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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
The celebrated poet, Mark Strand, once wrote:
You don’t read poetry for the kind of truth that passes for truth in the workaday world. You don’t read a poem to find out how you get to Twenty-fourth Street. You don’t read a poem to find the meaning of life. I mean, you’d be foolish to (Mark Strand, ”The Art of Poetry LXXVII”, Paris Review, No. 148, 2002).
I was pondering these words while listening to a reading of poems in which elements of the transcendental kept cropping up. Now, if Strand is right, poetry is denied any representation of truth in both the most basic and the most ethereal of objectives. So, what’s left for poor old poetry except some unspecified middle ground? At the risk of taking Strand out of context, I want to unpack his comment now and see what it might mean for the material that appears in these pages.
What is the truth of the workaday world, anyway? If it such practical stuff as finding your way across town, then I would agree that poetry doesn’t care much for such basics – it is no better as a street directory than it is as a guide to using a spreadsheet effectively, or fixing a tap, or untangling the latest taxation law. Yet poetry regularly appears here in front of you, in a journal dedicated to issues of accountability in human affairs, so it must be good for something. Poetry does help us find our way in a valuable sense, and we might then question Strand’s other statement that “you don’t read a poem to find the meaning of life”. He poses extreme uses of poetry and seems to neglect the middle ground. What lies between these extremes are everyday tasks and routines; things oddly close to finding Twenty-fourth Street or working out a spreadsheet. These, I would contend, is where the truth of poetry lies.
The haiku masters of old, and most of their modern counterparts, relished an apparent focus on the mundane, the worldly, because they knew that was where we constantly engage with the values and meaning of our daily existence. The tangible and sensual surroundings of our lives provide the connection that enables us to meditate on matters of the spirit. Our ethical values are also exercised in that arena too because, after all, we have nowhere else to test them (actions speak louder than words, and all that). Between the bland language in a photocopier repair manual and the blissful rant of the mystic poet is a complicated world in which shades of meaning overlap and the reality of the quotidian occurs. There, by some strange alchemical force, we can be faced with the interweaving of two seemingly disparate qualities; the merely functional and the spiritual. The codes that distinguish them are able to dissolve momentarily and, whether through metaphor or other means, we can see beyond the object. The poem presents as a window to other meaning.
Now to the poems in this edition. Lee Parker’s poem, “Powerpoint Geeks Present!” suggests that sometimes the expected window to enlightenment can be firmly shut – or, at least, filled with blinding light. What can we see? What is the nature of that moment when new wisdom appears possible? In the worryingly real and yet dreamy world depicted in William Henry’s poem, “The Auditor’s Dream”, is an invitation to ponder the price of integrity. This stands firmly in the gap between the Strand’s indicated street directory poems and meaning of life poems, challenging the reader to consider issues of objectivity and ethical behaviour. There are no grand abstractions in these poems but rather the simple presentation of recognizable situations: they are somehow earthed in our knowledge of the world, yet they simultaneously nudge at us, asking us also to think beyond it to bigger questions.
This is beginning to sound like an amateur philosopher’s sermon, so I will leave off with a final claim for poetry. It is all potentially transcendental; it can all, in the right conditions, lift us out of our routines and help us to question our identity and our essential moral landscape. It can all, therefore, offer us a truth about our own existence, even when it paints a picture of a night sky, or an office worker, or an audit meeting.
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Steve EvansLiterary Editor