Before Christmas, I went to the Woodstock Poetry Festival to hear David Harsent reading from his recent collection, Salt. He was reading with George Szirtes, an entertaining and urbane performer, who gave an excellent and engaging reading. Harsent, however, instructed his audience not to look at him, to close their eyes and to focus on the sound of the poems as he read a selection from the fragmentary series of poems which make up this latest book. On a dark night, in the warm and cosy ambience of the Woodstock Town Hall, the inevitable happened to me. My thoughts began to drift and I even dozed off for a moment.
Nevertheless, when I later read the poems on the page, I found they exerted a magnetic pull even though their reference and the connections between them remained mysterious.
Having recently read with interest Jack Underwood’s essay ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ in the most recent edition of The Poetry Review (January, 2017), I found ideas which seemed particularly pertinent to Harsent’s poems. Underwood talks about ‘deliberately build[ing]your poem as an open habitation;you have to learn to leave holes in the walls, because you won’t and can’t be around later to clear up any ambiguities…’(op.cit.p.43) I am less sure about Underwood’s suggestion that poets may use language imprecisely or ‘smudge’ in order to ‘signal possible meanings beyond the everyday’ (p.46).  In Salt, Harsent leaves plenty of holes in the walls, allowing the reader every opportunity to construct their own reading. However, the poems read less as if the bricks had been omitted in the building but more as if they had been removed afterwards to create hermetic uncertainty. Harsent certainly does not smudge language in the sense of using it imprecisely; he is expert in conveying a series of epiphanies through sharply observed physical detail and delicately suggested emotional context:
The way you cut and draw a chicken, that tumble of guts
slipping into your hand; the way you try to make
the best of it; the way ‘carcass’ sounds when said out loud.
There are a lot of bricks missing here: the repeated phrase ‘the way’ suggests attempts to find the best analogy or simile for something which is not identified or perhaps cannot be expressed; or, conversely, these are all instances or part of the unnamed idea. The first two examples involve direct address to another ‘you’ who I take, rightly or wrongly but influenced by the surrounding poems, to be a woman. In the last example, ‘you’ has disappeared but we are left with the chicken and the confrontation of death. The poem can be about (or linked in to)the physical messiness of life, the practical efficiency of the other, the recognition of death, whether the end of a relationship or actual physical death.
To me, these poems seem like the fragments of a narrative, or maybe more than one narrative. They include birth, sex, betrayal, death, guilt and remorse. They may relate to actual events or stories in the poet’s life, the source of his materials, but that is not our business as the way the poems are presented makes clear. There are hes, shes and theys but there is never an I. Harsent works in the tradition of T.S.Eliot, driving a wedge between the person who suffers and the poet who creates, or more properly, between the private process of creation and the public object which is created. To say this is not to suggest a return to some aesthetic concept of the poem as an object apart from life, but rather to see it as something which is available for the reader to construct meaning with, apart from the meaning which the poet may have imagined for it. I don’t know what Harsent meant when he wrote these poems, but some of them capture meaning for me:
Frame it up like this: a door, an inner door, a room
held ready, bare walls, weight
of silence, a glass of water cut by sunlight.
This is very visual, almost cinematic – a thought prompted by the first word ‘Frame’. I don’t know what it meant for the poet or what doors or rooms it may actually refer to but for me it captures a moment of stasis, of ‘beforeness’, a feeling of stillness before something momentous or irrevocable happens.
I think there are probably too many of these poems, but the book overall conveys a complex mood or tone made up not of impressionistic fogginess but of constructions of language which, to varying degrees, we are able to match to our experience or even use to extend our experience and understanding. It seems to me that what Underwood is talking about in his essay is the process of metaphor, that his ‘foggy’ language is what happens when ideas from different fields of discourse or semantics are brought together to create or put a name to something which is so far not named. Sometimes a metaphor is explicit; there will be a vehicle and a tenor and the bringing of the two together will enhance our perception of the tenor, as when Humbert Wolfe uses the simile of ‘a small grey coffee-pot” to describe a squirrel. Sometimes, the poem creates a vehicle for a tenor we cannot otherwise put into words, in a way similar to what T.S.Eliot describes in his essay, ‘The Metaphysical Poets’:
When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.
