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This article is taken from PN Review 261, Volume 48 Number 1, September - October 2021.

The Passionate Transitory Vona Groarke
‘A true note on a dead slack string’ was how Patrick Kavanagh described poetry, but it all depends, I daresay, on what you mean by ‘true’. Poetry has an uneasy relationship with sincerity: too much, we say the poem is navel-gazing; the poet, self-obsessed. We decide that we find nothing there relevant or helpful to the lives the rest of us are trying, hard, to negotiate. Too little, and we think the poem glossy and insubstantial, with not sufficient purchase in one life to tell the truth of life.

(There’s often a performative element to sincerity: watch it watching itself from the wings, appraising its own authenticity, in parentheses.)


It’s a delicate balancing act. As poets, we seldom want a poem to be relevant to only ourselves: we thrive on the possibility that if we make it well enough, a reader will be pleased to recognize herself in the poem we made of something in our lives. But we also know that trying too hard to appeal can knock a poem off balance, if it has no core.

(I’m generalising. I may have already lost your interest. That ‘we’ is so impersonal you may already have concluded I have no investment in this argument. And if I don’t, why should you? Let me try, therefore, to rein it in.)

A certain kind of poem has a bourgeois dislike of the exposed emotion, throwing upon it layers of tea towels, jackets, tablecloths, blankets - whatever is to hand to cover it ...


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