the most beautiful poem you know

7 October, 2009

Apologies for the delay in posting. I realised on Friday that it probably wasn’t a good day for posting after all, what with finishing off Poetics reading in the morning, the seminar in the afternoon, and of course chatting in the grad bar afterwards… Posting took a backseat to actually getting on with the writing of poetry over the weekend, and then this week I’ve been completely wiped out with tonsilitis (miserable). The antibiotics are finally kicking in and I’m starting to feel a bit better, but it’s really frustrating to be missing out on everything – all the reading and writing I want to be doing, the workshop I had to miss yesterday, and various fun I’ve had planned.

Poetics, then. I mentioned the week before last that I was really excited at the thought of getting stuck into literary theory again, and looking forward to getting on with the reading. Last Monday saw this exciting delivery from amazon:

goodies from amazon

These are my three essential texts for the module – Classical Literary Criticism, Sidney’s ‘Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism and Poetry in Theory:

essential texts

And joining them are a couple of extras I treated myself to – John Lennard’s The Poetry Handbook, Terry Eagleton’s How To Read a Poem and the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory:

poetry gubbins 2

– mmm, yummy books!

So last week’s topic for Poetics was ‘Poetry and Truth’ – might as well start with the big guns – and our reading included parts of Plato’s Republic and Ion, Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy and a couple of other pieces. Fascinating stuff – especially as I’d never read any Plato before. We’d been encouraged to come at it all from a practitioner’s point of view, so it was fun to argue/disagree with/question everything as I read it, and look for the connections between it and the way I read, the way I write. To be honest I disagreed with most of what Plato had to say about poetry; his willingness to sacrifice truth for an ideal state seems rather puzzling given his insistence on the importance of truth in general; at times he seemed so illogical and contradictory that I wondered if I was missing something. But for me the ultimate, and most delightful, irony is that he privileges diagesis (ie narrative, the author speaking in their own voice) over mimesis (imitation, the author speaking in the voice of their character), and yet his entire writing appears to be a conversation between Socrates and various others. Brilliant – to me this seemed to destabilise all his rather high and mighty (authoritarian? dictatorial?) ideas about poetry and how it relates to society…

Equally thought-provoking was the poet Laura Riding‘s writing about her poetry (Preface, 1938 and Introduction, 1980), which I found frankly hilarious in places; her utter seriousness and unsmiling conviction at her own rightness was both amusing and impressive. Her take on poetry is this:

One reads to uncover to oneself something that would otherwise remain unknown – something that one feels it is important to know.

I think I’d broadly agree with this – both in reading and in writing. She brings up all sorts of fascinating questions that I wanted to argue with, but in my rather weakened state I think I’ll spare you that for now.

So it was all good, chewy stuff, and we had a thoughtful seminar discussing it all. But to me what was most interesting of all was that we didn’t really talk about the notion of ‘truth’ at all; we sort of took it as a given that the idea of truth is desirable and possible. And that’s rather a big assumption, isn’t it?

This week (assuming I’m better by Friday) we’re looking at ‘Poetry and Beauty’. Having been sick I haven’t looked at any of the reading yet, but it includes Longinus’ On the Sublime, Shelley, Barthes and Wallace Stevens. And we’ve been asked to e-mail the tutor ‘the most beautiful short poem that you know’. What a challenge! I’ve been mulling this over all week and it’s even harder than I first thought, because when a poem really moves me, I’m not convinced it’s primarily its beauty that does that… it’s more about what it’s saying (though of course beauty is a part of that). Going through some of my favourites I’m not sure I could say that any of them are ‘the most beautiful poem I know’. Running out of time, I opted for this gem, by John Burnside. It’s from his 2007 collection Gift Songs.

Varieties of Religious Experience: XI Lares

All afternoon I have heard you
going from room to room, as if you would offer
the gift of a watchful presence, the gift of a look
to how the sunlight gathers in the folds
of curtains
how the shadows on the wall
flit back and forth, more sparrow, or swallow in flight
than birds would have been.

Like you I have felt it today, that space in our house
where doors might swing open
messengers appear:
the curve of a bowl, or the red in a vase of carnations
softly assuming the forms of a visitation.

We go for weeks and never catch ourselves
like this, the trace of magic we possess
locked in the work of appearing, day after day,
in the world of our making;

we go for months with phantoms in our heads
till, filling a bath, or fetching the laundry in,
we see ourselves again, at home, illumined,
folding a sheet, or pouring a glass of milk
bright in the here and now, and unencumbered.

I’d love to read your most beautiful poems…

This post brought to you by the miracle of antibiotics and Bella’s patented hot toddy recipe; music by James Remote

Varieties of Religious Experience: XI Lares

    All afternoon I have heard you
    going from room to room, as if you would offer
    the gift of a watchful presence, the gift of a look
    to how the sunlight gathers in the folds
    of curtains
               how the shadows on the wall
    flit back and forth, more sparrow, or swallow in flight
    than birds would have been.

    Like you I have felt it today, that space in our house
    where doors might swing open
                                messengers appear:
    the curve of a bowl, or the red in a vase of carnations
    softly assuming the forms of a visitation.

    We go for weeks and never catch ourselves
    like this, the trace of magic we possess
    locked in the work of appearing, day after day,
    in the world of our making;

    we go for months with phantoms in our heads
    till, filling a bath, or fetching the laundry in,
    we see ourselves again, at home, illumined,
    folding a sheet, or pouring a glass of milk
    bright in the here and now, and unencumbered.

2 Responses to “the most beautiful poem you know”

  1. kayvee said

    Liz’s most beautiful poem is ‘Tonight I can write the saddest lines’ by Pablo Neruda – http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/tonight-i-can-write-the-saddest-lines/

  2. […] cheat and get a computer to do some of the thinking for me, by putting in the text of all the most beautiful poems that the class came up with a few weeks ago into http://www.wordle.net and seeing what it looked like. […]

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