How many ears does Mr Spock have?
The left, the right and the final front.
Maybe working on Magma 57 has addled my brain, but the old playground joke seems to me about the best summary of the role of shape/space in poetry.
In an early version of the editorial for the magazine I tried to list the ways poets had ‘used’ shape in the issue. Certainly visual effects in poems are sometimes indices of some other property the poet is seeking – timing the breath, semantic emphasis, making equivalences/non-equivalences more explicit and so on. The eye is often engaged to guide the ear and/or the voice and/or the train of thought. (In the course of proof corrections several poets have explained to me their thinking behind some of the arrangements and they are at least as various as this – though the poem always gets the final word.)
There is at least one reason why such a list can never be satisfactory. Invention is inexhaustible – poets will find new ways of writing beyond the confines of any fixed list of technique. That’s to be expected. However the more I tried to complete my list the more obvious it became that there was something faulty with my presumptions.
Anne Berkeley’s snail poem, to take one example, didn’t just delight me, but brought smiles to all the team in our final editorial meeting. (The poem is titled ‘Helix aspersa’ and you will find it on page 10 of your copy!) There are several ways I could suggest this poem ‘uses’ its shape, which both recalls the silhouette of the snail and highlights the poem’s formal properties. I would also say that it also makes a kind of slow expansive gesture (and gesture is integral to forming both thought and feeling). Yet the whole idea of poet as ‘user’ of the poem to manipulate something falls short of what we see in even such a simple (can we say ‘light’ without it sounding pejorative?) example.
A poem is space and words and and and…it is an object that celebrates being here, in front of us. The materiality of a poem is of its essence and to always insist that these properties are ‘used’ for something else forces us to step aside from the poem itself – perhaps too often the pit that lit. crit. leads us into. It is surprising how often I come across people who report that the academic study of literature turned them off poetry. When some wag comes up with a list of 340 possible allusions in a J H Prynne poem I myself feel somewhat turned off: but then the poem still sounds great, still moves in the way that an intellect moves, still occupies a piece of the world (and possibly that ‘340 allusions’ is an intended reductio ad absurdum of some of the literary world?).
Poetry does not like conclusions, so I hesitate to give one, but please engage all your ‘ears’ to enjoy the poems in Magma 57 – the left, the right, the final front of the eyes, and all those other ways I cannot list – to engage with and enjoy these new things in the world.