The title of this poem strikes me as similar to that of a metaphysical poet. Indeed, John Donne has a poem called “Love’s Alchemy”. I think this connotation affected my reading of the poem first time round. I’d say the first verse holds onto these features even on repeated readings, but the verses that follow it break free from the restraints of such connections.
Building a poem around a sustained metaphor can be a very fulfilling experience for the reader, but when done clumsily, it can be a wearying experience. Mixed in with the mathematical language, Colin Dardis treats the reader to startlingly original and surprising phrases such as “defrost your knowledge”. All of this is delivered in an interesting tone, one you might call clinical.
Behind this clinical tone, there lies very raw subject matter. Love and death tend to attract this kind of distant tone, I think, as tackling them head-on can often feel bland and boring. Maybe it’s because we all relate to such feelings so easily that the language needs to be slightly difficult or unusual in order to hold the reader’s interest. Essentially, this poem boils down to very familiar concept, though one which is dealt with in an interesting way, which is what poetry, maybe more than any other art form, should seek to do. It’s the idea that we can’t plan too much, that we need to feel the flow and go with it.
Love’s education is a paltry affair,
full of half-remembered paradigms,
useless ratios and uneven balance.
People will come to defy your lessons,
defrost your knowledge
and mix the fluids with their drink,
spiked with new measurements;
the approach of a stranger
demanding you revise the recipe.
Life demands the constant role
of student, in a world so ignorant,
you rarely get to play at teacher.
Others will pass on your ungraded heart,
not seeing the value of results,
only the stamp of failure
ingrained into your features.
Scrap your homework, tear up your notebooks,
the rules are asking to be rewritten.
I dread people asking me what I do; basically anything you can think of that involves poetry, I try. A worse question is: so what kind of poetry do you write? I’ve yet to find a satisfactory answer to this.
Northern Ireland is a very small place. I would say most poets here know each other, or at least know of each other, thanks to social media. There are not many platforms or outlets for poetry here outside of academia. I founded Poetry NI because I know of so much literary talent in ‘our wee country’ and feel it simply deserves to be put out there. Open mic nights, readings, workshops, print and online publishing, charity and school work – it all ties into strengthening the community of poets in Northern Ireland. I love being a part of it, and I don’t think I would be much of a poet without it.
My work has been published in various places throughout Ireland, the UK and the USA. A long period of depression held me back in my writing and career, but as I near my forties, I’m beginning to re-emerge.
Your poem seems to suggest that no-one can become an expert in love, no matter how vast their experience. Is the same true of writing, or is there more scope for becoming what some might call an “expert”?
I’m not sure if the poem does suggest that; it ends on a note of defiance and hope, to write your own rules. In poetry, perhaps it is the same. You can only write in your voice, and it will take years to get there. I’m tempted to go with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, “the magic number of greatness”, the amount of time needed to become a genius or outstanding. So you spend 10,000 hours reading, writing, listening, studying, crafting, redrafting, etc. That might get you there. Although what is an expert? Some might perceive it as someone who is knowledgeable; others judge it on success. I’ve no desire to be an expert, I just want to write something true and beautiful.
Specifically, can poetry be taught?
Language can be taught. Grammar, technique, terms, examples, the difference between a metaphor and a simile, all of this can be taught. It’s up to the individual to take all these component parts and make it into the sum of poetry.
What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of stretching a metaphor across a poem, as you have done here? What would you advise when attempting this approach?
It’s tricky, and I can show you many, many unsuccessful attempts at it! I like a poem to be a focused piece, and when drafting, I tend to overwrite, to exhaust the subject almost and see what works and what doesn’t. I can only really do that by staying on point. When you mix images or metaphors, the message can get muddled. But you also risk boring the reader: “okay, okay, you’ve made your point already!”. My advice: watch out for repetition and summary. Often, you’ve already said what you need to say. Know where to end the poem. In “Love’s Education”, I use the last two lines to go against everything that’s been said so far. It felt like a natural ending, in that the defiance didn’t need to be explained. It was enough that the act was there.
Was the phrase “defrost your knowledge” there in the first draft, or did you have a less interesting verb there that you decided needed to be improved? Tell us about how you came to use the phrase, and the role of such unusual phrases in poetry.
The poem is coming from the point of view of someone who has been hurt. And of course, if you’ve been hurt in love, there’s a danger you can turn cold. You can turn off your feelings in order to protect yourself out of the fear of repeating past experiences. There’s nothing new or startling there. So I wanted a more original, more quirky way of saying that. It was there in the first draft, certainly. Sometimes a phrase forms almost unconsciously in a blink (Gladwell again), and you just find that it works. Poetry is hard to explain like that. That’s where the instinctiveness comes in, I guess, perhaps that thing that can’t be taught, only reached through endurance.
Unusual phrases in poetry? Unusual phrases are poetry. Or should I say, there can be poetry. “Metastasized electromagnetic radiation disseminated by suspended water particles” is perhaps an unusual way of saying “the sun was behind a cloud”, but it’s pretty clumsy as poetry goes. The trick is to not overcomplicate matters and be on high alert for clichés and overused, stock phrases.
Why do you write?
I would like to get away with quoting Dan Eggs: “Because I’m good at it”. However, I’m bad plenty of the time. I write to try to make sense of things: poetry is a form of analysis. Or I write because I feel something is worth recording. I don’t keep a diary, but my poetry tracks a lot of my life for me.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?