Monday, 25 January 2010

Versus Verse

It took me a long time to like poetry.

Oh, there were always favourite lines and ringing phrases that stuck in my mind as utterances of both truth and beauty, but as for actually sitting down and reading wouldn’t go in. My eyes would pass over the page three, four times and I still had no conscious memory of what I’d read, and no understanding of the meaning of it.

There are still poets who sometimes do that to me; Geoffrey Hill and Emily Dickinson spring immediately to mind. There is still, occasionally, the nagging thought that this is all some kind of elaborate hoax or joke, that words are being strewn haphazardly across the page to create an illusion of profundity. I know that I’m wrong about this, but still...

Possibly the compression of poetry is an obstacle to me. I am far more excited by the idea of Kazantzakis’ sprawling modern Odyssey than I am by any poem of Dickinson’s. I am always attracted to things on a large scale. If I must have poetry I dislike selected poems – I want a poet’s complete works, as if by having that I can hold in my hand the entire person. (Or at least the complete contents of their mind.) The more a poetry collection resembles a story, a life – an epic verse novel – the happier I am.

But then do I read these gigantic books? Only rarely. Because the other factor that causes me to stumble when I approach poetry is the focus in on the words, rather than what they are saying. I am a great believer in what is said being more important than the precise means of expressing it (allowing a certain facility in the writer in the first place); even Flaubert, after all his labours, said that too much attention paid to the words was the mark of a second rate artist. I don’t believe in anything that comes between writer and reader – and too conscious an effort over words will do that.

But then, that’s what poetry is. Something that might be an arguable point when looking at Fiction Books cannot be applied to verse. So perhaps this has been my problem; I am a storyteller, a portrayer of character. I have no time for metaphor or elaborate descriptions; words for me are merely a means to an end. I don’t want the surface; I want to get at the meaning. And I find that difficult, still, with some poetry.

But I haven’t given up. Reading aloud has controlled my thirst for narrative, has slowed me down enough to better appreciate the rhythm, the metre, the cadences of poetry: I know that there are pleasures in there purer than any contained in the Fiction Books that I generally prefer. And I have no doubt that anything that causes us to slow down and take notice in this hurried and harried world can only be a force for the greatest good.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A Great Reade

“Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows.”

The book that begins thus was one of the greatest reading experiences of my life, but it is comparatively little known today. It is The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade. I read it perhaps eight to ten years ago, and no book since (and possibly no book before Fiction Books ) has involved me so deeply with its characters, or made me care so much about their fate. I can think of no higher recommendation for any work of fiction.

Next year The Cloister and the Hearth will be 150 years old, and in many ways it shows its age; it’s too long, mostly due to the fact that the plot wanders all over the place, and Reade’s use of language might be a barrier for the modern reader (though clearly not for this reader!). The book is an extended demonstration that the strictures in regard to a normal family life imposed on clerics by the Catholic faith are inhuman and unworkable, but this never gets in the way of the most important thing in the story (in any story) – the portrayal of the people. That is all that’s needed to make it a success in my eyes; it is a book to awaken and educate the heart (beside which Sir Walter Scott considered everything else as "moonshine").

Reade wrote other books, Fiction Books the most notable being It’s Never Too Late To Mend. I haven’t read any of them, but I will, someday, return to The Cloister and the Hearth. I recommend giving it a go; and if 775 pages (in the 1912 Chatto edition I have) seems like a lot to get through (unless, like me, you happen to prefer big books), I would also add it is lightened by sly flashes of unexpected humour:
“…it was an age in which artists sought out and loved one another [C & H is set in the 15th Century]. Should this last statement stagger a writer or painter of our day, let me remind him that even Christians loved one another at first starting.”

If anyone does manage to get around to it, I’d be interested to hear what you think…