Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Great Poets Shouldn't Have to "Dumb-Down"

Ezra Pound, Bing Images

This is what James I is claimed to have said about John Donne. It was recorded by Archdeacon Plume:

"Dr. Donne's verses are like the peace of God; they pass all understanding."

I often wonder if that's fair.  Great store is set by how accessible poetry is - the question always being, "accessible to whom...?"

When I was studying modern poetry at the University of Kent, I often felt frustrated at Ezra Pound, who wrote such stunning pieces, then wandered off into foreign snippets and allusions, so that you had to be highly educated in classical literature and language, including Latin, to understand his work. Or else you needed a very patient teacher with plenty of time to instruct you.

Some of his prose is even expressed as musical sheets. I love music, but only as a consumer. I can't sing. I can't play. I can't read music.

I was lost, stumped, angry. How dare he write stuff I couldn't understand? It isn't my fault I didn't get a great education. How would I ever catch up?  Why should these works be beyond my reach?

Ezra Pound wrote a wonderful haiku:

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
— Ezra Pound

What a beautiful, precise image, how full of energy in its very shifting-ness. It's both here and far away, both distinctive and fragile. You feel you might grasp this image only to find it shimmering away into the distance.

I feel differently now. I take what I can and I'm glad for it. I try to fill the gaps where I can't understand, but there's no use in fretting about it all.  How can we expect such intellects, with their great, seeking, reaching, unfathomable thoughts to dumb down so everyone can get a bigger piece of them.

No, we need to dumb-up.  Great poets should just carry on as they see fit.

Oh, and wasn't he so handsome? But I do so wish I understood more than I do.

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