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Education

'bad for ears' : the role of poetry by RG Gregory
By RG Gregory
Nov 20, 2014 - 7:17:02 AM

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The title poem of my second selection, "bad for ears" dips into circumstances remembered from years back in the writings of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, and provides the underlying theme for an important strain in my work: the denigration of the outsider.

As a student I picked up definitions of poetry as "the right words in the right order" and "saying more than one thing at the same time" -- Wordsworth? Shelley? Maybe Milton, even? The first is the obviously perpetual struggle; the second is more awkward to achieve, and maybe should be rephrased to "more than one level at the same time". A poem may be sparked by a moment's event, but the spark comes because there is something deeper that needs illuminating, something within the reality of the moment that puts pressure on the popular paradigm of cause and effect and suddenly glimpses a more paradoxical sense of occasion yearning to break into being. In "bad for ears" there is great celebration within the room; outside though, a bleaker vision is straining to have its say. Poetry feeds upon this voice within the voice, this other spiritual viewpoint (for pleasure or pain) that changes the whole experience of the language being exploited.

Another interesting division seemed to be harped upon in my student years: poems (poets) that relied upon a strong first line for their best effect and others who relied upon the last line to explode the full depth of the seizure of understanding the words had been perplexing towards. In the first, the delight is being unravelled knowingly. In the second, it is not until the closure of the last line that the reader may gasp "so that's what it's all about" and then have to go back to the rest of the poem to grapple with what its part in the unveiling process properly (imaginatively) was. However (apparently) slight the poem, the initial or climactic explosion provides the nature of the creating landscape, exposes the writing to more than one level, and deepens the reader's appreciation of the coalescing worlds the poet is playing with. It is not merely "saying more than one thing at once", but the sense that "unlike things" are being moulded together, either so simply as to labelled "prosaic", or by a wide range of figures-of-speech that tip such a choice of colours into the mixture. Prose, of course, can approach this poetic game, but it is not, at core, what prose is about. Alliteration, assonance onomatopoeia, for example, echo the sense with sound, letting in an universe of associations; a simile, half-bonding a likeness, but emphasising separateness; a metaphor, that fuses the real with the unreal, as if unlikes could become an unbreakable unity. The underlying sense of a regular beat, although at times deserting its own rules, producing a conviction of rhythm -- and rhyme itself, however faintly or awkwardly sustained, becoming a driving force towards the poem's ultimate style and meaning. The forging of a poem has so many tools to call upon to blend itself into a oneness of form, through verbal and musical sound, with its pleasing page-shape when, in due course, written down. Poetry feeds upon the straight path of the NOW, but it is the vitality and energy mulling around in the undergrowth the path has to work its way through (instinctual rather than rational) that defines the poem's living force. However it strives to do so, a "good" poem cannot tell itself straight. Dionysian rather than Apollonian, it is an emanation of the wild, not the rule-book.

For centuries, after the spoken word succumbed to the printer's block, the determination to see the speciality of the poem as different from that of prose, gave each fresh line its capital letter. The flow of the language was there, but the eye distinguished at once between that which was real (bounded by the urgency of time) and the fanciful, which occupied a boundless realm, a hangover maybe from the archetypal worlds of heroes and gods, engaged at root in the survival of the species. It took till the twentieth century to shake free from the divinatory aspects of the powerful god-given line, with its ritualistic implications, towards the prosaic conviction that truth was in the everyday and archetypes of myth and legend deserved no special way of commemorating their exploits. The complexities of present behaviour were sufficient to be getting on with.

The more prosaic flow of language questioned the need for dominance of the line, established by the initial capital letter. The verse structure mostly survived, but regular rhythm became a looser quest, and rhyme itself no longer remained a lyric necessity. A centuries' old presentational structure gave way to a reliance on the sentence. Capital letters erupting in the middle of statements, where such emphasis served no purpose, increasingly became old hat. The values of prose and poetry almost lost their separate intentions, and the border line between them more obscure. As a result, the poetic line became weaker, less catching to ear and eye, and, as a consequence, less memorable. The skill of remembrance passed to the popular song, with its more superficial sentiments, often incomprehensibly drowned by the triumphant music, and yet, through its constant repetition, sometimes capable of a profound effect. As a result, to my ear and prejudices, the flurry of modern prose-poems, zig-zagging across worn-out traditional borders, often become stilted in their confusions about what kind of beast they are. Poets (even the heavily praised) shuffle through the reading of their works as if they were prose pieces; and competence (often academically applauded) rules rather than a deeply-perceived candour.

