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".


Sunday, 19 March 2017

Morte de Blogger

 Inching my way back in after a four month hiatus (partner had a baby girl just before Xmas/bought a house and moved out of London/my old Vaio all but unusable due to the malware bundled onto my hard-drive the last time I tried to download an album that wasn't condoned by iTunes), I've had several moments of doubt as to the virtues of recommencing and in turn have fallen to wondering if blogging (poetry or literary blogging, I mean) is still the vital force it was five or six years ago when I embarked on Ictus and so many poets seemed to be adopting this medium and sending out regular posts with the alacrity of a William Caxton discovering print (and imagine how easy you have it with your MacBook Air compared to a hand-operated wooden printing-press). Looking down my Blog Roll, I see that the number of poetry blogs whose last post was over a year ago has risen to half a dozen or so, which is dismaying - and I already did a spring-clean of defunct blogs from this list only last year. (Gists and Piths, after a lengthy furlough, just escaped this by thankfully returning to the ranks last spring).
    For my part, last year was a lean one for Ictus as I only completed 11 posts, part of a pattern of decline since 2011 when I wrote what seems now the extraordinary number of 59 ,albeit glancing back I see that many of those were brief squibs or YouTube videos rather than considered pieces. I've certainly had less time to devote to writing in general the last few years and I suppose when I've had opportunities to write I've prioritised poems and other "proper" forms over what I see as the very much secondary, incidental jottings that comprise this blog. Secondary - but with the genuine value of keeping my hand in and allowing me to write in different, perhaps less convoluted or crafted formats and registers than other compositions allow, a narrow but refreshing tributary of the ongoing writerly process which I try to hold onto as of almost equal significance to the products that sometimes emerge from it.
   What are the reasons for poets turning away from blogging? The rise of Twitter has something to do with it, I'm sure, being both a more immediate and less time-consuming platform with more assured returns in terms of often instantaneous responses from your followers, far more effective than blogging if you want to draw notice to a reading, review or new publication or even to alert fellow-poets to a particular issue or news-story. I'm not a great fan, as it all too easily leads to the "Just had a bag of cheese and onion McCoys " attention-seeking tittle-tattle of Facebook, but I can see it has its uses, which strike me as distinct from the virtues and purposes of blogging.
    Which are? The possibility of a more expansive engagement with the contexts and processes of our writing; the beginnings of some kind of critical practice about contemporary poetry, sorely lacking outside a handful of specialist journals. Not that most blog-posts (and certainly not mine) often attain the status of serious criticism but just that they are able to contribute to a meaningful cultural debate about poetry and poetics, that the medium is used as something more valuable and enduringly readable than mere self-advertisement or diaristic anecdotage. It may be that some of the bloggers who had these kinds of aims when they begun have found other forms of internet platform better suited to their needs, which is the reason they've now moved on. In fact, who knows but that the demise of widespread blogging might have a positive aspect, if it means that the more resonant kind of poetry-blog (like Gists and Piths and the posts of Michael Peverett and Robert Shepperd) will gradually gain wider readerships and continue to develop and thrive?