Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Embracing the Gap

  The belated recognition of Eileen Myles, as celebrated in an interview with Emma Brockes in The Guardian Review last weekend, seems one of those novelistic turnarounds of destiny which sees proponents of outsider-art eventually welcomed into the mainstream and applauded for all the qualities that made them weird and unpalatable twenty or thirty years ago when they were struggling for any kind of look-in. You usually find, moreover, that this volte-face of taste is less an arbitrary lottery-win than the reward for decades of unremunerative hard work, dogged persistence and stubborn self-belief. A veteran of the seminal St Marks Poetry Project and its artistic director in the eighties, Myles's poetry sits somewhere within the third New York School yet equally comes out of the movement of women’s poetry of the 60s and 70s: it foregrounds the voice of personal experience pushing uncomfortably hard against the alienating constraints and sharp edges of urban reality, couched in a slangy demotic candour that feels at once hard-won and throwaway. 

    I returned to Myles’s work in two big anthologies I frequently go back to as source-books for richly atypical writing: Up Late - American Poetry since 1970 (ed. Andrei Codrescu) and PostModern American Poetry - A Norton Anthology (ed. Paul Hoover). Its her O'Haran “personism”, her reluctance to separate lived experience from the experience of writing poems, which still seems so rawly compelling, and perhaps it's this that has endeared her to more recent readers who have misread her work as a set of transparent portals on a complex, unconventional personality: “The process of the poem…is central to an impression I have that life is a rehearsal for the poem, or the final moment of spiritual revelation…As I walked I was recording the details, I was the details, I was the poem”.

     This keys in with something Myles talks about in the interview about embracing the process of writing rather than always striving for crafted products: “it’s like how do you learn to write poems that look easy? Just writing in this wasteful way all day long.” This strikes me as intriguing in the context of Rebecca Watts’ phrase “the rejection of craft” as applied to poets like Hollie McNish (see previous post). Perhaps there can be a positive rejection of craft in the service of a focus on process and revelation which a poet like Myles embodies, as well as plenty of the various other “post-modern” poets in these anthologies, unified only in their repudiation of academic traditionalism.

     I say this as much as anything as a reminder to myself not to make a cult of craft and form as I have often done in the past; not to become bogged down in technical minutiae and endlesssly redrafting old poems rather than ensuring I invest enough of my writing process and myself into each poem to make it resonant, communicative and - indeed - alive. Serendipitously I find the opposite tendency summed up in a brilliantly mordant poem by August Kleinzahler on the adjacent page from Myles in the Norton book:

 “Too daunted to field what he might,
    (He) Takes refuge in a text
     of a text, 
     finding tickle points of nyceness
     there to stay him…

    Backing off from the authentic
     like a jackal from the lion’s scent”.
                                          (A Case in Point)

    I also warmed to Myles' definition of poetry and its physicality on the page which culminates the interview: "The difference between poetry and prose, and why if you're not acculturated to poetry, you might resist it: that page is frightening. Why is it not filled? The two categories of people who don't feel that way are children and prisoners. So many prison poets: they see that gap and experience it differently". Emma Brockes goes on to say, in a beautifully-turned sentence, "The gap, of course, is where we all live, in the space between conventional categories, and it has been the project of Myles's work to celebrate it; the indeterminacy of where one thing ends and another begins."

