All entries for February 2007
February 19, 2007
Rarely did poets visit Blackpool when I grew up there and, if they chanced to, they did not give readings, for if poetry is the opposite of money, Blackpool was the opposite of poetry venue. So when Alan Brownjohn showed up to read at the Central Library in the early 1980s we all gawped as if he’d escaped from the zoo or stepped from one the glowing star-ships that adorned The Illuminations. It was like the scene in his poem ‘We are going to see the rabbit…’:
The only rabbit,
The only rabbit in England
Sitting behind a barbed-wire fence
Under the floodlights, neon lights…
On the only patch of grass
Or so it seemed to us in the poet-free zone called Blackpool where the coin arcade was our teenage culture choice. I admit we were not at his reading ‘in thousands’ but we hoped for illumination and Brownjohn lent it and left something behind in several of us (for there were a few of us starting out as young writers). What he lent us was the idea that there were patches of grass in our culture, places and stays where poetry could exist, despite the neon-lit social pressure to chase cash and cut a living. I gave up my part-time job as a bingo-caller, and started writing instead.
The poets who influence us are like heroic teachers. Their influence takes the form of a series of one-sided marriages, but one where the new writer keeps the house as it were. I learnt that imitating a poet with a denser or highly distinct voice (say Hughes, Plath, Dylan Thomas) closes down your own possibilities if you do not possess the articulate cunning to escape their stylistic force-field. There’s nothing wrong in sounding roughly the same as the poets you admire (your critics will smile at the head-start this gives them), but imitation can be nine tenths limitation.
However, Brownjohn’s visit seeded an idea that if you are starting out (as many readers of poetry and poetry magazines are), it seems a good idea to sample styles of writing that are plain, clear, or which simply do not possess linguistically nervous tics. Alan Brownjohn’s Collected Poems, beautifully produced by Enitharmon, is worth your time for many reasons; not least what it can teach us. Its clear, precise suite of styles, especially across the length of the sequences; his fascinating use of fiction in poems; and what Sean O’Brien calls his ‘mesmeric, meditative pace, and a consistently dramatic mode, surely related to the strategies of the classroom’ (Brownjohn was a teacher) create open spaces for readerly and writerly engagement.
Like O’Brien (who I suspect is influenced by him) Brownjohn is a careful and secular moralist in his verse; and like O’Brien, his stanzas never become little nanny-states with palpable designs on the reader (although that risk is always there in both poets). The care is in the observed detail, which is often minute in its attention. We squirm with the bandmaster among the officers, our ‘eyes always going to the face speaking next’ in the much-anthologised “Class Incident from Graves”, while,
The band put away their instruments out at the back, having
Drunk their beers, standing.
How much observed and obsessive social tension is there in that single word standing. You could build a revolution on it, but we don’t do those in Britain.
To return to Blackpool and the fact that for those of us brought up in such a town and at such a time, business was a kind of necessary art form (as the poet Richard Hugo once said of his own experience in post-war America). Alan Brownjohn is merciless about such matters, and the fierce natural selection of the processes of money-making. His poem against business mentality is tenderly titled ‘Bastard’, and should be compulsory reading for all of us who imagine we are not. For Brownjohn, ‘The Bastard is full of fear and fantasy, / And the fantasy that made is world for him / Becomes a fantastic fear of losing it…’. But our smiling friend does lose it, in both senses, and loses his world in a speech against the shareholders:
‘I’ve sussed it out – you’re just a lot of bastards,
A lot of dirty, crooked, scheming bastards!’
When the door slams hard behind him, they look at each other
And shake their heads with humane and pitying smiles.
‘Poor bastard’, one compassionately murmurs.
Humane and pitying smiles. A fantastic fear of losing it. How devastatingly accurate in all its plain, clear, open language. Alan Brownjohn is far fiercer than his care and attention make him out to be, and a wonderful poet whose lifetime attention to verse is celebrated by this very solid Collected. In some ways though, what a pity he was never part of a real government as well as a government of the tongue (he was once a labour councillor and a parliamentary candidate). What would the acknowledged legislations of such a poet look like?
Acknowledgements to “Poetry Review”.
‘The reason is a part of nature and is controlled by it’, as we are part of nature, and our work governed by it, and its weathers. These mixed-weather dry-run-days for spring are a fitting time for some median-like activity, editing for example, or writing up a thesis. It is a time for ushering projects through final stages in order to save the summer for more thoroughgoing work, or the beach. I complete the editing of the late Geoffrey Holloway’s “Collected Poems” this month with the final act of writing its introduction.
Holloway is a very interesting poet about whom very little has been published, and whose works have largely fallen out of print. He was a powerful writer, and a striking phrase-maker and metaphorist. He also wrote wonderful vivid poems about his experiences in the Second World War – he was a member of the parachute medical corps. His work in this vein is unheroically factual. I think he and Keith Douglas would not have got on. Following the death of his first wife from cancer, Geoffrey Holloway married the poet Patricia Pogson (see this rather lovely photo).
Holloway began publishing quite ‘late’ – as say those who overvalue the clichés that side against age – but he always published to excellent effect. “Youth-envy versus poetry” is a problem that the examples of writers like Holloway, Robert Frost and Pauline Stainer defy. Too many new writers are transfixed by the matter of age versus achievement in literature, even to the point where it freezes their progress because they feel they have fallen behind their peers, or writers whom they revere. Publishers exploit youth as a selling point, but this has little connection with quality or achievement. This disabling condition arises partly from a cliché of feeling that writing is a young person’s game and the brilliant among us perish early.
