Saturday 9 September 2017

What poetry can do

I always struggled with poetry. Somehow the metaphors never seemed to connect with me. I suppose I don't have that imaginative mind that is required to read and understand it.

Since this is a blog charting a personal journey, you can probably guess what's coming next. I had an epiphany... well, not quite. But something like it.

Recently, the German poet Jan Wagner was awarded the prestigious Georg-Buechner-Preis, one of the highest accolades for writers in Germany. In one of the reviews of his work, someone quoted a line from his poem 'Hamburg-Berlin' (Jan Wagner, Selbsportrait mit Bienenschwarm. Ausgewaehlte Gedichte. Hanser: Berlin 2017):

'... in der ferne nahmen zwei windraeder 
eine probebohrung im himmel vor:
gott hielt den atem an.' (p.20)

That's funny on the surface but also intensely moving once you visualise the scene. Well observed and mischieviously subversive, undermining our sense of reality and how the world is supposed to work.

Wagner's poems are radical in their metaphorical tranformative power. He is playful and his words reveal new vistas on the world; his poems have what a good poem needs to have: it forces us to re-think reality and to discover what is there but was hidden until we read it.

The power of the metaphor - it never is what it seems.  Flamish 17th cent painting .

Although I struggle to find the right words to appreciate his poetry I did also notice something fascinatingly limiting in his poetry. Wagner's poetry is strongly metaphorical, yet in its playfulness it lacks the human dimension. His poems are observational, almost resembling the still lifes of Dutch painters, such as a table with decaying fruits. There is beauty in them, but something is missing.

Enter a poem by an American writer who lived in Britain in the 1960s.

The Hanging Man

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me. 
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

The nights snapped out of sight like a lizard's eyelid:
A world of bald white days in a shadeless socket. 

A vulturous boredom pinned me to this tree.
If he were I, he would do what I did. 

This poem is equally densely packed with metaphors that evoke feelings and have tranformative power. But at every line, the words also force us to take position to the story, the story of Christ and Christianity. It is full of mockery as well as respect, it is literal at times yet also figuratively untrue. Yet most of all, it is about us as human beings. It does not shrink from plunging head on into human affairs. The poem was written by Sylvia Plath (from Sylvia Plath:Ariel. Faber and Faber: London 2015 [1968].)

I may have misunderstood her words, I may miscontrue the meaning of the poem, but I do clearly recognise the differences between Wagner's and Plath's poetic thrust. Wagner's is observational and subversive in a gentle way, reordering our relationship with nature and the things around us. Plath however places herself squarely within the human domain, metaphorically interfering with the social and historical encounters that we have every day. And Plath is nothing short of radical, forcing us to take position on, what she thinks, is a constantly shifting ground.

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