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Pop-Poetry Will Eat Itself

  A work-colleague asked recently "What kind of poetry do you write?" and I was stumped for an answer. Not only did no coherent response come to mind, but as I hemmed and hawed I was confused as to the kind of reply that might be expected. On a Lit History level, of course, there are generic categories of poem (lyric, narrative, elegy, satire etc.) which are still often employed by poets and critics, although in many cases they feel inapplicable to the hybridised, mashed-up forms we now write in; but surely this wasn't the kind of answer she was looking for (eg. "Well, my work flits puckishly between the ode and the dramatic monologue, with occasional forays into the epic.") 
    It's difficult to surmise the kinds of poetry that exist in what is sometimes bizarrely called "the popular imagination", but the teacher gave an inkling of one of them when she rescued me by saying "Is it the really heavy, depressing kind?" (presumably shorthand for any poetry written with serious or, broadly speaking, literary or artistic intent.) For want of any better designation (and almost detecting a kind of back-handed compliment ie. at least I'm not a flippant rhymester in the mould of Purple Ronnie or Pam Ayres), I said "Yes, probably" and we left it at that.
   What this odd exchange brought home is our lack of meaningful terms for the large array of subtypes at play within the field of poetry, in comparison, say, to music where there's an abundance of different styles each with its own name, tradition, values and audience. Some (classical, jazz, art-rock ) are more artful and crafted than others at the pop end of the spectrum which tend to be both more immediate and more simplistic but are also usually more commercially successful in terms of their reception. Other musical styles dwell somewhere between these poles, striving to attain a level of popularity while also maintaining some semblance of artistic integrity.
     Is there a kind of "pop poetry", as well as (again, very much for want of a better word) a "literary poetry" whose practitioners align themselves with the making of something akin to art? I'm straining the analogy here in reference to the rather heated discussion that arose the other week after Rebecca Watts' essay in PN Review in which she inveighs against several female poets, in particular Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur, for "the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work". It's hardly a balanced work of criticism, and the somewhat lofty, de haut en bas tone does run the risk of accusations of a snobbish condescension (as its detractors have been quick to point out).
    I do, however, find myself in agreement with many of Watts' points. I have to admit to a sense of bewilderment whenever I go into Waterstones and approach the poetry shelves only to discover that a proportion of the ever-dwindling book-space allotted is taken up by small decorative volumes you might expect to see in a twee gift-shop, their pages adorned with wistful line-drawings of flowers and snowflakes amid which brief clusters of lines nestle, each a sentimental cliché or banal pseudo-profundity you might be more likely to find on a poster in a morose teenager's bedroom or perhaps biro'd on the back of a doodled exercise book in a moment of angst. This, in case you haven't encountered it, is Rupi Kaur's "Instagram poetry" (now there's a genre for you), a "short-form" production which seems to exactly conform to a public perception of what poetry should be - emotionally tortured, introspective, "spiritual", romantic with a small r. If you think of the word "poetic" within everyday parlance, these are the connotations it invariably evokes. (It would perhaps be an intriguing study to look at why The Dictionary for Received Ideas' entry on Poetry is stuck somewhere between post-Georgianism and watered-down Confessionalism and seems to omit from its definition the rest of its richly heterogeneous history.)
   The first time I read some of Hollie McNish's verses - and indicatively I think it was in The Guardian - I thought they were a parody or post-modern ruse cleverly aping a gauchely rhyming, agit-prop type poem of the kind (again) that many of us wrote as moody adolescents. I had to read it several times before deciding with a mixture of mirth and perplexity that no this was an actual poem and The Guardian was actually printing it. And Picador is publishing her new book and now she's won the Ted Hughes Award!
    Rebecca Watts' argument that the literary establishment's acceptance of McNish in a kind of disingenuous Emperor's New Clothes consensus is a valid one and seems to say more about the ever-looser criteria some publishers and promoters are holding to in an age of shrinking readerships and depleting returns than it does about any genuine new impetus towards populism. Populism, after all, is nothing new; as I suggested above, there has always been a vein of what used to be known as "light verse", often written by specialists who are far more skilled and indeed often artful than McNish or Kaur. Some will remember a few years ago (ok I just looked it up and it was 20) a somewhat analogous controversy being sparked when the unfunny comic poet Murray Lachlan Young reportedly signed a contract with EMI for £1m in 1997 (for recordings of performances rather than against his book-sales) - the ludicrous soundbite "Poetry is the new rock'n'roll" was widely touted at the time and many more serious poets (such as Michael Horovitz) waxed wroth about Young's sudden acclaim, saying that this was not real poetry and that he was debasing the art-form etc. 
    The point I'm attempting to make in a laborious way is that poetry continues to be as multifarious as music, yet we often lump it together as though it didn't contain diverse strands each with their different audiences and different channels of exposure: inevitably these will overlap and rub each other up the wrong way at certain points. The positive "takeaways", perhaps, are firstly the huge potential book-buying readership for poetry it shows at a time when, as I say, "literary" poetry seems to be selling less than ever - Kaur's Milk and Honey has apparently sold over half a million copies, which is incredible in the context of the tiny sales of most UK volumes. I'm certainly not saying that we should all embrace "Instagram poetry" and write like Rupi Kaur in the future - far from it - but just that we should perhaps consider all those readers who are showing a perhaps new or reanimated interest in poetry. Secondly, the debate which Watts' essay has provoked demonstrates an appetite and need for informed critical discussion about the status of poetry in the UK; it implies we're a broad church and that there's a great deal of scope for the interaction and cross-pollination of voices within this bustling community.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Sleepwalking or Wake-Up Time?

