Lost in translation: an open letter to the Gists and Piths crew



big man, great poet

Charles Olson: big man, great poet


Dear Adham, George, Gloria and Holly,

Looks like you’ve got the jump on me in blogging on the Polish poetry evening the other night.  My fault for taking so long over my post: in my defence, I spent yesterday variously travelling and at work, and by the time evening rolled around I’d run out of steam.  Besides, you’ve all done a very good job of giving an account of the evening, and that’s not at all what I had planned, so I don’t feel quite so bad about failing to get my post together at the same time as you guys. 

Anyway, that’s more than enough excuses for now.  First and foremost, I want to put my cards on the table: I believe absolutely in poetry.  Indeed, it’s about the last thing I do believe in – religion, Marx, mankind and Tintin have all fallen by the wayside as personal gods which have failed, but poetry remains as a constant and an absolute.  But what does it mean to say I believe in poetry?  Obviously, I believe it exists, but I would never say ‘I believe in this table’ or ‘I believe in this pen’ or ‘I believe in Peter Mandelson’ and expect you to take it to mean the same thing.  Poetry is, then, an article of faith for me, and I am genuinely of the opinion that true poetry can effect a sea-change of consciousness in the listener or reader, a profound alteration at a spiritual level.  Again, I need to clarify: what I do not mean by spiritual here is the wishy-washy brand which encompasses horoscopes, crystals and the like, but something closely akin to what Charles Olson means when he writes, in ‘Projective Verse’, of poetry which is written by the whole person, the total being, and not simply by one isolate facet of that same being. 

The spiritual, then, as I would define it is a concatenation of the mental, the emotional, the physical, the animal: all facets of being brought into alignment.  In Zen Buddhism, there is a term, satori, which describes a heightening of consciousness – it is not an otherworldly state, but a recognition of the interconnectedness of all things in the here and now.  Not another reality, but, in overly simplistic terms, reality-plus.  It is in this way that I view poetry: as a heightening of consciousness, as a means of being in the world.  Obviously, this level of consciousness, of spiritual awareness, is difficult to maintain, which is why, I would argue, real poems come only rarely.  Real poems are pieces of art or states of consciousness – it does not have to be a poem merely, or writing merely, but a painting, a scene in a movie, a conversation, or simply a few moments in the day – where this heightening of consciousness, of the spiritual faculties comes readily into play, when we are most fully human and at the same time less ourselves than we are at other times in our lives; where the social and historical structures by which we define the human, the individuated ego, come tumbling down, albeit for a moment, and we are wordlessly immersed in the interconnected web of the universe’s ecosystem.

So, that’s poetry – at least for me.  What poetry is not is a bourgeois past-time designed to mirror and validate the aspirations and opinions of a bourgeois audience.  That’s not poetry, that’s Radio 4.  I guess where all this is coming from is a recognition of the limitations of a certain kind of poetry, safe and cosseted, with no real ambition, with no fear or anger or joy contained within it.  Poetry, said Auden, makes nothing happen, and whether he was right or not, my feeling is that we should always write as if it did, with total commitment and seriousness as we set about the task at hand.  This is not to suggest that poetry should be dour and humourless, but that whatever subject we take as our starting point, we treat it with the total being, and try, in our efforts to communicate, to push the language to the limits of the possible, of the sayable.  Commitment, really, that’s what I’m talking about, commitment to the real work of poetry.

That’s enough from me for now.  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.



One Response to “Lost in translation: an open letter to the Gists and Piths crew”

  1. EH Says:

    “for a moment […] we are wordlessly immersed in the interconnected web of the universe’s ecosystem”


    Yes, the poem that makes you still and silent, for a while, is a good one. I like to read that Auden comment as not about the impotency of poetry, but its power to cause that momentary nothing. And yes, novels, films, music, anything can have that effect.

    Hope you don’t mind me replying, though I’m not George, Holly or Adham. However, I DO believe in Peter Mandelson–let him into your life, into your heart.

    E xx

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