It also arises partly from competitiveness. Sometimes, creative writing students study the birth-date of their favourite authors, calculate their age at first publication, and then vie to match them. This is destructive, not least because you open yet another route to failure, and one that has nothing to do with finding your natural rhythms for writing. Naturally, you should tap your creative energy as early as you can, but this might be during your forties or fifties. It is never too late to begin writing seriously, and there is no virtue in being published young, or before you or, more importantly your work, are ready.
As it is, some writers like Holloway grow freer as they get older. No pagefright for them; no time for it. Edward Said believes the “late style” of creative artists ‘is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality’ (2006: 9). Writing of the final poems of Cavafy, Said commends ‘the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile’ (148). Mellowing—even literary mellowing—is thought of by some as virtuous, as is the damnation of “geniality”. Both are manipulative legislations foisted by new writers on their elders to seize the game off them. For some writers in fact, the incubation and gestation times for writing speed up with age, several books running through the cognitive assembly lines simultaneously. The apprenticeship is long over, yet they write with the ease of beginners. As Beckett wrote, ‘Death has not required us to keep a day free’. Like form, awareness of mortality is no prison to creation. You write against it: its restriction.
I wrote the following piece about Pauline Stainer’s selected poems “The Lady and the Hare” (acknowledgments again to “The Guardian”). It unpicks a lot of poetry-issues that I am thinking about in relation to Holloway just now.
Like Robert Frost before her Pauline Stainer published her first collection, as some critics are fixated in describing it, ‘late’, but by which they mean the poet’s forties. A recent blurb touted a male writer of forty-five as ‘one of our best younger poets’. There is a reversible rule at work – if the art doesn’t stand up displace blame by youth, or ostensible youth. In Stainer’s case, as with Frost, the waiting and hard work clearly delivered a deal more grit to the pearl. Her first volume “The Honeycomb” remains a precise and numinous work, distinctive not only for the range of subject and clarity of language but also by its accidental and interesting timing. Her critical reception occurred during one of the new poetry’s year of frenzy, 1989, which saw the release of a whole schoolyard of some our more interesting young poets (now ‘our best younger poets’). A deal of fun was had by a few; the hangover lasted a generation.
Here’s a curative from Wallace Stevens, one of Stainer’s talismanic influences, ‘The reason is a part of nature and is controlled by it’. Pauline Stainer’s poetry was distinctive among the new generation of poets for several strong reasons, not least the powers of her reason, the natural balance and maturity of her intelligence, and the fact that her poems were written in a way that most of the then current poetry wasn’t: her poetics was difficult, strange and challenging. The poems flouted Larkin by dipping voluptuously into the European myth kitty. They harried the new formalists by sticking with a sharpened free verse. They challenged the empiricists with a declaration ‘Intuition is the blade / of a swept vision; / in the overnight snow / the samurai / rinse their swords.’
In addition, her diction was violently eloquent, as violent and as earthed as the Ted Hughes of “The Hawk in the Rain”, “Lupercal” and “Wodwo”, but it was also almost polar in its clearness, and her language was plainly, thank goodness, not streetwise. She was also among the first poets of her time to engage with science with an alertness and open-mindedness that many of us in the scientific community respected. I was a scientist in the late ‘eighties, and it was joy to find a poet for whom science was more than something to be narrowly raided for a misunderstood term or mangled paradigm – to read somebody who recognised that perceptual precision and intelligent enquiry can live alongside passion, compassion and fascination with language.
But Stainer did something rarer, generous even: her work taught: it illuminated the questions of why poetry is such a possible vehicle for the perception that the world contains a commonality of senses, but equally how our perceptual worlds are shaded differently and so shade the world differently. ‘Good writers write; failed writers teach’ is one of those ego-supporting statements that ignore Milton’s homemade classroom (with enlightened syllabus and afternoon walks) or Ted Hughes helping set up the Arvon Foundation. What really fine writers like Pauline Stainer do is both write and educate, and they do so first and foremost within their poems. Her poetry teaches by example – Stainer’s polyvalent curriculum embraces ancient history, mythology, metaphysics, the visual arts and music, geography, natural philosophy and physics. Gustav Mahler desired that the symphony should contain the world. Stainer makes the same demand for poetry, then goes further in imaging the alternative, complementary worlds of past and future.
You could argue that this is the hope of any art form on a good day, especially if the artist is alert when the good day presents itself. But there is nothing more complicated than perception. Stainer’s material is language interacting with the imaginative truth of myth, and with the various degrees of significance and possibility offered by science. She sites her poetry smack on the veering demarcation between metaphysics and science: falsifiability. These aspects and doubts ramify through her subsequent collections “Sighting the Slave Ship” (1992) and “The Ice-Pilot Speaks” (1994) in which she questions of a Leonardo print ‘Is it the physiology / of the smile, / printed on silk / so thin / the image can be seen / from both sides // or the sleight / of quantum movement, / the verve / of her barely being there, / the fate of all those lost / probabilities // when given half a chance / she would swallow / the pearl of the moon?’
