Hearing Things Wrong: Ode Don’t

It can make it very difficult to take poetry seriously.

‘Ode’, for instance. Because I hear it as ‘owed’ and immediately I’m thinking debt, which is the wrong connotation entirely. 

But I think I may wilfully misconstrue, and that it’s a learned habit. I think I got it from my mother, who may have got it from hers. The women of our family have a tendency towards silliness and raucous laughter. It drove my father daft.

If you can hear a word two ways, I will hear the wrong one. I hear it wrong with my listening eye. That is to say, even when I’m reading.

Last night I witnessed it in action and it wasn’t even me. My other half saw Richard Scott’s new pamphlet Wound sitting on the settee where I had been reading it. ‘Wound?’ he said(to rhyme with sound and pound). ‘Wound what?’ He was looking from a distance so couldn’t see the battle scene etched in red. He was hearing ‘wound’ like wind-up, like a clock.

Which immediately made me think of the difficulty I’ve always had with John Donne’s  ‘And finde / What winde / Serves to advance an honest minde’. I always read ‘winde’ as wind (blow-the-wind-southerly) and then all the rhymes go askew.

I’ve just looked up Richard Burton’s reading of ‘Go and catch a falling starre’ and it’s not just me! If you look down the comment threads under the YouTube clip, you can see a lovely bit about the line ‘Till age snow white haires on thee’. One commenter had always had the wrong sort of hares in mind. Just imagine – a blizzard of mountain hares (they go white in winter, I’ve seen them) hurled at an old man’s head. This is really a sort of mondegreen, I think, which I’ve written about somewhere else, so I won’t start now.

The trouble is, once you’ve got the wrong image into your head, it’s impossible to undo the effect. Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture – you may have read it. A whole set of poems about a love affair that went amiss. So it starts with rapture, like the title suggests, and then things go wrong. They start to go wrong with a poem titled ‘Row’, of which the first line is ‘But when we rowed’, and this line is repeated as the first of the subsequent three stanzas. I’m in a boat. I have two oars in my hand and I’m rowing merrily.

It’s a pun, isn’t it? But it’s an unintended pun, which is what undoes so much. And I am a punster. I can’t help it. If a word can mean two things, I must have them both, and preferably the wrong one.

But in the right circumstances, this tendency can be liberating. It can demystify the over-awing seriousness of Literature. I can still see the astonishment on the faces of students in my college class when we talked about Shakespeare sonnet 135, and the recurrence of the word ‘Will’.

Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?

‘It’s a pun on his name, of course,’ I said. ‘Will Shakespeare. But what else? Come on. Someone tell me. It’s obvious.’ They didn’t get it. They hadn’t yet read the brutal translation on Gradesaver. They treated Shakespeare with respect. I had to say, ‘It’s his willy.’ Some were appalled. Others were delighted. It was a licence to be bad. And bad we went on to be.

 Picture of a soft toy stuffed white hair with huge ears and a slightly absurd expression, sitting up proudly. There is a real wood in the background.

(Hare pinned from Etsy.com)



If you read a lot of poems, most of them don’t.

Click into place for you, that is.

And then you read one, and it’s like you’re old friends already. That shock of recognition. Weird.

There are lots of reasons why this happens, not all of them to do with the quality or beauty of the poem. Sometimes the poem speaks to you because the circumstances of the writer are close to your own. And sometimes this similarity stretches across time uncannily.

Here, for example, is a fragment from Sappho, translated by Aaron Poochigian:

I declare
That later on,
Even in an age unlike our own,
Someone will remember who we are.

(Μνάσεσθαί τινά φαμι καὶ ὔστερον ἀμμέων.)

Poochigian has created a brief rhyming form for his translation (see Don Paterson, 2004, “a poem is just a little machine for remembering itself”). Neat and clever. One line from Sappho – just the remark that human beings will remember ‘us’, whoever we are – creates a rhyme that confirms the sentiment and is, by the way in which it’s voiced, memorable. Sappho lived two and a half millennia ago. Someone two and a half milliennia ago shared our preoccupation with being remembered.

