Poetry is replete with pithy, aphoristic metaphors about what poems do. William Carlos Williams claimed a poem is ‘a machine made of words’, which Don Paterson modulated into ‘[a] poem is a little machine for remembering itself’ by way of Michael Donaghy’s poem ‘Machines’. I’ve long been interested in the desire to reduce poetry to such catchphrases, and the poetic qualities of the phrases themselves. On one hand, they occur as little simulacrums of real poems given their condensed and mnemonic qualities, on the other, they suggest putative ideals for an imagined ‘poetry’ that may not bear a close relation to what we actually write. But even if they fail, I think they earnestly go some way towards evoking the intrinsic qualities of poems that we grasp on some physical level but that ultimately evade our understanding.
It comes as reassurance that literary critics offer similarly imaginative means of accounting for the mysterious ways that poems work. Take, for example, the way Calvin Bedient writes that ‘W. S. Graham’s [poetic] steps listen to themselves’. Such notions allegorise the fact that in poetry language is often going out of its way to draw attention to itself. This is something that a poet like W. S. Graham dramatizes.
Since all my steps take
Are audience of my last
With hobnail on Ben Narnain
Or mind on the word’s crest
I’ll walk the kyleside shingle
With scarcely a hark back
To the step dying from my heel
Or the creak of the rucksack‘Since All My Steps Taken’
Graham is using poetry to walk across two frontiers: Beinn Narnain in the Highlands and the edgier parts of language, feeling out the ‘crests’ between those two things. For each intrepid stride out with a hobnailed foot the poet brings us closer to the text itself. He aligns topography and typography. The poem speaks ‘out’ into the landscape, as it speaks ‘about’ what it’s doing.
Together we’ll produce some aphorisms for poetry, and think about what it might mean for our poems to listen in to the hum of their own engines, to count out their steps. We’ll look at a number of approaches to the self-descriptive poem, like the expanded poetic field of Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular, which moves in its supple argumentation through fragment, essay and aphorism to render nothing short of a new lyric space-time.
The poet Anar writes that ‘poetry is a language about language’. In our adventures on this course, we’ll adjust that lasting formulation to ask a further question: is poetry language about poetry?
Book here for Sam Buchan-Watts’s course Ars Poetica: Cold Showers & Restless Sheets, which consists of 5 fortnightly sessions over 10 weeks, starting 5 May 2021. With Live chats on Wednesdays, 7–9 pm GMT; first live chat 19 May.
Image Credit: jovis-aloor