  Whereas in real terms 2017 was an especially momentous year for me, primarily in moving to a new house in Hertfordshire and experiencing the first year on earth of our baby daughter, in writing terms it seemed a list of things missed, undone or unfinished. Understandable, perhaps, given the overwhelming importance of these other events and the fact that they took place within the context of a demanding full-time day-job; but in 2018 I've resolved to redress the balance and put all my efforts into devoting more time to my writing, chiefly by accomplishing what I've talked about doing for a number of years and going freelance, both as a writer/editor and as an educational consultant. More time for writing but equally more time for my daughter and partner.
     This feels both like an immensely exciting opportunity and a somewhat daunting challenge but sitting at home in front of the laptop at this slow, muffled start to the year, watching the bleak grey weather animate the birdless garden-trees (instead of attending a meeting about unmarked registers or a briefing in which I have to inform the teachers we won't be replacing the staff-members who've left because there's no money in the budget, as I would have been doing had I returned to my job as college manager), I feel tentatively vindicated - warm, snug and vindicated.
   I was listening to a podcast yesterday in which Richard Herring* was in conversation with the writer and journalist Johann Hari, who's just brought out an intriguing book called Lost Connections. It's concerned with the roots of the growing epidemic of depression within our society and how we attempt to address it through the routine over-prescription of anti-depressants. Hari's argument, based on his own experiences and on encounters with a huge array of researchers, therapists and depressives themselves, is that the drugs don't work and that rather than imbalances of brain-chemistry or other internal factors which lead to anxiety and anhedonia, they're largely precipitated by lifestyle-choices and relationships: the loneliness, disconnectedness and enmity towards others fostered by our atomised self-absorption. "A depressed person is not a broken-down machine but an animal with unmet needs", is how Hari encapsulates it. We're hardwired to live in tribes, as communal beings; the contemporary drive towards self-serving individualism and the "extrinsic motivators" of material acquisition fostered by consumerism are in fact inimical to our deeper natures.
    What particularly caught my interest was when Hari spoke about our experience of work being another aspect of this sense of disconnect in one's own life: in an American survey, the majority of participants said they didn't like their job or hate their job enough to leave it, but were merely "sleepwalking" their way through the weeks, getting through the days and surviving. This seemed to me to exactly capture how I felt about my career: from starting as an enthusiastic, committed teacher with an interest and enjoyment in interacting with special needs students, which I originally undertook as a way to pay the bills as a struggling young writer/musician as well as what I saw as a selfless corrective to the potential indulgence of a creative lifestyle, the job overtook more and more of my time and energy, elbowing writing to the sidelines until I barely found time to scribble a note or a few lines of poetry in spare moments.
     For years, in retrospect, I was merely sleepwalking through it, even as I somnambulantly progressed to becoming a manager and Head of Department, job-titles very far from my earlier aspirations and self-image. On another level, perhaps this sleepwalking was a refuge from confronting a long-standing lack of faith in myself as a writer; in other words, it was easier to muddle through in something I no longer took much pleasure in, but could do and even succeed at, rather than engage with the much more complex challenge and personal investment of writing books which I could potentially fail at; easier to keep postponing or sabotaging my vocation as a writer than knuckle down to completing the novel I've been tinkering sporadically with for around 15 years.
     Towards the end of last year, feeling myself in the fortunate position of having both a highly supportive partner and a small amount of savings to give me some leeway, I was at last frustrated enough with the budget-driven stringencies of working in FE in the age of austerity and assured enough that I could find a meaningful alternative to make the break with my college-job. I feel like my whole adult life I've blamed extrinsic factors for obstructing my access to the intrinsic compulsion to understand myself and the world through the process of writing and ultimately communicating this writing back to the world. As I say, I'm aware of the risks and challenges involved, but at the moment - the trees are still now, the wood-pigeons have returned to the upper branches, like words alighting into an uncluttered mind - I've never been surer I've made the right decision.

*As I found out from his Leicester Square Podcasts, Richard Herring also moved to Hertfordshire last year although I don't think he's disclosed exactly where

