All entries for March 2007
March 12, 2007
I have received a most unusual request.
There is to be a conference on Values-Based Medicine at Warwick next month. The organisers have asked me to find two student poets who would be willing to offer a poetry reading as part of an after-dinner celebration for this event.
The date of the dinner is Monday the 23rd April and it would probably be around 9 pm/ish that the student poets would be required.
What would you have to do? Each student would read/perform a mixture of their own work as well as poems they like (& which perhaps but not necessarily touch on a medical/health theme!) for 8-10 minutes. The poets will be then followed in the programme by an orchestra…
What would you get in return? You would get a free sumptuous dinner; free wine; you would get good practice at reading to an audience; and you would be paid £25 each for – at most – ten minutes of work.
You would also have to be available to do this on that date. The dinner begins at 8.00 pm.
If you are interested e-mail me this week please. First come, first served (in this case the serving will actually be real food).
March 11, 2007
Thank you to all those of you who e-mailed me about their interest in this idea of a Student-Led Festival of New Writing, either as readers or promoters or both.
I now confirm that the festival will take place over the weekend of May 12-13 May, and I think we should load our contributions on to Saturday 12th May.
That said, there are some great things being planned – RSC actors, workshops, writers. All of this is going to be a free festival. It will take place in the Capital Centre. Our stuff will launch The Writers Room. There is a budget!
It is time to show us how to do it…
I shall be contacting some of you individually soon, but this is my final ‘general call’. Anybody who is interested; or has an idea; or wants to invite somebody we (or you) can realistically get to Warwick(especially if they are NEW writers) then come to an informal meeting at my office H521 at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday 14th March,
All good wishes,
March 10, 2007
The Warwick Writing Programme welcomes the novelist Will Self next week. His reading will take place at the Arts Centre Conference Room at 8.00 p.m. (note later time than usual) on Wednesday 14th March.
Will Self is the author of many works including three novels, “My Idea of Fun”, “Great Apes” and “How the Dead Live” (shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year 2000). He has written for a plethora of publications over the years and is a regular broadcaster on television and radio.
He will be at Warwick to read from his new book entitled “The Book of Dave” which is based around the rants of Dave Roth, a disgruntled East End taxi driver, who writes his woes down and buries them only to have them discovered 500 years later and used as the sacred text for a religion that has taken hold in the flooded remnants of London. Please contact Warwick Arts Centre Box Office for tickets.
May I take this end-of-term opportunity to say thank you to those who have made suggestions for writers for our programme. As you will see we have been able to invite some of those writers. Please feel free to make recommendations any time you wish. Next term sees readings by – among others – John Burnside, Ali Smith, Wole Soyinka, Lionel Shriver and A.L. Kennedy. A.L.Kennedy will also be in residence in the English Department for a period in April. We will also be promoting South Asian Writing, and hosting a student-led literary festival to celebrate the opening of The Writers Room in the CAPITAL centre on Saturday May 12th. We are very grateful to our sponsors for their support.
March 09, 2007
Many poets are natural priests, especially the godless ones. At worst they develop into gurus or shamans; at best they preach their cause as teachers, and practice what they teach. Their pose arises from an artificial conception that poetry is an hieratic art. But the tradition of the poet as an actual priest, doing the parish rounds and minding his flock, is far thornier and much more remarkable. The church is a sharp vocation.
Poetry and the priesthood are callings which sit all too shakily on the scales of responsibility and guilt. Does one finally outweigh the other as with Gerard Manley Hopkins? Do they circle each other like opposing magnets as with R.S. Thomas? Or are they matched in weight, informing and balancing each other, as in the poetry of George Herbert?
David Scott manages a quite brilliant balance between the two, and his poetry and life are a consilience of those vocations. Scott is Rector of St Lawrence and St Swithun in Winchester, and Warden of the Diocesan School of Spirituality. Previously he had served for eleven years as a parish priest in North Cumbria, smack on the margins and saltmarshes of Solway and Scotland, a zone of stripped fells and bare beauty, where the chief companion is the weather. While he was there he not only ministered with fidelity to his parishioners, but wrote his first books of poetry. Scott was one of the leading spirits of the group called the New Lakes Poets that included, among others, Geoffrey Holloway, Christopher Pilling and William Scammell, and which has recently nurtured the talent of Jacob Polley. There is a fine poem about William Scammell’s funeral in this book, at which Scott presided: ‘It was in your will / for me to have the final word’.
David Scott is not by anyone’s description a career poet (an oxymoron anyway), but what he has published has always been weighted very well and chosen carefully in order to advantage the poems, if not the poet’s profile on the poetry circuit. A five year wait between A Quiet Gathering (1984) and Playing for England (1989); another eleven years until a flowering of new work in Selected Poems (1998); a further seven years’ slow harvest until Piecing Together. His patience is plain. This is not a poet in a dash, nor does he need to be. Nor is he in any need of special effects of poetics or language:
Some poems I write in ink
and they get written with a lot
of furrowing of the brow, and often miss
but some I write in juice of a lemon
quickly in my heart
and hope that one day someone’s
warmth will iron the secrets into poems
with effortless art.
