Friday, 11 December 2009

On poetic prose

I guess my uneasy relationship with poetry is much the same as the vastly more experienced Diana Athill's. She writes about hers with typical clarity in her book about the Andre Deutsch years, Stet (Granta), here dealing with her early attitude to effectively standing by as an editor while the poet did his or her stuff:

I read the work carefully, tried to make the jacket blurb say what the author wanted it to say, was moved by some of the poems as wholes and parts of other poems...all that was all right. But I also felt a kind of nervous reverence which I now find tiresome, because it was what I supposed one ought to feel in the presence of a superior being; and poets, although they do have a twist to their nature which non-poets lack, which enables them to produce verbal artefacts of superior intensity, are not superior beings. In the distant days when they were singing stories to their fellows in order to entertain and instruct them, they were useful ones; in the days when they devised and manipulated forms in which to contain the more common and important human emotions they were clever and delightful ones; and in the comparatively recent days when they have examined chiefly their own inner landscapes they have often become boring ones...

So why can't I stick with a book of lyrics? Auden is probably the only poet whose shorter meditations I can read consecutively. And yet I love it when a novelist, ideally even a biographer, is truly a poet, too, in terms of fashioning sentences full of rhythm and a perfect rightness if you read them aloud. Jim Crace is one such, Martin Amis another, though he now tends to write for writing's sake rather than to express the bigger picture.

I had forgotten how magical Angela Carter's prose could be (though the closing sentence of Wise Children, 'to tell the truth, I love her best, and always will' if I remember it correctly, has long been one of my favourite lines, on a par with the miraculous discovery of Shakespeare's Parolles that 'simply the thing I am shall make me live'). It was after our classes on Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle that I finally came round to reading The Bloody Chamber and other stories.

Carter has also, very elegantly, translated the Perrault originals (illustrated by the inimitable Gustave Dore above and below). But The Bloody Chamber is something else. What richness in every fin-de-siecle sentence, what Jamesian nuance, what sensual pleasure. In fact, it's quite impossible to extract a line or a paragraph, because none is less than perfect.

'The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does', Carter is quoted as writing in the introduction; 'It interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience'. And for the subterranean, nothing less than jewel-studded poetic prose is good enough.

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