Monday, 2 May 2011

Swans and pots of greed

On their mitchellreidamerica blog (April 27th) Mark reports of William (British teenager currently at school in America) -- and I now pass it on with W’s permission -- that

Wm’s class’s latest assignment was to each respond to a different photograph.  His was of two swans on a lake, and here it is, followed by his account of it:

Swan Song

A singing swan was on the lake

A bell ringing in the land forever the land of the swan
A singing swan was on the lake
Two hands clinging together in the partnership of the swan
A singing swan was on the lake
A man kneeling at the altar of desperation in the church of the swan
A singing swan was upon the lake
A cart wheeling eternally into the sunset that was of the swan
A man with a gun was on the lake
A pot of greed in the golden palace of the swan
A singing swan was on the lake
An innocent child blind to the outside world of the swan
A ringing shot was heard on the lake
A bird flying off the cliff of the mountain that was of the swan
A singing swan was on the lake
A ripple of terror among the reeds of the lake of the swan
A cry was heard on the lake
The last salute of the soldier who died in battle for his country, which was the country of the Swan.

Mark comments on what William was doing, and here’s my two penn’orth.

William evidently has the gift of letting his imagination rip -- uninhibited chains of association, one idea or word setting another off. What the association was isn’t always clear, probably not to him even. Where did the bell come from as early as the second line? how does a pair of swans on a lake suggest that, or how does the pair ‘swan’ and ‘lake’ suggest it?

What about ‘the land of the swan’? the photograph would have shown the lake, but the thought that the lake is in a land -- which means not our land -- has to have come from somewhere else.

Sometimes it’s language making its own connections: carts don’t wheel but there are cartwheels, so that says they do. That’s a poet’s gift, to have a sense of the original sharp meanings that have been muffled over time in composite formations.

Wittgenstein said that while most language has serious stuff to do -- ordering, informing, requesting, seducing, naming -- poetry is language that doesn’t. Instead it’s language idling, like a car engine in neutral, not driving anything, just doing its own thing. He also, I think, spoke of language on holiday, playing.

If that’s the case, then the job of the poet, or some sorts of poet, or all poets some time, is to stand aside and let the engine tick over, let language (associations, chains of thought) just get on with it and do its stuff.  The hard thing for most of us is letting that happen.

But the idling engine throws up things that work, are usable, remain of value. It’s possible that never before has any human uttered the collocation, ‘the altar of desperation’, but once one has we recognise what it’s saying and it will stay with us resonating. The poet may have been surprised when it came up, but once it was there, a fact of life out in the open on page or screen, he may have decided to buy into it: ‘Yes, I'll go with that -- it can be not just words twittering away but me saying it; I don’t mind meaning it; it can go out as me saying it.’ Or as the poem saying it, since a poem isn’t the poet speaking in any simple way.

Some poetry works by leaving gaps, creating holes with fuzzy edges. Thus, I have a strong sense that there’s a connection between these two lines:

A man with a gun was on the lake
A pot of greed in the golden palace of the swan

but it’s a great dramatic coup to get from the man having some mean and selfish motive to the concreteness of a pot of greed -- like a pot of gold in a (princess’s?) palace. [Later: Hmm -- W & M now tell me the Pot of Greed is a card in an anime game called Yugioh.]

Some of this poem is doing the sort of thing Rimbaud invented and that still seems like genius and just what was needed, tipping us out of Victorianism into modernness. If I was teaching English I’d give the kids a good dose of him.

But some of the good stuff is quite conventional, as poetry goes, but still original and vivid: ‘A ripple of terror among the reeds’ is great.

William protests that he wasn’t intending any deep meaning. That’s rather the point -- the process churns meaning up anyway.

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