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Wake Forest
University Press

Wake Forest University Press

Dedicated to Irish Poetry

Wake: Up to Poetry

"The act of poetry is a rebel act."

Dream Language

”                          …you swim
from core state to fugue state
in undirected milky water
to a black-filled circle,
which is your fully fledged city
dwindled into a village”
—          from “Broken Pot Used as Writing Material”

Here at WFU Press we’re busy with the final stages of Medbh McGuckian’s The High Caul Cap, due out next month.  We keep reading the poems, then looking up to ask one another “So, what do you…?”

McGuckian’s poetry reminds me of experimental films, a series of rapid, fleeting images one after the other.  Readers can feel a connection, but it takes serious work to articulate and explain the meanings.  McGuckian herself addresses the abstract language in an interview with J.P. O’Malley

‘Poems are very much part of the unconscious mind.… They push up through the ordinary language that we use in every day life. The language which we are using now, for example, to try and understand what is written in the poems, it is inadequate, laborious and slow.

‘Whereas in poetry, language moves the way it does in dreams, where everything is superimposed very rapidly on everything else. In dreams, the language can be soothing and reassuring, because people are nourished by their dreams.’

 McGuckian forces the reader to slow down.  It’s all too easy to fall into skimming, or to turn pages absent-mindedly without thinking about what’s being said.  That will not work with McGuckian—readers have to pay attention, and it’s not unusual to reread a poem several times before you can recognize the themes.  The best advice I can give for delving into her poetry is to develop a strange balance of concentration and intuition.

(Posted by Megan)


Categories: Interns' Corner, Irish Poetry, Irish Women's Poetry, Lit. Crit., Medbh McGuckian

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  1. harryscraps says:

    “It’s all too easy to fall into skimming, or to turn pages absent-mindedly without thinking about what’s being said.”

    It may be that poetry is more about ‘how it’s being said’ as opposed ‘what’s being said’ in this regard (i.e. engaging the reader) and that the poet may easily fail to engage the reader by not saying it in an engaging way, regardless of what’s being said about what (be it a dream, a Grecian urn, a dead pig etc etc etc…).

    Some terrible poetry has been written about great things, while some great poetry has been written about trivial things thereby making them great, it seems.

    Regards,

    Harry.

  2. harryscraps says:

    p.s.

    Regarding ‘dream language’:

    Do people dream in unclear, indistinct terms and abstract language or, actually, do they dream in very immediate, very vivid feelings and images with a narrative (however unlike, or strange to, waking life)?

    “Poems are very much part of the unconscious mind.… They push up through the ordinary language that we use in every day life. The language which we are using now, for example, to try and understand what is written in the poems, it is inadequate, laborious and slow.”

    This *may* be true of this poet, and others, but not of every poet. Another poet might say that unconscious material has to be crafted in partnership with the conscious elements of learned poetic craft; otherwise we might just get a load of ‘automatic writing’- type gibberish that may mean little to anyone (and the surrealist poets had/have that adventure, not, it has to be said, without some interesting results).

    At any rate, it seems poems are ‘ordinary language’ used to do extraordinary things by people who have trained to do those extraordinary things. I don’t think language, in itself, is tiered. So, if poems are ‘very much part of the unconscious mind’ I think they are also very much part of the conscious mind… I’m not sure a truly unconscious person could even lift a pen to write!

    Personally I think it’s good to remember the whole ‘conscious/unconscious’ thing is a bit of an artificial construct, an implied dualism imposed on an always functioning whole. It seems poetic ability develops across both implied ‘areas’ with the right sort of training/effort.

    Regards,

    Harry.

  3. harryscraps says:

    … and this talk (my talk, but then maybe poets are always talking to themselves!… the level of ‘discussion’ of poetic craft around here seems to well reflect the current levels of resignation that seems to surround it) about surrealism sent me back to Rimbaud (who, actually, never particularly fitted that pigeon hole as far as I can see). As an exercise in considering elements of craft, here’s the first line (Fowlie trans.) of Rimbaud’s ‘Phrases’, which starts off with a barrage of images:

    “When the world is reduced to a single dark wood for our two pairs of dazzled eyes…”

    Compare that (what it is crafted to impart, how much it imparts, and how it does it) with the following (asterisks inserted as suggestions):

    ” …you swim
    from *core state* to *fugue state*
    in *undirected* milky water
    to a *black-filled* circle,
    which is your *fully fledged* city
    *dwindled* into a village”

    I don’t mean to compare these poets in doing this. That would certainly not be fair or reasonable. But I think it can be seen to be quite quantifiable that a lot can be imparted in sparse, well constructed lines that make the reader work, and help him/her work, while not dragging him/her around with a sack of redundant and/or ambiguous words/terms… and all this before we start talking psychobabble about dreams and the unconscious.

