The thing that struck me most about Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition” was more generic than specific. As I struggled to get beneath the words, to find some kind of rhythm that appealed to me, a language I could interpret, I realised how much reading poetry – unlike prose, you could argue – is dependant on being able to ‘tune-in’ to the voice. Fiction tells you what’s going on (wild generalisation, I know!) whereas poetry seldom does; to get to ‘meaning’ you most often have to get beneath the surface. And this means that if nothing resonates or is on your wavelength, then what chance have you got?
In the case of “The Tradition” – as with so much poetry these days it seems – you need to be able to relate to find the voice; you need to come to poetry with your own relatable history, a relevant inclination, suitable experience or parallel ‘baggage’ that gives you a ticket to the gig. So if the voice is black / white / queer / straight / traditional / contemporary and you’re none of these things, then establishing a connection is so much harder – unless the poetry is simply brilliant. And let’s face it, the truly brilliant is inevitably in short supply.
Is that too narrow a view?
As I read “The Tradition”, it occurred to me that there are plenty of people who would find it exceptional because it ‘spoke’ to them and their experience of life. I’m afraid it didn’t do so to me, though I was still able to appreciate nuggets such as
“… Candles are
We understand shadows.” (‘Trojan’)
…and even I can appreciate the brutality of ‘Dark’.
Perhaps in poetry finding a voice we understand and can relate to is our default starting place – and when we fail to do so…well we just need to recognise that it doesn’t make everything else bad.