Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Don't Look Back: Poetry and Retrieval

I gave this talk as part of this year's Aldeburgh Poetry Festival




A few years ago I was greatly taken with a poem by the French poet, or Franco-Uruguayan poet Jules Supervielle and ended up translating it. It’s called ‘Le regret de la terre’ and although I didn’t translate the title it might come out as ‘regret for the earth’ or ‘nostalgia for earth’. Since I’m going to be talking about retrieval I thought I might begin with this:


One day we’ll look back on it        the time of the sun
when light fell on the smallest twig
on the old woman the astonished girl
when it washed with colour everything it touched
followed the galloping horse and eased when he did

that unforgettable time on earth
when if we dropped something it made a noise
and like connoisseurs we took in the world
our ears caught every nuance of air
and we knew our friends by their footsteps

time we walked out to gather flowers or stones
that time we could never catch hold of a cloud

and it’s all our hands can master now
( ‘Le regret de la terre’, version by Peter Sirr)


I love many things about that poem: the way it turns us into relaxed if regretful connoisseurs of our own life, looking back from the blankness of the afterlife to the intense sensational life of the earth where everything, from something dropped to a footstep,  reverberated. I like how the poem reminds us that one of poetry’s main missions is this kind of retrieval, this stamping of human and earthly sensation onto the void, or the compensation that somehow realising the world and our own experience in it provides for the blankness that will follow it.

More than that, though, and this is where I pull the rug from under my own feet a bit, I love the way this poem occupies its own space, the way it is, the ways it constructs itself and lays itself down on the page. Its particularity, individuality, the print of its voice that relates to other poems by this poet that I admire. It reminds me that whatever the ostensible subject, what we actually turn to poetry for is the quality of its own making, the peculiar connections and energies that circulate between poet, language and world. What was it Miroslav Holub said once – ‘poetry is an energy storing and energy releasing device.’ That’s what I mean.

So when I gather up a bunch of different poets under the rubric of ‘retrieval’, whatever else retrieval can be taken to mean it must also try to acknowledge each poet’s harnessing or retrieval of their own imaginative energies as they grapple with one of the great myths.

To go back to Supervielle’s poem for a minute. I said I value the way it brings back the world or brings us back to the world. Some the greatest myths have always done this: Demeter and Persephone: the harvest goddess presiding over the cycle of life and death and her daughter who is kidnapped by Hades and taken off to the underworld. She is eventually offered her freedom but as always, there are conditions: she can be fully free if she hasn’t eaten anything while in the underworld. But it turns out she ate some pomegranate seeds and the result is that she can only leave the underworld for a certain period in the year, corresponding to spring and summer.

That’s ultimately a comforting myth because it sets the world in order and plays fruitfully with the natural cycle of the year. Demeter’s grief for her daughter is answered, the thing is resolved, whereas the whole point of the greatest of these myths, Orpheus and Eurydice, is that it isn’t resolved, the attempt at retrieval isn’t successful, but ends in disaster for both Orpheus and Eurydice.