I'm enjoying the BBC poetry season in a fairly uncommitted, pretty kneejerk and vague kinda way. I'm glad that they are doing it, I suppose, and I've been happy to see Owen Sheers talking about Sylvia Plath and (some of) Simon Schama talking about John Donne, and I'm looking forward to Armando Iannucci's progamme on Milton. But I'm afraid that the opinons of Griff Rhys Jones, Michelle Ryan, Alex James, John Sergeant and Cerys Matthews on matters poetical are not something I can bring myself to care very much about, and the whole event has the kind of middlebrow, middle class feel that always seems to surround poetry and will put off as many people as it will, doubtless, inspire. GRJ's wide-eyed enthusiasms and his constant gurning particularly annoy me; is there no room at all, across the whole network, for some serious academics to talk seriously about serious poetry? No? Just the gurning? Right, there you are then!

Nonetheless, poetry is in the air, and my current re-reading of Plath, Eliot, Wallace Stevens and naughty Ruth Padel's useful 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem has, I'm sure, been stimulated by the Beeb's propaganda. Whilst it is right for the Beeb to remind us that poetry can be fun and that poems aren't difficult and dense puzzles that only initiates can fathom and unlock, the programmes have also correctly highlighted the fact that poets pay especial care to and with the language they use, how they place one word against another, and how they go about achieving, in such a concentrated form, a maximum of meaning and emotional punch. Whilst it is good, then, to remember how enjoyable and entertaining poetry can be, we're also being reminded that to get the most out of a poem you need to read it carefully.

This has led me to think: what does it mean to read carefully, to read with care? And what would it mean to read prose is such a way? What would we gain from reading prose as we should read poetry, from reading prose poetically?

The word care comes from the Old English caru or cearu meaning "sorrow, anxiety, grief", but to care for someone or something is to shield them from such, or to accept that they are in such a state, in their "bed of sickness" afflicted by "mental suffering" and requiring our solicitous "protection, preservation or guidance." Being full of cares has morphed, in the word carefully, to being full of care for (care for those who are themselves full of cares). To read carefully is, then, to read solicitously, painstakingly (taking on board the pain, taking on its weight, taking it away from the poem and into our own care), slowly, anxiously desirous of understanding the full weight of meaning of each word. It is the opposite of reading instrumentally, as a means to an end, as merely the means to get to the end of the book, to find the answer but not to observe, to respect, to hold in view and to care for the question that the text always is and is always posing.

Reading carefully is awareness of the cares of words; our habitual carelessness, when reading, shows us that reading's ethical dimension is one that poetry's own intricacy can help to highlight. Reading poetry can help us become better readers especially, perhaps, when and if we remember to read prose poetically. Maybe, then, it is just about worth enduring Gryf's gormless gurning to be reminded of this.

Readers Comments

  1. Michael Richards Thursday 28 May 2009

    Thoughtful post, Mark. The problem is, I find, that we read - or rather, skim - so much in our day to day lives that it's difficult to re-adjust our minds for careful reading, "quality" reading if you like. Skimming e-mails and business documents takes its toll over time, so that it requires an almost yoga-like shift of consciousness to do some quality reading at the end of the business day. It's rather like actually sitting and listening to a piece of music when your day has been full of background music of various kinds.

    By the way, nothing is worth Gryf's gormless gurning in my view. I'm old enough to remember when BBC2 felt able to offer Cecil Day Lewis and his wife reading poetry from books in their hands - the beauty of their reading was enough to make me want to read more. In those far-off days too a discussion programme could actually consist of some people sitting in a studio talking, usually clouded in cigarette smoke, instead of having to cut away to a historical reconstruction or having some celeb shout in a helicopter.

    Sorry, I got a bit fogeyish towards the end there...

  2. Great post and so very true. It's at times like these (which are rare) that I miss not having a television. On the plus side I have missed GRJ. Another day minus GRJ is always a bonus. Part of the reason I got rid of my TV is because of this current belief that the average viewer will run screaming at the prospect of anything vaguely 'cultural' or 'intelligent' and so, to keep our attention, apparently, we're inflicted with a gaggle of irritating presenters/celebrities, incessant music, jumpy editing and even gratuitous nudity (anyone remember a dimply Dimbleby buttock cheek appearing in a docu on Russia a while back? Pray for what reason?). At least GRJ has not (yet) stooped to this kind of 'presentation'. For this we must be thankful.

