Sunday, March 29, 2009

Answering Back, edited by Carol Ann Duffy.

In some ways, poetry is a reactive art. Bloom’s view (post-Enlightenment poets suffer from a belief that all has been said before and are inevitably bound up in a battle with the past) is probably an over-statement of the case. Yet, poets write in relation to a tradition as they understand it. At its worst, this produces narrow work with rich ideologies and a dogmatic tendency to squash all rivals jealously; and sycophantic work that inhabits the house of some predecessor. At its best, an awareness of the past creates rich work that lives through tension; and brings a re-evaluation of earlier writers and their creative homelands.

Answering Back, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, begins hopefully. It was suggested that the title should be “Answering”: an act of response. Duffy stuck with her title, however, feeling that poetic responses ought to be strong, contain a “glint” of defiance. She was right to stick with her view because it is what makes and unmakes this interesting volume.

There are 46 poets in Answering Back and the poets spoken to include:

A E Housman
Allen Ginsberg
Anna Akhmatova
Ben Jonson
Cesar Pavese
C P Cafavy
Charlotte Mew
Christina Rossetti
D H Lawrence
Dafydd Ap Gwilym
Dylan Thomas
Edna St Vincent Millay
Edward Thomas
Elizabeth Bishop
Emily Dickenson
Eugenio Montale
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Giocomo Leopardi
Jalaluddin Rumi
John Donne
Louis MacNeice
Lucille Clifton
Murial Rukeyser
Patrick Kavanagh
Philip Larkin
Rudyard Kipling
Sextus Propertius
Thomas Hardy
W B Yeats
W H Auden
W S Gilbert
Wallace Stevens
Walt Whitman
Walter de la Mare
William Carlos Williams
Yehuda Amichai

This is an eclectic collection of poets, suggesting that the selecting poets (mainly from the United Kingdom and Ireland) are not an insular “School of Quitetude”. Answering Back has scope. This vision, however, is not so noticeable in the poems chosen and the responses that they create.

Out of the many complex poems of Dylan Thomas, Nina Cassian decides to respond to “In My Craft or Sullen Art.” It is a short, heady piece on how the poetic lover is ignored by readers, which produces a simple, prosaic reflection and a dreadful couplet that Thomas would never have dreamed of: she injects a poem

“like a shot, an intravenous,
in the missing arm of Venus”.

Generally, answering back, in this volume, is a reply to content. It is not an engagement with a poet’s language…and rarely an involvement with the poet’s philosophy. The results are often flat and not as effective as the poems addressed, something that can be seen in Billy Collins' reply to W.H.Auden. A phrase such as "the mind/the freakiest dungeon in the castle" does not catch the implied terror of Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts". At times, however, the simple response to content can produce moving surprises, as in the juxtaposition of Ian MacMillan’s “The Green Wheelbarrow” and William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”. An objective masterpiece stands alongside a subjective poem full of emotional slither and slide. The effect is identical to that of walking through an art exhibition where disparate paintings have been chosen to suggest points of departure. The weakest examples of answering back come with poets who deal too pointedly with their ancestor, so U.A. Fanthorpe’s ridiculous attack on Walt Whitman:

"You reckless old drop-out, you
Inventor of abbatoirs, factory farms—it’s people like you
Who make beasts afraid. Just look a bit harder. Try thinking."

Answering back is a complex art. It requires a feeling for the whole voice that speaks. It should be a wrestling with an angel. And in that conflict, every muscle should be known, every feather felt, the pulse of blood and metre heard. Disliked or liked, answering a poem back is an intimate art. Enemies have to be known as comprehensively as friends. One of the weakest sections of this volume includes Carol Rumens and her put-down of Philip Larkin:

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you…"

This produces three quatrains of bad verse:

"Not everybody’s
Childhood sucked:
There are some kiddies
Not up-fucked. "

As examples of how to answer back (as an adult rather than a child), Duffy does include two incisive pairs of poems. Imtiaz Dharker has a complex conversation with Rumi. How could a modern poet not be caught by these lines?

"Unfold
your own myth, without complicated explanations.
so everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you. "

This is transformed into:

"I have strayed into unknown myths,
every shape a threat. "

And Michael Schmidt’s “Pangur Ban” answers “Pangur Ban” with an exploratory well-paced poem that paces thought and those echoes which appear across time:

"Prowl out of now and go down

Into time’s garden… "

Answering Back touches upon the ways in which poems can engage with one another. The results are not as “electrifying” as Duffy claims, yet the whole volume does offer an interesting insight into the poet’s craft. The work is well edited and arranged though there is some confusion in the Biographies with Transtromer listed as a contributer when he is one of the poets replied to. Answering Back raises interesting questions about response. Had it gone deeper it could have entered a resonant, evocative auditorium, one concerned with readership and reflection, criticism and creativity, and the ways in which poems bring forces into equilibrium and act as liberating forms.

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