Monday 16 January 2012

Time Importuned - Sylvia Townsend Warner; or, Why Do Poetry and I Not Get Along, Wherein our Reader Struggles With Verse

Well, I can tick off 1928 on A Century of Books, because on Saturday I read Time Importuned by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  This volume of poetry was published two years after Lolly Willowes, an excellent novel about which I'll soon be writing a chapter of my thesis - but which I only wrote about very briefly on SiaB.  I intended to write another post last year, when I reread it.  I worry that, if I tried, I would end up writing ten thousand words... well, perhaps I'll give it a go one day, since the review I wrote doesn't do it justice.

Anyway, I read Time Importuned hoping that there would be something useful to include in that chapter (which, incidentally, there was) but I can't say I've converted to a poetry lover.  This isn't going to be a proper review, because I don't really know how to write blog posts about poetry.  I can analyse them in a doing-an-English-degree sort of way, and I used to quite enjoy doing that, but blogs are chiefly about reading for pleasure.  The activities of the student are not those of the ardent reader - I enjoy both aspects, but they are distinct in my head.  You don't want to know what I think of Warner's use of syntax.  You might want to know whether or not I enjoyed reading Time Importuned - and the truth is, I don't know.

Some poetry I hate.  If it doesn't make sense to me on three readings, I'm not interested.  If the poet name-drops all manner of classical mythology, I raise my eyebrows; if they name-drop 21st century technology, I raise them still more (these were both frequent crimes in the Magdalen poetry society I occasionally visited.)

Some poetry I enjoy.  But mostly comic verse, or things which are probably considered doggerel by those in the know (does Longfellow fall into this category?  Does Walter de la Mare?)

Oddly enough, I enjoy writing poetry - but I'm under no illusion that it's very good, and I do it entirely for my own amusement or catharsis, as case may be.  Since I rarely read poetry, I feel wholly unqualified to write it, and a little ashamed that I have the audacity to put pen to paper...

Something like Time Importuned... I just don't know.  The topics covered tend towards hopeless love and countryside matters, often combined, and with an atmosphere almost as though they are old wives' tales, passed down in small villages for many years.  Which was nice, but I did end up reading the poems mostly as though they were paragraphs of prose laid out in an unorthodox manner.  Perhaps that is a valid way of reading poetry... but perhaps it also misses a lot?  I don't know how else to benefit from verse.  I deliberately slow myself down, by mouthing the words (I'm quite a fast reader of prose, in a manner which loses poems completely) but I still can't imagine reading a volume of poetry for pleasure.  It's not that I need prose, because often I read plays for pleasure - and that's more or less as unusual a trait as poetry-adoration, so I'm led to understand.

Well, I'm going to type out a couple of the poems which I did quite enjoy, although I am far from the ideal reader for them.  Poetry washes by me, enchanting others who dip in their toes, and merely splashing me slightly.  So, before I get to some excerpts, I have a question... which poet/poetry would you recommend to the prose lover?  How would you go about converting me to the possibilities of poetry?

Over to Warner...

The Tree Unleaved

Day after day melts by, so hushed is the season,
So crystal the mornings are, the evenings so wrapped in haze,
That we do not notice the passage of the days ;
But coming in at the gate to-night I looked up for some reason,
      And saw overhead Time's theft ;
For behold, not a leaf was left on the tree near by.

So it may chance, the passage of days abetting
My heedless assumption of life, my hands so careless to hold,
That glancing round I shall find myself grown old,
Forgotten my hopes and schemes, my friends forgotten and forgetting ;
      But all I can think of now
Is the pattern of leafless boughs on the windless sky.

Walking and Singing at Night

Darkened the hedge, and dimmed the wold,
We sang then as we trudged along.
The heart grown hot, the heart grown cold,
Are simple things in a song.

The lover comes, the lover goes,
On the same drooping interval,
Easy as from the ripened rose
The loosened petals fall.

Between one stanza and the next
A heart's unprospered hopes are sighed
To death as lovely and unvexed
As 'twere a swan that died.

Alas, my dear, Farewell's a word
Pleasant to sing but ill to say,
And Hope a vermin that dies hard ;
As you will find, one day.


  1. I have similar issues with reading poetry. I can read and enjoy it now and then, but I can't work out how to integrate it into my reading life. I read recently that choosing a poem to focus on each week and reading it every day can be a good way.

    I do highly recommend Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled, which is more about writing poetry for fun, but there's a lot there that could make reading poems more fun, too.

  2. I also find poetry challenging. I went through the typical adolescent fascination with Tennyson but that exhausted almost all my interest in the form (and, let's face it, my interest was with the stories in Tennyson's case and I would have been ever happier to read them in prose). My only recent success with poetry has been Judith Viorst's It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty, which I know you disliked. I'm looking forward to Consider the Years - I'll really only read poetry if it's published by Persephone!

  3. I actually wrote a post yesterday, to be published sometime this week, about how Edna St. Vincent Millay is the ideal poet if you're not into poetry, especially if you're in your 20s, as that's the age she wrote most of them.