Stainer’s purpose has been rightly described as demonstrating that ancient worlds are of a piece: that old rituals still obtain, that old beliefs still govern instinct. This could sound a somewhat solemn enterprise but, like Charles Tomlinson or the late poet-scientist Miroslav Holub, her purpose is enlivened by the notion of serious play. By all means her work – like David Jones, Jorie Graham or Geoffrey Hill – can be thought to be difficult but it is not inaccessible and, like all these poets, one of the reasons is the sheer jouissance and bloody-minded verve of the artistic execution. Serious ends very often require playful processes and means: games with language can produce magical syntheses, plays, scientific breakthroughs, novels, equations and poetry. Stainer once declared, ‘I see how rapaciously eclectic some of [my poems] are. They could well jettison the academic. Notes, quotes, even questions throw up their own dry-ice. Maybe the probing intelligence should wear its seriousness with spring heels…’
In the 1996 collection “The Wound-dresser’s Dream” (the wound-dresser is John Keats in 1819 considering signing on as a ship’s surgeon) and “Parable Island” (1999) the sprung heeled Stainer is ever more playful in subject: Coleridge goes scuba-diving, and to Malta, Herman Melville jumps ship while, on the island of Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson dreams of his father and grandfather inspecting famous lighthouses in Orkney, weighing ‘the examined life, / the necessary exile, / against the way light behaves / between islands.’ And islands loom more like solid characters in these new and selected poems. Stainer was for a time her own Prospero, living on the Orkney island of Rousay. The resulting work is fairly sea-sprayed with the imagery of the shoreline, raised beach and anchorage. Not so much her parable island where ‘you could slip a blade / between the sea and the sky’, but an entirely physical and desired landfall for the sea-swallows that follow ‘the midnight sun / from pole to pole / as if absolving the dark’ and which ‘were there / before anything was, / unsung and beyond metaphor…’
“The Lady and the Hare” confirms Pauline Stainer as one of our best, certainly one of our wisest, poets. From island to mainland to continent, her poetic worlds have evolved larger and complex forms. They have begun colliding and producing Venn Diagrams of poems like the new sequence ‘A Litany of High Waters’ in which literal history and mythical story are fused together with that colder eyed, far North, and pearl-hard way of saying: ‘Everywhere, the colour of exile – / silica, sulphur // arctic foxes in their mottled summer blue, / ashes white unto harvest. // In the unspeakable interior / the rivers drop like axes. // Our old frostbite re-opened / through the white nights … Only then, did the falcons / fall out of the middle air’.
February 06, 2007
An act of criticism is, at best, also an act of creativity: they are hemispheres of the same world. Historically, in the West at least, criticism and creative writing are two phases of the same activity, and criticism illuminates most sharply when practical experience of writing is at the bottom of it.
The best criticism creates new open spaces for creativity. Criticism, like creative writing, is another open space for engaging an audience, and engaging with the world. Leading critics and interpreters of literature have themselves had substantial experience of imaginative writing at the deepest level.
Many of our best writers have also been among the more insightful critics, among others: Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, S.T. Coleridge, Percy Shelley, John Keats (from his letters), Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Randall Jarrell, Virginia Woolf, William Empson, Saul Bellow, V.S. Pritchett, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Thom Gunn, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Chinua Achebe, John Ashbery, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Les Murray, Margaret Atwood and Paul Muldoon. Harold Bloom cedes that, ‘criticism…is either part of literature or nothing at all…’; but take heed of John Gardner, ‘Nothing is harder on the true writer’s sense of security than an age of bad criticism, and in one way or another, sad to say, almost every age qualifies’.
However, in the same way that translation theory has little effect on the practice of translation, so literary theory generally has a negligible impact on the way creative writers go about their business. It has to be said that some writers find it creatively disabling to read literary criticism; they find it stalls them in the act of making, or it alters their expectations of literature in ways which are simply false or destructive. Many writers simply write for themselves, and reading about writing can undo a writer’s useful selfishness to an extent. The poet Elizabeth Bishop warned a would-be writer, ‘you…are reading too much about poetry and not enough poetry. […] I always ask my writing classes NOT to read criticism’.
As I see it, the world of the poet-critic is vexatious and interesting, and these vexations and interests not only inform Tim Kendall’s work, but how we might read his poetry. I acknowledge “The Guardian” Review where this essay first appeared; and the OuLiPo, for the manner in which it was written – the “game” of the piece was to mention as many contemporary poetry collections as possible, but make them seem an inevitable part of the prose. A prize will not be awarded for whoever spots them all – a scaffold can help create a structure, but it can also hang.
The Long Game
There is a passage in Frederick C. Crews’s send-up of EngLit studies The Pooh Perplex in which “Simon Lacerous” (a parodic F.R. Leavis) claims that, ‘The trouble with Winnie-the-Pooh is that it constitutes a vast betrayal of Life’. As Lacerous’s fictional biography states, ‘He and his wife, Trixie, were the guiding spirits behind the now defunct but extremely influential quarterly, Thumbscrew’.
There were some of us who thought that the work and manoeuvres of certain poets and anthology-editors of recent years constituted a fairly vast betrayal of poetry. Not many people did anything about it except Tim Kendall. With his friends, the critics John Redmond and Ian Sansom, he took Lacerous’s title for the gift it was and set up the real thing: Thumbscrew.
With Kendall as editor, the magazine waged an intelligent, thumb-biting war against faked-up poetic reputation. It championed unsung poetic heroes such as Dorothy Nimmo and Michael Foley alongside some of the best international poets. Thumbscrew was funny but it was never silly. An editorial or review felt like clear cold water in a rare time of rain.
But the magazine went further. It exposed some fairly shocking cartels in the poetry world, and took a strong, positive stance on work produced by small presses. It was a bad day for the unsung dynasty when the magazine wound up after a decade, but Kendall had done the job. With hindsight, Thumbscrew gave poetry criticism back a purposeful semblance of integrity, humour and bravura, and in its turn influenced a number of new journals including Areté and Metre.
Ten years of setting standards, of unscrewing the powerful from their self-claimed thrones, could leave you vulnerable to a revengeful critical counterblast. Tim Kendall had been re-establishing some first principles for poetry. Strange Land is his first collection. Could he do what he expects the others to? The answer is an enormous yes, and this is partly because he’s learned from the errors of others, and has evidently decided to play a long and cleverer game – waiting and whittling at his work until it could stand up for itself.
