Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The BBC recently reported on one Ammon Shea, who spent a year reading the Oxford English Dictionary - 20 volumes, 21,730 pages and 59 million words. Here are Mr. Shea's thoughts on the experience, with the word 'dictionary' replaced by 'poem':

"I've always enjoyed reading poems and they are far more interesting than people give them credit for. And I think everything you find in a great book you would find in a great poem, except for the plot.

"All the normal emotions - grief, happiness and loss - exist in a poem but not necessarily in the order that you would think."

The article includes a quote from Auden: "For a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways."

That last phrase could easily have been used by one of our more innovative poetry practitioners to describe their poetry - the notion that the reader of a poem is at least as responsible for the meaning as the writer. This got me thinking, in a digressive way, about Auden's poetry. I've thought for some time that his repudiation of poems like 'Spain' and 'September 1 1939' was wrong-headed in the sense that it regarded the poem's literal message as paramount. If one believes that a poem can be "legitimately read in an infinite number of ways", then it doesn't make sense to repudiate a poem because of its literal message. Nevertheless, I admire Auden for his moral stance.

This train of thought brings to mind another poet, one whose achievement seems ever more slender with the passing years: T.S. Eliot. I've always thought it shameful that Eliot never publicly renounced the anti-semitic passages in his early poetry. I appreciate of course, that my views on this may contradict my previous views on Auden, and that there seems no easy answer to this vexed question, which raises the further question of whether poetry, made out of language, can ever really be divorced from the "real world" and the things it references.

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