Actually, the note in the Poochigian’s Penguin Sappho tells me this fragment “appears near the end of a Discourse wrongly ascribed to the Greek writer . . . Dio Chrysostum”: it is a line spoken by a character who is upset because his statue has been taken down – so he “lectures the Corinthians on immortality through art”. Not a personal statement from Sappho, then. And yet perhaps it is. We want it to be, don’t we? We want that to be the voice of Sappho resounding through the centuries, human speaking to human.

Because part of the point of art, especially written art (though Sappho expected to be remembered by ear, not by book), is connected with memory. We want to be remembered. But not just that. Our writing is an attempt for something to be remembered (Poochigian uses this poem as an epigraph to his own first collection, The Cosmic Purr). We feel as though our little lives, insignificant as they are, hold clues to something meaningful.

       —Forgive me. I need to digress. I have discovered only this morning that a whole element of history has escaped me. I didn’t know that our way of talking about ancient history as B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or in the year of Our Lord) has changed. Am I the only person not to have known that now most scholars say CE and BCE? And that CE can ignore Christ because it stands for Common Era (though if you are Christian, you can take the letters to mean Christian Era)? And BCE obviously came before that.

The new terminology doesn’t compensate for the fact that numbers getting smaller as people get older BCE is confusing. But how odd that I didn’t know A.D. had been consigned, along with Noah, to the ark. It’s comforting to note that Carol Ann Duffy, in the preface to the Penguin edition, refers to Sappho as born “after 630 BC”, while the translator (Poochigian) in his introduction to the same volume says she was “born after 630 BCE”. Duffy is my generation. Poochigian is still in his thirties.

Anyway, thanks to the internet I have adjusted my mental framework. The other ancient poet I am working my way towards is more straightforward because she’s a CE poet, so her dates go in the same order as ours: born in 1084 and living to about 1151. I’m referring to Li Ch’ing-chao or Li Qingzhao, another woman whose voice floats down through history. Again, her poems were written as songs with tunes, but print has allowed them to survive. Here is ‘Cassia Flowers’ from the Complete Poems translated by Kenneth Rexroth.

After my sickness
My temples have turned gray
I lie and watch the waning moon
Climb up the gauze window screen.
I boil a drink of cardamom leaf tips
Instead of tea.
It is good to rest on my pillows
And write poetry.
Before the door
Beautiful in wind, shadow and rain,
All day the fragrant cassia blossoms
Bend toward me, delicate and subtle.

Perhaps this poem would not have ‘clicked’ with me normally. I haven’t been sick. My hair is fading but not going gray. I don’t know what cassia blossoms are though I think they may look something like this (follow the link). In her next poem, though, she says “I have studied poetry for thirty years”. I can relate to that.

But I came to this lyric via another route. I am working, as I said last week, on a volume of poems by Tom Duddy. In many ways I feel as though I’m following him through his last couple of years, reading the life through the poems, trying to get inside his head. Here is one of his written in January 2012 (he died six months later). It’s titled ‘First Week of New Year Before Treatment Begins’.

Outside, the storm that came up
as the darkness came down
whacks the loose fence
resoundingly hard
against the gate-post
at our westerly gable.

An engine that can only be
a water pump or road drill
doing emergency work
has droned for hours
(not unpleasantly),
like a small biplane
circling nonstop over Cherry Park.

I drowse by the wood fire,
reading over and over
(during brief spells when
the sparking logs rouse me)
Li Ch’ing-chao’s ‘Cassia Flowers’.  

Now both poems have clicked. I see why Tom read ‘Cassia Flowers’ “over and over”. The Chinese poet wrote this when she was ill; writing was a comfort to her. Tom read it in the same situation. It’s not hard to see and feel the electric connection between two human beings across centuries.

Tom Duddy knew the secrets that make poems remember themselves. Here, the immortality is in the detail. It’s in the word “whacks” that recreates the noise of the loose fence in the storm. It’s in the irrelevant engine that has “droned for hours”, and which only an ill person could notice so precisely. It’s in the “sparking logs”. It’s in the connection between human experience and the weather: the calm after a storm. It’s in the name “Cherry Park”, a housing estate in Galway. I wonder whether Tom heard, even there in the word “Cherry”, an echo of those cassia flowers.

