This might take some time. A couple of months ago I watched a television programme about R S Thomas. (An hour long programme on R S Thomas. On the BBC. Not on Larkin or Hughes or Heaney- surely a once in a lifetime event). It was quite good although I would have preferred more about the poetry and less about the man. Towards the end there was an interview with Rowan Williams who made the point that Thomas’ verse was a kind of working out of what it is like to be within the “scope of God” and also noted that George Herbert’s poetry could be seen in the same way. I didn’t pay too much attention to this notion apart from thinking that Thomas was a much more reluctant Christian than Herbert.
Last week I attended my father-in-law’s funeral, my wife had initially intended to say a few words during the service but her brother suggested that she should read a poem about her father that she had written over twenty years ago. Her brother is not at all a poetry fan, neither was his father but it emerged that this particular poem had assumed a significance in his life.
This realisation that people with little or no interest can somehow find poetry to be important and appropriate set off the following train of thought-
I’m not religious and therefore cannot know what it feels like to be within the scope of God, nor would I wish to equate the way I feel about poetry with some kind of faith but poetry does exert a degree of influence over me. I think Williams meant that both poet’s were aware of God and of the fact that he was aware of them and that ‘scope’ is not the same as either ‘presence’ or ‘reach’.
The precise nature of this influence is difficult to identify. My enthusiasm for poetry is negatively affected by the extent of my depression and there have been times in the recent past when reading poetry demanded too much from me in terms of attention and writing about poetry just seemed (for me) to be utterly foolish. There are other times when I get really enthusiastic about some new discovery and have an absolute need to write about it an to become immersed in it. Fortunately there is a middle ground where I don’t do the manic read-everything-at-once behaviour where I can approach things with a degree of care. It is however poetry that holds both my interest and my attention, in a recent trough I decided to dive into narrative history and catch up on the early Tudors. This is the standard way that I try and keep the demons at bay. On this occasion I became distracted by the work of Stephen Hawes and John Skelton both of whom are endlessly fascinating. I then tried to read a political history of the 1590s but became distracted by the sonnet explosion of 1592/3 which has always struck me as deeply odd.
I like to think that I’m not obsessed by poetry, I am interested in a range of other things and try to take some notice of what’s going on in other fields of creative endeavour but my interest in poetry is radically different from my interest in music or politics and this brings me back to the ‘scope’ metaphor. I’m not one of those that thinks that poetry has any kind of privileged access to the truth but I am prepared to concede that poetry can enhance/transform the language and it is language that we live by. To give a brief example, Hawes and Spenser both used language against itself in the 16th century to great effect and Celan and Prynne have done the same. The ‘scope’ comes from the fact that poets have this particular ability to challenge and undermine the thing that we live by.
I would also argue that it was poetry’s scope that caused my brother-in-law to suggest that a poem rather than a speech should be read at his father’s funeral.
Having written this, I now realise that this view could get quite elitist, along the lines of how only poets can fundamentally change things because of their expertise with words. My hurriedly drawn-up counter argument would be that poetry is quite democratic in that it (mostly) trades in the words that we use every day whereas the vast majority of us don’t use either music or paint as our primary means of communication. Of course poetry can become too poetic for its own good and poets remain the biggest bitches on the planet but the fact remains that it is really rather central in the scheme of things whether we like it or not.
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