I think there are different issues at stake. Prose governs the everyday, working its way inwards to an ultimate spiritual statement. Poetry cannot be so tidy. It arises from an explosion, however minute, out of an unexplainable depth, bringing with it a confusion of experiences and images, in an attempted management of the simultaneous demands of all levels of being, conscious and sub-conscious. It is pricked into language by the particular spiritual assumption we are paradigmed by, seeking to render its truth through symbol, shape, archetype and type, era and age, to the multifarious details of birth to death, and every day's minutiae in between.

Prose tells its story brick by brick. The finite sentence is its most compelling structure. Poetry does not have that straightforward gift. It has too much to get into too small a space. In the cracks between words so many illogicalities are brewing. It has too many angels struggling to steal a place on its pinhead. Poets may think they know what they are saying, but their receivers (readers, hearers) have their own associations already jostling around in their orifices! All literature carries this creative factor of free-play in the choice of its words and structures; but poetry, in its simplest manner, cannot help but want to touch the unfathomable, or at least some guise of it.

I guess that, in this most reasonable age (with its horrors neatly parcelled up in a cupboard) there has come to exist some kind of fear of the poetic. Even in the verse-trade a considerable portion of publishers, magazine editors and among aspiring poets themselves, there exists a forboding about accepting work that does not follow today's fashionable lay-out formulae, wildly ignoring the fact that they too have overthrown poetry's longstanding tradition of capitalising each line.

In 1967, during a two-year stint in Uganda, after some twenty years as a committed writer, I broke from the two standard ways of putting poems on the page. I was spurred on by the works of e. e. cummings, though I still don't understand some of the intentions of his typography. I sought a form that suited my own composite self. I abandoned capital letters, rejecting the capitalistic viewpoint in every way that I could. (In prose, representing the "real" world no one could escape I have stayed sensible, happily employing the strengths and subtleties of the established syntax.) Poets do not have to be sensible. I dropped the parade of full-stops, commas, colons and semi-colons, interrogation and exclamation marks, which seemed to me to impose too much reason. Instead I brought the less-favoured hyphen, dash and bracket into play: all that was needed to indicate to the reader that a change of pitch and direction was needed. And I decided I should keep the apostrophe, particularly to distinguish between it's and its -- that anomaly of rule-breaking, confusing so many practitioners of the English language. I claim no great credit for these changes, but they have had a profound effect on the flow of my poems, even if others remain confounded by such decisions.

I use rhyme quite a lot: I like the challenge of rhyme-driven structures. That too is upsetting to many who despise the mechanics of it.

The poem that gives its name to my second selection of poems from Indigo Dreams Publishing -- bad for ears -- started as a child's Christmas poem. Now I think it resonates, not simply with my entire poetry outlook, but with my world view as well. My subject-matter is eclectic, but, more importantly, it is, in sum, not neutral. It is on the side of the frozen ears.

bad for ears

the song wasn't up to the task
of getting through the double-glazing
into the ears pressed on the outside pane
the rest of their bodies had faded away but
the ears were straining still towards the music
in order to know the good times being had in the room
night fell the cold grew and the lights went out but
the ears hung around believing in music until
they froze and dropped to the ground like
slugs that had missed out on the seasons
it was a bad christmas for ears

RG Gregory
Author of bad for ears
http://www.rggregory.com


Gregory
un-taught English and Drama for nineteen years before launching into the alternative to the alternative theatre for thirty years, all the time wrestling with the paradoxical relationship of Word and Action (Being and Doing), maybe not that successfully. He has been involved in three personal (two married) partnerships, over sixty years, to women he has owed much to, and has had five children, cleverer than he is (a sixth died at thirteen days) and four grandchildren. So far, unintentionally, he has lived in fifty-one different postal addresses. A wartime Grammar-school evacuee, over two years as a post-war army conscript, mostly in Germany as an Education Corps Sergeant, and the unsettlement of his theatre years, have contributed to most of that. He has written too much and published too little. Born in 1928, very much a product of the Southern working-class, he has been primarily concerned with writing poetry and plays (since 1957 for performance-in-the-round). His views on the deep politics of life are infused into every word he has expressed, prosaically or poetically.

RG Gregory's 'Bad for Ears' melds a powerful collection of intense, light-hearted, thought-provoking and affirming non-standard poetic verses. Haiku, Tanka and other forms of short poetry collide in a collection where all words are in lower-case Outlandish brackets grace every page and the book of English Grammar is tossed out of the window -- for good reason! Gregory's poems are set out in the way best suited for his own purpose of writing. They range through many styles and genres. These selections are not chronological. Youth and age are part of the one flesh. Prose is the medium of order where all of its possible subtleties require grammatical and syntactical guidelines. Poetry is the collision of the spirit with the everyday. It depends upon an explosion of language not so much primed as innately released. Prose observes: poetry experiences. Well, something like that!


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