On Poetry — “White”

I’ve read only one chapter of this book and I’ve had to stop and take a breath and a break. I’ve never read anyone talk about poetry this way, and I’ve never been addressed (Glyn Maxwell brazenly talks to “you” — me!) like this before, as though I am a poet, a fellow poet, a reader of poetry, a person who breathes because of poetry, as though, of course, poetry is the stuff of life.

on-poetry-maxwellSo let’s start at the beginning: this little white book starts with a chapter called “White”. White the page, white the blankness, white the silence. Unlike musicians, says Glyn Maxwell, who write their lyrics against music, the poet writes against the whiteness, the emptiness, the space, the silence. Against this yawning nothingness is the movement of time, the poet  only masters time by mastering that whiteness, and poetry, says Maxwell, surprisingly, is all about the mastery of time (and he does a quick little march through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with three poems to prove it). “Poets are voices upon time,” he says (page 14).

Maxwell has another surprising way to approach poetry, don’t read the words for meaning, look at them as squiggles against the whiteness of the page, observe the breaks between stanzas, the spaces between lines, the weight (or lack of it), the ragged/clean endings of the lines, the black on the white — depending on the poet, these distinctions are surprisingly various. And then ask yourself what the white bits stand for, what meanings they hold: in some cases years of life have passed in that interval between first and second verse, major shifts have taken place in location, politics, outlook.

The black and the white of poetry “exert pressure” on each other Maxwell says (page 19), and this is a relationship fundamental to understand. Glyn MaxwellIt’s also fundamental to the poet, who has filled white with black because she has been urged to break silence, fill the void, say something: “… but there is a moment, we all know there’s a moment in which the poem (the black signs on white surfaces) takes over from the self, becomes the self for now. I spend my allotted slice of forever contemplating that moment” (page 23).

This is heady stuff and is consciously and unashamedly poetic in tone, design and intent. Hold your breath, next post: “Black”.

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