‘Serious noticing’

by Caspar Henderson

I have lost count of the number of times that people have said to me that they never, or almost never, read poetry.  My usual answer is, OK, but isn’t it the case that at many of the most important moments of our lives such as a wedding, birth or death few things express our feelings better than a poem? And on the whole people agree.

When it comes to poetry and politics, however, there’s a widely accepted view that the two don’t mix. Perhaps the reasoning goes that, in politics, language is often crude and corrupted, and this is not true for poetry, or at least not for good poetry.  This view may place too little hope in the possibilities of politics. Setting that aside, it does seem to be the case that few outspokenly political poems stand the test of time. [1] Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, which was written on the occasion of the Peterloo massacre in 1819, may be one of the exceptions in English: the UK Labour Party’s current slogan, ‘For the many, not the few’,  is an adaptation of its last line. W H Auden’s September 1, 1939 is often seen as another exception, although the poet himself considered it a failure, writing “the whole poem [is] infected with an incurable dishonesty.” 

If poets are ever anything like the ‘unacknowledged legislators’ that Shelley hoped they could be, it may be when they approach by indirection. And so with the poet Kathleen Jamie, who in recent short article for the blog of the publisher Little Toller, asks “ can a simple act of attention be called political?” 

Borrowing the phrase ‘serious noticing’ from the critic James Wood, Jamie explores the value of paying close attention to the natural world, even in its most humble and every day aspects.   Citing the eco-theologian Thomas Berry, she wonders at the fact that “to our knowledge, only through our attending [does] the universe reflect upon and celebrate itself.”

Jamie’s article appears upon the publication of her new book of essays, Surfacing, The collection has been sensitively reviewed by Marina Benjamin, who writes:

Jamie’s writing has a deceptive simplicity: its powers are cumulative. Her way is to build impressionistic detail by recounting conversations, travels, observations of the natural world, and then carefully layer it in. It is its own kind of archaeology. Every now and then, however, she cuts through the assemblage of beautiful prose with a stinging comment: a reminder that the natural balance is out of whack, or that violence and menace can surface just as easily as venerable artefacts from the past.

As in her poetry (see, for example, Autumn, or Dipper), Jamie is lively to both disquiet and beauty, and Surfacing ends with the poet ‘lost’ in the woods and asking herself what she is doing there:

You wanted to think about all the horror… No, not to think exactly but consider what to do with the weight of it all… The trees all around, they commune with each other you can sense it… They’ve been rooted here centuries and seen it all…

Ludwig Wittgenstein may have been wrong about a lot of things , but he may have been right when he observed that “philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”  By contrast, does poetry at its best approach a revelation of reality by means of bewitchment?

There are times when any words are too many — when close attention does not require speech, or at least not to begin with. “When an observer doesn’t immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language,” writes Barry Lopez, “there’s a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen [its] meaning.” 

Without language or other means of communication, however, the value of such moments is easily lost. “The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts,” Auden wrote, “is to make us more aware … I do not know if such increased awareness makes us more moral or efficient. I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am certain it makes us more difficult to deceive”.

Jamie ends her article with a reference to Riddley Walker, the great post-apocalyptic novel by Russell Hoban (which was recently the subject of a remarkable piece by Rowan Williams).  So I’ll finish there too, with the character Lorna, who tells the protagonist:

Riddley, there aint nothing that aint a tell for you. The wind in the nite the dust on the road even the leases stone you kick a long in front of you. Even the shadder of that leases stoan roaling on or standing stil its all telling.

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

Note: [1] Is whether a poem ‘stands the test of time’ the only, or the best, test of its quality?

Image of Hen Harrier via Wild Scotland

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