THE TIME THAT SUNLIGHT TAKES TO REACH US
A debate on how we can write poetry in the 21st Century
Complex poetries for complex times?
This is not a new idea. Eliot himself argued that modern poetry must
be difficult if it is to be responsive to the complexities of the early
twentieth century. Hence The Waste Land and
its footnotes. The idea of experiencing life as fragmentary,
‘chains of interlinked narratives’ is not new. It was one of
the chief projects of the modernists . I haven’t
read Pound’s Cantos all the
way through, but even an initial acquaintance dispels the idea of a
single voice, a straightforwardly original text.
Poetry and its critical appraisal is a spiral endeavour. It’s not that
we’ve come to the end of a long period of linear development and fallen
into end-time fracture. The metaphysical poets have more in common with
the modernists than either do with the Romantics. Times change and our
turning of the spiral throws light on the hidden curves of our poetic
past. If a poet is reflective she or he will experience this spiralling
movement in their own creativity, like a coil of DNA. If s/he is lucky
s/he will somehow interlock with the prevailing power of our culture’s
The widening disparity between public perception of ‘what poetry is’
and what practising poets think about the matter is
cause for concern. Or is it just because I teach creative writing that
I’m so aware of the uncertainty about modern poetries on the part of
aspiring student writers? At a time when even the mainstream poetry
publishers are shunned by bookselling chains, poetry seems like a winking
star. Fascinating, unattainable: is it really still there at all?
We have responsibilities as readers as well as writers of poetry: not
to assume a dismissive attitude to work of a genre unpleasing to us.
Truth may not be a stable concept in any way we can imagine. Truth is
not found in dead metaphors. ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ is just
as much a cliché as the pastoral idyll.
All the more reason to be aware that truth
will surprise us. We can’t tell what form the strongest contemporary
poetry is taking because we’re living through its genesis. The only
clues are a freshness and power which do not necessarily tally with
abstract or confessional, concrete or lyric. I do think there must be
some acknowledgement of society and culture as is generally perceived
today, else the poet will veer off and be dispersed in a void.
I’m all in favour of a poet finding his or her plural voices (as Edwin
Morgan advocates) rather than a single voice. Multiculturalism and feminism
have some enlightening ideas about this. How much linguistic jazz should
come into the mix, I wouldn’t like to say. The world is not a safe place
at the moment. Communication and listening would be no bad thing. Poets
would be hard pressed to regain (?) their position as unacknowledged
legislators, but chaos theory acknowledges the phenomenal power of the
© Sarah Law
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