“The arts are sensuous in their intention to impress,” said William Carlos Williams. He was talking about poetry, and the notion that we should listen to a poem before we try to understand it intellectually; before we try to work out what it actually means. As readers, he is saying, we should let ourselves be seduced by a poem’s sound, by its effect upon our senses. This is, after all, the poem’s primary intention.
When I hear writers talk in this manner about the sound of a poem, it makes me think enviously of rhyming verses and the poet as a singer; poems as songs; poems which contain a certain elevated music, and which transport us by their cadence and lyricism. But really it can’t be the singing voice that William Carlos Williams is talking about. It is the spoken voice that poems use to seduce us and to convince us, by their oration and argument and insistence. The poet cannot surpass the singer (“music beats us,” Anne Sexton said), and so the poet must find another way. Don’t compare the poet to the singer; compare the poet to the barrister in a courtroom, or the revolutionary on a podium, or the conman on your doorstep. Anyone, in other words, who is able to tell a story, weave a yarn, capture our attention for a short, concentrated period of time, during which they will attempt to use their skills as a speaker to make us believe in what they say.
It’s hard for me to judge whether my own interest in the power of the poetic voice is a direct result of growing up in a country famous for its oral literary tradition, or whether it’s a result of growing up amongst people for whom the spoken word was of central importance, but I suspect that the two are interchangeable. The well-told story was a serious art form where I grew up: it deserved respect; it was not to be messed around with. How you told a story – the pauses, the accents, the use of familiar names or nicknames – all of these things added to the effect, and needed to be got right. In fact, stories were never simply stories, jokes were never just jokes; they were a kind of truth. And we wanted to hear the same stories and jokes again and again, to be carried away by them each time. This was normal, and it was unremarkable.
Unremarkable until I moved to the wilds of Northern England, and began to work in a more disciplined way as a poet, in a place which is geographically much more remote than where I lived before, in Dublin. The isolation and the distance from Ireland makes me homesick, but I must also recognise that it is partly this isolation and this distance which gave me the freedom to discover a voice. And the more I write, the more I notice my tendency to try to write for the voice – not just as I would speak naturally, but as different people might speak in different guises, in different, often heightened or dramatic situations. What interests me, I realise, is just what William Carlos Williams was talking about: using the voice (tone, register, pace, sound) to affect the listener, to impress upon the listener an idea, or a feeling, or a mood.
When I was younger and trying to write, I was reading a lot of stories written either from actual war zones, or from a point of personal crisis or state of hysteria. I assumed that I too should be writing these kind of stories and essays – stories and essays from the front was the kind of thing I had in mind. But not only did I have no real line of battle to write from, I had hardly any ideas that were worth pursuing for longer than half a page. I despaired at every bad sentence I wrote, but mostly I was in agony over the opening lines: oh the pain of finding this man’s name, that woman’s outfit, this scene’s weather! And then to think of a whole plot! It was sheer bad-temperdness, in the end, that made me cut these beginnings and these plots and go straight for the single moment, the single phrase or thought or idea that had interested me enough in the first place to make me want to write about it. And it was only by doing that, by focusing on what was essentially just a fragment of a story, just a fragment of a thought, a caught moment or an overheard snippet of conversation, that I began to realise that I might want to consider giving up on being Hemingway, and try being myself. This is not to say being autobiographical in my writing, but rather simply to start again writing down the words and phrases that I liked the sound of, and without worrying too much about it beyond that point. It was the beginning of my acceptance that I might be best suited to writing poems.
The words and phrases that I did like the sound of were a strange mixture, a mixture of the ordinary and the foreign – the not quite right – yet which strived towards absolute clarity. Often my poetry will take as its starting point a formal style of language – the authoritative voice, perhaps – which then, by use of repetition, or almost-repetition, I try to break down, and unhinge, in an attempt to create a sense of intimacy, confusion, confession, even. The arts are sensuous in their intention to impress. I try to use my voice – my poetic voice, my various poetic personae – to draw the listener in; and to let them know that this is urgent, vital, not to be taken lightly. I am the lawyer, I am the politician, I am the conman at your door.
Perhaps what my poems tell readers about “Being an Irish Poet Today” is that being Irish is not what it used to be. But perhaps they will also tell readers that being Irish is just as it always was. My real feeling is that it’s not for me to say. In fact, I am unable to say.
“In all my poems and my whole soul – I am profoundly Russian,” declared the poet Marina Tsvetaeva in 1925. Ten years later, she stated in her poem ‘Homesickness’ that: “even the sharpest spy could go over my whole spirit and would detect no native stain there.” As one scholar so elegantly put it, this simply shows that Tsvetaeva was inconsistent when describing herself as a person and as a poet. It seems a good way to finish.
Homesick for the Land of Poetry. This is an adaptation of the line “I often feel homesick for the land of painting,” written by van Gogh in a letter to his brother (22/24 June, 1880). Sent from France, it is the first time van Gogh states his intention to dedicate his life to painting.
The arts are sensuous in their intention to impress. From The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams.
Music beats us. Anne Sexton says this in a short film about her poetry, while listening to Chopin on her record player (Ballade No. 1).
In all my poems and my whole soul... Marina Tsvetaeva made this declaration for the newspaper Today published in Riga in 1925.
Even the sharpest spy… From Tsvetaeva’s ‘Homesickness’ (1934), translated by Elaine Feinstein.
This simply shows that Tsvetaeva was inconsistent… Marina Tsvetkova makes this comment in an article about Tsvetaeva’s poem ‘Homesickness’, published in Translation and Literature 23 (2014).
Photograph by Emmet Bergin.