52 Ways of looking at a Poem.
A Graph Review 58 with assorted high points 65
author: Ruth Padel
available as Vintage,
my copy: 2004 paperback. £10.99 978 009942915 0
(A Year from Her Celebrated Newspaper Column)
Poems dated 1971 to 1998
Now here is a book that has so many reasons to be read. Not merely (!) as poetry but as an explanation for the way poets can write, be interpreted and infiltrate the mind. Ultimately, like a subconscious memory, half remembered lines or sentiments can prod and provoke the reader into thought and action filtered from a poet or poem. Poems here are those that have appeared in her weekly column ‘The Sunday Poem’ in The Independent on Sunday and her thoughts on them (okay you might say explanations, should call it analysis but they read much more interestingly than the term implies)
For whatever reason you read poetry or if you need an excuse to start or have a phobia against it then dip into this book. There is no guarantee but the 52 poems by 52 poets with accompanying notes by Ruth Padel will show the reader a range of poetry with confident analysis that threads beautifully between technical and pure enjoyment of the subject and poet. Her observations on the debt resurgent, modern British Poetry owes to English translations of modern poems written in Irish (Gaelic) and from overseas poets from the Caribbean and Aus/NZ fit well with her brief explanations of English poetry/styles through the ages.
I much prefer the emotion and effect of reading poetry and tend to steer clear of deep analysis for fear of diluting the effect (on me) of the poem. ( Ignoring the fact I am probably not very good at it for the those very reasons of losing immediate effect and emotion). However, greater understanding of the reason why a poem ‘works’ as an individual can be very rewarding on a psychological level. If you suspend emotion the technical dynamics of a poem may also give pleasure. Imagine yourself as a surgeon during an operation and concentrate on the the skin, it’s structure, the veins, muscle and bone that you uncover and consider that each has its own commitment to the whole and individually to understanding of being. The structure and content of a poem exists but the reason why a word, a line or the whole poem resonates is (almost) definable.
Having just written this I realise that in her introductory essay, Ruth Padel starts with a much clearer approach to the ‘whys’ of reading poetry. Followed by a superb resume of modern poetry moving through the last half of the twentieth century, touching as needs be on the poets and styles of earlier years and ages. As you have seen my lame attempt above you really need to read her lucid explanation in the initial essay.
My random list of some of the 52 poets included: Jo Shapcott, Paul Muldoon, Selima Hill, Les Murray, Fleur Adcock, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, Patience Agbabi, Peter Redgrove, Susan Wicks, Thom Gunn, Christopher Reid.
With each poem there is an analyses that adds meaning to the poem, poet’s intentions and uses the ‘technical’ terms in a way that explains their particular meaning and use as a tool. What I like is the fact that the author points out that the reading of the poem may influence the technical analysis and especially that many ‘terms of analysis’ are historic constructs. Constructs that have been superseded or have alternative possibilities or names. Terms are still being invented or imported because the structures of poems and their writers (in English/English translation) push boundaries and seemingly overturn or fracture conventions. Why more invention? To enable the reader to understand the poem’s meaning/s. One of her emphases is that all poets write from differing angles and all readers read from differing angles. The initial point of contact is emotional and from there you may invest in analysis to develop and maintain that point of contact.
My fear is that too much analysis may end up being detrimental to your appreciation. There is also the possibility that the reader reads/analyses more into the poem than the poet actually intended or at least intended consciously. This is where the readers interpretations must relate to content. Remembering that poets may well be layering story over story or parallels of meaning as well as echoing the past in story or poet or fact or myth. Of course, the more skilful in more areas a poet is, then the deeper and wider you may end up going. Divining what a poet is trying to say and what the poem says is not always the same thing. Shakespeare may be a great and common example of many things pulled together and re-created in writing of and for the day yet has remained open to interpretation and discussion whilst remaining a cornerstone description of humanity
Throughout, the book is an exciting variety of poems and poets. Good value just for the range of poets and poems. A huge addition is in the author’s ‘Readings’ of the poetry. The explanations of each are deep enough to be thorough and using terminology explained in the text as well as in a glossary. Plus the useful references to other poets, poems and periods. I have to admit that reading each poem and note on author and its analysis got a bit trying when just over halfway through the book. It was the highlighting of such things as dactyls, anapest et al that got to me. But then it is my failing that I found analysis to this degree onerous by poem 34.
Again, Ruth pre-empts this in her introduction by saying you should approach the book in your own way, stick with just the poems or also read the notes and analysis, dip in, dip out etc. I slipped into reading the poems and part of the notes, skipping the, for me, harder analysis. Okay, I sat there with regret nibbling away as I did so because I was missing part of the ‘stories’ and I know I will have to read it all again to practice my iamb and trochee as well as dactyl and anapest with maybe sponge thrown in. (Should have been spondee but the iPad may know me better than I know myself).
A great selection of poets and poetry with clear, thoughtful discussion of Modern Poetry and where it stood at the turn of the millenium.
Ruth Padel is currently writing a weekly column in the Guardian.
This is the current cover of latest edition.
In 2008 she published: Poems and a Journey, 60 poems. Useful guide for both readers and writers of poetry.
Vintage 2008. Paperback £10.99. 978 009949294