It’s odd how you can have a bee in your brain for years that it is better to read the poems before you read the poet’s life. That you should feel the meaning, the emotion, before analysing and understanding but maybe destroying the sense of impact of a poem. You may run the risk of diluting your senses with the logic of style over content, biased with knowledge of the poet’s life that has itself been interpreted by themselves or biographer or maybe just the referenced facts, ma’am, just the facts. I initially like to believe my own interpretation of the poet as written or between their lines, in preference to any facts. Or maybe, as a man who always sits on the fence and continuously falls one side or the other, randomly, I should just accept that it is you, the reader of that poem, makes the decision:
I like that poem. I like that poet.
Today I understand what it says to me, tomorrow may be different and anyway, did the author add the interpretations consciously or have we constructed the tower ourselves? The beauty of a poem is that it may offer a myriad of possibilities or as few as we want to ascribe to it. Re-reading at any time may change its meaning, like this mild rant will soon be over and forgotten, or exhumed by me and maybe recanted.
Blank verse, Parnassians, imagists, concrete, et al; styles that have appeared over the last hundred years have been ventured by circumstance and personality. New formats are mingling with the tides of history, the last years of Victoriana turning into a new Century and World Wars and blank verse. Our present ability to instantly communicate, pushing the potential speed of change with catastrophic events churning people’s emotions and expectations at the stroke of a key is ike an express train entering a tunnel and out again, only to see the same scenery before the next tunnel and having to cope with a higher speed. Behind you, the hinterland spreading out, still visible, still viable and before you; the hinterland still.
Look back and there is truly little changed. The poet, the artist, is relating his ‘art’ to the strictures of the time and either works within or pushes at, the boundaries and in some cases steps over the known lines and creates a new land, a new world almost, that will be explored and discovered. Whether this uses old or new techniques, often combinations, probably does not matter. The context may change, words and outline, rhythm of verse or language alter. Is it storytelling, making a point or having a laugh? The nature of the human mind has not changed too much, just a percentage of the knowledge it might contain.
For whom is the poem written? As a personal form of creation you cannot assume it is for an audience though when poetry is published or performed it presumably is. When poetry is being shown to peer groups it also provides the answer that it is ultimately for public consumption and appreciation even if the actuality of the event is part of a learning process.. (Even if that appreciation is by way of outrage at the work’s content; being the work’s aim). Or maybe not, it could be self expression thrown out, discarded and not meant for public scrutiny. Ultimately it is an emotion. At the end, at the finish, no emotion and it fails. But then what about you? The cliche must be that art is in the eye of the beholder, its value is for the one that appreciates it and possibly it’s survival in the emotional value given to it by the masses.
Not forgetting the psychological needs of some poets to write or the value of the written word for personal well-being and self-awareness. More philosophical scratchings about poetry not meant for publication as too personal or too bad, versus the need for greater understanding of the poet! And Political Poetry, written with force and vitriol and truth or subtle stiletto-humour; designed to strike the moment it is released. The power often lives on to wave an emotional flag for the cause, whichever side the historical coin has fallen. A penny ballad, ‘pamphleteered’ or graffiti, it is all of the day and a social record, a present echo.
I have to admit to reading and appreciating books on criticism and biographies of poets and writers. They are not dismissed, my concern is when do I read them? Before or after the poems, the poet? It has to be after, when the poetry has dug itself in and the biography or criticism will be agreed with or pondered on but the poems will remain whether or not their interpretation stays.
Have I rambled the circle yet? Do I read poetry to learn something of the poet or something of myself? Should I read of the poet to re-interpret the poetry or accept that poem, as read, for what it means to me? I read the poetry first, then I read about the poet…. sometimes! So where does my title fit in? You tell me! Honey is the result, (if you like honey), of a myriad of bees, honeycombed in the hive from the nectar of a billion flowers.
I have read that honey-bees and solitary bumble-bees are in danger of dying out and without them life would be significantly harder. I hope they will survive. In many different places they are thriving but we should nurture their habitat as well as understand their lifestyle and frailties.
Poetry is probably being written by more people than ever before, a wider variety available in translation, new and historic. Individually poets have less readers, in total they are also less read than ever before, quite a surprising thought considering the population growth over the last century.
Poets look out for themselves, it is their poetry that needs to be nurtured. By reading and buying poetry we can ensure they will thrive but also that the fabric of our societies refresh and maybe advance.
(apologies and thanks to James Reeve, Terry Eagleton and Tom Barnes to mention but a few.)