I HAVE TAKEN THE PETER DENT POETRY TEST, AND I THINK I MAYBE SCORED SIX AND A HALF OUT OF TEN.



HANDMADE EQUATIONS by Peter Dent
95pp, Shearsman Books


I happened to be reading Peter Dent's recent book from Stride, Adversaria, when I was asked to review this new one from Shearsman. The first poem in the Stride book ('Perception') begins appealingly, even if after a mere dozen or so words one doesn't have any clue what's going on or quite where we're headed:

     New seasonal light     to freshen up     my
     First is in improbable     clues come last

I found this intriguing. There are obvious associative moves going on: new, freshen, first..... and then maybe 'clues' could be a knowing writer's manoeuvre. It's all handled fairly delicately, and is interesting enough to continue. I had not read Dent before, and I didn't know what I was getting into, but it certainly wasn't going to be predictable, and surprise is at least one of the things I've come to poetry for.

Where does the poem go from there? You may be wondering. Well, it goes here:

     Perpetuum mobile     like the man says

As you see, things (whatever they may or may not be, concrete or abstract) are on the move. Always. Later in the same poem there is an almost tremendous bit: one couplet's second line reads

     As the words swing true to form     say

the next couplet begins

     When     in a westerly that's awol

'Say when', exposed and bare, stripped down, stretched, you have to look at it, and if you look you'll probably think. Goodness knows what you will think. Call me sad, but I sat at my desk for several moments just wondering at this. Say when. What it means, how it is, why, whenever, how. For a few minutes there I was somewhere else. Language. Gosh. Poetry. Gosh. No sir, I cannot say what it means. I might try and say what it was like to experience it, but I've tried a couple of times on another piece of paper and failed miserably. I know I don't have the courage to write poems of this sort. When I attempt it the results always strike me as embarrassing. I am better with jokes. Poetry world can hold us all. It's probable, even, if not merely possible, that the poet had no intention of me thinking about 'say when' that way. I don't care and I don't expect he does, although I suspect he may be quietly pleased that I thought at all.

There are times, I have to admit, I find some of this kind of poetry (not 'this' poetry, particularly, just 'this kind of poetry' - the kind of poetry, to be dreadfully general, that looks on first sight as if it doesn't want to be read by mere mortals) too self-regarding and knowingly intellectual. Too often one gets the idea that the poet is clever and knows he/she is clever and/or maybe they're not that clever but they can sound clever and look clever and sometimes that's enough. People build careers on less.

Anyway, here is the first poem from 'Handmade Equations', the book I'm supposed to be writing about. I like it. It's called 'New Register':

     Smouldering     the new blues attaching themselves
     To Autumn hills where his someone watches    as
     Always    anxious at the wheel of an empty sky

     His words    more likely to turn a fortune in
     Its quick immaculate machinery    and its gratis
     Invitation to nothing else    he knows it knows

     Himself the demand lies elsewhere    seeing over
     The hills what looks like trouble    skies burning
     Up with promise    familiar easy roads now just

     Impossible to read    he'll not be finished so easily
     His starmaps left for night    for love left partly
     Consummated    too immaterial an illusion trying

     To see him off and minus belief    it's easy if
     Still an interim account    the answers trickling in
     To a natural lake    come October reconstructed

     Asking to see it out    woods high on the skyline
     Find him dreaming up the marvellous    extremes
     Of chance    he's steering clear he's ready to go

There is something light of touch and almost beautiful about this. It also manages, elegantly, to taste of the colloquial and its opposite in the same mouthful. In an instance of happy (or not) coincidence, while I was typing this poem up I received an e-mail from a friend who I'd asked to review this book for my own website. After spending a couple of weeks with it he declined, and said he'd found it boring and hadn't been able to engage with it at all. And I can understand that response. I kept finding my mind, in spite of my strictest instructions, trying to hold these poems together and pull some kind of narrative or paraphrasable meaning out of them. And they don't work like that: frustration is the only possible end of such an attempt. It was only when I was at my sharpest and most receptive that I was able to overcome the desire to own the poems in that 'I've worked this out' kind of a way. That made me think about what state one has to be in to read poems in the first place; I then remembered there were loads of times when I didn't want to have anything to do with my
own poems, never mind somebody else's, and especially never mind somebody else's which were, on the face of it, as intent on making my reading life difficult as they were on making it a delight. And even today I sat down to read Dent's book, and I was okay for two or three pages and then I lost it. I unconsciously shifted from being open to the experience of the poem, to wanting something more mundane, like a piece of information I could chew on and digest, thank you very much. Then I realised I was hungry and I wanted lunch, which may explain everything.

