On Poetry: A Conversation with Timothy Donnelly
Monday 13 October
Rhodes House, Oxford
On Monday 13 October, the audience at Rhodes House were treated to a recitation of a poem which no one there knew, ‘The Skater of Ghost Lake’ by William Rose Benet, whose sonic extravagance, the American poet Timothy Donnelly emphasised in his reading:
A brisk sound, a swift sound, a ring-tinkle ring;
Flit-flit — a shadow, with a stoop and a swing,
Flies from a shadow through the crackling cold.
Ghost Lake’s a deep lake, a dark lake and old!
Donnelly paused on this ‘ring-tinkle ring’, and began to talk about the apparent mawkishness of such a poem. ‘The Skater of Ghost Lake’ was further damned by the fact of its being published well after the high watermark of modernism, and yet Donnelly, a poet for whom forward-thinking is part of the propulsive power of his poems (his most recent book, The Cloud Corporation, was reviewed in this journal  in 2011), chose to dwell on echoes that embarrass as much as they haunt. He had first encountered the poem at school, as it had been earmarked as a way to excite young children into an appreciation of poetry. This was the beginning of a lecture on ‘Meaningfulness and Homesickness’ that Donnelly delivered as part of the Bagley Wright Lecture series of poetry, a lecture tour for mid-career poets, which he had been taking around the United States and, starting with a full house in Oxford, around the U.K too.
It was the challenge of this stanza which Donnelly’s lecture took up, exploring the gap between an initial reaction of intoxication with the pleasures of form and the more stringent demands that are often made on poetry. While few ‘serious’ readers are capable of being rhymed into submission, or susceptible to simple repetition of phonemes, Donnelly’s ‘Ghost Lake’ conjured up old questions, about what we build our search for meaning out of, and how our appreciation of pattern haunts our understanding. Donnelly’s lecture did not proceed along clear, syllogistic lines, but instead attempted to embody what I take to be the central thrust of its argument, that poetry consists in the ever-present urge to make meaning out of patterns while at the same time finding our intentions challenged by those very patterns. Moving from a description of the Rhode Island countryside where he grew up, Donnelly drew on Hopkins’s ‘Windhover’, whose patterning, about as extravagant as that of Benet’s, at the same time imposes meaning and threatens to cancel our easy human associations. Donnelly rejected easy dismissals of Hopkins’s turn from the natural to the doctrinal; in the logic of his lecture and, in his opinion, in the logic of poetry, the idea of a meaning bigger than what is human does not turn us away from the natural world, but challenges the anthropocentric approach which a simple rejection of pattern as human imposition implies.
Donnelly’s talk thus summoned a kind of conscience, specifically an ecological one, in a way that runs directly counter to much thinking in contemporary poetry. If one reads pattern, not as the ideological imposition of the human, but as somehow transcending intention—just as Benet’s poem finds its sound escaping its sense—then pattern comes to figure a desire to live more fully integrated into a world that surpasses the point of view of one solitary human. While much contemporary American poetry finds formalism ideologically suspect, an urge to mastery, Donnelly suggests that letting the uneasy relationship between metre and meaning, sound and sense, continue to trouble the reader in fact resists the mastery of poet or reader. In this, it might, figure an opposition to the terrible way that human beings have lived on the planet with no regard for an ecosystem that transcends themselves. This seems to be the animating spirit in his most recently published poem Hymn to Life, a long litany for the era of mass extinctions. At the centre of the poem, there is something like a statement of poetics:
All these gains and losses, so mysterious
from a distance, held together it has felt by nothing stronger
than momentum, like a series of bicycle accidents or a pattern
in the pomegranate, come to hint at a logic in time, but whether
it’s more fitting to say that they promise to reveal it or else
threaten to is debatable.
It is this threat that Donnelly’s poetry and this talk captured. People grow comfortable with a radical poetry, but when it can be collapsed into a prose statement of the author’s good intention as easily as much of it can, perhaps the cruder enchantment of words, the imagined ghost in the lake, whether it is there or not, might unsettle an audience who are comfortable with a world cut down to their size.
Hugh Foley  is reading for a DPhil in English at Exeter College, Oxford..