The Scope of Poetry

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.

10 responses to “The Scope of Poetry

  1. Maybe your wife’s poem was good? That would certainly explain the mystery. But even if it hadn’t been, the fact of its being a poem would count for a lot — and I think that’s no bad thing.

    Poetry is language heightened — in its technical aspects, including sound and rhythm, and in its effects, including formality and expressivity. (The dual meanings of “formal” capture some of this.) The full relationship of the technical aspects to the effects is complex, obviously — but one piece of it is quite simple. Giving a text a some technical trappings of a poem suffices, by the power of association, to give it some of the effects of a poem. This association is at work in both “good” poetry and “bad”, and maybe most visibly in poems that are “not even bad” — sincere ungainly prose loosened by line-breaks. And I think it means that even unpracticed readers, and our unpoetic culture, show themselves open, potentially, to more challenging uses of language.

    (For a musical analogy, consider the use of avant-garde 20th-century classical music technique in horror movies. It’s unsophisticated, but it’s not wrong — the associations of dissonance etc. with extreme mental states are certainly at work in prestigious music as well — and it means many listeners who think they wouldn’t enjoy a concert of Xenakis actually have a foot in the door already.)

    • Thanks for this considered response, this is very much a thought in progress. The poem is a good poem but we’d both forgotten about it but my unpoetic brother-in-law hadn’t and this tied in with me the ‘scope’ notion. I think the real strength of poetry that sets it aside from music is that it applies technique (for the want of a better word) to ordinary language and that the very best poetry is able to work both within and against that language. The scope that I feel myself to be within springs from this deliberate confrontation. I don’t think that Prynne’s motivation for doing what he does is ‘correct’ but what he produces is both strong and essential (as is the later Celan).
      Music can also work against itself but most of us think in words rather than notes.

  2. Suppose the ‘poem’ was something like this (lifted from a greeting card website)—
    Love is a miracle, sweet as can be,
    That will always remain a complete mystery.
    For though it is something that’s centuries old,
    It cannot be purchased for silver or gold.
    But instead must be given of one’s own free will,
    And received with no promises it must fulfill.
    It does not surpass my credulity to imagine someone touched by these lines. Grandma getting them on a handmade card, say. But I’d hate to base my assessment of the ‘scope of poetry’ using them as a model. Gertrude Stein said that she wrote for herself and strangers. This seems a better way of thinking about this situation. That his daughter took the time to write a poem expressing how she felt about him, that she took the effort to put it into some kind of poetic form (or is ‘verse’ the right word?), that she mastered a certain reticence and read it to him—seems sufficient to account for your father-in-law’s ardency—and I don’t mean to belittle this even slightly. My mother recently died and in going through some pictures I came across an old photo of my just married parents sitting—no, absolutely luxuriating—in a river. It captures them like no studio portrait could. This picture means a great deal to me, but it would not mean much to you, stranger.
    I’m not sure I’m ready to propose the ‘myself and strangers’ test for poetry, except to say that a poem must spring from some necessity in the person who wrote it and it also must meet some necessity for someone who does not have any personal connection with the poet. That mom likes your poem, little Jimmy, may not be of much significance. And isn’t it amazing how all your close friends are doing such good work!
    On the other hand, poetry as a working out the ‘scope of God’ is interesting. I’ll take you back to ‘Anne of Green Gables’ for a moment and remember that Anne was always talking about ‘scope for the imagination’. It’s a nice word, familiar yet it lends itself to, ah, metaphorical uses. The Archbishop may be playing with us here. ‘Scope’ is, after all, merely an area that we are focusing on—the scope of our investigation… why not just say Thomas’ poetry is a genuine portrayal of a religious life, one that allows one to see religion and religious people as something more than Richard Dawkins caricatures…well, the ‘scope of God’ is more succinct.
    I’d be interested in hearing your opinion the difference between writing poetry and reading it. Is this the difference between making something and understanding it? By the way, speaking of R S Thomas, in the Nassau County public library system (pop: approximately 1.5 million, quite affluent) there are exactly zero copies of his poetry. There is a message here, I’m afraid.

    • I don’t have access to the original Williams quote, but he mentions Thomas and Herbert in this interview with David Hare. I’m attracted to ‘scope’ because that’s how I think/feel about poetry and I’d like to think that it operates in a much broader sense than traditional notions of influence and the canon> I still haven’t worked this out and I’m probably unduly influenced by the religious verse that I’m currently reading. Nassau County needs to be named and shamed for this appalling negligence, Southampton City library has both the Collected and the Later…

    • Is it hard to use the university libraries there? I see Hofstra has several Thomas books. At the San Francisco public library (serving 800,000) we have a few of his books, but there’s also the Link+ system for interlibrary borrowing. In fact, I’m off to get a Link+ book right now….

  3. Yes it is. To get in to the Hofstra Library you need to be student/ staff/ faculty. Would it be possible to get in if you made a nuisance of yourself? Probably so; I’ve never really tried. And truth to tell, the public library will make the effort to find a copy of a book they do not have, (and as long as we’ve telling the truth, as a member of the faculty at City College, I have access to all the libraries of the City University of New York—I’m not hurting for things to read) but the observation stands. No library in what has to be one of the more affluent areas of the United States has a copy of any poetry by R S Thomas on the shelf.
    John, I did read the interview with David Hare. A little disconcerting. I’m going to propose a new definition of God: Someone who we just can resist putting words in his mouth.
    And perhaps I’ll leave it at that.
    And I renew my question: any discussion about the scope of poetry has to look at both the reading of it and the writing of it. In my modest experience at trying to write it, I have to say the two activities are very different. They may even get in the way of each other. Are ‘making’ and ‘understanding’ useful ways of distinguishing the two?

    • They are different activities but they are related, most people read or hear a poem before trying to write one and I think to make really good poetry you need to have a really good understanding of it. In my case it was the realisation that the heightened language of the poem was very powerful that led me to try and write my own. I also recognise that I write and read within the scope of my idea of poetry and that this scope is multi-faceted (as is the reading and the writing).
      There’s also the writing and talking about poetry which is different again but is still within the scope. I write about poetry because I enjoy writing and I think that poetry deserves to be taken seriously so I use this space primarily to communicate my enthusiasm and occasionally give some of my stuff an airing. We both do these three things but there are surely more similarities than differences- aren’t there?

    • I don’t really have a point to make here, but — what’s this? Looks to me like the 1970s Selected.

  4. Yes, I tried to get this edition. Not on the shelf (and it took maybe 6 weeks to find this out). Thomas is a first rate poet. You should be able to walk in and find him waiting. I think we agree here.
    (By the way, my smart-ass ‘definition’ should read ‘can’t resist’. And I will try to resist such gestures in the future.)

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