So do you have to be in a state of very bright and aware being-there-ness to read these poems? I'm not sure I can sit down and read them for any great length of time, but since I never sit down and read poems for any great length of time ever that still doesn't resolve anything for me. One certainly has to be prepared to read them in the way the best poems demand you read them, which is not on your terms, but on theirs. And to know also that a personal, individual reaction to whatever goes off in them is perfectly fine. You may never know exactly what the poet is getting at, or understand exactly where this stuff came from. They are, I suggest, intelligent things that ask only that you treat them with intelligence and the kind of openness and examination and exploration with which they were made. Reading poetry isn't a science. It may not even be an art. But it is demanding sometimes.

Not that these poems are difficult, particularly. Not in a word kind of a way. Consider the poem quoted above. The words are simple enough. They are also, more or less,  in a simple enough order. One might encounter some early difficulties in working out why some phrases are next to other phrases. But I have stood in front of paintings and wondered why, and I have sat in cinemas and wondered why on earth. And I have listened to music and wondered. Usually in the presence of books of poetry one is tempted to turn on the TV.

     Smouldering     the new blues attaching themselves
     To Autumn hills where his someone watches    as
     Always    anxious at the wheel of an empty sky

     His words    more likely to turn a fortune in
     Its quick immaculate machinery    and its gratis
     Invitation to nothing else    he knows it knows

One can bring all sorts of things to this. 'Smouldering' has a variety of associations, for starters. You can say much the same about the other words. But I don't want to read these poems like I was doing a university course, although one cannot help, perhaps, trying to get at how they work. If I was a furniture maker I guess I'd want to know how someone made this rather enchanting but unusual (imaginary) chair I'm sitting on. So let me try and cut to the chase, if there is one to cut to. After nearly three pages of muttering it's about time.

These poems strike me as personal poems that, instead of the usual look-at-me of personal poems, reflect back at the reader and say look for yourself. An individual interpretation seems to be the only response available. Any notion of trying to get at what personal things prompted the poems seems at the same time futile and unnecessary. The poems therefore become remarkably empowering objects. They become your own, and Peter Dent can ride off into the distance with them, and you can ride off with them in the opposite direction, and the poems are yours and his. Perhaps this happens with lots of poems. I'm not sure I've ever thought about it in quite this way, in so many words, but I'm tempted to think it's worth thinking about. So, do we come back after all to how these poems mean whatever the hell you want them to mean? That's a pretty low way of putting it, and suggests the wanton obscurity of modern poetry and its attendant laziness which its detractors have been known to allege. It's not the way I'd put it. I'd go for how these poems ask us to read and attend and think. They are about, if 'about' is the correct word, how we are, in a world of thought and things. That seems so bland, put like that, as to be almost wholly meaningless. Perception and experience may be better words, but I'm starting to think a crash course in philosophy might be on the cards. Dent is engaged in a tremendous attempt to place thought and the world on to the page, but it's far from being a didactic project. The reader is asked, rather, to engage with the poems and join in the attempt. He or she has to do a great deal of work - sometimes, to be honest, simply to get a handle on a few lines. But when you have a hold of that metaphorical handle, even if it's only briefly, it's singularly interesting. I only wish I could describe it. No way are these poems for that unlikely animal, the general poetry reader who, perhaps, would prefer a recognisable subject matter and some kind of narrative resolution. But there's lots of other places that reader can go. The poems are a challenge. As challenges go, I think this one is worth taking up, but you have to want to be there.

            Martin Stannard, 2005