Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Horses' Mouths

Reginald Shepherd reminds us of Allen Tate's essay where he discussed 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' and says that he is far from an expert on his own poems. Once I discovered by chance that one of my poems had been used in a Year 12 (VCE) examination paper (no one had informed the poet) .. when I got hold of the paper, which included at least one multiple choice question asking what the poet had intended, I found myself quite unsure of what the examiners thought would be the correct answer, as I recall two of the four options seemed plausible, but neither hit the mark.

A recent post by Jane Holland describes some rough notes she made on the composition of long poems. This prompted me to dig out my old copy of Helen Gardner's The Composition of Four Quartets, and it struck me how much useful and interesting is this sort of simple work record than the more common commentary and interpretation. Getting a glimpse of a poet's revisions, and explanations in correspondence of various phrases, lines, and passages, provides more insight than a shelf of criticism. Gardner's book shows how Eliot was - amongst other things - striving for clarity. And surely this is true even of many 'difficult' poets: Geoffrey Hill in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin wrote "I have no ambition to be famously - or notoriously - obscure. The difficulties of daily living get in the way and my poems, unavoidably it seems, collide with the densities of common existence"

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