Poetry and the Search for Meaning

cat and poetry

I like a good grandiose blog-post title, and this is one I’ve been wanting to use for a while, so I’m pleased the opportunity has arisen. On Monday I went for the first time to the Poetry Society’s regular ‘Poetry Review Discussion’ evening (above the Poetry Café in Betterton Street, Covent Garden), where interested PS members discuss poems from the most recent Poetry Review, exchange ideas, point out literary references, offer alternative perspectives, and generally have an enjoyable poetry chat in a friendly, non-threatening, and non-judgemental atmosphere. It was during, or shortly after, this discussion that I realised I might have found a use for my portentous title. After all, what were we doing if not searching for meaning in each poem, and doesn’t every poem represent such a search on the part of the poet? I think it does.

But first, the Monday evening ‘Poetry Review Discussion’:

What I write here are my own impressions only and I apologise to our very welcoming host, Paul McGrane, and my fellow Poetry Society-ers annemarie, Terry, Holly, John and Nick if I misrepresent the group feeling.

The poems we chose were diverse:

1 – Frank and Lemons by Hugh Smith

2 – Correspondences (I) by Angelina D’Rosa

3 – Four Huntingdonshire Codices by John Greening

4 – On the Backyard Decking by Helen Grant

5 – Self-Portrait without Stitches by Safia Elhillo

6 – The art of trying by Sam Buchan-Watts

But there were links, thematic and other strands, running between them:

  • all the poems with perhaps one exception seemed to be voices searching for identity;
  • all, with one exception, appeared fractured or split – the identities of the speakers to one extent or another coming apart at the seams – or were these separate voices being represented, echoes of others who have no voice of their own? (we remained undecided I think on this point when it came to Self-Portrait without Stitches);
  • all but one of the poems required some thinking about, some putting together, they were in various ways ‘difficult’ in terms of extracting a precise meanings (we felt differently about this, but I will come back to why I found this to be a positive thing);
  • all the voices, again with one exception, felt as though they were expressing some confusion, becoming or being lost, fading out or clinging on to sanity and Self;
  • and finally, all the poems contained elements of ekphrasis (with a single exception).

The exception in all these cases was On the Backyard Decking by Helen Grant, a stunningly direct weaponization of erotica which really deserves a post of its own, but I feel compelled to say something about here as our group spent at least twice as much time discussing this poem as the others. Selected by a middle-aged man out of genuine curiosity and I think some bewilderment and irritation, but who did not want to read it out aloud (and I don’t blame him, I wasn’t about to volunteer), this poem put us (and I can only speak for the middle-aged male heterosexual members of the group) exactly where it wanted us. The poem presents the reader with a woman who openly, vigorously and defiantly masturbates in front of a male neighbour who is watching her from over the fence as she is sunbathing. At the end of the poem, she says: “I held up my used, two fingers in front of my face:/flipped those fingers and thumb like a gun/to shoot him, before they were sucked clean.” Rarely if ever have I found a poem so successful in forcing its intended reader (and while many or even most poems do not have an ‘intended’ reader, I think this one does) to confront themselves and their impulses, desires and, ultimately, their ‘gaze’. You could write it off as deliberately shocking or attention-seeking, you could be maddened (as one of our group was) by the deliberate titillation, or you could make the claim (again as one of our group did) that if a man had written the poem about a man masturbating is would not get published because it would just seem creepy (yes it would, but switching the roles is too easy a get-out – few heterosexual women would be turned on by watching their male neighbour masturbate, whereas few heterosexual men would turn down the opportunity to watch a woman do the same if it could they could get away with it in secrecy [okay, I can’t prove that]). But all of the above misses the point of this, yes, deliberately shocking poem, which is that it leaves nowhere for a male heterosexual reader to hide. To read it is to be confronted with your own titillation, but out of secret, out of the darkness of a private fantasy and into the intellectual, spiritual, literary realm of ‘The Poem’ – and on Monday night into a little well-lit room above the Poetry Café! The poet has us, as they say, by the short and curlies. Poet and/or narrator forces reader and/or neighbour to accept that the eroticism of the piece is being used against him, rather than for his pleasure. The ‘male gaze’ is thereby reclaimed – albeit briefly, I guess – from men, for women. And in the reclaiming there is genuine power. I wrote recently about performance/page, and it is fascinating to consider how the public performance of this poem might play with the dynamic between the performer/narrator and the audience.

(I repeat, though I would hope I don’t need to, that the preceding paragraph is a male cishet reading – I would love to see alternative ones in the comments.)

