Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Sonnet to My Mother, by George Barker

This is a sonnet by George Barker -- not a poet with whom I'm well acquainted, having met with his poems in anthologies more than elsewhere. An interesting man, from the little I've learned, T. S. Eliot among others thought him so, calling him "a most peculiar fellow," but also making reference to his "genius." What Barker was, so far as I can tell, was a very profligate fellow, with too many children to count, lovers famous and otherwise, and a surprisingly faithful Catholic, in a strange enough way, with an Irish mother, for whom this poem is laughingly and lovingly meant.

I can't say that Barker's poetry has ever made me curious enough to learn much more than that, but this poem in particular so tickled and intrigued me that I've read and reread it. It's charming, of course, in its portrait of a great "mountain" of a mother, facing bombs without spilling her gin, but it is the structure of the poem as much as that that made me read it through, and aloud more than once. I wish I had the vocabulary or training to describe this better. The little I know about sonnets I know first from my friend R., himself a poet. I recognize that it is 14 lines, that the scheme of it is something even I can see, but then it does something a sonnet isn't supposed to do, in the second stanza, where it stops behaving, somehow, as it should and yet works beautifully still.

As I've said, I don't have the education to explain this technically, and I don't know that the explanation would be all that interesting to anyone but me just now anyway, but why I mention it is because of the way this poem feels in the saying. That's somethingI am just beginning to understand myself, from reading poetry aloud, and that's why I thought I'd give this one a try here tonight.

I apologize to anyone who knows these things better than I do. I make no claim to any special talent for reading poetry, or reciting it. If anything, I think that in doing so without quite knowing how, while I may be doing a disservice to these poems and these poets, I might at least be an example to other, casual readers of poetry, and encourage them to just do it.

Poetry -- at least all the poetry I like -- needs sound, and the breath behind it, for me to find it's sense, and hear its music. It seems to me that when we learned poetry this way, as small children, there was nothing to keep us from taking on poetry as we did any other childhood pleasure; that we learned poems then as we learned games, and songs, and to recognize one another's voices. Later, and I'm not suggesting that this was wrong, poetry became a subject for analysis, a search for allusion, and comment on events and autobiography, and more a matter of picking out meanings than a way of speaking. What was lost, at least for me, was the participation in the poem, as a reader, that did not require more explanation than what could be had from the poet in the poem. While I wish I'd had more and a better education in poetry, I was an adult, past forty in fact, before, for myself, I could really reclaim something of that more innocent pleasure, if that is the way to say it, in reading and reading aloud a poem.

I would encourage anyone who might be even a little reluctant to do so, to do as I've done here, and just say the next poem you read. Follow the punctuation, the meaning and the rhythm as best you can, but just do it and see if there isn't, in just that, something familiar, something you might think you'd lost.

This poem, this sonnet of George Barker's, is made up of enough that may be familiar, while doing things within the poem that aren't, that you too might find the exercise more interesting, and emotionally satisfying, than you think. Everybody, after all, has a mother.

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