Friday, July 10, 2009

Going private

In The Triggering Town Richard Hugo writes:

Please don't take this too seriously, but for purposes of discussion we can consider two kinds of poets, public and private. Let's use as examples Auden and Hopkins. The distinction (not a valid one, I know, but good enough for us right now) doesn't lie in the subject matter. That is, a public poet doesn't necessarily write on public themes and the private poet on private or personal ones. The distinction lies in the relation of the poet to the language. With the public poet the intellectual and emotional contents of the words are the same for the reader as for the writer. With the private poet, and most good poets of the last century or so [Hugo is writing in 1979] have been private poets, the words, at least certain key words, mean something to the poet they don't mean to the reader. A sensitive reader perceives this relation of poet to word and in a way that relation – the strange way the poet emotionally possesses his vocabulary – is one of the mysteries and preservative forces of the art.

Hugo's caveat indicates that it would be foolish, however tempting, to apply this dichotomy systematically in criticising contemporary poets. But I am inclined to say that the poets I have spent most time thinking about in the last few years have been public poets; and that on the whole I have been a public poet rather than a private one. In fact this dichotomy, crude as it is, helps illuminate for me the stage of development my work is going through. For the last six months or so I have been working on some poems in a new vein, on a subject which is peculiarly personal to me (Hugo's 'triggering subject' – almost literally a 'triggering town' in this instance). It isn't, as Hugo says, the subject matter which matters, but my relation to it. 'Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary', and since the vocabulary is being used obsessively and, strictly speaking, incorrectly, the language becomes private.

So now I see that in a sense I have been trying to move from being a public poet to a private one. Of course, the dichotomy being a crude and provisional one, I shouldn't hang too much on it. But it is useful to find a way of thinking and speaking about this difficult hurdle in my writing development. It isn't just a new project or subject; it's also a fairly fundamental shift, or extension, in my way of writing. Because the language shifts from lucidity to magicality (it is no longer being used easily, but impossibly), the technique that uses it needs overhauling; it isn't adequate to the new task.

Seeing this, I'm faced with a choice – do I persevere with the development, or do I pull back from it and find a new direction which consolidates my writing's existing strengths? Feeling greedy, I',m inclined to do both, quietly continuing to write poems in the old manner while simultaneously pursuing the new one in the writing of the main project. But is it possible to serve two masters?


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