‘This’

December 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

I was asked by a friend recently, in relation to my poems about the Sheffield Flood (many of which focus on individuals caught in the catastrophe): ‘Why do you want to tell me this?’

I have to say I stuggled to answer: it’s a complex question, the response to which might be many more questions:

By ‘this’, do you mean the subject?  Of death?  Of the death of certain individuals?  Of the Flood?  The past?

Why do I want to tell you?

Why do I want to tell you?

All of which seems to play in some way on what we think poetry is: communication, vocation, invocation.  Possibly, it also raises the issue of entitlement, or responsibility: the bearing witness to the inner lives of people we know, really, nothing about.

My slightly glib answer, borrowed from Tony Harrison, was about giving voices to the voiceless.  I talked about Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang – his reimagining of the story of illiterate Ned Kelly, given at last the power to write his own truth.  I think I felt I needed to claim – as Harrison and Carey did – a local entitlement: some kinship identity which gave me the authority to tell these people’s stories.

On reflection, though, it is probably much simpler than this – or at least, while my motives had this social and political basis, my engagement with the subjects was psychological and physical: we all know what fear feels like.  For me, the work doesn’t begin with a phrase, as it does for many; more likely, there is an image (or several) and a feeling, an emotional response to the image.  In the case of the Flood poems, it was people, woken by a growing noise, not knowing what it was; and the feeling of fear that we can all recognise – but which at the same time we face completely alone.  It is from this vantage – awake / and with something coming in the dark – that I am able to move out into known and unknown territories of there and then, wanting/having to tell my friend, or anyone else who will listen, ‘this’.

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§ 2 Responses to ‘This’

  • Damian Smyth says:

    All those dead bobbing in the Flood. The corpse rotting in the gibbet. All the nobodies.
    For me, it’s the telling itself that matters. Poetry is no more subject to the why of the world than banks or politicians or swimming pools or spas. Somehow we think it is. Somehow we think the crispness of the answer is a guide to what ‘good’ poetry is, too.
    There are loads of documentary stories I don’t ‘want’ to hear about – death, maimings, starvation, that stuff, and it’s on TV, online and print. But it gets told, and whether it’s me or someone else who hears it against their will doesn’t matter much. What counts is the fact of telling, that someone determined to tell the tale. Those Iraqis, that military doctor.
    If it wasn’t told, or was only told to those who expressed a desire to be disturbed or shocked or have their suspicions confirmed, what a bleak world we would be in.
    There are far more poems I don’t want to hear about too, for different reasons, but I get them inflicted upon me anyway, because this is the poetry world and it’s various and happy and enriching and … yackety yak. All the dreary and often fictional ‘good news’ poetry is always straining to tell. And there is no ethical or even plain old human reason for listening to it, other than whiling the time away in one fashion.
    Poems like ‘Flood’ and ‘Spence’ though carry an ethical burden in addition to the weight of the artform. The goodness of poetry comes in once the telling starts – you can’t stop listening then, the better the telling is. The ‘why’ is self-evident.
    Are you human? Then listen to this. And why wouldn’t you listen? It’s about you.

    • Rob Hindle says:

      Thanks Damian. For my friend, it was really because she is interested in the process that she asked about ‘why’, about ‘this’. She wanted to know, I think, what my motivation is – and also, I think, was keen to understand how we might move from motive to process to utterance.

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