is amazingly turquoise see and fantastically green coastal stretches. In the sky fluffy white clouds. It looks fabulous.

Photo credit: the inimitable Ron King


2 thoughts on “Halfway through the reading window”

  1. That you do this work, and like it, and seek more of it, and comment so illuminatingly on it, is a joy and a wonder to me.

  2. loved this post because it made me think about my reading style. Having only read in front of an audience 3 times so far it is still quite new to me, but I am very aware that I stand very still with my hands behind my back (partly a blindness thing) and I’d like to be less rigid while I’m reading. I had not thought about how much stanza breaks are evident as I’m reading, so I will be listening to that in my practice recordings. I have been aware of this at times, such as in a poem called Ordinary Lives and Painful, which says “all is possible / only when fragile leaves a tattered / edge, like snowflakes” and on the page it is split between the words tattered and edge, to reflect the tatterdness it is talking about, but it does not sound so great when read aloud with a noticeable gap between the words tattered and edge and if I read it that way it sounds more like I’ve forgotten the next word and just manage to scramble it out of my head in time! Given me much to ponder here, Nell 🙂 Giles

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