by heart

8 June, 2010

Ever since my year of reading a collection by a different poet each week (chronicled here) I’ve thought I should get into the habit of memorising poetry, but aside from a few random ones learnt years ago, I’ve never quite got round to it. Last week I decided I was going to get on with it, partly just because I think it’s a valuable thing to do, and partly because I thought really getting inside poems would help me in writing them (in the same way that if you want to write excellent poems, you have to read them).

So last week I set myself the task of learning R. S. Thomas‘s ‘The Bright Field’:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

It’s a poem I’ve loved for years, and I’m pleased to now have it in my head. As expected it was a rewarding thing to do, but I wasn’t anticipating quite how helpful and also puzzling it would be. Helpful because learning something by heart helps you to get under its skin, and I was surprised by how little attention I’d paid the poem’s form while mainly appreciating its imperative; but of course it’s the way the poem’s constructed that helps create that imperative. And puzzling because I noticed for the first time (along with the fact that it’s an unrhymed, free verse sonnet – I can’t believe I hadn’t taken even that on board) just how off-kilter it seems, particularly in terms of its lineation, which as I’ve mentioned is something I’m paying particular attention to at the moment. Learning something line by line, and reciting it to yourself in your head and out loud, really points up where the line breaks are; and in this poem Thomas is working with/against all the things I’m trying to learn about what makes for successful lineation. Reading it out loud and pausing (however briefly) at the ends of lines highlights the somewhat puzzling enjambement; I can see why and how the first three work, but why break the syntactic whole of ‘the one field that had / the treasure in it’ in that particular place? Is ‘had’ really a strong enough word to end the line on? Or has he done it to highlight ‘the treasure’ at the beginning of the following line? I guess at this stage I’m still trying to get my head round the ‘rules’ (such as they are), so watching someone break them is bound to be a bit puzzling. I just know that if someone had brought a line broken like that to the workshop last term it would have been pointed up as problematic. The whole thing seems counter-intuitive to some degree, as though Thomas has taken the natural shape of the lines and given them a shove to the right, so they’re all broken up and slightly wonky, with enjambement and caesurae throughout the whole thing. I can see how the gap between the octave and the sestet really enacts the poem’s imperative of not hurrying on: the temptation to rush over that line break and have the meaning of the phrase completed is huge, and that’s exactly what the poem is forcing you to pay attention to. But would I have got away with it in my workshops? Doubtful – I’m a big fan of enjambement, often breaking clauses over stanzas, but never quite so boldly.

If you were allowing each separate thought to have its own line the poem might look more like this:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field for a while,
and gone my way and forgotten it.
But that was the pearl of great price,
the one field that had the treasure in it.
I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it.

Life is not hurrying on to a receding future,
nor hankering after an imagined past.
It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush,
to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once,
but is the eternity that awaits you.

Which of course completely destroys the structure and the rhythm, and turns what was a subtle but powerful piece of observation into a very flat, almost ham-fisted series of banalities. So. Hmm. I have lots to learn. Or maybe the lesson here is that maybe I can trust my ear more than I think I can?

On a vaguely related note, a friend who’s been reading this blog but confesses to ‘not knowing much about poetry’ asked if I could recommend anything to her in terms of finding out a bit more. I suggested looking out collections written by the authors of the poems she said she liked, but also that she get stuck into a couple of anthologies. Anthologies are a great way of discovering poetry, particularly in terms of working out what you do and don’t like, because of course you can dip into a huge range of authors, themes, styles and so on. The two I recommended to her, and which I’d recommend to anyone interested in reading more poetry, are these:

By Heart, edited by Ted Hughes.  Not because I’m suggesting this particular friend (or anyone else for that matter)  necessarily starts memorising poetry as a way of getting into it, but because it’s a lovely anthology, and fairly short and unintimidating, with a wide variety of poems, all of which were favourites of Hughes’s. And of course given that musicality is part of what makes poetry memorable (its roots in the oral tradition means that a lot of poetic technique is about making verse easily memorised), all these poems are particularly beautiful to listen to/read.

Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley. This is a much bigger anthology, and primarily contemporary, so it could be a bit intimidating, but it’s deservedly incredibly popular. Diverse, entertaining, moving, fierce – it’d definitely be a good place to start if you want to find out more about poetry that’s been written in the last three or four decades. It and its sister anthology Being Alive are thematically arranged, which gives you a good handle on the poems inside, and have useful introductions both to poetry in general and to the works themselves. I think the main thing about them both though is that all the poems are very immediate, and as such make a convincing case for the power and relevance of poetry as an art form.

I almost finished this up without mentioning that yes, I am now writing again, and I have no fewer than six brand-new pieces on the go. Wonders will clearly never cease.

This post brought to you by trips to the beach, the woods, the broads, and London. Plants and expeditions courtesy of visiting mothers; music courtesy of the Bam Bam Sound.

3 Responses to “by heart”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tim Lenton, Katherine Venn. Katherine Venn said: by heart – http://bit.ly/8XLPWB […]

  2. Claire said

    I’m struggling to see why you’d break the two verses up, cos it seems clunky. Unless it’s a kind of joke of wanting to move directly to the future without appreciating the pause.

    Are you meant to leave a small pause at the end of a line, even if it’s the middle of a sentence then? I thought the point of knowing how to read any poem more complicated than Revolting Rhymes was that you didn’t mind the line breaks.

    Anyway, I like it. Never sure how much I like the idea it’s expressing, or like the poem yet.

    Cheers
    The friend who (obviously after those comments lol) doesn’t know much about poetry x

  3. […] also took in the R. S. Thomas poem that was puzzling me last week, along with my version of it that put each thought on its own line, […]

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