First collections can, after all, be a weird species: sometimes premature in their birth, sometimes immature in their craft, and unoriginal in their ideas, themes and structure. A first ‘slim volume’ can be ‘slim’ for the wrong reasons. However, if you can afford to wait – or better still dare to wait – you can, like Kendall, sift a book from a far larger body of work. Your reader will trust you more for your patience. For this very reason, his Strange Land reads more like a Selected Poems:
This is the time being, this is my life:
a nothing moment as a child in bed
while shadows crept up walls like shadows do
and I thought I will remember this,
this nothing, every night the same
but not tonight, tonight’s distinct
and stored to recollect remembering.
I sing the time being, I sing
the getting there, not knowing where to get
and whether I should not not care
as rumours of progress dwindle to farce.
I sing the happy malcontent, whispering
to the slipstream goodbye, goodbye,
and loving it all, for the time being at last.
from ‘The Time Being’
Kendall wrote a prize-winning and delightfully readable study of Paul Muldoon’s poetry. Muldoon is one of the finest and most polyvalent poets writing, but I’d argue that his influence, particularly the richness of his diction, can be garlic-pungent in the voice of a younger author – in a way that Ted Hughes’ or T.S. Eliot’s used to be. Kendall chews the parsley of the late great Augustans to escape it. Indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of Kendall’s work is that he resists explicit influence and cuts his own clear ground in prose poems like ‘Tomatoes’ and ‘Divorce’:
He intends to write of his parents’ divorce.
He remembers the view to the sea, and the rock vanishing at high tide. He is four years old. He owns a container of coins with pictures of ships, Spanish galleons. He strokes them and afterwards his hands smell of rust. Coins cold on his tongue. He feels the feel of swallowing one, the feel all the way down.
Yet Kendall also experiments within reinvented traditional modes: his bristling metrical parodies and fables, and the marvellous cento ‘Hwœt’ which presents a playful history of the poetic line from Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’ to Heaney’s ‘Exposure’.
In the long poem ‘Ship of Fools’ dedicated ‘to my fellow poets’, Thumbscrew view becomes verse, attacking, yet affectionate in its attentiveness to the vanity of human wishes:
Of how our nation lost its appetite
for music, learning, culture, I must write
condemning all the loutish bourgeoisie
who drowned our flower of poets in the sea
and, showing no remorse, claimed boys and girls
slept safer now that certain eyes were pearls.
He writes of a time, more recent than you’d guess, when poetic reputation grew so skewed by market visibility, a poet might make it almost by image alone, by twofold possession of a fine voice and a face fighting for the camera. As Kendall has it: ‘It was a carnival, with party-hats / masks, music, fancy dress, clowns, acrobats, / and smiles on every face’. As the bad ship Poetry cruised (mostly up and down the Thames) some good poets found themselves in charge, and some had themselves smuggled aboard by those at the wheel. Mediocre – but eye-catching – writers found themselves also sharing their cabins. Tim Kendall scuttles them; and the whole boat too:
Imagine, if you can, how it must be
to live among such intellects at sea
without the limits of a normal mind.
Knowledge was our drug; later, we’d unwind
by dashing off short lyrics with a drink
of something spirited to help us think.
One small clique, homesick, managed to devise
a clever scheme where each received a prize
by taking it in turns to win and judge.
It seemed a bit cold-hearted to begrudge
their innocent pursuits, but soon there came
a group of hecklers who denounced the game
as tacky, crooked, shameful and inbred
and pointed out they should have played instead.
The rest of us had serious concerns:
should poems sit around like well-wrought urns
or socially engage, redress, offend?
For hours we’d argue, then, exhausted, end
with bons mots which united everyone:
however weighty, POEMS MUST BE FUN!!!
Rather like his magazine, Tim Kendall’s excellent first collection is sprightly, challenging and surprising. Most markedly Strange Land is beautifully diverse in its address; and rooted in its variousness around a powerful title-sequence which exemplifies Geoffey Hill’s testament of poetry as a sad and angry consolation:
Exspectans exspectavi – though Christ
seems in no great hurry to return.
I am vouchsafed one instant
(of God, or something very like)
a lifting sky and all too late
I understand a contour,
an after-image on the eye,
like the exquisite sense of loss
at homecoming, that familiar
difference, homeless at home
where I wait and continue to wait,
and yet since when, nothing,
nothing but silence, infinite
and subtle in its shades.
February 05, 2007
Biographical Note: Paul Muldoon was born in 1951 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and educated in Armagh and at the Queen’s University of Belfast. From 1973 to 1986 he worked in Belfast as a radio and television producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Since 1987 he has lived in the United States, where he is now Howard G.B. Clark ‘21 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University and Chair of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. Between 1999 and 2004 he was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. Paul Muldoon’s main collections of poetry are New Weather (1973), Mules (1977), Why Brownlee Left (1980), Quoof (1983), Meeting The British (1987), Madoc: A Mystery (1990), The Annals of Chile (1994), Hay (1998), Poems 1968-1998 (2001), Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), and Horse Latitudes (2006). A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Paul Muldoon has won the 1994 T.S. Eliot Prize, a 1996 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, the1997 Irish Times Poetry Prize, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the 2003 International Griffin Prize, the 2004 American Ireland Fund Literary Award, and the 2004 Shakespeare Prize.
The Tribe of Paul
Scientists Manqé and Ecologists Maudits and find vectors and vibrations arcing between the world of poetry and the world of ethnology, of animal behaviour. Successful poetry creatures find themselves shadowed, followed — for the fold of their protective size and motion, for their endeavour, their repertoire of ability, and their unfolding of new territory; territory which is often abandoned as the beast budges on and develops. For The Muldoon is always moving on. ‘The hedgehog gives nothing / Away, keeping itself to itself’.
Another Muldoon quote, from an interview: ‘the writer is to be an outsider, to belong to no groups, no tribes, no clubs … to be a free agent, within the state of oneself or roaming through the different states of oneself’. No tribes or clubs, yet through different states, where that successful poetry-beast pushes and pries so the ministering and mimicking hopers go, copying or just coping.
