Friday, November 7, 2008

A question of style.

Over at the poet’s on fire forum there’s a link to an article which describes, in a throw away comment, the ‘accessibility” of Seamus Heaney’s poetry as “Insulting”.

The second part of Lady Godiva and Me is set after the second world war, in a world I remember growing up in. I wanted to write about my parents' generation, and to honour what I remembered as their best qualities. It’s easy to revile the patriarchal discourse of the 1950s, and to forget that gender assumptions worked both ways. I had met men who went to war, in both 1914-18 and 1940-45. I knew they had seen and done things, believing it was their duty, that were beyond my ability to understand.

I remember men who worked foul jobs in car factories, a world away from today’s assumptions about careers and “self –fulfillment” and “self-expression”, because they had families and they lived by the mantra of “a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, food on the table.” True I worked in pubs and saw them drink and gamble and try to avoid going home. I watched marriages where there seemed no warmth at all and wondered how they ever got close enough to conceive their children. I saw women riding roughshod over men too tired to fight and men treat their wives like un hired help. I saw symbiotic relationships where the world was divided into His jobs and Her jobs so strictly an Inuit would have felt uncomfortable.

So I knew enough to avoid romanticising them, but I wanted to honour what I perceived as being worthy of respect.

And that left me with a problem of style.

The first poem I remember being aware of is Kipling’s Three Part Song. Grandfather read it for a dialect archive, and I have a digital copy of his crackly voice speaking in what is supposed to be broad Sussex. For me it has the same beauty as Kavanagh’s “Kerr’s Ass’, a poetry rising out of specific time and place. Place names that are their own poetries. A sense of self, tethered to landscape, given depth and resilience by history.

My father and his family, who were Irish, were Robert Service fans. And I can still recite the shooting of Dan McGrew from memory.

But I couldn’t write the type of poetry these people read. Kipling and Service won’t do as models. But I didn’t see the point in writing it in something that would be “modern” and unreadable to the people I was writing about.

Since this was about home, then one other home is traditional music. I came back to poetry on the back of the ballads. If each section of lady g is supposed to be a voice speaking, then ballad form seemed a natural choice. The surface would not be opaque, and the artistry would be in the architecture of the sequence. Like the Sherbourne, bubbling away underground you can follow it if you’re so inclined.

If you think that telling stories in a way that can be followed is an insult to the reader, then I have nothing polite to say.

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