I could have chosen any of these words – there is a lot to say for velocity in a poem for instance – but I have just read Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl so I am choosing vinegar. Vinegar Girl is a reworking of the story of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – a play I have always liked. Anne Tyler has the heroine, Kate, courted by her father’s research assistant, Pyotr, for visa reasons, and the title comes from his perplexity over the proverb she uses in an argument with him: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But why would you want to catch flies, he wonders. Actually what I liked about the book was how sweet it was – I am still buzzing about it – but I think there is a place for sharpness in poetry. To move from flies to fleas, Donne’s flea poem makes a witty courtship poem because of his acerbic disparagement of the conventional pieties of the girl he is courting – and because he includes in the poem her equally quick disparagement of his self-serving arguments with her squashing of his flea. I like a certain acerbity in a poem, a sharp-sighted view of the world, that I find in the poetry of Helen Rickerby for example, with her historical portraits in My Iron Spine that are somehow unsparing and sympathetic at the same time, or in the poetry of Anne Kennedy, with the attention she pays to the gaps between what we say and what we think, how we say things and what we mean (perhaps not quite the gap we think), what we begin to say and the revisions we make. And in Janet Charman’s writing, too, I find the same unsparing sympathy, the same rather unnerving attention to the way language works to express and betray us, and the same resistance I find in both Helen Rickerby’s work and Anne Kennedy’s to the way women’s lives have been told in stories that are not the stories we might want to tell if we were the ones telling them – and we are.
©Anna Jackson 2017
Anna Jackson lives in Island Bay, Wellington, lectures at Victoria University, and has published six collections of poetry, most recently I, Clodia (AUP, 2014). With Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma she quite often runs conferences and other events for talking and thinking about writing, this year a conference on Poetry and the Essay.