It’s occasionally said that poetry on the page is like a musical score. Music isn’t music until it’s played; poetry isn’t poetry, the analogy implies, until it’s read. Not aloud, necessarily, but until it’s sounded, in some way, with Ezra Pound’s ‘mental ears’ at the very least (there’s an excellent article, here, raising issues about the problems of linking poetry too exclusively with its sounds).
They mentioned just now on Radio 3 (it’s what I listen to in the mornings, okay? I woke up early this morning because I had to drink M’s whiskey last night and I’m hungover) that the composer York Bowen was ‘dedicated to writing pieces which would improve piano technique’. That is, his scores were designed so that the act of playing them would make people better at playing other people’s work. So, if we accept the music score model of poetry, are there poets who play an equivalent role? Are there poems which, in being read, improve the reading technique of the reader? Of course, as with music, reading widely and closely will always improve technique, but the question as to whether there are poems which are especially like this – even at the cost of their overall worth as poems?
My mind immediately suggests Paul Muldoon. I admire him, as a poet, enormously, but it’s a technical respect. I rarely feel moved by his poems (with some exceptions: stretches of Quoof, the first poem in Horse Latitudes, and the ending of ‘Cuba’), never consumed. Reading Muldoon, for me, feels like training. It forces me to hold the ghost of each line ending in my head as I read on, waiting for the often inevitable rhyme, lines or stanzas or pages later. The effect, I imagine, is something like the ghostly chords which rise up in a musician’s mind as they look over a score for the first time.
But, even more interesting to me, Muldoon also feels improving in the way I deal with his leaping between subjects, his wide-armed embrace of subject matters. Muldoon poems force me to walk the line between making logical connections and poetic connections. Because there are definitely some poems – right? – in which disparate images and registers and subjects are all meant to relate to each other in a specific way. The most spectacular example I can think of is the John Peck poem I discuss briefly here, where the apparently non-sequiturial leap between Chernobyl and a frustrated, piano-teaching Liszt resolves into a – to me – into a genuinely deep insight into our relationship with matter.
But there are also poems where the non-sequiturs don’t carry some hidden logical significance. There’s tonnes of other stuff they can do, though; they can portray a mind in turmoil, or they can evoke an impressionistic portrait of a person or a city or a society, or they can insist on the stubborn irreducibility of the world to logic, or they can communicate the breakdown of language as a communicative medium, or they can speak about the fractured subject, and so on and so on. Or they can just be beautiful together, in the way that sometimes things we can’t explain are beautiful, the ‘yoking together of unlike things’ (who said that? Someone said that, I think). And it’s that which most properly represents what I mean by ‘poetic’ rather than ‘logical’ connections.
One of the brilliant things about Paul Mudoon, then, is his gleeful way of mixing logical and poetic connections. Sometimes the things he’s taking about do relate in a clever, analogical way. And sometime’s they’re just pretty together, or jarringly horrible. And the experience of reading him properly, I think, is real training for remembering how to be aware when one or the other is happening.
You should be able to comment below – let me know if this extemporised rambling holds any water. And if so: what poets are good training for reading other poets?