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A well-meaning Eng Lit lesson that doesn't really succeed
on 19 July 2008
I must confess that I'm a little baffled by all the praise that has been heaped on this book. I have found it deeply annoying - in fact it's one of the most irritating books I have encountered for quite some time.
The ineptly written introduction falls among several stools. As an explanation of the techniques employed in poetry, it cuts too many corners and for a beginner contains too many unexplained specialist terms. As a potted history of poetry it omits many key developments, and as an introduction to contemporary verse, it misleadingly and infuriatingly equates progress in poetry with anti-Thatcherite and feminist thinking.
Some of the 52 poems are indisputably fine pieces, and it's good to see excellent examples of the work of U.A. Fanthorpe, Elaine Feinstein, Liz Lochhead, and Fleur Adcock. Seamus Heaney's well-known poem The Skunk is here, as is Thom Gunn's Still Life. But really good poems such as these speak for themselves, and don't require the hugely laborious dissection job that seems to be Ruth Padel's preferred line of approach. Very many of the poems in the collection are relatively unknown over-intricate pieces that would have been best left in obscurity. Indeed one is tempted to conclude that if a poem needs taking apart word by word and sound by sound before it makes sense, it shouldn't really have been written in the first place.
Each of the 52 poems is immediately followed by Ruth Padel's commentary-cum- analysis, and as one reads each poem, one is uncomfortably conscious of the earnest teacher impatiently lurking in the wings, piece of chalk in hand. The analyses, frequently impaired by rather sloppy English, are not always very convincing and one often winces as Padel forces the poem into her own preconception of the poet's intention. The essentially didactic nature of the exercise is given emphasis by many underlinings, by the use of CAPITAL LETTERS (wake up at the back, there!) and by an air of confident certainty that allows for no ambiguity in interpretation.
Sometimes, the would-be exegesis succeeds not in providing enlightenment but in making matters very much worse, with entertaining results. See, for example, Padel's commentary on Gillian Allnutt's poem Barclays Bank and Lake Baikal, which manages to render an already difficult piece completely and utterly incomprehensible. Indeed this commentary, along with several others, must surely be a prime contender for inclusion in Private Eye's Pseud's Corner. Try reading it aloud, and try to keep a straight face while doing so, and you will see what I mean.
If you encounter a contemporary poem that you can't for the life of you understand, the likelihood is that it's the poet's fault, and not yours. Good poets write work that needs no detailed analysis, but asks only for the employment of intelligence and concentration. In that sense, Padel's primer is of rather limited value. Even so, this book has its value. It's certainly a source of innocent amusement, if nothing else.