Poetry is out to get me.
Sometimes nice people say to me, by email, “I will send you some poems soon”. I know they mean well, but nevertheless I experience this promise as a warning. It is like the Godfather saying “I will send you a little present”.
But I have an antidote. It is a thin paperback volume with a green cover. It is 56 pages long and contains 33 poems written over seven years.
This is Robert Nye’s new book. I cannot link to it here, because the publisher, Greenwich Exchange, hasn’t yet made the publication available on their website.
The book is titled An Almost Dancer, Poems 2005-2011. Like the poet’s previous volume, The Rain and the Glass, it has a brief foreword about poetic practice. Here's what the poet said back in 2004:
The craft, as has been noted, is long to learn. And the last lesson (like the first) may be that craft at best is only half the story, for poetry is not a product of the will. I have spent my life trying to write poems, but the poems gathered here came mostly when I was not.
“Poetry is not a product of the will.” Say that in a creative writing class and emerge unscathed.
In his new volume, Nye refers in his foreword to Norman Cameron, the twentieth century Scottish poet. In New Verse, Geoffrey Grigson asked Cameron “Do you intend your poetry to be useful to yourself or others?” Cameron’s reply (and it was typical of him) was: “Neither. I write a poem because I think it wants to be written.”
For Robert Nye, who shares Cameron’s view, “in each case certain lines came into my head unbidden which then required resolving before they’d let me rest.” Many of us could relate to that, though few would go on to say, “I must admit that . . . the process of poetic composition is still as much a mystery to me as it ever was, perhaps more so.”
But it is a mystery in more than one sense. It is a mystery that in the melée of tweeting and twittering, prizes and glorification, puffs and counter-puffs, rants and pomposities, a small poem can still arrive astonishing and complete. It doesn’t need to assert itself. It waits for you to notice it and pick it up, like a pebble amongst sea-washed pebbles.
Ruth Pitter, in her preface to Poems 1926-1966, says “I think a real poem, however simple its immediate content, begins and ends in mystery”.
I do not want to mystify – neither the process of writing, nor that of reading either—because essentially, despite the tracts and books about poetic theory and so on, certain poems do not need annotation or cleverness. Some of those are in Nye’s new book.
Sometimes Nye’s style is so plain that a modern reader could suspect the author of being disingenuous. But he is not. Here is one of my favourites, ‘The Lady With The Dog’. The title is not a subtle reference to Chekhov. The experience, I am sure, was real:
I saw a little old woman being led
Up a Cork alley by a mongrel dog.
The dog was wall-eyed and it had the mange
And slavered as it pulled her on a string,
Yet as they passed I heard the woman chant
In a low voice, as sweet as Juliet,
‘Who is my joy? Who is my darling boy?
Wolfie, my dear, aren’t you the dog of dogs!’
I hurried on, for I had things to do,
But when all’s done I hope I shan’t forget
That lady and her love for one fine dog.
In the crucible of the poem, “things to do” are life itself, the way its busyness preoccupies us and prevents us from seeing. And “when all’s done”—that is death, the moment of dissolution. And the lady herself, whose voice is as sweet as Juliet, is a vision.
In Nye’s poetry it is as if one line or phrase opens that vision, the glory that Wordsworth felt he had seen as a child and later lost. For a moment you peer through the poem and glimpse it too. Then you wonder whether you imagined it, and you have to go back, and read again.
Here is ‘Valentinus’, who was also Martin Seymour-Smith, the poet and literary critic, and a friend. What had he to say?
Yes, I knew Valentinus from my youth.
He taught me poets have to tell the truth
Or try to, though it make us seem uncouth.
You find this foolish? Lady, so did he,
Laughing at his own verses, teaching me
To laugh at mine or simply let them be.
Not that it’s ever simple to make sense
At least when living in the present tense,
Or to be more than your intelligence.
That is not the end of the poem, but those stanzas encapsulate a paradox—that the poet can somehow, sometimes, be more than his or her own intelligence, can be a vehicle for something that wants to be written. Nye is serious about this. He does not make the claim grandly.
Like many contemporary volumes, the book has endorsements on the back cover from Carol Ann Duffy, John Burnside, Peter Porter and even Ian Crichton Smith. But the poems do not need endorsement.
All they require is a little private room for solitary reading. They are not in the least intimidating.