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Poet as TV Sleb

Image result for ovid
Ovid Banished from Rome by JMW Turner
   There's been a welcome spate of poetry programmes on the BBC this autumn, with documentaries on Auden, Charles Causley and the Liverpool poets all grabbing my attention. From the first, amid lovely old footage of interviews with WH, I learnt that one of our most eminent English bards and an Oxford Professor of Poetry was something of a closet druggy, writing for most of his adult life on a morning dose of benzedrine (Kerouac famously typed the scroll of On the Road while speeding on the same upper) which he would counteract in the evening with heavy use of alcohol and barbiturates. No wonder he was so prolific - I wonder also if the manner in which the tremendous linguistic energy and mobility of Auden's early to mid period poetry gave way to the tired, flabby prolixity of the later work speak of a talent which burned itself out in the daily rollercoaster of this chemically-assisted cycle.
    One of the archive clips shows Auden smoking and drawling his way through The Parkinson Show in the 1970s, probably at 7.30 in the evening not sure if he was up or down. It's startling to realise that a poet of Auden's calibre could have attained the celebrity to appear on a prime-time chat-show. What would be a contemporary equivalent? Les Murray on Graham Norton? The poetry world feels in a way more democratised now, we don't elevate mandarin figures so much anymore, and this can only be a good thing. It's actually easier to imagine slightly younger poets like Simon Armitage (who featured as a talking head on a couple of these BBC documentaries) on TV, or equally poet-performers like Kate Tempest.
   I caught another excellent programme on BBC4 the other night, this time about the Roman poet Ovid. The way Michael Wood's historical explanations and excursions to pertinent locations were woven around Ovid's own words, read sonorously by Simon Russell Beale, brought vibrantly to life what could have been a potentially heavyweight subject. Despite his classical stature, Ovid's story seems strangely contemporary in fact: he too acquired a kind of celebrity within Augustan Rome for the erotic sophistication of his early poetry but then fell foul of the Emperor, either for something he wrote or for a personal indiscretion. He was exiled from the republic and spent the rest of his life at Tomis on the Black Sea, at the very edge of the Roman Empire, in what is present-day Romania. 

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Dialogue with Ian Pindar


At risk of sounding ungracious or curmudgeonly, I don't get excited about a lot of contemporary UK poetry. It may sound paradoxical to then go on to state that I feel the general quality and range of British poetry is in many ways stronger than it was 30 years ago, when I first became interested in literature. It seems that most poets of today are open to a far wider diversity of influences and formal approaches than the rather conservative, narrow gamut of styles employed by 70s/80s poets. If you look at the recent output of  Faber and Faber, for example, it sometimes seems as though the avant garde (or a version of the avant garde) has become the mainstream. It may be that many of these contemporaries have honed their skills in Creative Writing courses and workshops; yet for all the skill and sophistication on display, its as though this has been won at the cost of other elements, with too many poems sounding like showy exercises or assignments, well-turned or adroit or clever but often somehow hollow at the core.

   Ian Pindar's Constellations (Carcanet) was a book that stood out for me as distinct from this tendency, full of the ambitiousness, craft and scope of earlier 20th Century Modernists, a genuine poetry of ideas which also manages to be remarkably sensuous, lyrical and often moving. Equally, from reading Ian's blog, I had the sense of a writer I shared a broadly similar outlook and tastes with. Last autumn we began an email correspondence which slowly ("glacially", as Ian says) formed into a dialogue touching on his poetry and its contexts, writers we're both interested in and other relevant concerns. I print it here now with Ian's approval (and editorial contributions).

OD: I have been re-reading Constellations, which was as you know a book I was immediately drawn to when it was published in 2012 and one which I wrote about very enthusiastically on this blog. I have to say the pleasure of reading these poems for me has not diminished on revisiting the volume. They have several qualities which mark them out from pretty much all other contemporary British poetry: firstly, a tone of exuberance and delight, of "luxe, calme et volupte" which can only be called celebratory.

IP: Thanks, Oliver. I think ‘celebratory’ is quite right. While I was working on the book my young son was diagnosed with autism and this had a big impact on me. Rather than wanting to be some kind of poète maudit (as I once did) I now wanted to affirm life and love and all the good things we can find if we look hard enough. Looking back, I see it as the work of somebody who is burning bright before they go out, somebody heading for a fall or driving at great speed into a wall, because soon after Constellations was finished I cracked up a little, as Scott Fitzgerald would say. So that’s me burning brightly before it all turns to ashes. That sounds melodramatic, but on another level it’s exactly what happened.

Another quality which makes Constellations distinctive  is what seems a conscious design to recapture a mode of mellifluous lyric beauty that has all but disappeared from British poetry but which connects with both an earlier poetic lineage in English and with traditions in other languages less hampered by "the gentility principle" than ours.

Well, it wasn’t a conscious decision to go beyond the gentility principle. Nobody has ever accused me of gentility. Maybe it’s a class thing. Although I was at Oxford, my father was a builder. I worked on a roof with him during the Long Vac. So I just don’t fit in anywhere. The Movement never interested me much. Larkin a little. But my first love was T. S. Eliot. In the end I found American poetry more congenial. It woke me up to other possibilities. Not just the founding fathers of modern American poetry, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, but the New American Poetry, the New York School, especially Ashbery, and the Beats and the Black Mountain poets, especially Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.

