How could I NOT have said this last week?
. . . is to learn. Maria Taylor reminded me and of course it’s true. For a poet-reviewer, you study other people’s poems because you want to learn how it’s done (and occasionally what to avoid).
Gerry Cambridge, whose ‘bio’ paragraphs for poets at the end of The Dark Horse are often a little more unpredictable than some, once described me as “a practising poet”. Wonderful description! It’s like being a doctor, in which case my practice is in Fife. But it can also mean, and certainly subsumes, the sense that regular practice is required, or even that one is only a practising poet. Practising for the real thing, that is.
But part of being a Permanently Practising Poet (PPP) is taking part in your own individualised master-classes. By this, I mean carefully and closely reading work you admire. In this way, the master poem demonstrates its art to you. Sometimes, with superb work, you just goggle because it is so good.
Or you go over and over it, and can’t quite work out how it does what it does, although it still does it (my favourite kind of text).
At other times, after reading and re-reading, you see many interesting intricacies in the pattern of shape and sound. It’s like a first-rate fruit cake. You enjoy it more, the slower you nibble, the more you notice the shape and texture, the fine ingredients.
I don’t want to push the fruit cake analogy, or mix my metaphors too far. There is a limit to how much fruit cake you want to nibble. Also a limit to how much fine poetry you can take in at one go. But that’s as it should be.
Mostly reviewers grapple with mixed work. Some great bits, some wobbly bits, some damned interesting bits. And then the analogy is more like panning for gold. When you find what you think might be the RT (Real Thing), you get very excited and pore over it for ages. And if you think it definitely is, you want to share your find. What a pleasure then, to write about it!
If you think it’s FG (Fool’s Gold), you get a bit narky, especially if you’ve spent a very long time standing in a cold stream with your 14” heavy gauge steel pan (although these days, you can get plastic gold pans). It is this emotion that sometimes leads to impatience on the part of reviewers. But they should know better.
And ideally, there is some gold. It is what the PPP is looking for and it is what the PUS (Poet Under Scrutiny) is looking for too. And it is invariably highly interesting and worthy of drawing attention to, because no one bit of Po Go is like any other bit. So the PPP reviewer tries to learn what makes it what it is, tries phenomenally hard, because if we could only learn the secret, we could replicate it. But by and large, all that can be learned (though this is not to be sneezed at) is something about technique, or occasionally something about lack of it. This is only one of the reasons why poetry is amazing.
And sometimes, that which is indubitably gold to one PPP is dross to another, which is also part of the fun. “What is aught but as ’tis valued,” as Troilus says to Hector (of Cressida).
Speaking of which, a number of Cressidas volunteered their services as Sphinx reviewers last week. I am delighted.