    I think the best way to absorb poetry is to look at them at each one is a snapshot of feeling, or a way of the poet to say 'this is how it felt when...' I think so anyway, and I will happily read volumes for fun.

  4. I like poetry a lot but rarely read it these days, if that makes sense. Of course I've read a lot in the course of my life and learned it by heart, too, which you had to do when I was at school, and some of it I still remember with huge pleasure. You are not alone in finding it difficult -- I used to struggle to teach it because so many people have problems with it. To be honest I don't think either of these poems are all that great -- not awful, but not wonderful either. I wouldn't know who to suggest you read -- but perhaps an anthology is a good place to start. The Rattle Bag, edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, is a great one I always think.

  5. I find one-poet-books a bit overwhelming. It can feel like *work*. A nice but somewhat specific anthology I like (and one which you likely know about already given the topic) is Jane Dowson's _Women's Poetry of the 1930s_. Dowson provides a nice bit of context for each poet, which I always appreciate as a general reader.

  6. I too struggle with poetry - it seems to be over too fast!

    So I read it aloud to myself (sometimes in my head) and try to find the rhythms (if there are any), respond internally to the rhymes (if there are any), and it's still over too fast. If it's not funny, shocking, or a story in verse it doesn't tend to stick in my memory. I'm not a good advert for poetry am I? I do enjoy writing bad haikus though, and should try harder to enjoy/get poetry - thanks for raising the issue! :)

  7. I'm not much of a poetry-reader either, however I do appreciate and recommend Anna Akhmatova's work. Amazing voice - even in translation!

    A slightly unrelated question: what do you think of Katherine Mansfield's poems?

  8. Teresa - I'm glad that I'm not on my own with this, and I like the idea of reading one every day for a week. Perhaps trying to read a collection of poetry as I would a novel just won't work. Thanks for mentioning The Ode Less Travelled - I hadn't really known what it was about, and that makes it much more appealing in my eyes.

    Claire - I have always hated Tennyson, so I missed my teenage phase! Yours is much more sophisticated than my teenage love of Sweet Valley High... actually, that was pre-teenage, I suppose.
    And, oh how I loathed Viorst's collection.. but I do love Virginia Graham, so I should try some of her poetry.

    Lyndsay - talk about timing! I look forward to your post...

  9. Harriet - I did wonder whether STW's book just wasn't very good, but so many critics rave about her poetry... perhaps they just mean other, later collections. Oxford library has quite a few copies of The Rattle Bag, so perhaps I'll get that out.

    bibliolathas - it is impossible to underestimate my knowledge of poetry, so even though Women's Poetry of the 1930s should be well-known to me, I'd never heard of it - thank you for mentioning it!

    Annabel - it sounds as though you go through the same process as me!

    N - never heard of her, thanks for the tip! And I didn't know that Katherine Mansfield had written poetry - how did I not know that? She is one of my favourite writers, I've never read better short stories - so perhaps I should explore her poetry...

  10. My favorite poet at the moment is my 11 ds. :) He loves Shel Silverstein and writes in a similar style (think little boy silly humor). Actually, I like poetry, but don't get around to reading that much of it. Sorry not to have any recommendations for you, but I think I will follow Harriet's suggestion for myself as well of The Rattle Bag - it seems like Susan Hill also recommended that collection in HEIOTL?

  11. A lot of people who are not ordinarily readers of poetry seem to tolerate poets such as Billy Collins and Mary Oliver pretty well. Both are accessible in that their poems are usually understood with just a couple of readings. In my opinion, Oliver is much the better poet over Collins. I'm a poet myself, but abhor the kind of poetry that is so obtuse that no one really understands it but the author, or the kind of "free poetry" that's so free, it's little more than chopped up prose.

  12. Was going to suggest Christopher Logue or Derek Walcott but maybe not if you're against classics; they're not name-droppy though ... I know the sort of thing you mean and it annoys me, too.
    Completely different, but last year I read Larkin's poems alongside Letters to Monica which made me appreciate them much more.
    And completely different again, but I'd second the person who suggested Anna Akhmatova.

  13. Have just started reading STW's diaries and it begins in December 1927 with a couple of her entries mentioning her progress with the poems for Time Importuned. Another entry towards the end of February 1928 records her final tidying of the volume amidst doing some house-hunting at the same time. She was to have found this place at 113, Inverness Terrace to be her new home.

    I know this is not answering to any of your questions at all regarding poetry, but just thought it interesting to share this trivia information with regards to STW and what she was up to while churning out Time Importuned. :)

  14. I haven't read through all the comments to see who else has been recommended but I'd suggest a little Emily Dickinson. She writes in plain words (most of the time)and many of her poems express her feeling about every-day situations without being sentimental or flowery at all. When I get tired of the complicated, overly fancy, sometimes show-offy language of other poets I always go back to Dickinson because she cuts through all that. She's a breath of fresh air. Hope you enjoy her!

  15. I so wish I could read allpoetry and actually understand it, but this rarely happens unless it's completely obvious. I'm hoping Stephen Fry's book The Ode Less Travelled might help shed some light on this, though. It's my literary mission this year to accurately interpret everything I read and also maybe enjoy it.


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