Constellations is also intriguing in its format as a book-length sequence rather than just a collection of individual poems. Can you say something about the concept behind the book: did you conceive of it, for example, as a single long-form composition (perhaps in the tradition of those American Modernists you just cited, who all wrote extended texts of one kind or another) or as a poem-cycle?

 I was very taken by Robert Duncan’s idea of an endless poem. He rejected the obligation to write tidy lyrics with beginnings, middles and ends. His Structure of Rime and Passages are never-ending poems. Constellations isn’t quite like that, because there is a sort of ambient narrative and the collection ends with the end of everything, eternal night/winter and the heat death of the universe. Where Duncan saw poems as areas, I saw them as constellations, assemblages, word-clusters. There are 88 constellations in modern astronomy, so there are 88 poems in five sections. The first section is a sort of fanfare, introducing the seasons. The second touches upon a seaside love affair. The third is darker and suggests some kind of economic crash and a war. I was suffering personally from the recession and I felt I was writing in the face of these two forces working against me, autism and austerity. A losing battle, of course. The fourth section is broadly philosophical. It ends with a poem about the Plane of Matter, an attempt to explain an idea that came from my reading of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. I dropped out of a PhD on Deleuze many years ago, but he stays with me. The fifth section is about poetry itself. I wanted to argue for a poetry distinct from prose. The last section is a general closing down as winter comes, then night, and all the stars going out, planets becoming uninhabitable and cold. The heat death of the universe. It’s only a hypothesis, of course, but it puts out all the constellations in my book.    

 Fascinating answer - returning to the book with a sense of how the parts form a kind of loose narrative-arc has lent it even greater depth and continuity for me. I also love the idea you took from Duncan about a kind of never-ending poem and I can see how this informs the loose syntax (or parataxis?) of the poems and the way you build up clauses without any need for a linear momentum or 'argument' to the poem, juxtaposing these clauses without verbs or connectives almost more like musical phrases. Were there other poets who particularly influenced the musicality of your style here?

   Wallace Stevens, a poet who continues to infuriate and fascinate me, is the biggest influence here, not so much a source or a model but a mood. I was also very taken by H.D.’s decision to just number the poems in Trilogy, rather than giving them titles. So I suppose in Constellations I was doing everything you’re not supposed to do: no titles and word-clusters rather than conventional lyric poems (although as you say, they are lyrical). Constellations doesn’t really fit in anywhere, but I’ve always liked that Robert Frost thing about being a lone wolf.

   As a young man I loved HD as well - or at least her short Imagist works. I remember trawling through Hermetic Definition, Helen in Egypt and the Trilogy with feigned but actually waning enthusiasm - Eliot hit the mark when he said her work "lacks the element of surprise". The highly-wrought, highly-strung manner which works beautifully in a 6-line lyric fails to hold the interest over a book-length poem all in the same elevated style. However, I can see what Duncan was responding to in her in The HD Book - it is her mythopoeic intensity (delivered in a much less egocentric, masculine, heroic way than, say, The Cantos) that he brought forward.
 If we turn from Constellations to your debut Carcanet volume Emporium, there is a marked difference in both tone and form. The mood is darker, touched with surrealism and with a frequent satirical edge to the poems. The main influence seems to be the Eliot of Poems 1920 and particular the quatrain poems with their almost Augustan sharpness. Can you say something about this dramatic contrast between the two books?

It’s odd because as you say Emporium is darker, but when my life actually became very dark my poetry brightened up, hence Constellations. I can only put it down to having learned humility or something. Humility before life, but also before poetry. The first big poetic influence on me as a teenager was T. S. Eliot. He seemed everything a poet ought to be. Now I don’t read him so often, haven’t read him for a long time. It’s not that I don’t think he’s a great poet, because he undoubtedly is. I think perhaps discovering other American poets broke the spell a little. I can see why William Carlos Williams, for instance, thought that Eliot represented everything one ought to resist. Williams no doubt hated those Frenchified quatrain poems, but I just wanted to try writing one once!

Your first book was a biography of James Joyce. Could you say something about how this project came about and to what extent your interest in Joyce relates to your enthusiasm for Eliot and other Modernist poets? To me, many passages in Ulysses contain the most densely poetic language of the 20th century and have always been an important inspiration for my own writing and I'm wondering whether it's been the same for you.

