There are not many poets I could point to and say ‘yes, that is the first time I read X, and here is how I felt about it,’ but there are two I remember encountering for the first time more vividly than most.
The first is German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. I had bought the translations by Stephen Mitchell from the Brick Lane Bookshop, when I moved to London for the first time. I was at a loose end. I had drifted into a job I wasn’t sure about, having come back to the UK from Sri Lanka earlier than expected in unusual circumstances, where I was teaching English in Colombo. Rilke’s poems are about transience and comforting in a vaguely mystical way. The circumstances met the poems.
The second is the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice. I remember encountering MacNeice for the first time, because he produced real resistance. It sounds (and is) ridiculous, but there was something about his surname which put me off. “MacNeice.” It was clinical, sharp, abrasive. And this seemed to be mirrored in the poems, which, to my unfamiliar ear, felt too tightly controlled, almost prickly.
There was a flintiness to his subjects, too: real life in the 1930s, with little sentiment, and any broader themes, such as I could identify, introduced elliptically. It was all a world away from the Tennyson and Milton we had been studying in school, or the lyrics I was listening to at home and trying to write for our garage band. It wasn’t what I thought poems were. I remember thinking: this is a bit hard, I’m not sure it’s worth it.
It’s difficult now to reconcile those feelings with this poem, ‘Snow’, a short, sharp hymn to the multifariousness of the world. The context is simple: MacNeice is sitting in a room, in front of a fire, eating a tangerine. It is snowing. There is a vase of roses in the window. We are thrown in at the point at which the snow, the roses and the window undergo a change, and become an overwhelming spectacle.
Perhaps it has just started to snow, or MacNeice has only just noticed. Whatever is going on, it is a surprise, and the surprise is the prompt for some engaging, chummy philosophising about the richness and variety of the world, and our perception of it.
‘Snow’ does all the right poemy things. The sounds match what is being said. The world is busy, busier than we realise, and so is a phrase like ‘soundlessly collateral and incompatible’. Then there’s that tangerine. The words come down to single, propulsive syllables, so that you must also spit to say, ‘spit the pips and feel’.
But there is a deliberate unpoeticness to ‘Snow’, an awkwardness in the phrasing and language, and this is one of the things I like most about it. That and the open-ended imagery: why is there more than glass between the snow and the roses?
Notice, for instance, how the ends of the lines draw attention to themselves. You might have tripped up when the first line finished on ‘was’. The natural thing would be to put ‘was’ on the next line, as it is not a stand-alone verb at all, but part of the verb ‘was spawning’. As it is, you stop and start again.
When we are taught poetry in school, there is a temptation to say that enjambment (the technical term for when a phrase, an image or an idea, is broken up by two lines) is meant to mean something special. Often it is just a convenient (or lazy) way of drawing attention to a word or phrase. Here, the enjambment does what it describes.
One of the reasons we sometimes take enjambment for granted is that very few modern poets use metre, that is, a set rhythm. MacNeice is not using one here, not really. Most lines have six beats, but there is no pattern. But there is a rhythm behind each line. One phrase stands out because it is the only one in iambic pentameter (five beats in a line, often thought of as the metre most like ordinary speech, because one line of it takes one breath): ‘Word is suddener than we fancy it.’
There are other ways in which MacNeice goes out of his way to break expectations. Roses, fire, snow: these are symbolic, ‘poetic’ images, but here they do not represent anything other than themselves. By the end, the ‘huge roses’ have become something other than themselves, alien and strange. ‘Fancy it’ and ‘Suddenly’ are not phrases you expect to hear in such a short, condensed poem, where space is at a premium. The only two rhymes in the poem are ungainly. Against it / Fancy it. Supposes / Huge roses.
Yet, how satisfying is it to land on ‘roses’ at the end! That satisfaction derives in part from the fact everything that came before, the words, the rhythm, the images, has been slightly offbeat. Just in the previous line there were four triple beats and no punctuation. Even ‘huge roses’ is a bit wrong: I find I have to put the stress on both words, like an engine juddering to a halt.
Before working for the BBC after the Second World War, where he wrote radio plays, MacNeice lectured in Classics in Birmingham. So knew his way around Greek and Latin poetry, and his trochees from his spondees. ‘Snow’ works against expectations, without ever being inaccessible. Every now and then it gives you the satisfaction of a ‘normal’ line or a clean rhyme. You get poetic language (‘incorrigibly plural’) but it is leavened with ordinary speech: ‘crazier’.
I have never warmed to the argument, well-meaning though it may be, that poetry has a unique ability to ‘re-enchant’ the world, show it to us with new eyes. A good poem may do that, but so would the right novel, painting, film, or photograph. So could a conversation. The poem is its form, and, done right, the form is its own surprise.
This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.