‘Written in Juice of Lemon’
The lingering wait between collections is always worth it. David Scott writes poems as plain as pleasure: a pleasure in perception of the world, a pleasure in being human. Even when that perception sees right through people he remains patient, but he stays watchful, is never complacent. His God is a much firmer, a far wilder thing: a God of the world, a God of the weather: ‘I would look for signs of weather / at the edges of your clothes … I would glance to notice shifts of sun and shadow / of the alternating poetry and prose in you.’ (‘Meeting St John of the Cross’). For the morality of Scott’s perception is conditional, and his morality more elemental than the usual Sunday morning understanding of faith. In one poem (‘Eyes’), David Scott asks, ‘God of the one strand of hair, are you also / God of the one look, of the glance, of the glimpse?’
Faith is seen in glimpses; faith is a startled and startleable thing. But there is an assuredness also, not only the knowledge of a place in the world, but also a trust that, ‘… one day all will be known / in the deepest bank of the world’s meaning / and on that day our eyes will feast’. The ways Scott sees, and sees beyond, has a great deal in common with the dawn deer in his poem ‘First Thing’ (and notice how skilfully the deer’s movement awakes the commas and full-stops with their footfalls):
One young deer
on the path to the wood
three more together.
How it stopped me
even inside the house
my shirt in my hands
every bit of my body
wired up for watching
every bit of theirs radar
for the merest blink.
Air rigid between us,
they moved first,
sensuous as waking.
Wired up for watching, Scott’s naturalness of perception is strength, and his apparently effortless poems ‘written in lemon juice’ already have plenty of implicit fire to come alive on the page. But the clear art of David Scott’s poetry is wider than a waiting for small perceptions and miniature epiphanies. His first two books were praised for their humility, for reticence, for underplaying, as though these were virtues that came with the ground of an English parsonage. Such praise stereotypes him, locks his work indoors, and tames it. David Scott’s mental parsonage isn’t the homely living of Mr Collins of Pride and Prejudice, but the open-air curacy of a Patrick Brontë:
‘Yes’ was the shape of the farmhouse.
‘Yes’ were the trunks of the trees.
‘Yes’ was the gate on its hinges.
‘Yes’ brought the world to its knees.
‘A David Jones Annunciation’
There is a progression from his last book. Piecing Together has starker aims, which are scarier and riskier. The fine elegy for William Scammell concludes with conditions, self-questioning, rather than conventional consolations: ‘… we gathered round in groups to weep or cry, and hug, / and wonder how or why, to reminisce, / awkwardly, or not, or maybe, without you.’ An encounter with a ‘healer’ leaves him with ‘the indent of a wing along my side’. Again and again, it is the elemental and conditional voice of faith that can find its voices in the movement of wind on a meadow, or the recurring call of a song-thrush: falling off the end of the gospel,
afraid. This year I may learn to fall
and not fear, and find myself lifted
to watch the face of forgiveness rise
with such silence and uncanny grace,
that with the thrush, high in the holly tree,
I will sing, unique… unique… unique.
… I am with the women,
There is one poem in this fine collection that really lets all the weather in, the epic and panoptic ‘Skelling Michael: A Pilgrimage’, in which the poet voyages ‘on the top of an illuminated wave’ to the West Irish island ‘where we have to imagine the monks / watching the sky with nothing / between themselves and heaven… when the elements took leave of God’s control / and became something other’. In this poem the terrors of faith are made real and electric but, importantly, they are made human. The monks’ homesickness and despair and their ‘crazy love of Christ’ are honoured and balanced in language, where language is the rock, where language is the space in which meditation and prayer hazard illumination.
I am grateful to “P.N. Review” in which a version of this piece recently appeared.
March 07, 2007
Poetry persuades by the precision of its language, and this necessary exactness is carefully and coldly won over years of drafting and redrafting. Jane Draycott’s first collection, Prince Rupert’s Drop, was well-received and rightly so. Her work had a patient intelligence of practice, and concision of address, not only in every poem in that book but in the very philosophy of perception informing her poetics. Her collection set a lofty point from which to advance. Happily for her growing number of readers The Night Tree goes even further in its elegance and imaginative force.
She succeeds because, in the end, it’s completely down to her confidence: of a writerly coolness coupled with a sense of a workable, completely engaged aesthetic. The price of precision can be perfectionism, an attitude that can result in freezing before the headlights of your own expectations. At this point in a poet’s vocation, the resilience of the personality has a great say in whether artistic progress is made or not. In short, you either freeze or thaw. Everything experienced so far, everything written and read decides that outcome. It is a learned process, building up to the moment, and the consequence is ultimately decisive and life-changing. It can precipitate artistic crisis: poetic careers can fall apart, the language becoming clinical or unravelled and worn-out. All their tricks show, and show the poet up.