The Joyce book came about because a friend asked if I’d write a short biography for her new imprint. I chose Joyce because he was always a favourite. I studied Joyce and T S Eliot under Terry Eagleton at Oxford and wrote a little thesis on Finnegans Wake. Anyway, the book is aimed at the ‘general reader’ not academics – and while writing it I kept thinking of that Auden line: ‘A shilling life will give you all the facts.’

I remember most of all the tortuous negotiations with the Joyce Estate over permissions and copyright. My wife was expecting our first baby, so it was a stressful time. I have a file full of correspondence with James Joyce’s grandson, Stephen James Joyce, the executor of the Estate. He was helpful, although we didn’t always see eye to eye. I’m grateful to him for one detail that he told me does not appear in any other Joyce biography: in his final months, while in Zurich, Joyce would walk through the snow with his grandson and every now and then he would stop and produce a little black notebook to record some thought; he would ask Stephen to turn round and he would place the notebook on the boy’s back and write. That notebook has never been found – a great pity as it would have given us some indication of where Joyce was heading after Finnegans Wake. 

One aim of my book was to make Finnegans Wake less intimidating. It has a reputation for being either gibberish or impossibly erudite. I wanted to demystify it and show that it is in fact terrific fun to read. I am satisfied with Joyce. I feel in a funny kind of way that I did right by him. One reviewer said I had made Joyce and his work “funagain” – that’s good enough for me.

I can’t say Joyce has influenced my poetry in any way. I once attempted to write in a kind of Finneganese and it was awful. I think ‘Loon’ in Emporium flirts with being Joycean, although its presiding spirit is Samuel Beckett. I may be wrong, but I thought your poem ‘Local History’ from Human Form had something Joycean about it (‘stomps sockfoot’). 

As for Modernism, it’s interesting how Modernism became almost a dirty word in Britain after the Second World War. In A Sinking Island Hugh Kenner quotes Donald Davie: ‘the silent conspiracy which now unites all the English poets from Robert Graves down to Philip Larkin, and all the critics, editors and publishers too, the conspiracy to pretend that Pound and Eliot never happened.’ Immediately post-war, Pound was out of the picture: a fascist and a traitor (this, I think, helped greatly to discredit Modernism in some minds). T S Eliot survived in British affections – aided by his practical cats – but did he maybe help to bury Modernism when he executed his reactionary turn, abandoning the avant-garde and reinventing himself as ‘an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics’? Then along came Larkin, an insistent enemy of Modernism and of ‘difficult’ poetry generally. He famously attacked Modernism – the 3 P’s: Pound, Parker and Picasso (and he hated Finnegans Wake).

So in post-war Britain we were left with a lyric tradition based on the triad of Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin. Things have changed a lot recently. British poetry is always playing catch-up and only now is it assimilating post-war American poetry, especially the New York School. Everyone sounds like Frank O’Hara.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Well Don't

