A POET SO PROLIFIC SHE SEEMS POSSESSED
By D.J.R. BRUCKNER
Sue Lenier is a spontaneous poet who never blots a line. ''I just write the poems straight out,'' she says. ''At first I tried to correct a few and I didn't like the corrections, so I don't do it any more.'' Often the lines come to her so fast that her hand falters in its flight, and someone must make a fair copy from her illegible scrawl. ''It's like having something there already and just writing it down,'' she says, but it is not emotion recollected in tranquility. ''It's like feeling you're going to be sick.''
Academic admirers have likened the 25-year-old Englishwoman to poets such as Shakespeare and Baudelaire. ''Her poems compare well with anything written in English in this century,'' said John Newton, a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, who was Miss Lenier's undergraduate tutor. Inevitably her critics become vitriolic when they set out to contradict such praise. In The Sunday Times of London, Christopher Reid called her ''a striving, clumsy, humourless imitator of antiquated modes, with nothing original to say, but an earnest desire to make impressive gestures.''
Beyond such arguments as to whether Miss Lenier's poems are good, bad or indifferent is a growing debate about what creativity is and how rare is the kind of spontaneity she exhibits. Most recent studies of what appears to be instant artistic creation cite artists or musicians, such as Picasso or Mozart. Systematic investigation into the creative use of language is itself a very young and uncertain art.
Claude Rawson, a professor of English at the University of Warwick, who has read the poems but never met the poet, admires Miss Lenier's work. ''She is a good minor poet who is to be encouraged,'' he said. ''Not as good as Wordsworth or Shelley at his best, but the poems are very good.'' But where Mr. Newton finds her spontaneity and speed of composition ''startling,'' Mr. Rawson believes the talent may not be as rare as it seems. Mr. Newton recalls his astonishment at her impromptu recitation of 24 poems, including several sonnets in perfect form. But Mr. Rawson says: ''If you look at it historically in a number of literatures there is a tradition of spontaneous verse - and, of course, romantics often claim spontaneity.''
People who study creativity are guarded about assessing such gifts. James Borland, co-director of the Center for the Study and Education of the Gifted at Columbia University in New York, says verbal creativity in particular is poorly understood. ''There are many different abilities involved and apparently a few people bring them all together,'' he said. ''And if we don't have a comprehensive definition of creativity, how can we test it?''
William Durden, director of the Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth at Johns
Hopkins University, believes it is more difficult to judge the product of verbal genius than mathematical. The verbal ability, he said, ''takes longer to develop and involves assimilating all kinds of cultural elements. It seems that wide reading and probably the habit of memorizing have something to do with it; those things seem especially important for poets.''
Miss Lenier does not think of herself as a great reader. But she did complete the English degree program at Cambridge, which involves extensive reading of major writers from Chaucer to contemporary authors. She grew up in Birmingham where her father is an engineer; her mother became a nursery school teacher after her daughter was grown. Miss Lenier says there was little poetry and no unusual passion for reading at home. She recalls, however, being enraptured by Tennyson and memorizing ''The Lady of Shalott'' at age 8. At 7 she wrote ''a long bitter poem against home'' and, when she was 15 and 16, ''some sonnets and things like that.'' But it was at Cambridge that she started composing spontaneously.
In 1978, at some of her first public readings, she would ask the audience to suggest themes and within minutes she would respond with poems. Cambridge examiners were startled by her final examination papers, some of them in verse. ''Some questions were about poems, and if I see a poem my instinct is to respond creatively, not just to analyze,'' she said, adding, ''I'm damned sure any poem I write is better than an essay.''
Publicity begot publication. Oleander Press issued ''Swansongs,'' an 80-page book of her poems, last year. Another volume may follow. This year she is in Berkeley on a Harkness Fellowship, studying drama at the University of California, and, in her off hours, writing poetry and plays in mixtures of verse and prose.
She is surprised at times by her work: ''Once in a while I write a poem out that I think I understand and when I look at it later it means something entirely different.'' Sometimes the creative experience is frightening. When she wrote ''Harvest Festival,'' a poem for six voices inspired by an English film about a boy who is raped and commits suicide in reform school, she had nightmares. ''Swansongs,'' she says, was written ''in a semidelirious state. I was frightened.''
What is important to her is the meter and the sound. ''When I write I hear boom, boom, boom, BANG,'' she said. ''Rhythm's the way I think about emotion; it's a reflection of what's inside. It's like when you're having an argument and you're just picking up the words as you go.''
Some critics have said her poems are characterized by raw emotions. Miss Lenier says they are getting rawer; “I am getting more personal. I am inclined to let rampant prejudice come out and I’m less scared of taking risks.
Also I feel freer about playing with images. I want to see just how destructive I can get and still