I always feel slightly uncomfortable reviewing someone's poetry. Unlike reviewing a novel, where you can make relatively objective comments based on how well an author has established characters or developed the plot, poems have to be judged on how well you believe the poet has communicated something far more ethereal. Just because you are not impressed with how a poet has chosen to express him or herself, does that necessarily make it less valid a piece that you approve of?
Unlike in previous generations, when poetry was confined by meter or structure, the free verse of today can't be judged by a poet's ability to maintain a complicated rhythm or include the right number of syllables in each line. It doesn't even matter if the words make "no sense" when you read them, as it's their ability to make you feel that's important. You can't even set one poet's work against another to see how it compares. Poetry is such an individual matter that there is usually little or nothing that one can use as a basis for comparison.
What I usually end up with is an attempt to judge how successful the poet has been in either expressing an overall emotion or feeling with his poem, much like an abstract artist would with his canvass, or in recreating the moment in time that he or she was inspired to try and capture with the poem. While it doesn't prevent me from being subjective in my critique, at least it gives me something objective to consider.
There are some prose writers whose work tells you that they would be equally adept at writing poetry as they are at fiction. It's not that their work is poetic, more that they have an ear for creating imagery when they write. A good indication is when you read their work you are able to see in your mind's eye what they are writing about with little or no effort on your part. This doesn't mean they spend page after page writing descriptions of the scenery – in fact it usually is the opposite. The prose writer with the potential to be a good poet would be one who can use the fewest words possible, yet still imbue a scene with beauty and emotion.
Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay has always impressed me with his ability to evoke whatever atmosphere he desires in an apparently effortless fashion. He is equally adroit at bringing to life sumptuous scenes in royal courts as he is the horrors of a battlefield, and like a good painter, knows exactly when to remove the brush from the canvas so as not to mar the image with too much detail. Quite a few of his novels have contained either poetry or song, so his readers have been given hints as to his talent as a poet, and in 2003 he published a book of poetry.
Penguin Canada has now re-issued that book, and Beyond This Dark House is now available in a paperback edition for those of us who missed out on its original release. I have read all of Mr. Kay's novels, and have found them to be almost uniformly excellent, but they have also shaped my expectations as to the nature of his work.
Having expectations is probably as bad as making assumptions about somebody's work, as they can sometimes have little or nothing to do with reality. In this case the only expectation that stands up is that the poetry in Beyond This Dark House is as good as Mr. Kay's prose, but it has a style and flavour all of its own. While his novels are intricate and elaborate puzzles, resplendent with detailed characters and vivid locations, his poems are far more austere while not surrendering an any of the intelligence or depth of his prose.
One poem that I keep coming back to as an example of the differences between his work in the two genres is "The Narrow Escape". The poem sets out the details of how a woman was fortunate enough to avoid marrying someone who already had someone he loves more. The man in question was a poet, and his mistress who he loved most was his poetry. But there is a wonderful bite of irony to the poem that makes you wonder about the women and what she thinks love is in the first place.
You see, "Because he was such as could spend a whole night, centuries from sleep, crafting a poem to reclaim the afternoon when they first met, she fell in love with him. But when he actually did so…" It's all very well and good to be sensitive and poetic, but if I'm not going to be the centre of your attention all the time, you can't love me and I don't want you. Imagine, leaving me alone in bed so he could get up and write about me?: "…she burst into angry tears, crying: 'How could I not have seen how destructive you are?'"
While this poem is a nice piece of satire, Kay can also write some beautiful descriptive poems. In the third part of the book he has collected a number of poems that he has written based on various characters from literature and myth. What I liked about them is that he created pictures of them that fit the characters perfectly.
"Malvolio" is about the uptight butler of the same name from Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night. He is the worst sort of puritanical prude, and in the poem he compares the fun that other characters are having to the torturous fires of hell. He flees back to his austere, cold room, where he cleans himself of the stain of their sin with prayer. Then he falls into the sleep of the righteous and has dreams about himself and his mistress.
- My room is cold, my anguish sharp as icicles. One day trumpets will proclaim our victory. I salve my heart with prayer…I walk amid gardens of precisely trimmed hedges where she awaits me, unveiled and alone. My garters are yellow as I sigh my way back into splendour.
Kay has created the perfect character study of the repressed Puritan, who on the surface is all proper and prim, but he's just like everyone else underneath it all, a normal human being with desires. In both "Malvolio," and "The Narrow Escape," Kay shows that he has knack for creating intelligent and witty poetry that is sharp and to the point. He is able to describe those moments he wants to tell us about with grace and style and no small amount of humour.
Of course, there's more to Kay's poetry than what these two examples offer; he is still a master of imagery, after all, and he uses it to great affect on quite a few occasions. Yet for me the example provided by these two poems is sufficient proof that he is as capable of communicating in verse as well as he does in prose. Beyond This Dark House answers the question as to whether Guy Gavriel Kay would make a good poet or not with a resounding "yes". For those of you who have liked his prose and are fans of poetry I encourage you to pick up this volume and experience another side of this wonderful author.