George Szirtes - 24 April 2008
Welcome. Thank you for reading this. This is my first post as poet in residence for the Poetry Archive. My name is George Szirtes. As some of you might know I was a child when our family arrived in England as refugees from Hungary in 1956, following the defeat of the revolution of that year. Hungarian was therefore my first language but I grew up in England speaking English, with English poetry as my formative poetic experience, though my degree is in fine art of the practical sort.
I will be sixty this year. I remember the struggles and depressions of becoming recognised as a poet throughout my twenties, and the joy of my first book, The Slant Door appearing in 1979. Since then there have been many others and the strange, rather frightening landmark, the collected poems (in this case a New and Collected) is looming at the end of the year.
My chief thematic interests in poetry seem to have been history, human fragility, the power of visual art and the sheer strangeness of being in the world at all. But I don't remember setting out with any particular themes in mind.
Having spent my life doing this I cannot help but think about the worth, the value, the very nature of the enterprise. So I would like to use this space to invite your thoughts about topics such as the usefulness of poetry; notions of audience; what is form for and so on.
I want to start with a poem by one of the loveliest and msot delightful contemporary poets, Kit Wright. It's called POETRY:
When they say /
That every day /
Men die miserably without it: /
I doubt it. //
I have known several men and women /
Replete with the stuff /
Who died quite miserably /
And to hear of the human race's antennae! /
Then I /
Wonder what human race /
They have in mind. /
One of the poets I most admire /
Is blind, /
For instance. You wouldn't trust him /
To lead you to the Gents: /
Let alone through the future tense. //
And unacknowledged legislators! /
How's that for insane afflatus? /
Not one I've met /
Is the sort of bore /
To wish to draft a law. //
I like what vamped me /
In my youth: /
Tune, argument, /
(from Short Afternoons - Hutchinson, 1989)
I'm interested in the claims and disclaimers. Kit begins by engaging with William Carlos Williams ('Men die miserably without it'), goes on to Ezra Pound ('The antennae of the human race') and finally, of course, Shelley ('unacknowledged legislators').
I fully agree with the things that vamped Kit in his youth: tune, argument, colour, truth, but does the vamp offer too little? The fact that John Heath-Stubbs (the poet referred to in the third verse) was blind does not mean he had no antennae in another sense.
Kit's argument is against megalomania and vaunting ambition. But where does that leave 'truth'? How limited is it? What particular truth does poetry offer and what value is it? What do you think? Personal experience welcome.