Monthly Archives: March 2020

‘Into My Own’ (Robert Frost)

Poems are not social in any normal sense of the word. You have to spend a lot of time alone to write or read them. The reader might share them or even read them to someone else (it does happen) and you can say that this is a kind of socialness. Here we get a little closer to the truth.

But it’s still not the whole truth: the pleasure the writer and the reader receive from the excuse to be alone which a poem provides them is not identical to the thought of the pleasure they may bring other people. At least that’s not my experience. If it was, people would write fewer poems.

A lot of great poetry comes with a drop of misanthropy. Misanthropy comes in different guizes. It might appear as a preference for some abstract principle — like an idea, or history, or God over living, breathing people. With Robert Frost, it often comes as the desire to be alone.

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Pandemic Poetry

Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo

There is something about poetry which speaks to isolation. A poem is a highly concentrated moment of communication. Or rather a highly concentrated moment of attempted communication. Poets are generally more solitary than most, but a poem is never solitary: it’s a signal sent up into the sky, trusting someone will receive it.

Perhaps that’s one reason why they are everywhere right now. Simon Armitage has already written his first Coronavirus poem. You can follow the hashtag ‘covidpoetry’ on Instagram. I’ve been thinking of writing a more regular blog for a while, but I do not want it to be me ‘explaining poems’. As if I could. Instead, this would be a regular thing – weekly, if I could keep it up (UPDATE: I have not kept it up) – where I will pick a poem and talk about what I like about it.

I wanted to do this for two reasons. First, for myself, to work out what I think. I am a big believer that saying and knowing are part of the same process. You don’t know you know something until you say it. It is an extension of the truth that you learn something better when you teach it.

But I also wanted to do it because it is one way of helping other people to get more out of poems. It is a Bad Thing, for poets and readers, if the only people who read poems are people who enjoy them already. E. M. Forster said that the only way to make a case for any kind of culture was to demonstrate your own enjoyment of it. There is no point telling people they will like something. They must see you having a good time, especially if it’s something which takes work to get into.

There is always a chance a blog will reach someone who doesn’t think they like poems, or, more likely, someone who likes some poems, and understands they have particular effects in particular moments – like weddings, or funerals – but who isn’t really sure what they’re supposed to get from them and so has little incentive to explore them further. I would hazard a guess that the last category includes most people who read for pleasure. Which should worry poets, and people who like poetry, even more than it already does.

But my main reason for actually doing this is that I don’t feel like writing anything new myself. That attention span again. But I do feel hopeful when I think about the poems I like. This crisis is making many of us think about what it is we’re grateful for. Among the things I am grateful for are good poems and the poets who wrote them.

I’ll start later this week with a blog about a poem called ‘Into My Own’, which is the first poem in the first book by the first individual poet who got me excited about poems, Robert Frost. Conveniently, it is about being alone. In the meantime, here is the poem.