Charles Simic Sitting Down to Write
   Sitting still for long enough - having both the will and the opportunity to sit still for long enough over a substantial succession of days - is at least half the challenge of writing, as we all know. Twice in the past week, however,  I've come across the idea that sitting is unhealthy, undesirable and pretty much the root of all our ills (rather than, say, Teresa May or Nigel Farage.)
   Firstly, a training about work-place health conducted by the British Heart Foundation suggested that sitting for more than half an hour at a time is not only harmful to our posture, circulation and blood-sugar levels but can even lead to depression and anxiety. The trainer went as far as coming up with the catchy (if fairly nonsensical) soundbite "Sitting is the new smoking!" as we all sat through his hour-long session, hoping that this information would not filter down to our students, for many of whom sitting still for five minutes let alone half an hour would be a fine thing.  
  Secondly, and with rather more thought behind it, I caught a programme on Radio 4 last night while making dinner called Is Work Too Easy? whose thrust was it's less poor diet that has lead to the rise in obesity than our desk-bound, sedentary jobs and inert lifestyles sat binging streamed boxsets and posting selfies of ourselves eating bowls of cereals we can't even be bothered to pour milk onto. One historian posited that its only a comparatively recent phenomenon to presume that sitting comfortably is our default position, as in previous centuries this would have been only the privileged preserve of monarchs on their ermine-lined thrones - serfs like us would have hunkered down on a rough-hewn, knobbly log-bench or failing that a soft warm midden. 
   I feel in several minds about all this.Certainly most of us spend far too long in front of screens either as "labour-saving" work-tools (and anyone who thinks spending half the day keeping up with circumlocutory intranet-threads about issues which could have been resolved in 5 minutes with a phone-call or chat is the best use of one's time quite probably has Asperger's Syndrome) or as a feel-good, fidgety diversion whose content we passively imbibe and internalise as though it were benign when really our browsing-habits and internet-footprints are being spied-upon, dissected and potentially sold on to other vested interests even as we surf. Technology has been increasingly appropriated by consumerism to encourage this unquestioning passivity and feed into an indulgent, indolent recumbency ("Sit back and control your lights/heating/washing-machine from your mobile phone") which is damaging to us on all sorts of levels.
  Anything that wrests us away from our devices for a time, that reconnects us to the sensory world around us and reminds us to be more active can only be positive - the benefits of walking even for a short distance each day have been proven to impact on both our physical and mental well-being (as long, that is, as we can keep our smartphones firmly lodged in our pockets). Equally, for many writers walking can be as integral a part of the compositional process as the sitting-down part: I have often warmed to the idea (I think it was Seferis's) that poems are out there waiting in certain locations, you have only to keep your eyes and ears open to find them.
   But the Yeats line "All things can tempt me from this craft of verse" seems to have become the story of my life and it feels now as though I need to engage in more of that "sedentary toil" which WB elsewhere recommends. Anyway, it seems limiting to characterise all sitting as unhealthy or lazy: a different, more creative perspective might be given if we think of meditation-practice eg. Zen Buddhist zazen ("the aim of zazen is just sitting, that is, suspending all judgmental thinking and letting words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them.") You could say this is the opposite of writing-practice, where the poet is getting deeply involved in passing words, ideas, images and thoughts, but the suspension of judgmental thinking (at least in the early stages of composition) and the focus on sitting still in a mindful way is perhaps broadly the same. 

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Levertov On Organic Form


For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and reveal...A partial definition, then, of organic poetry might be that it is a method of apperception, i.e., of recognizing what we per­ceive, and is based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories. Such po­etry is exploratory...The condition of being a poet is that periodically such a cross section, or constellation, of experiences (in which one or another element may predominate) demands, or wakes in him this demand: the poem. The beginning of the fulfillment of this demand is to contemplate, to meditate; words which connote a state in which the heat of feeling warms the intellect. To contemplate comes from “templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur.” It means, not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is “to keep the mind in a state of contemplation”; its synonym is “to muse,” and to muse comes from a word mean­ing “to stand with open mouth”—not so comical if we think of “inspiration”—to breathe in.
    So—as the poet stands open-mouthed in the temple of life, contemplating his experience, there come to him the first words of the poem: the words which are to be his way in to the poem, if there is to be a poem.
                                                   (from 'Some Notes On Organic Form' 1965)

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Permutations Of A View


Whether the lake is shaped more like an egg-timer

or a barometer is difficult, from this angle, to say.

The park is sedated with revolving sprinklers.

The water, green as thrift-shop chrysoprase,

has made an Ozalid of the trees and sky,

a mackled draft. You doze, no longer able to see

the playground for the infringement of leaves.

Our zen transient the heron, neck like a question-mark,

is stationary as a decoy, a sculpture depicting Appetite

Deferred. The people drift here and congregate,

milling as though a spectacle were imminent.

That being there in sunlight was the communion

they hoped for they walk home, beneath a sky

of tattered chiffon, benignly unaware.


Whether the lake moves more like a harbour

or an estuary is open, on this occasion, to doubt.

The park is a centrifuge of brusque if-onlys.

The water, choppy as a just-stirred bromide,

has made a counterclaim against the trees and sky,

a foolscap screed. You peer, angling to see

the willow-leaves twirl sidelong like helixes.

Our two-tone resident the magpie, wings like jagged oars,

is banking where the gale projects her, sheering

with the on-go. The people trudge here in ones and twos,

clasping their hats and hoods against aviation.

That struggling through this imbroglio of gusts

could be a trial-run for entropy they trudge home,

beneath a leaf-hectic sky, ultimately unconcerned.


Whether the lake looks more like a pewter tray

or skating-rink is a question, in this light, of perspective.

The park is preserved in ice until a later date.

The water, transposed to a sheen of opacity,

has made a tabula rasa excluding trees and sky,

an Etch-a-Sketch deletion. You flinch, preferring to see

the want of leaves from the warmth of your room.

Our late itinerants the gulls, whiter than the gelid grass,

are standing where a day ago they sailed, ‘not

helplessly strange to the new conditions’.

The people stay home, whelmed in their bundled systems.