    In hope of generating some sincere discussion that is actually about poetry… it is allegedly a ‘rebel act’ after all! ;-)

    Regards,

    Harry.

    • wfupress says:

      Harry,
      We love your comments, and appreciate your engagement with our blog.
      To respond to a couple of your specific remarks:

      We (our WFUP interns) wrote: ‘Poems are very much part of the unconscious mind.… They push up through the ordinary language that we use in every day life. The language which we are using now, for example, to try and understand what is written in the poems, it is inadequate, laborious and slow.’

      You wrote:
      ‘This *may* be true of this poet, and others, but not of every poet.’

      We say now: Of course not of every poet, but it is true of some poets, including McGuckian. We obviously don’t think of McGuckian’s “dream language” as gibberish or uncrafted, or we wouldn’t publish it. We find it a particularly delicious way that a particular poet writes; a way that we acknowledge is unusual and difficult.

      Later, you cite a (gorgeous) translated line from Rimbaud:
      “When the world is reduced to a single dark wood for our two pairs of dazzled eyes…”

      And you continue:
      ‘Compare that (what it is crafted to impart, how much it imparts, and how it does it) with the following (asterisks inserted as suggestions):

      ” …you swim
      from *core state* to *fugue state*
      in *undirected* milky water
      to a *black-filled* circle,
      which is your *fully fledged* city
      *dwindled* into a village”

      I don’t mean to compare these poets in doing this. That would certainly not be fair or reasonable.’

      We say now: Of course you mean to compare these poets in doing this. That’s exactly what you did!

      Perhaps the difference is that we all (you there, and we here in this office) love the line from Rimbaud [reminds us somehow of the ending of Ni Dhomhnaill’s poem “Geasa” (“The Bond”), translated by… Medbh McGuckian!

      …leaving me
      Stranded on the bank,

      My eyes full of candles,
      And the two dead oars.”]

      but you don’t care for Medbh’s writing. The two examples you gave work very differently. Most writers craft is quite from McGuckian’s.

      It’s a little like abstract painting, don’t you think? It’s more difficult to tell exactly what the point is, and, yes, what the level of craft is. That’s when emotional or gut reactions matter more. If there’s a genuine response on the part of the viewer, it warrants further examination.

      Ditto here, we say.

      Thanks again for writing, and for caring about this rebel act.

  4. harryscraps says:

    “…but you don’t care for Medbh’s writing. The two examples you gave work very differently. Most writers craft is quite from McGuckian’s.

    It’s a little like abstract painting, don’t you think? It’s more difficult to tell exactly what the point is, and, yes, what the level of craft is. That’s when emotional or gut reactions matter more. If there’s a genuine response on the part of the viewer, it warrants further examination.”

    Hi there,

    Thanks for the reply.

    Actually, I do care for Medbh’s writing very much. We are from the same city, and I think a lot of her work is excellent. If I didn’t care about it I wouldn’t bother raising the point of what looks to me like flaccid writing propped up by psychobabble creeping in to her output.

    I don’t think it’s like an abstract painting, at least not a good one, as it doesn’t engage me so as to make me unsettled, or disassociated, or dreamy, or whatever. I’m a good reader, so I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. I’ll gladly concede that it may be a ‘personal preference thing’ on my part (which, IMO, is to be welcomed in an era when ‘everything goes’ seems to be the non-rationale approach to poetic craft), but, you know, if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and all that then maybe… so, maybe a person could get over that the stuff is coming from a great poet and consider a line or two from the point of view of craft, language and what is being (and/or not being) imparted.

    I compared two bits of poetry. I did not compare two poets. That people sometimes fail to separate the poetry from the poet is a problem that people who take their beginner poems to an initial poetry group meeting often have trouble with (they hurt if someone has the guts to tell them that their poetry is badly written… they can’t separate the craft from whatever feelings gave rise to the poem). If they don’t get over it pretty quick then their writing of poetry will likely not get out of the ‘therapoetry’ stage and into the big, broad, scary world.

    BTW, who’s ‘we’? A sort of Royal ‘We’? T.S. Elliot used to say that to appear to give him some sort of establishment consensus, but it was only ever really him, and maybe those people who would have deferred to him no matter what he said.

    All the best,

    Harry.

  5. wfupress says:

    Ah, Harry. Good to hear from you again.
    Ain’t no royal in our “we”…
    All the best from all of “us”

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