Leaving aside the dubious distinction between the mind of the poet and the ordinary person, we can see in this notion a theory akin to Imagism, the capturing of an undescribed experience through the juxtaposition of named things, perhaps still best exemplified by Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station on the Metro’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.
The fragment poems in Salt work very much as imagist poems, encouraging us to construct our own meanings by bringing our own experience to them, only possible because language and experience are shared as well as individual.
Harsent’s prioritisation of the poem over the poet, evident in his idiosyncratic instructions at the reading I attended, is, I have suggested, in the tradition of T.S. Eliot, and could not be more different from the practice of certain American poets, including the very eminent Jorie Graham, whose work I have recently been reading.
Both poets engage in the blurring or smudging described by Underwood, which I would prefer to see as a metaphorical mixing of fields of discourse. We can see this happening persistently in a brilliant early poem by Graham, ‘Self-portrait as the gesture between them (Adam and Eve)’ which moves forward through a spiral of metaphor and simile leaving from and returning to the central image of the theft of the apple:
as the apple builds inside the limb, as rain builds
in the atmosphere, as the lateness accumulates until it finally is,
as the meaning of the story builds,
scribbling at the edge of her body until it must be told, be
taken from her, this freedom,
so that she had to turn and touch him to give it away
to have him pick it from her as the answer takes the question
However, the two poets engage with the world, or the universe, in different ways. Graham’s attitude to the phenomenal world has changed over the course of her writing life as she appears to have moved from an idealist position which did not recognise any reality beyond perception to an ecologically based acknowledgement of and concern for the fragility of the earth and its creatures. Throughout, in a particular kind of Americanness, probably going back to Whitman, she has persisted in trying to get everything in, to record events as they are perceived or as they happen, or more recently to include everything she can give a voice to, from robots to deep sea creatures to historical figures. This can result in some astonishingly vivid presentation of experience, or better, experiencing, as in this poem on the death of her father:
Standing next to you, holding the hand which stiffens, am I
outside it more than before, are you not inside?
The aluminium shines on your bedrail where the sun hits. It touches it.
The sun and the bedrail – do they touch each other more than you and I now.
Now. Is that a place now. Do you have a now.
The day stands outside all around as if it were a creature. It is natural. Am I to think you now
‘The Post Human’ from Fast
Yet we know this immediacy and inclusiveness is a delusion or a device. I do not believe that Graham stood beside her just dead father tapping out a poem on the computer with her spare hand, despite the use of present tense. Similarly, the reflection based on the patterning and repetition of key words ‘now’ and ‘natural’ is artful, not naïve. Nevertheless, there is a difference between her approach and that of a poet like Harsent. Take this fragment from Salt:
She asked for a love-knot to be carved on the lid,
as if that had been their token, as if they’d talked it through.
To show him something of how it would look
she drew neatly on the fever-chart: a quick unbroken line.
Apparently, this is another deathbed, but so many bricks have been left out and it is up to the reader to supply them, to create their own narrative. Harsent abstracts from reality; Graham includes. Harsent is a third person writer; Graham belongs in the first person but both of them rely on the process of metaphor which is central to poetry.
Underwood suggests rather plaintively in his article “that poetry, that oft-maligned, wafty corner of dynamic not-knowing, that shadowy Hamlet mooning around on is platform at midnight, strung-out, self-effacing, and spoken to by ghosts, should be acknowledged as the prime medium for the articulation of our knowledge of the unknown. I’m not convinced by the Hamlet imagery –perhaps a subliminal reference to T.S. Eliot’s discussion of the objective correlative in his essay on the play –but I remember that Blake said that ‘What is now proved was once only imagined’  and it was the creative imagination of a physicist that dreamed up the Higgs boson.
 This objection is developed by Martyn Crucefix in a blog post which is well worth reading not only for his discussion but for the citation of the beautiful poem, ‘Lake Water’ by David Ferry. https://martyncrucefix.com/martyns-blog-2/
 In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell