Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Who is Ozymandias?

The poet John Fuller’s new book of this title looks as if it is intended, by explaining the obscurities of some poems, to explain the obscurity of poetry in general to those who have perhaps exasperatedly given up reading the stuff. I found it so interesting and provocative I wrote to him about it, but can’t find an address for him, so I put it here where he will probably – fortunately or unfortunately – never see it:

I am enjoying your ‘Who is Ozymandias?’ I hope it might show the impatient – if they will only read it – why poems, because they do things with words that words are not supposed to be able to do, can’t help but be difficult.
            Browning and Hardy as precursors of Imagism is a startling notion.
            You talk of ‘Misreading’. Apart from sheer carelessness, such as the common and I think disastrous change to ‘Those’ in ‘These who die as cattle’, or the ignorance that assumes, say, that Dr Johnson meant what we should now mean when he found St Paul’s Cathedral ‘Amusing and awful’, I don’t think there can be a misreading of a poem. There might, as you say, be an ill-informed reading, and certainly my appreciation of Eliot’s poetry has changed now that I can catch at least some of his allusions, references, and quotations. It might be interesting – though it might also put blinkers on one – to know in reading ‘Dover Beach’ that Arnold shared contemporary fears about Darwin and Christianity,  but a poem has to grab one – as ‘Dover Beach’ did me – to begin with if one is ever to bother much with it, and there are many critics who say we shouldn’t bring any external knowledge to our reading. An impossible requirement; one’s mere ability to read at all is something learnt and so all one has read is brought to what one reads. Incidentally what I bring to ‘Dover Beach’, because I grew up there, is Arnold out on a balcony at the White Cliffs Hotel and his wife inside calling ‘Come in Matt; you’ll catch your death out there.’
            My point though is that poems contain multitudes, most of them unknown to the poet. If we accept the idea of ‘inspiration’ – that poems, albeit later worked on, start from somewhere strange, dictated by God or one of Rilke’s angels or, more fashionably now, the poet’s unconscious, of which by definition the poet himself ‘knows’ nothing, then it seems to me the poet might well be the very last person to know what his poem is ‘about’; haven’t you have noticed that in your own writing? You might say that what is now accepted as the ‘correct’ interpretation of an image or whole poem reveals depths and subtleties otherwise lost; I might say that an ‘incorrect’ one reveals other and just possibly greater ones. Your rival lecturer was half right: the opening of ‘Maud’ doesn’t have to be about menstruation as well, but it certainly can be, and so long as we don’t just take it on a lecturer’s authority we can let the idea enrich our reading. With respect, I think you take a more indulgent view of your own interpretations than of other people’s.
            So there are no misreadings: a poem can be and indeed really is about anything and everything each and every one of its readers thinks it is.
            Now I feel moved to apologise for my temerity: it’s clear both from this new book and from your own poetry that you know far more about it all than I do. Still…

P.S. I’m afraid your printers have, as they always do, mangled your Greek: ‘Sphinx’ is from σφιγγειν, not the unpronounceable σφιγγειυ. But you have corrected a life-long mistake: although I have spent half my life in Greece and even had a close friend from (Greek) Thebes, I always thought Oedipus’s Sphinx was the one in Egypt and must have had a suppressed idea of a quick cross-Mediterranean trip.

It could have been a useful, valuable, even (if like me you think poetry is vitally important) necessary book. If it is really intended for the general reader it fails, because, like the high court judge who smiles patronizingly as he peers over his half-moon spectacles to ask ‘Who is David Beckham?’ it or he is donnishly distant from his intended audience. It assumes a familiarity with many really rather difficult poems and takes for granted a knowledge of Greek and Roman history and mythology, and so will cause as much exasperation to the poetically perplexed as the very poems that have brought them to the book.
John Fuller is preaching to the converted.

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