Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Wrecking Light

I've just finished The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson, and it's been a very odd experience.

First off, there is no doubt that this is seriously good poetry. It is distinctive, incisive, haunting, individual. It is also seriously beautiful, and Signs on a White Field is the most memorable and loveliest poem I've come across in ages. I've been writing a lot about ice and snow lately (well, who hasn't?) and this leaves me with very little left to say on the subject.

But it's also seriously creepy. Robin Robertson introduces us to a world of madness, poison, mutilation, obsession and death, with very little to redeem it. Which raises a few questions in my mind.

There's more to poetry, of course, than lyrical loveliness, and I think even Keats would have disowned those lines from Sleep and Poetry
They shall be accounted poet-kings
Who simply tell the most heart-easing things

if he'd lived a bit longer. Poetry is not about feel-good.

I'm a great believer in Colette's advice to 'look long at what gives you pleasure, and longer at what gives you pain.' The world is, of course, full of love, joy, beauty and wonder, but we have to admit that it is also full of brutality, treachery, squalor and madness. You don't make good poetry out of a sentimental or fearful refusal to see things as they are. And I don't want to get into the realms of morality or psychology. Poetry doesn't necessarily have the duty to conform to external standards of what's moral or even what's normal.

So what duty does it have? When push comes to shove, it must be to tell the truth - though every poem must be seen as experimental rather than definitive, a personal take on a vision, rather than a dogma/slogan/mantra. This matters more than technique or skill or artistic excellence. If it doesn't attempt to wrestle with the obdurate, cross-grained, persistent truth the way it is, then no matter how cunning and well-crafted it is, it's a dead end. The Wrecking Light is brilliant, it really is, but it's also monstrous.

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