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George Szirtes on Paxman and poetry

In today’s Guardian, George Szirtes takes Jeremy Paxman to task for his recent assertions about poetry, his suggestion that poets ought to explain how and why they chose their topic or form.

Poetry, he said, should “aim to engage with ordinary people much more”. Let us imagine the inquisition then.

“Are you, or have you ever been, an incomprehensible poet?” asks the committee. The poet looks shiftily around, as Shostakovich did when arraigned by Stalin, for his artist’s creative response to just criticism, but Paxo will have none of it. The People will have none of it. You have made your own gulag, Paxo thunders, now lie in it.

Szirtes goes on to explain why a poem cannot easily be pinned down and summarised:

We believe, even now, not just in the power of words but in their capacity to imply things beyond the dictionary definition. Words are not stable entities you can slam down like dominoes. They carry a baggage of music, context, allusion, attachment and history. It is the baggage that produces the poetry.

Here’s an example of the way a poem’s baggage may shape its meaning, the concluding lines of Szirtes’ own ‘Actaeon’:

So flesh falls away, ever less
human, like desire itself, though pain
still registers in the terrible balance
the mind seems so reluctant to retain,
o, my America, my nakedness!

‘O, my America’ echoes Donne’s ‘To His Mistress going to bed’; the narrator gazes at a woman as she undresses, encouraging her by example as he urges her to hurry. The hunter Actaeon, by contrast, is destroyed because he gazes at a naked woman.  Donne’s narrator tears off his clothes; Actaeon’s flesh is torn off by his hounds. Clearly, although readers might disagree over exactly what effect is created by the allusion to Donne, it’s important to be aware of the ‘baggage’ of Szirtes’ poem.

Szirtes just touches in passing on the possible connections between political and poetic language.  But I was particularly struck by the way his analysis of the way words work in poetry, their ‘power to imply things beyond the dictionary definition’ maps onto the way political writing also carries baggage.  Knowing a word or image’s history within antisemitic discourse, for example, may change our response to an apparently unproblematic article or cartoon. This kind of hidden or double meaning isn’t of course very positive, whereas poetry ‘is a sea into which you dive’, to quote Szirtes, more rewarding because not always easily fathomable, even when it seems simple.