    I agree with Michael – I find it increasingly hard after a hectic day to switch to the kind of tranquillity you need to really absorb and enjoy reading. It's sad (and even dangerous I think) that in our fast-paced, convenience-hungry world the real value and virtue of patience are so often kicked to the wayside as some sort of unnecessary luxury. Nietzsche pretty much nailed it with a quote that has always stayed with me: "read well, that is to say, read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers.” 'nuff said.

  3. "anyone remember a dimply Dimbleby buttock cheek appearing in a docu on Russia a while back?"

    That's nothing, what about the arses on Question Time every week?

    What I've noticed in these documentaries is the extreme lack of poetry - though Armando Iannucci's Milton last night was slightly rebellious in this regard. When the camera looks at a page of words, it jerks around more than Ed Champion at a book fair.

    Also, when they discussed Sylvia Plath - and why not a greater American poet (there are plenty)? - it was with relief they turned to a Brontean landscape said to have *inspired* a poem. If going to the landscape is enough, why bother with poetry?

  4. Hi Mark,

    From out 'on the edge of civilisation' (Borges, not me), the BBC Poetry Season has rather passed me by. I wanted to ask though: does it include much discussion of living poets?
    On a wider point, television's direct treatment of poetry seems an easy target. I can't see how popular television, a form for which the 'three second shot' was invented, could ever be conducive to careful reading. And perhaps more controversially, I'd argue that just showing poets reading on screen would not in itself be poetic or even very helpful. At least not in terms of televisual discourse. If one bears in mind the huge amount of writing (often awful) behind every single scene shown on television, then perhaps a 'poetic' reaction to, say, Paradise Lost, would be very different than just having it read out. It would be a show that in itself would demand close-, re-, and especially careful reading. And it would encourage said care to be taken in other mediums. In the world of the three-second-shot maybe the only space is for direct exhortation?

  5. All these posts are pertinent and intelligent (as one might expect on this site...). I've seen some of the recent BBC poetry programmes, watching them partly as a poet and reader of poetry, and partly as someone who in a previous incarnation has made the occasional tv doc. on poetry/poets e.g. the late Basil Bunting. I didn't see any GRJ, on purpose, but some of the others seemed to me to show the best and the less good (if not quite the worst) side of this kind of programme.
    Whether one takes these as broadly educational by intention, e.g. to stimulate an interest in the art form, remind people who have for very understandable reasons let poetry slip out of their lives, stimulate an interest that wasn't there before, and so on, or as programmes attempting to be all of these things but also using some of the strengths of film and tv to convey by non-verbal means some of the qualities of the poet and his/her writing, what the audience absolutely doesn't need is distraction! (See above, about careful reading, and also careful watching.)
    The worst kind of presentation was that where words from the poem were read aloud over 'relevant' visuals while they were flashed up in different font-sizes like demented ants. The best I have seen was Simon Schama (yes, I know, not everybody's favourite, but...) and Fiona Shaw showing by various means why John Donne is one of the finest English poets: enough background cultural and political context, excellent readings, brilliant close discussion and analysis of parts of poems, revealing how the faintest change of emphasis altered meaning in a phrase, a line, a poem... plus some of the best (i.e. not only visually fine but contextually stimulating) photography I can remember in a programme about a writer. I thought it was a model, and made the dross, if not justifiable, just about supportable.
    In response to Kit: I've been thinking about these issues since the '60s -- whether one can do much for poetry on tv. Not sure that I'm any the wiser, but I have always thought it was possible to do something potentially useful/interesting for the audience. Which audience? I don't think one can use the methods of Big Brother or talent shows, obviously enough, to do anything for poetry, and there may not be much overlap in audience. But you can do something intelligent for an intelligent, interested audience, and not talk down to them.
    I think it was easier, or less difficult, when I made my Bunting film (about 40 years ago) because the television culture and audience expectations were different. In fact, I was working for an ITV company at the time. Nowadays, for all the obvious reasons, changed expectations bring great pressure on programme-makers to make it 'relevant', 'interesting' etc, hence the mess on the screen so often when one wants to listen carefully. It can still be done, with the right people, and the right choice of poet, too. Back to the John Donne programme...

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