Faith and Trust


Ours,
Cole Swenson (93pp, University of California Press)


At first, I found these poems too delicate. Then I started to trust to the collection's form and organising principles:

'This book explores gardens, particularly the seventeenth-century French baroque gardens designed by the father of the form, Andre Le Notre…Swenson probes the two senses of ‘Le Notre', considering both the man himself and and the literal meaning of the phrase, to discover where they meet…'

This coherence quickly hooks you. It's a brilliant example of how ideas and intellectual depth make a collection readable, when too many others are random assemblies of poems - adding up to nothing - except the impression of a brain half-awake. Cole keeps the ideas coming:

     IN AN EFFORT TO MAKE THE GARDEN A STANDING PROOF

     of the ascendancy of reason over nature, strict rules governed its layout:
                 the principal north-south axis must start at the back door
                 and head straight toward
                 an illusion of infinity intersected by perpendiculars that divide all space…

Gardens are personal but universal - and so very culturally revealing. The firm (sometimes ruthless) logic of formal French examples powerfully evoked memories for me of those teenage trips to Versailles - 'French exchanges' and all that. I'm talking 1979, when everything on the continent seemed cleaner and less sleazy than Blighty. A feeling of awe and intimidation, with (being English) a constant need to compare with our examples - the freedom and subtle natural power of Blenheim say.  

Cole's ability to create such reveries makes it a tremendous success to me, as a reader. That's what good 'experimental' writing does; and it makes you wonder how poetry can be anything else. Above all, space is left for the reader's thoughts and reponses, without them feeling they're being asked to do too much, or losing faith in the project.

Faith and trust are key words here, and generosity. A fundamental respect, between poet and reader, a sense of equality; we're a world away from the bullshit epiphanies of Kate Clanchy, Su Tenderdrake or Polly Stigmata. I don't care how 'sensitive' these mainstream idols are - they parade humdrum platitudes, as if readers were cargo-cult savages, knocked out by their quivering sensitivity. 

I read Ours in a meandering way, as I'd walk around an unknown garden ('And sometimes you're the door') guessing where to go. Only later, you realise that you followed a path, prepared just for you:

     If a garden is the world counted
                                                                   and found analogue in nature
     One does not become two by ever ending….
                             There is nothing that controls our thoughts
     more than what we think we see,
     which we label ‘we'.
          (from 'If a Garden of Numbers')

The collection is full of this aphoristic depth, with an insistent - but never bludgeoning - exploration of the 'ours' meaning of Le Notre. Another fascinating theme is the impossibility of knowing how people felt in an earlier age - left wing historians and cultural critics can be incredibly presumptuous about this, unquestioningly enrolling the long dead into their own ideologies. I love Cole's lapidary prose on this:

     How can we say whether or not someone who lived from 1613
     to 1700 was happy? Among the many things that make me want
     to go back in time is the incommensurability of vocabulary, particularly
     that involving feelings, but even all adverbs and adjectives - such as old,
     or scented, or slowly - even nouns float cell by cell into some other…
            (from 'On Happiness')

The term 'parterre' also kept hitting me - it's used in some Ashbery poem; I remember looking it up then, but can't be bothered now. The link I'd make is with that refined, Francophile sensibility - attributing significance (sometimes over significance) to fine details, sometimes becoming too cultural cringing.  

There's a fascinating comparison to be made between Cole and Ashbery, in terms of Reader Response. Both of them are committed to using the reader, arguably as their greatest asset. Of course, especially in Ashbery's case, many people want (or need) more. Particularly since he works from multiple surface effects - almost the opposite of Cole's underlying organising principles - relying on the sheer strength of American cultural signifiers to bring coherence.

Anyway, this book is a beautiful and heartening work of art. It's inspiring, signalling what poetry can achieve, using respect and trust in its readership.

     © Paul Sutton 2009