Saturday, 21 December 2019

Against an automatic cringe

In a recent review of Finuala Dowling's latest poetry collection, Pretend you don't know me, published by Kwela, Reg Rumney writes:

"In an age of self-obsession and poetry as therapy, poet and novelist Finuala Dowling’s work is outward oriented. She makes it her business to have an audience. Her poems talk about what is most painful to us, publicly and privately without inviting voyeurism and she’s not afraid of politics beyond slogans. And she enjoys performing her poems. They are not internal monologues."

Rumney's point is valid and I completely chime with his praise of Finuala Dowling's work. I agree with him that any reader would benefit from possessing a copy of Pretend you don't know me.

However, I would like to invite you to rewind to his words, "In an age of self-obsession and poetry as therapy", going on to imply that, in this 'age', much poetry amounts to no more than "voyeurism" of "internal monologues".

I do not question Rumney's feelings about selfie-type poems. These feelings are perfectly understandable.

Nevertheless, I would like to invite you to look again. 

Yes, there is much preoccupation with the self in recent poetry - the self both in its psychological as well as physical manifestations - during this year, and the last, and perhaps the previous ten to twenty; a trend that was arguably begun by William Wordsworth more than two hundred years ago. To offer my own eye on this trend, I would say there is far more going on than can be simply dismissed as an irritating literary aberration, due to a lack of education among emerging poets as to proper poetic attitudes and style.

Yes, it is exhausting and enervating to plough through hundreds upon hundreds of poems, often imaged as memes by (frequently) young, often love-struck, more often love-starved, psychologically struggling folk, who may be on medication or not, using words as a way to keep themselves from drowning in loneliness, despair, and social neglect. I am not even mentioning the environmental and political crises shadowing the globe. 

And yes, it behoves a critic and reviewer to remind readers and writers of modes of expression that would take them beyond themselves and outside their anguish, no matter how desperate they might be. For example:

"I have sweated metals and fused quicksilver to moonlight.
Equations have haunted my walls in a race against time." - from The Alchemy of you by Jessica Denyschen, in The Magic, The Madness and the Loss, Poetree Publications, 2018 

Even out of context, these "self-obsessed" lines are potent, reaching deeply into self in a formidable and rhythmically utterly convincing way. 

Overall, I would caution protectively against an automatic cringe in response to the search for self in an age that requires and facilitates the individual's search for their own soul more than ever before. I think it was Pearl S. Buck who said that the human soul was the least developed area on earth. If our young writers are searching so, who are we to dismiss the awful - and it is by definition awful - struggle?

Dowling is not a part of the new generation; she is older and wiser and it shows in her writing.

Please do not condemn the young who are going through struggles we oldies will never even taste. I daresay Nuala - yes, I do know her a little bit, well enough to call her so - would be highly unlikely to dismiss emerging poets grappling with their human selves by means of trying to make poems. However poorly for now.

I would go so far as to say that a true poet does not put their craft before their soul. Even if critics and reviewers may at times wish that we do.

For the full review by Rumney, see  Reg Rumney Review of Finuala Dowling  

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