So: many younger poets follow the practice and ranging of Muldoon closely, pillaging plenty in his wake: from his voiceprint; from his polyphonic plays on rhyme; from his controlled experiments with form, especially the sonnet, the sequence, the repetitive call and answer stanza; from his alertness to the timbre, polyvalency and history of single words, or larger, gleamier or gloamier elements of language; and from his rifling, resetting and reclaiming of mythologies. This is a big territory; the ‘salt-lick of the world’ gives up its minerals generously when this creature has been and gone.
But the point is he is gone, waking up follower-poets like worms as he goes. Who are The Muldoon’s commensalists, those poets that feast at the host’s table? Patsiching is one thing, but imitation is powerful and necessary. Read the slim volumes published in the last quarter-century of every British poet you know, and realise how deeply-cathetered, how oxygen-tented, that trickster Muldoon has got into the marrowbone and throats of so many writers. We are probably most of us here in the Tribe of Paul, even though he won’t have us.
Now, he won’t have us, but we will have him. For what’s influence anyway but apprenticeship? New poets are not amateur poets; they are apprentice poets, follower-poets. It’s a kind of literary stalking; it’s when we are unreasonably infatuated with writing and reading poetry as a medium of intense expression. The poet grows beyond one influence only to be captured by another, and weathered into a further knowledge of artistic practice, and even prejudice.
Prejudice, like strong influence is never neutral, and Muldoon’s influence has biases and quirks, especially in poetic effect and affectation. His influence is either a stepping stone or it is a millstone. Which poems teach them best by example? Which poems carry a selfish gene of artistic endeavor, opening the trade forwards to posterity via imitation? First of all which poets taught Muldoon in his apprenticeship?
Asked if he regarded Robert Frost as a model in his work, Muldoon replies: ‘I don’t think there are any models as such. I don’t care very much for the notion of a single canon of a poet’s work to which one must be faithful. Frost is a good man to learn from in that he has no particular nervous tics, no characteristics but the strong, classic, lyric line. But the most important thing for me in Frost was his mischievous, sly, multi-layered quality under the surface. One thing that does come across for me in my own poems is a wryness, a mischievousness in the voice, and I’m never quite sure whether I want to believe that voice, this person who’s presenting a piece of the world to me.’
Benevolent imitative practice is particularly striking in the influence of Muldoon’s 1986 Selected Poems on the work of: Simon Armitage — especially in sleight-of-hand rhyme, and the use of idiom in Zoom!, Book of Matches, Dead Sea Poems, and the compressed micro-narratives on astronomy and ruthlessness in CloudCuckooLand; on Maurice Riordan— in terms of syntax and subject, especially sex and sexual politics in A Word from The Loki and Floods); on Ian Duhig — the subjects chosen, his use of language and his logomania, his plays on mythology, the diction of early poems in The Bradford Count and The Mersey Goldfish); and on Oliver Reynolds — his wryness of diction and polyphonic rhyming in Skevington’s Daughter and The Player Queen’s Wife. The whole way Muldoon uses ‘syntax as attitude’ hypnotises Reynolds to replicate the effect. The poem ‘Auden Hotel’ is a clone of ‘7, Middagh Street’.
We see poets such as: Deryn Rees Jones — her experiments with form, long narrative and the sequence, especially in her recent collection Quiver, more of which soon; and Paul Farley — his fabulist and surreal narratives, the taunting diction, in The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You and The Ice Age; and Don Paterson — pretty well everything. Muldoon’s work, you could argue, permitted Don Paterson to become the poet he is. ‘Write what you don’t know’, argued Muldoon to his creative writing students. Paterson takes him at his word with fine results, and the strongest characteristic gained from Frost through Muldoon, ‘the strong, classic, lyric line … the mischievous, sly, multi-layered quality under the surface’ . What survives in mutation from Muldoon to all of these is an apparent but controlled freedom of movement, of form with language – something Muldoon picked off from Byron, from Frost.
In an interview with Chris Greenhalgh in the Hull-based journal Bete Noire in 1991, shortly after the publication of Zoom!, Armitage acknowledges Muldoon as a model but ‘just as those poets have assimilated and produced. I think that’s the way you develop as a writer. Mature poets steal. Eliot’s right and it’s well said’. What he got from Muldoon wasn’t just the voiceprint for certain poems, but wryness, that uneasy voice of the speaker in poems like ‘In Gooseberry Season’ or the sequence ‘Dead Sea Poems’ where the reader isn’t quite sure whether they want to believe that voice, that person who’s presenting a piece of the world to them. In fact, you’re not even sure if you like it.
What Armitage also gained was the permission to rhyme boldly, and even badly. He goes on to say of this influence, ‘I think half-rhyme is another way of being formal without being punctilious because I’m not trying for some exact, symmetrical sound or trying to refract sounds at a particular angle, I’m just looking for a muffled echo that will hang the piece together either through the anticipation of a sound to come, or the recollection of a sound that’s gone.’ Reading the early published poems of Armitage and Don Paterson alongside Muldoon is informing.
You suddenly start to hear a Robert Service Version of Muldoon ticking in the metre. The laddishness of self-presentation is also striking. Yet Muldoon’s is a persona, but the others are very much Simon and Don truanting in the pool room:
I was fairly and squarely behind the eight
That morning in Foster’s pool-hall
When it came to me out of the blue
In the shape of a sixteen-ounce billiard cue
That lent what he said some little weight.
the opening of Simon Armitage’s ‘Canard’ in Zoom!
We first crossed swords in The Duke of Marlborough
when his cue ball jumped from the threadbare table
and came like a comet through the smog in the tap room
to break the ice in my whisky and water.
