Wednesday, October 20

A Continuing Education

Pondering a little over the last few days as a result of the various discussions about reviewing that have taken place -- While replying to Martin Blyth's comments posted here, I found myself thinking how reviews, from my point of view (I’m going to partly repeat my response to the comment, so I can get to where I’m going with this), are and have always been a place to be honest, to ask questions, and to look for answers. I know quite a lot about poetry, but there’s a bigger, enormous amount I don’t know, and reading and reviewing books is one way of continuing a continuing education.

I’ve always found it much more difficult to write about work I like than to write about work I don’t like. I find it very difficult to explain why certain things touch me profoundly, and make me fall in love with words all over again. I remember how at University I submitted my first English essay, which was about John Donne. And my teacher, when she talked to me about the essay, smiled and said something like, “Well, Martin, I now know you like Donne. But your job was to tell me why. Wow! isn’t enough.” And the same applies to one’s dislikes too, of course. It’s not enough, in other words, to say “This is horrible.”

A recent piece I did on the New York School poets (who you will probably know I absolutely like loads), which is also lurking somewhere on Stride, was very difficult to write because I still hear her telling me it's no good just saying you like something, or don't like something; you have to say Why. And articulating those reasons can be very demanding and, actually, very instructive.

I learned something about the New York poets while writing that review. And I learned something about well-behaved poems writing the Laskey review. It may all have been stuff I already sort of knew but had never before articulated. But it felt like discovery. It always surprises me, even now, how often you can suddenly find yourself having written something and you look at it and think, Crikey! Yes, that’s it exactly. Why didn’t I think of that before! Or, perhaps, and maybe more likely: Do I mean what I just said? And you have to examine what you’re thinking and writing. In many respects writing a review is exactly the same as writing a poem. For me, anyway.

Having said which, I know I'm very able to have prejudices about certain poets and types of poems. But in the process of reviewing and therefore articulating my views, I've more than once found myself re-thinking and coming to different and unexpected conclusions. If Michael Laskey had written 20 poems about the death of his parents that absolutely stunned me, then I’d have had to rethink my ideas about poems about the death of loved ones, and about books that revolve around those kind of events, and about poems that owe many of their values to the world of the poetry workshop. But that didn’t happen. In short, I think sometimes I've found myself changing what I thought was my mind as often as I’ve found words for what I’ve always thought but never quite been able to say. (Of course, sometimes I just say what I meant to say and knew what I was going to say and it’s very simple; I don’t want to give the impression I live in a state of never-ending revelation.) But, as far as I’m concerned, it's all about questions. I've always suspected that for lots of people in poetry world it's about something else.

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