The Rewards of the Obdurate

In June 3rd's TLS Christopher Reid presents the entirety of Ian Hamilton's "Untranslatable" and offers a short account of it, in the context of a discussion about how much 'human detail' to put into or leave out of a poem, and how that decision might affect what we here have referred to as the transparency of the work. He gives a perhaps convincing account of the rewards to be found even in poems you don't 'get'. The relevant paragraphs follow, for the benefit of anyone who missed the review.

"Some of [Hamilton's] very shortest poems have, in the interest of concentration, had circumstantial detail so efficiently purged from them, they all but resist penetration. At their best – “Memorial”, for instance, or “Home”, or “Awakening” – they can deliver espresso-sized shocks of intimate revelation; otherwise, when they are reduced too far and the human detail has been more or less obscured, reading them can be as frustrating an activity as unpicking tight knots in damp string. In Lowell, it was the high-handed squandering of human detail, the careless, even callous, spilling of beans about those who had loved and trusted him, that Hamilton rightly deprecated; but in seeking not to commit the same sin, he sometimes forfeited the very quality that would have allowed a poem to live and speak.

He was too sharp an operator not to have known the dangers. Nonetheless, there is a poem thought to be from the 1970s or 80s, “Untranslatable”, which Alan Jenkins has included in a short section of “Unpublished and Uncollected Poems”, and which suggests a diehard attitude to the whole business. Its obvious difference from most of Hamilton’s work is that it is outwardly addressed, almost a public pronouncement – which may, paradoxically, be why he withheld it – but it has its own obliqueness of attack and is defiantly terse. In its totality, it reads:

There are certain lines – whole poems even:
I have no idea what they mean;
It’s what I can’t grasp that draws me back to them.”
Yours used to be like that, and so did his.

The speaker of the first three lines, to which the fourth is, I take it, the poet’s reply, or rebuke, in propria persona, could be expressing any friendly reader’s misgivings – as well as his or her undiminished fascination. Because the rewards are there in even the most obdurate poems. They exist in isolated subtleties of versification, deftly placed line-breaks, choiceness of phrasing, fleeting plangencies, beauties that seldom depart from the range of the ordinary speaking voice, never advertise themselves loudly, and yet suggest that the “platonic” poem is indeed within the writer’s grasp."


lakeviewer said...

Interesting polemic, what is enough, what is too much. It's a matter of reader's effort to seek all the hidden/layered aspects of the poem.

Chris Bays said...

Hi Mairi,

Thanks for sharing Christopher Reid's discussion of the untranslatable and how
the "mystery" of some poems allows us to return to them again and again. I think of Emily Dickinson's poems in this regard. Her brief poems are not simple nor always clear. Yet, there is something about them that draws us to them again and again ... like viewing a great painting from different angles and under varying light ... each viewing unfolds more meaning.