Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Reflections on a Gift from Carol Rumens

Carol Rumens, poet and critic

One of the best and most unexpected things that happened to me last year came right at the end of 2010. To my amazement, Carol Rumens chose my poem ‘My Grandmother’s Opal’ as Poem of the Week on her Guardian Books blog. (In case you’re interested, here’s the link):

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/dec/27/poem-of-the-week-grevel-lindop

It was like a surprise late Christmas present, especially as Carol’s introductory essay gave a very sensitive and imaginative reading of the poem, of a kind I’d never imagined anyone would offer. It was quite difficult to believe it had really happened. And not the least surprising thing was that I’d almost forgotten about the poem myself. As it chanced, my wife Amanda was glacing at an old diary and noticed that I’d finished the poem in 1978 – more than half my lifetime ago.

Naturally that prompted all sorts of reflections – not least, on the question of whether I could write that poem now, if I hadn’t already. Obviously, in one sense not. I’m a different person, with different proccupations. But also, the ego naturally starts wondering ‘Can I write as well as that these days? Have I lost even whatever minimal skill with words I had then?’ There’s an irrational sense of needing to compete with a younger self.

But we can’t do that. All anyone can do is to write as well as they can (however they might define ‘well’) at a given time. A poem is made in the mould or matrix of not just a mind but a language, a culture, and a personal moment. There can’t actually be a competition, with oneself or others. Any poem that gets as far as being genuine is a species all by itself.

I also found myself wondering about form. On the few occasions when a poem of mine has been brought back from the past like this, for a critical discussion or an anthology, it has very often been a poem (like ‘My Grandmother’s Opal’) in fairly strict metre and rhyme.

In that particular poem I’d chosen a strict form (or rather, felt the need of it – you don’t really choose these things) – rhyming or half-rhyming quatrains – because I wanted the shape of the poem to be a bit like a faceted stone or piece of jewellery – quite highly polished. But Carol Rumens’s choice did make me wonder again whether poems in strict forms are more likely to survive through time, to be remembered, or just look reasonably good, after the lapse of some decades.

This could be because rhyme and metre are devices that help memory (that’s surely one reason they developed in the first place); so lines from such poems perhaps have a tendency to stick in the mind more than passages from free verse poems. I wonder also if, as the language moves on, speech rhythms change, and a free verse passage that seemed very effective at one time comes to seem less so; whilst a metrical passage gives more emphatic clues to the reader about how to stress and time the words?

I find myself that the free verse passages that stay in my memory are mostly ones that have the force of a proverb or aphorism – W.C. Williams’s ‘No ideas but in things’ or Whitman’s ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself…’ or R.S. Thomas’s man ‘nailing his questions/one by one to an untenanted cross’ – though even that last line is in fact metrical, so maybe it proves the opposite.

I write plenty of poems in free verse, but soetimes I wonder if I’m making them ephemeral for that reason. Yet, again, you can’t often choose the form of a poem (maybe you can sometimes? but if you do, that’s a different poem…). And some things maybe can’t be written about in metre. I wonder.

Anyway, thank you, Carol Rumens, for a choice that encouraged me and made me feel that all those hours of toiling away over my notebook in the evenings, in my dusty bedsit, back in the faded 1970s, had been worthwhile after all.

This week’s Poem of the Week, a witty comic salute to the New Year by Winthrop Mackworth Praed (a big mouthful of a name you don’t hear often enough these days!) is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/jan/04/poem-of-the-week-winthrop-mackforth-praed

And Carol Rumen’s own website is at http://www.carolrumens.co.uk/

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