That traipsing out through this static duress

could enact a mind’s decluttering they stare out,

across the monitor of sky, morosely unconvinced.


Whether the lake sounds more like tokai being poured

or a distant gamelan is a stretch, at this juncture, to decide.

The park is fleshing out with a new-found colour-scheme.

The water, lucid as a hydrotherapy pool,

has made an aquarelle of the trees and sky,

a synecdoche of our desires. You rally, eager to see

the latest developments in the field of leaves.

Our clockwork stay-at-home the coot, sleek in bombazine,

is conducting her chicks across in bobbing convoy.

The people come to wander here, lovers

and circles of friends, pausing on benches to read

or graze on fruit. That all Time is not contained

in this moment they trail home, beneath a sky

of muzzy turpentine, palpably undeterred.               

                                                                      (first published in Poetry London)

Monday, 10 April 2017

Heap of Broken Images

The triggering of Article 50 last week was widely spoken of as an "historical event", an example of that common doxological trope that positions national events involving soi-disant important dignitaries as "history in the making" and the events and actions of ordinary people as mere un-newsworthy flux ( I'm reminded of the line from In the Cave of Suicession: "It was not a day that changed his life but it was a day in the change of his life".)
    One of the least egalitarian men in Britain, Jacob Rees-Mogg, compounded this fallacy by working himself into such a lather on March 29th that he actually believed that comparing Teresa May to Elizabeth 1 ("a modern-day Gloriana") represented a meaningful analogy and invoking Sir Francis Drake (and by metonymic extension the Spanish Armada, in the same week that other Tories had waxed gung-ho about fighting to keep Gibraltar from post-Brexit Spanish control) was something other than public school-boy wooden-sabre-rattling of a particularly embarrassing kind.
   Although at the current rate of ill-planning, lack of foresight and high-handed ineptitude in diplomacy (as though when against all logic you choose to divorce someone you get to dictate all the terms and settlements) Brexit may never actually come to pass, March 29th will be come to be remembered as momentous for all the wrong reasons. It's the lack of a sense of historical context among Euro-sceptics which is so damning, leaving them blind to the importance of us remaining part of that European (and world) culture whose influence has given us almost all that is valuable and enduring in what passes for own cultural heritage. The essence of our traditions - the legacy not only of being a small, mercantile island but also of being the most voracious colonial expansionists of all time - is that they are largely an engrained palimpsest of other borrowings and plunderings, rather like Barthes' image of the text as textile, inwoven from other intertexts. What would we have left - in literature, art, music, cuisine - if we were really to remove all the elements we haven't over many centuries imitated, absorbed or pillaged from other cultures? Surely it would amount to very little: the World According to Jeremy Clarkson, the Wurzels' Greatest Hits and the fry-up breakfast, perhaps?
    And yet it's one of the abiding strategies of not just the political Right but of liberal humanism in the arts to promote a vision of British history and tradition that manages to subsume influences from extraneous sources as though they were both nationalised and naturalised. In his fascinating study The Origins of Modernism (1994), Stan Smith explores how Eliot, Pound and Yeats all participated in this rhetorical process within their poetry, often at odds with the iconoclastic vigour of their engagements with language and form.
   Especially relevant here is Smith's identification of what Eliot saw as the crisis overtaking Europe after the First World War as seminal to the thematic currents of The Waste Land, showing how even at this early stage Eliot's ideological stance was rear-guard and xenophobe:
   "What The Waste Land laments is the loss of that cultural-political homogeneity which Eliot was to advocate in his lectures at the University of Virginia in 1933, , published as After Strange Gods. Eliot's desiderata here consciously spell out the implications of 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' and they identify precisely what is absent from the modern waste land: 'at least some recollection of a "tradition" such as the influx of foreign populations has almost effaced'; 'the re-establishment of a native culture only possible for a people less industrialised and less invaded by foreign races'.
   Like Eliot's notional period prior to "dissociation of sensibility", was there ever really a time of "cultural-political homogeneity" to harp back to, any more than the immigration-free, closed-bordered Albion many Brexiteers deludedly pine for? In its stark, anxious vision of the fracturing of European culture and history, fragments of which the macaronic text "shores up against its ruin" - another palimpsest of borrowings -, perhaps The Waste Land will ironically come to seem one of the prescient poems of our times:
  "The poem speaks not of reconstruction and restoration but of disintegration and decay, emerging from that moment in which time and space, history and geography, were rewritten and redrawn at Versailles, and post-war frontiers fabricated new and factitious 'organic wholes' and instant national traditions out of Europe's heap of broken images".