A ‘great’ poem is created by the ingenious use of language
As regards ‘The mystery of creative genius’ by Ian McDonald in Sunday Stabroek, September 23, 2012, although I admire Ian’s weekly column and much of his poetry, especially those included in an anthology of New Caribbean Poetry in the Spring 2003 issue of Poetry Wales, in which my work also appeared, I have a number of reservations about what he says in this specific essay.
First of all he begins: “How is a great poem created? It is a mystery.” Really? No, not really, because the adjective “great” is quite relative and subjective, and does not usually apply to countless poems that are not so well known through repeated recitation or publication, yet are nevertheless quite “great” because of their unique conception, structural arrangement, tone, point of view, and above all use of language to convey all that. The “great” poem is ultimately created by a recognisable ingenious use of language, sentence or line structure. It is created by the use and presence of such language, not by mystery. If the ability of a poet to possess such a distinct use and arrangement of language is rooted in mystery, then I concede that the ‘great’ poem is created by ‘mystery’. But I suspect that Ian still believes in that antique romantic notion of an inspired “innate genius” coupled with “hard work” that produces a great poet. Where is a vision of language in all this? It is central to poetic greatness, but he never once mentions the central importance of language to “great” poetry in his essay. You can have all the inspiration and good intentions within you, but without a grasp of language as the entire reality of poetry, you will write mostly rubbish despite all the “hard work”. All writing is precisely that, writing. And oral conceptions are writings in sound, which need arrangement and precision too.
For some writers it may take dogged labour to make good poetry, but I suspect they may not have been exposed to enough good poetry – for instance, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Eliot and Pound – from the age of ten or eleven. So it is not a matter of hard work really, but relaxed familiarity with ‘great’ art from an early age. Like a child who picks up language and learns to speak from his familial environment, the poet or writer picks up in the same way from an early immersion in a literary environment of quality. Other ‘geniuses’, after much experience in life, including much reading of quality or knowledge of art in general, might find the maturity within to create ‘great’ poetry from a combination of all that. Pound and Eliot are perfect examples of such maturity. I totally agree that such quality work cannot be forced, but its creation is less a mystery than a way of looking and seeing through language, that in the end becomes an exact equivalent of such looking and seeing and feeling.
Rather than being stuck at 19th century poets like Shelley and Wordsworth as poetic standards, consider Dylan Thomas, who was certainly influenced by 19th century Hopkins before him. When Thomas writes: “Light breaks where no sun shines/ Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart / push in their tides” or “Dawn breaks behind the eyes/ From poles of skull and toe the windy blood/ slides like a sea.” The essence of such poetry is rooted in a specific individual grasp of language about quite ordinary everyday experiences. There are a good number of poets, male and female, whose poetry is ‘great’ in a surprisingly ordinary way – poets like Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Billy Collins, Gary Snyder, James Merrill, or Jorie Graham, among others – and incidentally it is this very ordinary experience outside any Romantic notion of being a suffering artist, which is the content and style of their writing. They have found the right words to represent what a ‘great’ Canadian poet, Dennis Lee, once said to me: “Write about what you know.” No mystery in that; but without the right language its greatness would never be proven. Poets should not so much say that “great” poetry is created from “mystery”, but rather reveal in an equivalent language of poetry, that mystery.