His poem captures that feeling of indolence, the haze that slows down time when we’re neither ill nor well, when action and initiative are removed from us. You can hear it in the sound of the words: flowers, rouse, fire, drowse. Human beings, so long as we’ve existed, must have felt like this at such a time. And Tom’s book, The Years, is at least partly about the mystery of time itself: the way the years vanish in an instant, but also how they stop, everything focussed, sudden and alive, in a single moment.





Yes, it’s TALENT. I know.

As in talent contest. On holiday in Llandudno over 50 years ago, my grandmother made my sister and me enter one. She herself had won a prize for consuming more marshmallows inside a minute than anybody else.

Our task, in the children’s section, was to sing. We were about to perform Brahms’ Lullaby, to which we knew the words. We queued up for our turn on the stage. I (aged five or six) was the older sister: Louise must have thought I knew what to do. But we forgot the words after the first couple of lines and in an agony of embarrassment our chance of fame dissolved.

And then talent turned up again in church, in that mystifying parable. Two faithful servants doubled their allocation of talents, so you got the general idea. The one who buried his in the ground got short shrift. His shrift was so short that the words stuck forever: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

No wonder John Milton in ‘On his blindness’ (available as a HappenStance BardCard) talked about his ability to write as “that one talent which is death to hide”.

And now there is Carol Ann Duffy. The word ‘talent’ pops up all over the place in her work, like a shining coin. She even has a whole poem called Talent.

But I was thinking about T S Eliot and his famous essay, which is now, O wondrous internet, available at the click of a mouse. I was thinking about it – I often do – when reflecting on how hard it is for poets to work out where they fit in. People like me tell them they are not original enough. Where and how does the individual talent fit in, and how do you double it?

So I re-read the essay, which seemed to me much harder work than I originally thought it. In fact, what I had preserved was an interest in the central idea, namely that there is a relationship between the individual writer and the writing tradition, and that this relationship may be a vexed one.

Eliot writes in a traditional essayist’s style and that’s another problem for me now, though it wasn’t when I first read him. In my teens, I thought all poets were men. Now, when I read about “the historical sense” that “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones”, the “man” and the masculine pronoun make me read uncomfortably, like someone in bed with crumbs.

The “historical sense” is, to Thomas Stearns, crucial. It is vital to one’s place in tradition, which cannot “be inherited”. Indeed “if you want it you must obtain it by great labour”. Already his language is semi-biblical. And off he goes:

. . . the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

Blimey. I’d say it’s impossible to write poetry, well or badly, without the pastness of the past getting through. Sometimes aspiring poets say, without compunction, that they don’t read poetry. They worry about being influenced.

It makes no odds. Poetry is in them. It creeps in from the playground. It’s in Sticks and stones can break my bones / but words will never hurt me. It’s in It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man’s snoring and A stitch in time saves nine and Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper, as well as She sells sea-shells on the sea shore.

And more modern sources too: A finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat and Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

The tradition is in the language, the language is in the tradition, the tradition is the history, we are pickled in it from birth. And it gets, willy nilly, nolens volens, into poetry. It’s jiggery pokery and hocus pocus. It’s the Catholic mass and the Cadbury’s fudge advert.

What the poet does with it is quite another matter. She has to find her place in the whirling world of words and still say something or other. Eliot insisted “that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.” I guess that’s the same as saying poets should read.

But then we get to an even harder demand: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” This appeals to me. I absorbed Calvinism with the parable of the talents. But wait – continual extinction? From him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Damn.

It may be argued (with some justification) that I am deliberately muddling Eliot’s noble thesis. Keats’ “negative capability” and Eliot’s extinction of the personality are not a million miles apart. But Eliot goes on to compare the poet to a shred of platinum. I had forgotten this, and I do see why. As memorable metaphors go, it doesn’t rate highly. But then there’s the celebrated bit: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”. This dictum seems to apply remarkably well to Eliot’s own work (invariably true of poets’ definitions of poetry). And it sounds rather good.

Except that he ruins his entire effect by adding petulantly: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

So yes, the essay is interesting, but not as interesting as I thought, or as useful. It is difficult –  coming out of a tradition and at the same time finding a way to be oneself. Perhaps it doesn’t do to dwell on it too much. Perhaps the thing to do is just to keep working away. Keep writing. Stuff talent.