The clarity of this backyard scene is, as I say, in contrast with the other poems we read, and part of the reason for this is that the woman in the poem knows exactly who she is and what she is doing, that is her strength (it is the neighbour, the male heterosexual reader, who must work at defining, decoding himself). But in the other poems we looked at, the perceived complexity of the poems comes, I think, from the fact that the ‘speakers’, and perhaps the poets, are using the poems as a means to understand themselves. In other words, the poems are a tool in their (and our) search for meaning. The speaker in Four Huntingdonshire Codices appears to be struggling with dementia, hanging on almost desperately to the poem’s increasingly jarringly-rhymed tercets; the speaker of Correspondences (I) struggles with the “unreliability of memory” and gives the sense that as they to hold on to memories of their son they are losing a hold on sanity themselves, finishing the poem by reciting “You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine.” (it’s interesting to note that although this poem seems to encourage an assumption that the speaker is a woman, there are no actual gender references); the speaker of Self-Portrait without Stitches seems to be coming apart like an unhealed (FGM) wound with spaces rather than punctuation emphasising the ‘opening up’ of each line’s flow, as though set down by an individual who is psychologically coming apart; and the speaker of The art of trying ruminates on the artifice of truth-building as both craft and means of survival, even as speaking causes the grip on Self to weaken (“The ‘I’ speaks out and disperses”).

The quote of the week comes from Jean Sprackland, whose excellent Crystallography was included in Poetry Review but was not one of our selections. “There is an epidemic of certainty” she said at a Manchester Writing School event, “and I am increasingly aware of the importance of not knowing”, showing some good sense that seems much missing in the world at the moment. And it seems to me that what is so important about the state of ‘not knowing’ is that it exists in tandem with a state of ‘searching for meaning’. This is the search that poetry helps us undertake, and it is by no means always an easy search. However, it is one that is central to the human condition (for anyone who has not read Viktor Frankl’s Auschwitz/logotherapy book Man’s Search for Meaning I would recommend it). This is why our group had such a great time talking about these poems. It is why I like poems whose meaning is not immediately apparent, and why I am happy to walk away from a poem in a state of ‘not knowing’ – that is just a poem for me to come back to on another day. It is also, I think, why we should be careful before reading poems as poets’ finished thoughts on a subject (and leaping on them as, say, fascists) rather than as part of their own personal search for meaning. As readers, we need to distinguish between our own certainties about life and the certainties we think we see in poetry. To continue Jean’s metaphor: Poetry should work as a vaccine to the epidemic of certainty, not an exacerbation of it.

Finally, before rounding off this overlong blog post: Paul asked us to choose who we would like to see as Poet Laureate, and I made a couple of selections along with everyone else. But I think based on the above quote I would change my Laureate choice to Jean Sprackland!

Poetry Review Autumn 2018, from which all the above poems came, is available if you join the Poetry Society, here.

11 thoughts on “Poetry and the Search for Meaning”

  1. I read Jean Sprackland’s ‘Crystallography ‘at the afternoon session, which I found a better poem, with none of the searching for identity that you suggest is involved. As for ‘On the Backyard Decking”, and its ‘weaponization of erotica’ (or masculinization of erotica?) I know very few women – in fact none at all – who would either masturbate in full few of a male neighbour or write a poem about it, which is basically the literary equivalent. There, it seems to me, lies a very definite crisis of identity!!

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      1. The poem certainly makes me feel uncomfortable, and perhaps this effect is what was intended, scandal being a useful short cut to publicity. I do find the poem unconvincing though. But I’m not surprised it led to lively discussion, being provocative in more ways than one. I haven’t been able to track down other poems by this writer, but it will be interesting to see what she comes up with next.

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      2. No, I can’t find much online about her either. Uncomfortable is exactly the right word for this particular poem. We’re not used to being made to feel uncomfortable by poetry (I can’t actually think of any other poems that do it, although I’m sure there must be some) but I find it fascinating that the art form can be used this way rather than being used to elicit a more superficially positive reaction (not saying all positive reactions are superficial of course, but this is a poem that forces us to ask serious questions about what erotica is and who it’s for. There’s something very central to the way men and women look at each other going here I think.

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      3. I’d have liked to hear the Decking poem read aloud to see how it came across, and whether it has more than shock value. It’s certainly a talking point, and is unusual for entering an area more usually covered by novelists and comedians. Incidentally, in what sense do you find ‘Crystallography’ ekphrastic? The growth of crystals, being the result of natural forces, can’t really be regarded as an art form. It seems to me that the poet is conveying via the crystal theme her own response to family relationships and the passage of time. Crystallography in this context also serves as a metaphor for poetry itself..

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      4. Yes, I think a public reading of the poem would introduce new areas of interest and difficulty. I agree with you about Crystallography, it’s a lovely poem but I don’t think it’s ekphrastic. We actually didn’t read this one at the group last Monday so I wasn’t including it under the same banner as the others. I rather like the idea that crystals are the earth’s own art though…perhaps if we thought of natural phenomena as literal artworks we’d be a bit more careful with the planet!

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      5. Many apologies, I only realised after I’d posted that your group hadn’t chosen to read Crystallography. I do rather tire of the current ekphrastic fashion, the original work of art usually being more riveting than the poem written about it! Perhaps that’s not surprising since ekphrasis was originally a rhetorical exercise, and there still seems to be something a bit worthy and homeworky about what it produces.

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      6. I know what you mean. There does seem to be a lot of art poems about. And yes, it can feel a little workshopped sometimes. it’s like poems about poems and the process of writing poems, I sometimes get the feeling we’ve sort of run out of ideas a bit at that stage!

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      7. I’m all for love, death, sorrow, joy, pain, time, chance, good and evil as themes, not to speak of (or perhaps to speak quite loudly) of family!

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