No writer is well served by effusive or uncritical praise. If we are to believe the introduction to Sophia Wellbeloved’s four-part poem Praying for Flow, her handling of words is “[l]ike Neruda’s”. Her poetic voice “may not even be hers”, but her dead twin’s, or that of her grandmother’s dead child. We are in the presence, it seems, of countless “subtle waves”, of “emanations” to which we must be “sensitive”, and which are “vibrating”. Another reader, quoted in the blurb on the back cover, puts Wellbeloved in the same league as Hopkins. All of this is irritating.
Another sort of irritant emerges in Wellbeloved’s own “Acknowledgements”. Here is a volume whose cover displays a carp and an inscription “in the traditional Japanese manner”, done especially “for the book”, and reappearing in miniature at various points throughout. Also, every now and again, we are told, Keiko Ninoyu Morrison’s “insight into the poem [has] resulted in her calligraphy” being placed on prominent, and presumably significant, show between this long poem’s four sections. Yet the “visual presence of Japanese influence in the cover painting, and the calligraphic reading of the title and subtitles are not specifically to do with the subject matter of the poem”, says Wellbeloved. The reader is already on guard before a line of poetry has been read. The acknowledgements and the introduction seem aesthetically incoherent and indulgent. The tendency to a mysticism in which everything is connected – such that high-flown claims and an unconsidered aesthetic are neither here nor there – makes the heart sink, and suggests an absence of self-awareness. So: what sort of poetry does Wellbeloved give us?
“If you imagine that you are simply / listening while I instruct you, be more / observant, and resistant, don’t you / remember specific incidents of being / taught and hating it?” Well, yes. But what are we “taught” by Wellbeloved? Much the same as by Lenny Henry’s erstwhile character Theophilus K. Wildebeest, who used to assert: “Hey baby, everything is everything”. You know you’re in a bad place with a volume of poetry when you start flicking forward to see just how long this is going to go on. Wellbeloved finds existence deeply astonishing and mysterious. Yet to say so over and over and from as many different angles as you can is not poetry. Nor is everything you write perforce poetic simply because you happen to have sensibility. Early on in this volume, one feels that Wellbeloved is talking to herself, that the writing is All About Sophia, who has Thoughts. She needs an immense prolixity, an excess of self, to tell us “things / there are no words for”.
Moralistic, preachy, tediously discursive, analytic and self-absorbed, Wellbeloved cannot, it would seem, have even any stray thoughts without voicing them. One wouldn’t want to be stuck in the pub with her. The garrulous writing displays little sense of achieved metaphor, sound or rhythm; and although this lengthy work is rather consciously presented in four sections, one misses any felt experience of poetic form. Wellbeloved is an exponent of George Gurdjieff’s teachings, and as such has a longstanding commitment to the esoteric. Voluble she may be, but ultimately she cannot let us in on anything substantive and we emerge from her volume aware that a great deal has been said without anything much being communicated. One prays, not for the flow, but for the end.
For a writer in her seventies, Wellbeloved sounds like she’s just starting out. This faith that if you just keep talking you’ll find meaning is the wrong faith. It is anti-poetic. One respects her astonishment at life. But while necessary, this isn’t sufficient. To study your own astonishment may be naïve; but it’s the wrong naïveté, and deadly.