The first lines of Don Paterson’s ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’, in Nil:
About to sit down with my half-pint of Guinness
I was magnetized by a remote phosphorescence
and drawn, like a moth, to the darkened back room
where a pool-table hummed to itself in the corner.
With ten minutes to kill and the whole place deserted
I took myself on for the hell of it.
Imitation as sheer emulation pushes a poet to see the original and their own work more clearly, sometimes beating the original at its game, which is its verse strategy. Deryn Rees Jones, the Welsh poet, published a number of excellent collections, but it is with the narrative Quiver that we see her telling entirely new weather (I am indebted to Zoe Brigley’s work on this poet for the next field observation). In one poem we are micrometers away from the Imitations of Robert Lowell or the variations on Antonio Machado in Don Paterson’s The Eyes.
Rees Jones’s poem, ‘Clone’ is a brilliant and playful ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ of Muldoon’s poem ‘As’ from Moy Sand and Gravel. Her epigraph, like any Lowellian imitation, carries that little word ‘after’, as in ‘after P.M.’ Here is the original:
As naught gives way to aught
and ox-hide gives way to chain mail
and byrnie gives way to battle-ax
and Cavalier gives way to Roundhead
and Cromwell Road gives way to the Connaught
and I am Curious (Yellow) gives way to I am Curious (Blue)
and barrelhouse gives way to Frank’n’Stein
and a pint of Shelley plain to a pint of India Pale Ale
I give way to you.
Rees Jones duplicates the verse strategy of ‘As’:
As Mandelstam becomes Mandelson
and concomitant becomes commitment
and the King of Siam becomes Kojak
and the pea-flower becomes the black-bellied honey lover
and the madness of George III becomes Queen Victoria
and identical twins become mother and daughter
and affect becomes effect
and cwifer becomes quiver
so this becomes you.
That is appropriation as imitation, dispossession as one part of the law, but it is mianly an homage from poet to poet. What these examples show is that imitation is always in mutation. It is in mutation both between the generations of poets and their poems as they work within their time and in mutation within the poems as they pass through time and before their readers. The point is I think that Muldoon chose models like Frost who he describes as having no nervous tics, no characteristics but the strong classic line, and he’s able to play variations upon that opened space before moving on. But if you have Muldoon as one of your models, his work can take you a long way with particular effects, but could close you down if you haven’t the articulate energy to move on from him. And, after all, he doesn’t want you.
Imitation can be limitation, imitation that disables invention, that is entirely copying a poet’s voiceprint, an error of the writing process that derives often from the character of the follower-writer, afraid of challenging beyond an existing poet’s linguistic territory, or a simple characteristic unawareness that they have remade a perfectly designed wheel. In a poet such as Matthew Caley, a contemporary of Simon Armitage, sharing in the late eighties the same nexus of small publishers, Smith Doorstop in Huddersfield, Slow Dancer in Nottingham, that unawareness is rife. In a poem such as his long sequence, ‘Orpheus in the Lone Star Diner’:
This “fly on the wall” documentary
finds her in a flea-pit hotel.
The call of nature
was never so elementary.
She’s not well,
and the landlady, an Irish Spinster,
wants her out by Tuesday.
She shares this foot-square
with a duvet and two cockroaches.
This poem heavily traces over Muldoon’s ‘Imramm’, and gambles it rhymes. Even the simulated “Muldoonian” withheld rhyme: approaches/cockroaches crawls on the ear crabwise, rather than springs and surprises. Another disabling example, the copied voiceprint in Alan Jenkins’s In The Hot House. In the syntax of ‘subsiding gently, might he not / be more than pleased with himself?’ and Muldoon’s vision in ‘a single star in the curtainless window, / a star tatooed on her left breast’. There are poems in Greenheart and In the Hot House that are brass rubbings of the poems in Mules and Quoof.
Caley and Jenkins are capable of some wonderful writing, and Jenkins’s poetry in subsequent collections such as Harm, The Drift and A Shorter Life, have danced a long way from his Muldoonian apprenticeship. Now he plays variations on everybody in a kind of forgiveably extended adolescence. The point of any poem is to find out what we mean, and to find out what we mean we must first find out who we are. When poets imitate too cosily, as in these two writers, they risk yielding their identity; their work becomes anti-matter to the matter of the original. The poems don’t even have their own metabolism; they require the oxygen-tent of the original to get by.
Don’t take these miniature case studies at face value. As Muldoon says, ‘we mustn’t take anything at face value, not even the man who is presenting things at face value.’ And goes on to say, ‘For all our simplifications of the world – and a work of art is a simplification in terms of its process of selection, a continual reduction of the variables in what a thing might mean – that process of simplification must not become simplistic’. The variables affecting these poets are various.
Their instances of imitation are a tradition as natural as natural selection, and as ruthless in rendering up what works and what doesn’t. Most of these writers moved beyond, and in that moving have imitated the lead-poet’s behaviour, found their new weather. There are a cloud of contenders to be sealed of the Tribe of Paul.
Except there is no such thing, no gathering. Not a tribe, instead more of a tribute band, with the odd soloist making the running. And so to wind up with a pastiche, or variation, or imitation – after Ben Jonson, ‘An Epistle Answering to One that Asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben’:
‘An Epistle Answering to One that Asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Paul’
As Quoof gives way to Quiver
and ‘Footling’ gives way to ‘Floods’
and ‘Longbones’ gives way to ‘Landing Light’
and ‘Capercaillies’ gives way to CloudCuckoooLand
and ‘The Coney’ gives way to ‘The Lammas Hireling’
and ‘The Waking Father’ gives way to Skevington’s Daughter
and The Annals of Chile gives way to ‘The Alexandrian Library’
I give way to you.
