Monday, November 28, 2005

TS Eliot Lecture 2005

George Szirtes gave the annual TS Eliot lecture last Tuesday at the Royal Festival Hall. Unlike Harry, I did not attend, even though this lecture has proved to be controversial in the past - witness the firestorm Don Patterson's 2004 lecture caused across the heathlands of the muse.

To be frank, George's lecture makes a lot more sense to me than Don's ever did. He presents us with a well developed metaphor for reading, writing and enjoying poetry - the idea of the skater dancing across a frozen lake - backed up by extracts of poems to colour the various points he makes. I found myself nodding often as I read the transcript of the lecture. I also found myself wishing I could write as well as George!

It's difficult to choose a chunk of the lecture to highlight here. This one, on the development of a poem, was particularly mind-sticking:

The intention of the poet is to write the best possible poem starting out with some as yet incoherent perception relating to an experience or set of experiences. The poet is a person who has realized that language is not a tool but a medium: and, what is more, assumes - has to assume - that the instinctive reader knows this as well as he does. The poem explores the medium by executing a kind of dance across it. It sets out across the ice and begins to cut light patterns in it, following some trainable instinct about the direction and way of moving, the notion of meaning arising out of the motion of the dance as a series of improvisations on the pattern. These patterns present the poet with a number of apparently arbitrary possibilities at any one time. But that is the very nature of language: it is what language continually does.

Typically, this section seems to contradict part of Don's lecture, on the purpose of a poem, which I did agree with:

I've said this so many times it's beginning to sound a bit self-satisfied - but a poem is just a little machine for remembering itself. Whatever other function a rhyme, a metre, an image, a rhetorical trope, a brilliant qualifier or stanza-break might perform, half of it is simply mnemonic. A poem makes a fetish of its memorability. It does this, because the one unique thing about our art is that it can carried in your head in its original state, intact and perfect. We merely recall a string quartet or a film or a painting, actually, at a neurological level we're only remembering a memory of it; but our memory of the poem is the poem. A poet exploits this fact, and tries to burn their poems into your mind, and mess with your perception.

Like a crow, I'm torn between which of the two shiny coins to cherish more. Maybe it's because deep down inside of me I'm sure they're both making the same point about why poems are drafted, but maybe where Don sees the biological reality of a poem on a reader George senses that similar processes are happening to the poet as the poem takes shape - but can't quite bring himself to name it.

Anyways, both lectures are enjoyable reads. Also very enjoyable is the film Mrs Henderson Presents, which I saw at the Stratford Picture House. A very nice social commentary based on historical events, well filmed and well acted, with moments of laughter, grief and that funny feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you've eaten the ice cream too fast - all wityhin the space of a few minutes.

Which in turn was almost as enjoyable as the very nice things Scavella says about my poetry on her blog! The feeling is mutual, of course - as people will be able to judge for themselves as soon as Scavella finalises and publishes her Lily series of poems!

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