The Best British Poetry 2011 includes a poem called ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ by Katharine Kilalea. It is quoted in full on Carcanet’s New Poetries blog — everyone should read it — , followed by a lengthy discussion by Don Share, which is in turn taken up by Rob Mackenzie. The discussion is fascinating, as Share follows his investigations into the meaning of this mysterious poem, mostly through Google. It’s probably one of the most interesting things to ripple across the poetry channels for a while. Here are my thoughts.
Allusion (in the Age of the Internet)
He starts with Kilalea’s comment from the start of a reading on Youtube of an early version of the poem: “there’s no work to be done”. It is hard for a curious reader to take a poet’s word for this, & so he does a lot of ‘work’, recording his findings & thoughts along the way. ‘Work’ means ‘Googling’, inevitably, for the 21st century. It is, then, perhaps indicative of Kilalea’s attitude towards this that the title of the poem seems to have misspelled ‘Hennikers Ditch’. This is the place to which the title is referring, as Kilalea confirms in a recording of the poem (which Don Share seems to have missed). Is this a deliberate strategy to short-circuit any attempt at chasing the reference? The poem, as Share suggests, seem to be aware of this:
You’ll never find it, he said over dinner
Then again, wouldn’t that mean that Kilalea’s statement that the poem is “without any kind of authorial interpretation” isn’t quite true? Or what does that statement mean?
An overt allusion (such as using a name like ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ or ‘Silvio Rodriguez’) is a way of presenting a mystery to the reader, of mischievously showing them a closed box. However, this has diminished recently, as those for whom Googling is second nature (i.e., everyone younger than my parents) have a sort of infinite prosthetic memory. (This can only increase as more books are digitised, as Google is pressing on with at the moment.) By changing the spelling of a word, Google can again be closed out again, leaving the reader to work on their own with just the poem.
Why Do We Enjoy Obscure Poems
In her comments on her poem in the back of The Best British Poetry 2011, Amy De’Ath (whose name I am continually impressed with) quotes Gertrude Stein: “if you enjoy a thing you understand it”. In both Don Share & Rob Mackenzie’s posts, we see them explore how one can enjoy a poem despite being rebuffed by its obscurity. I feel their answers lean slightly in the wrong direction: towards ‘music’. This is very pedantic & not at all a disagreement, but I think worth pursuing as this is an issue which is increasingly important, as poets increasingly chase obscurity.
At first look, the Stein quotation resembles Kilalea’s opening remarks in her video about there being no work to be done; in other words, we do not need to decipher an obscure poem, but instead as long as we “enjoy” it, that is all we need. However, I do not think it is this easy & I think Gertrude Stein agrees with me. The full quotation is: “if you understand a thing you enjoy it and if you enjoy a thing you understand it”. Kilalea’s poem, as Share points out, resembles Eliot’s early poetry, which I.A. Richards famously labelled “the music of ideas”, & I think the intellectual value needs to be stressed as strongly, if not more, than the musical one. In my post about bad poetry I looked at good obscure poetry & bad obscure poetry, & how one is to tell the difference; I said that the difference is in “how much is going on” in a given passage. By this I meant a poem’s intellectual structure: the development of ideas, the connections between images, etc. Following on from this, ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ is an intoxicating poem for the most part because of its intellectually satisfying structure, & in ‘working’ on it one is better served tracing the allusions within the poem — the framework that makes up this intellectual structure — than those outside of it.
Katharine Kilalea was interviewed on Jen Campbell’s blog in April. If you have Twitter & don’t follow Don Share then you probably should.