(More about Andrew Motion here…)
Yesterday’s column was about a poem by Andrew Motion. I spent most of the rest of that evening (and this morning) rereading his anthology, ‘Selected Poems 1976-1997′. So, the rest of this weekend I will keep on talking about poetry, and about Andrew Motion’s poems.
Before I return to him, this:
What I dislike about the Norton anthologies we used in college – apart from those awkward cigarette paper pages – was the amount of footnotes in these books. Some of those footnotes were useful enough, providing us with bi(bli)ographical, geographical and historical detail but too many were, or what felt to be, obsessively intrusive: almost like the editors were showing off.
There were always these perfectly ordinary words & phrases that came with a footnote explaining that this, that or the other referred to a line written by some other, dead poet.
These were not, for the most part, instances of those famed Homeric ‘wine red seas’ but, let’s say, a perfectly straightforward mentioning of ‘high roofs’ would have one editor or the other swoon in perfectly obscure recognition of another high roof, in another poem – and this was just annoying. Even if this later poet had smiled while writing his or her ‘high roofs’, with the fleeting echo of another roof in his or her head, this did not warrant such a clunky reference. It weighed down these words and shackled them like unfortunate and heavily handed ghosts.
I have to admit though that I’m also guilty of playing with echoes. In my own poems I associate freely with words and images used by other poets. What I hope for is that these echoes are unobtrusive: that readers who don’t recognize the references won’t even notice any form of intrusion and that those who do will do so with fleeting half smiles.
What I would not like is some bloody editor explaining every little thing.
Anyway, I was reminded of those Norton footnotes while I was reading through the Andrew Motion anthology. I bought it, some years ago, in a second hand book store and the former owner had littered his or her copy with pencilled notes – and though I tried to erase these squirrelly signs, I can still see quite a few of these ghostly silhouettes, whenever I read the book.
Most of these notes are inoffensive but some show that old Norton touch. Like the one in the long and marvellous poem ‘Lines of Desire’.
In one strophe the reader cleverly identifies a quote (‘Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!’) as a line from a Wilfred Owen poem – but modestly, not even using one of the dead poet’s own exclamation marks in his or her discreetly pencilled “ —> Wilfred Owen”.
In a following strophe, there are the lines
‘Yes, I fell in love with a soldier
seventy years younger than me,’
and here’s the former owner of the anthology again, with his or her ever eager pencil, encircling the word ‘soldier’ and adding, at the end of the line, “ —> Wilfred Owen?”
Which is silly – and way too heavy-handed. When Owen wrote his poems, of course he did talk about his experiences in the Great War but not in a self-obsessed manner. If anything, he was the exact counterweight to today’s reality TV celebrities, who always need to be the loud & ugly & pathetic centre of the whole universe. Owen was more self-effacing: when he wrote about (the fate of) soldiers any echo of himself he found there was just a reminder that everybody is the centre of his or her personal universe and that the poet was no more the centre of a poem than a corpse, or a rat, or the dying sigh of some anonymous soldier.
So, no, my ghostly pencil-paced, careful pre-owner, Owen would not have been very pleased with your need to stamp his face on that seventy years’ younger soldier. He would have preferred you to fall in love with the image of all those soldiers he tried to portray in his poems – and you would have honoured him more if you had.
End of lecture.
Okay, one footnote…:
Dulce et Decorum est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(More about Wilfred Owen here…)