When he was Education Secretary, Michael Gove verbally attacked the “culture warriors” who criticised him on Twitter. I felt proud to be counted amongst them and had a T-shirt printed with the decal ‘Culture Warrior’ that I still wear with pride. I am though all too aware that my cultural appreciation is not always up to par. I recently visited the Tate Modern in London and was more impressed by the incredible building in which the art is housed than with the varied displays. I enjoyed wandering the gallerys but, with a few notable exceptions, I struggled to fathom why these particular presentations were regarded as art.
I have a similar issue with certain types of poetry. I read the glowing reviews, often couched in language that is as impenetrable to me as the words being lauded, and wonder how I too could gain such an appreciation. When I browse these more avant-garde poems I can pick out clever phrases and apply my own interpretation, but I have no idea if this is anything close to the meaning intended by the author.
Following National Poetry Day I was, at my request, sent a collection of poems by Dorothy Lehane titled Ephemeris. Published by Nine Arches Press it contains forty-six experimental and exploratory works which reference science alongside the human condition. Amongst other things it looks at relationships, sex, ageing and illness, all couched within language that requires a degree of deciphering. I am unsure if I have understood the code.
It is not so much that I found it impenetrable as that I did not take from this work the meaning ascribed by those whose praise was quoted on the back of the jacket. As with much acclaimed art, my view is more prosaic. I wonder if I am somehow missing the point.
Ephemeris offers an interesting collection of broad spectrum ideas presented through a lense that, to me, remained largely unfocused. Perhaps poetry needs to be felt more than understood. My frustration at not gaining a better understanding of these works mirrors the way I viewed the exhibits in the Tate Modern. I don’t always get what is going on, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy what I take from the experience.
For me, poetry requires a slow appreciation and much rereading. I ponder if this approach encourages the reader to invent meaning. I am left with a suspicion that it is I who lack some knowledge or ability. I will keep trying.