February 04, 2007
Above: The Howgill Fells, home to M.R. Peacocke and her work
The state of independent poetry publishing will be a matter we need to return to again and again. After a debate at Warwick about the crisis endemic to poetry publishing, I described some of the issues – with reference to a particularly fine (but utterly neglected) ‘small press’ poet, Meg Meacocke. I acknowledge “The Guardian” Review where it first appeared.
An end and a beginning
Did anyone notice the recent crisis in poetry publishing? If poetry were a species, it would have entered the red list. There were more writers of the stuff than ever, but few readers. Poets were loss makers, so bigger publishers dropped their poetry lists or shrank them to a trickle of slim, overpriced volumes. Prominent poets, once published by the big houses, were forced to seek out new habitats within the small presses.
This narrowed what those companies could do: it meant scant room for poets considered uncommercial. So those proud starvelings were left, beaks open, in the cold of non-publication. What began to save the situation was the determination of an energised group of specialist editors to keep poetry true to itself, to its best traditions.
They wanted to make the “brand” of poetry healthy, to publish the best and be damned or lauded by posterity. Peterloo Poets was one of a cluster of presses, including Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Arc, that held its nerve within that crisis, and the result is a book as strong as this, MR Peacocke’s third collection.
Peterloo had experience behind it. The company has been championing both the barely visible and the established poet for nearly 30 years. For half that time MR Peacocke has been a gold standard for readers of its list (another of its luminaries is UA Fanthorpe). Peacocke’s Marginal Land (1988) and Selves (1995) were fine collections, distinguished by the fact that nearly all the poems had been worked to such a degree that every piece held up, many poems were memorable, and some were terrifying in their honesty.
This was healthy poetry, not that interested in reception, but necessary because its severe honesty was rather avant-garde in contrast to the post-modern/urban poetry pouring down at that time.
MR Peacocke’s Speaking of the Dead is also entirely convincing, and even more thorough in its determination to be honest. Her work is emblematic of contemporary British poetry and its publishing, not least because the excellence of her work is coupled with a neglect of her reputation outside poetry circles. Peacocke lives on a hill farm among those beautiful but wild fells you will have seen flanking the M6 in Cumbria. She runs the place as a smallholding. As such she has a powerful feel not only for beasts (“an old dog was waving / his shadow tail and barking a raspy / rundown bark”) and natural history (“Worms that lay out in a soft dusk / are block-cold this morning. Frost / has burned them”) but also for the briefness of everything perceived in our lifetimes. Life and time are hard-won glimpses to be valued and held in writing, yet knowing this work will also disappear: “to tread our names in blemished / brilliant drifts; because the time we have / is shrinking away like snow”.
Of course, many writers have been on this terminal moraine before; but I know few contemporary British poets other than Peacocke who can write with such perception of the under-dramatised ordinariness of mortality. Nature kills without value; we choose to impose a sometimes shallow value on that process through our need for sentiment or our needless terror of death. Peacocke, instead, writes with what Osip Mandelstam called the science of saying goodbye>
The moment when you say, Not many more.
Without pain or anger, something gives,
like a wrapping of ancient linen
or leather that is spent; and your eye
can gaze into a lost eye and feel
no rancour, because now it comprehends
how the first subtle binding was made.
Your freed hands stretch, unswaddled limbs,
and you laugh, learning the air and rain.
For a while these dead may search, fumbling
after lost authority. Dismiss them?
They fade of themselves, carrying no weight,
their language of command obsolescent.
Peacocke’s language is shriven, precise and terribly open to the dead, to absence. What alerts the poet, and what fascinates me in her poetry, are those moments of change in which things die into one another without loss of essential energy or force. It’s a question of perception. In “Late Snow” she writes of:
An end. Or a beginning.
Snow had fallen again and covered
the old dredge and blackened mush
with a gleaming pelt; but high up there
in the sycamore top, Thaw
Thaw, the rooks cried,
sentinel by ruined nests.
This is Larkin’s trees crying to “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh” and Shakespeare’s “bare, ruin’d choirs”. It also calls to our need for a concise vocabulary for the merits of being alive. Peacocke shares this precision of language with the late American poet Elizabeth Bishop. Both have a bristly perceptive clarity for minutiae, and for the wry double-take on detail that can be deadly as well as funny. Writing of an unidentified seaside town where you can glimpse Scotland when the cloud lifts>
... someone’s troubled to work
on the notice until it advises
Please d i e carefully …
Two dogs with experienced grey muzzles
are laughing over something …
This is a place for men
and miniature men, for talk
of tides catches records goals. The women
sit. Older sitters have good big teeth …
Meg Peacocke was born in 1930. One imagines she doesn’t do a lot of sitting about on her high-contoured farm. Maybe you have to live long and work as hard to write this well and as clearly. Maybe a smallholding high on the fell is the place to create these self-sufficient, alert combinations of words “that quest, voice, check, run / like hounds hunting alone”. Her control of feeling is superb, and the plain knowledge that lies behind these poems, most of it simply unspoken, is a mark of her respect for the reader. I predict her reputation, like that of Elizabeth Bishop, is likely to increase greatly with time, and I trust that it happens within her lifetime.
It’s discrimination and boldness that allow presses such as Peterloo to hold a poet of Peacocke’s talent to the light. With others, it has broken the snow for new poetry presses that already show immense promise such as Heaventree, Worple and Arrowhead. We should show the same respect to small and specialist publishers as we do to the best regional theatres, galleries or orchestras. They are also proud starvelings; they operate on a fare of energy and belief. Feed them by buying their books, beginning with this one.
February 03, 2007
To open the series – Charles Tomlinson, one of England’s foremost poets who turned eighty last month. The photo was taken at his party. The essay appeared in “The Guardian Review”.
