John Fuller is both a well-published poet and and a well-tested critic of contemporary poetry. This new book gets to grips with the essential puzzlement of poetry. It is, as he explains, meant for all those readers who find poetry difficult and wonder why, sometimes quite crossly. It is not a densely theoretical book, but written engagingly and approachably – unlike many poems.
Rather than dealing with issues in the abstract, it asks particular questions of particular poems and helps to unravel what it is that often makes them so difficult to understand. The poems he chooses are, generally speaking, fairly familiar to those who read poetry – Tennyson, Yeats, Stevens, Pound and others. His conclusion thinks aloud in fascinating ways about the compact between poet and audience, that telling moment when the poet is reading a poem out loud. What does the poet give away on such an occasion? Are the comments which preface the reading an apology for not having been more direct in the poem itself?
Poetry sets itself up to be nothing more nor less than a puzzle. This has always been the case. It is not only the cussedly obtuse later work of Geoffrey Hill. Shakespeare gloried in it, too: that wish to postpone the enjoyment of the poem by writing it in such a teasing way that its meaning and emotional impact accrue very gradually. Poetry is not, after all, discursive prose. It is not something that you can hurry to understand.
Yet the very fact that poems are often so short, so keen to speed towards the final tape, almost inclines the reader to want to hurry too. Beware. You will likely come a cropper. There is, for example, that fundamental clash between the spoken language and the figurative – the strange world of the metaphor – which leaves meaning hanging suspended between tantalising possibilities.
William Empson wrote very densely and opaquely about all of this. Fuller is much more approachable than Empson by far. He is less inclined to bristle with his own cleverness. He wants us to know various factual things too, fairly readily. He wants us to find out that at the back of Shelley's mind when writing "Ozymandias" was not only the historical personage of Ramesses II, but also that recently fallen despot, Napoleon: headless and trunkless in his own way, pining away on the island of St Helena.