The Poetry Hive

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.


solitary bumble bee hiding in a poor photo

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.)



Terry Eagleton’s: How to Read a Poem — A Graph Review

                  A Graph Review:    60 with highpoint at 85

How to Read a Poem       by  Terry Eagleton      

published 2007 by Blackwell Publishing              How to read a poem graphpaperback  180 pp

I am quite old and have only recently returned to reading seriously but over the years I have many assorted fiction and poetry authors plus a smattering of biography and non-fiction bits and pieces.  Literature (for me this means any genre of fiction, poetry and drama) has therfor left a lot of interesting debris in a mind that I well know has beenhalf-filed or mostly forgotten.

how to read a poem cover imageTerry Eagleton writes in his preface that one could get away with only reading chapters 4,5 and 6 and that the next best would be to follow these up with reading 1,2 and 3.  His ideal way was to start at page one and continue through to the end………So I did……..

By the end of the first chapter I was quite enthusiastic, even excited  though my brain was running pretty hot trying to cope with all the information.   The run-through in ‘Functions of Criticism’ is a time-line of poets, poetry, styles and reasons why.  Philosophers both classic and continental throw in their literaru theories with critics old and modern who are (usually) poets too.  Semantics and theories abound.  Freud did not make an early appearance here but did, albeit briefly, towards the latter stages of the book.  I expected Jung, Adler and R D Laing to appear stage right, maybe stage left but that ended as just a whim on my part.  Many theorists and critics are thrown into the pot, always with a reason but which might be hard for the less determined student or general reader.  But if you like the style and wit ( I nearly used ‘irony’  but as it doesnt appear in the otherwise very useful Glossary at the back I wasnt sure!!) of Terry Eagleton then I would guarantee that every word here and to the end of the book is worth reading.

Well, except by the end of the book, the couple that had letters missing, maybe an act of spacing in ‘typesetting’.  There was also where the word ‘stoke’ was used when I think it should have been ‘stroke’.  It gave me  moments of reflection on its intention which amused.  It shows how carefully I read the text as each word seemed to count.

I felt my mind had been sand-blasted by the first chapter, a little numb, then as I covered chapters 2 and 3 I realised it was more in the nature of a hard-drive undergoing defragmentation and gaps partly filled. Not always with enough information but as flags of needs and pointers to process.

Chapter 2 covers ‘What is Poetry?’ and chapter 3 is ‘Formalists’ and here again the water seemed a little deep on the essence of what a poem might be and for whom.   Wit and elements of balanced options kept me reading.    Intently, eagerly, laughing out loud at times with occasional re-reads to follow the flow better. For me the whole flowed like a novel,though one with an awful lot of characters and bit-parts.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 were like the so-called smooth water after the rapids whilst white-water rafting.  Chapter 4, ‘In Pursuit of Form’ examines a number of poems in greater depth on their form and content in a cogent style, building understanding.  Next, ‘How to Read a Poem’, which could well be the nub of the book assuming you have absorbed the previous Two chapters.  Chapter 6, ‘Four Nature Poems’ seemed a nice gentle way to finish. Pointing out the many different routes, techniques and potential readings available to taking into account the current and historic time, place and author of a poem; Terry Eagleton enables us to discover what poetry may be about, at least on the readers personal level.

The Glossary is useful (no irony here) and of course a good index.

This was quite  a complicated read for me.  A sign of my level as an ‘old student’ but it is all-encompassing whilst continually pursuing the objective with spurs of examples and possibilities.  This short book is knowledgable, informative, witty and entertaining from the first to the last page.  There is a single paragraph on the last page and it is almost worth pinning up on my wall.  For now I will quote one sentence from page 32 that lets me pin my colours to the mast:   ” A poem is a statement released into the public world for us to make of it what we may.”

How much of this book will stick in my now-refreshed, language-centred mind? It doesn’t matter because it will have a permanent place on my shelf and be considerably re-read.  It is surely one of my desert-island books.  Armed with the contents of  ‘How to Read a Poem’ I will happily continue my adventure of reading and offering reviews with the knowledge that any conclusions I come to will be thanks to a much wider perception offered by Terry Eagleton and this book.