I‘ve heard some poets assert that, in the poetry business as in ‘business business‘, success creates success. Conversely, neglect breeds neglect. But what does that say about us, or our culture, if certain of our neglected poets are highly celebrated elsewhere in the world?
It says that the English audience for poetry is shameless in following the crowd; that we prefer to look inward, and abjure adventure in favour of our stable of home-made traditions, traditions which we then choose to misunderstand and misread anyway (there is much that is unconservative about our lively, internationalist and radical literatures and edgy traditions).
It also says that we fear to learn new ways of seeing and believing in case it exposes our suppositions about the art—or our poems indeed—as ignorant, second-hand or, at worst, third-rate. It alerts us that this is a very primal fear: important but temporary poetic reputations and critical judgements depend on various lies that must not be decoded. Yet who is this English audience for poetry but many of our own poets, tussling over the art form, its prizes and privations, like scorpions brawling in a corpse?
Meanwhile, the art advances elsewhere, and if you are fortunate enough to visit some of these elsewheres—America, Australia, Europe, Japan, Mexico—and meet their major poets and critics you may be knocked for six to learn that for them English poetry is a triangular constellation made up of Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, and Roy Fisher. Even Charles Causley, in the days following his passing, featured on more international radars for reputation than we in The Shire might have predicted.
The stock response to this type of view is often the xenophobic flourish of dismissal: we are wiser and they are not. And, fair enough, it does represent a refracted and exclusive take on British poetry of the past few years, one that doesn‘t take due cognisance of the great formal range and achievement of many new writers. That said, it it is a view, and it is widely held. And, taking again the international response to the death of Charles Causley, let’s ask ourselves, quietly: does it really take the death of one of our major poets to bring their reality and fineness into focus for English readers? Isn’t that something we used to blame on previous generations, damning them for their lack of foresight?
With that in mind, consider Charles Tomlinson.Tomlinson, born in 1927, is very much a unique voice in contemporary English poetry, and has been a satellite of excellence for the past fifty years. He is a satellite because he has chosen to work outside the cliques and so has created his own audience. He chose not to borrow an audience left over from some previous movement, nor has he compromised himself into becoming a poet more easily assimilated by the reader who prefers a poetry that simply corroborates their ostensibly liberal viewpoint.
Instead, the breadth of Tomlinson’s concerns, the passion and compassion of his intelligence, and the experimental power of his craft, mark him as a seriously good world writer, aligned with his friend, the late Octavio Paz. That’s why I feel a strong new volume from Tomlinson should be a cause for celebration. Yet coverage in this country has been somewhat scant, despite the strengths of his new work, not only in Skywriting but also Carcanet‘s other excellent volume The Vineyard Above the Sea (1999).
Thank goodness for us then that Tomlinson is a fighter, an energetic and creative artist and intelligent advocate of the poetry of other writers. His poetry and poetics are highly significant in that they have advanced the art as a way of seeing and voicing the physical world. He has also made a substantial contribution to an international view and practice of poetry, working with writers from many countries on jointly written forms such as the Japanese Renga. He is responsible for bringing to light the powerful work of many authors such as Attilio Bertolluci, Fyodor Tyutchev or César Vallejo; and backing and editing work by writers marginalised from the British mainstream such as the great Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid and the Welsh poet David Jones.
But this is a microscopic sample of Tomlinson’s undertakings. It shows a poet who takes the artist’s civic and cultural responsibilities generously and gladly. Maybe we could do worse than learn from his example. Maybe his actions make too many poets appear ultimately self-interested. Maybe that’s partly the reason for the deliberate and deliberated neglect.
In Skywriting, his poetry continues to break ground in his concern for the environment, and his precise perception of the external natural world. He has a strong Wordsworthian regard and instinct for ecology and natural cycles, here writing of badger trails and also of ourselves by default.
These signs for silence
Dwell within the mind’s own silences
Breeding a mystery – mysterious, too,
Even when explanation has restored it
To a world not shaped by introspection
And to lives lived-out beside our own
Nocturnal and unseen.
His new volume contains some bravely experimental work, especially the sequence ‘Mexico’ which moves between forms, including a prose poem which movingly urges its focus to the house and garden of Octavio Paz ‘the poet who came here to die and to seek, he said, reconciliation beneath these trees with their eagles and beside the cool basin frequented by pigeons’. More moving still is an elegy to another good friend, Ted Hughes, in a poem fired by grief and affection and one which opens by echoing a poem by Hughes himself, in which a soldier shot in the trenches falls massively across the length of Britain. In Tomlinson’s poem, driving to the funeral, precise perception of people, nature, light, sound, combine with place, movement, and we become witness to the pain of that day:
It was a death that brought us south,
Along a roadway that did not exist
When the friendship was beginning death has ended.
How lightly, now, death leans
Above the counties and the goings-on
Of loud arterial England. I see
A man emerge out of a tent,
Pitched at a field’s edge, his back
Towards the traffic, taking in
The flat expanse of Sedgemoor, as if history
Had not occurred, the drumming tyres
Creating one wide silence.
Oaks stand beside their early shadows.
Sun makes of a man’s two shadow-legs
Long blades for scissoring the way
Across yet one more meadow, shortening it.
Tomlinson makes a poetry sown and rooted in place—whether his Gloucestershire home or a roadside in Mexico. As a poet of place and perception, as translator, advocate and editor, he is a most un-English poet (pace Larkin) and yet he is also the most rigorously English poet we have: an internationalist striding the Forest of Arden; an anarchist classicist; a passionate precisionist.
For these apparent oppositions are also a part of a great tradition which, in Tomlinson’s work, and his new volume, achieve balance, synthesis and wonderful expression. Join to this praise that he is also very funny, and I trust you have abandoned any reason not to buy the book. Let’s be proud of him.