Not so for Jane Draycott. _The Night Tree _is a calculated, amazing thaw, made up from icy, prickly detail. Her attention to detail has paid off hugely; and she knows the price of it. One example, from the sequence ‘Tideway’ (a series of meditations on the Thames) is the short poem ‘It begins as with razors’, the lift-off point for which is that lightermen on the river once bought their pipes pre-packed, then threw them overboard. Here it is in full:
It begins as with razors or lighters,
its sharpness or fire akin to a ship
that is passing, a fragment or sample
of something much bigger and further away
such as fathomless caverns of silver,
whole acres of indigo, saffron or hemp
or hillside on hillside of spices or tea
laid out like a rug to lie down on or sleep.
By capping the bowl like the door
to a furnace some made it last longer,
run cooler for breathing in deeper
its skyfuls of clouds, so that burdens
grown lighter could rise in the water
like palaces turning to smoke,
for a pipe once alight is a dream
which is now or is never and ends
like a pile of disposable bones
washed up on the foreshore
where in the same place the body
of a river ran just hours before.
What Draycott manages in two sentences contains a world. It isn’t just the concise audacity of the imagery created here that is persuasive (‘sharpness of fire akin to a ship that is passing’; ‘capping the bowl like the door to a furnace‘), it’s also her adroit control of language within the determined rhythmic clarity of what’s almost a sea-shanty form (‘a pipe once alight is a dream / which is now or is never and ends / like a pile of disposable bones‘). It is very hard to write this simply, nor is it simple to set so many internal rhymes in place, their gears interlocking almost soundlessly, without making the poem clank as wildly as a cartoon grandfather clock. Draycott’s confidence secures the registers and makes a fine, clear lyric. Moreover she makes significance out of insignificance. Say it out loud; you’ll want to sing it in time. Time’s the theme.
Like the best poets at peak of confidence, Draycott can also be playful. By this stage she’s earned your trust to be so. The way she plays however is by making strange, such as in the poem ‘How he knew he was turning to glass’, an artful examination of the proofs of that transformation:
By the playing like wind in his hair of exhalations
from the distant leper colony.
By the images of himself repeated in the candelabras
of his erections . . .
Or she can play on expectations by taking something familiar, setting it in another unrelated familiar, and seeing what emerges from that forced marriage. I enjoy any ceremony in which literature proposes to science. The children of such a coupling usually lack any dread of reason (while some poets fly the room at the smell of it). Jane Draycott plainly enjoys this observance too, especially in a cunning poem in which Sherlock Holmes receives a Fellowship from the Royal Society of Chemistry:
He appears for a moment to fade, lost
in the fog which encircles his head.
The microphone leans towards him
like a question shouted into the wind
Who are you waiting for on such
a freezing night? Areas of his brain
are needles of fire, clear signals across
open ground. The carpet rolls its red road
out across centuries of snow.
And what is it you fear so greatly?
Disembodied mind swirls in free-fall
beyond the window pane, frost calculates
its way across the floor. As you value
your reason, keep away from the moor.
As you value your reason, then you probably value good poetry. I’ve waited some time to read something this intelligent, this sensuous and this crystalline. In fact The Night Tree is the finest collection I’ve read this year. What are you waiting for?
Thanks to the Guardian where a version of this entry appeared.
March 04, 2007
Some writers might slit their wrists rather than have their work commandeered for the Pseud’s Corner of “Private Eye” (some secretly recommend the work of their rivals for that dishonour). I think it a badge of honour; wear the brand proudly (I have better reasons to do myself in: I am forlornly obtuse).
For the cause was a good one: the work of the neglected Scottish poet Iain Bamforth, and the whole episode about the ‘bucket’ below even got itself illustrated as a cartoon in the “Eye”. I acknowledge the “Guardian” again for this piece, and dedicate it to whoever fed it to anti-pseuds at “Private Eye”. With hindsight, it was deserved.
Say it Bucket, Say It!
Poets, as a genus, tend to band into clusters, and these clusters often centre on common ideas and a common locale. But some of the best poetry arises when such clusters splinter into individuated careers, powered still by those ideas and place. So it was in the early 1990s with one such group, The Informationists, a loose assembly of Scots poets whose guides and angels were Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and Alasdair Gray. The work of these new Scots poets had an internationalist outlook; sheer craft and linguistic initiative lent their poetry considerable panache. Their ambition harmonised with a similar surge of energy in Scottish fiction. Some of the roots shared the same trellis, a symbiosis as it were.
Of that impressive generation, the Scots poet Iain Bamforth has probably been one of the most eclectic and international in practice. He has inhabited several incarnations: as general practitioner, outback doctor, lecturer, journalist and translator. He has published a literary history of medicine, The Body in the Library, and has lived in Strasbourg for nearly a decade striving, but finally not succeeding, to be a good European through the offices of medicine, the Council of Europe providing some of his patient base.
His career is unprofessionally professional, as any fine poet’s should be, with poetry as the resilient denominator, recording and synthesising the world whatever the quotidian incarnation of the time. As such, his poetry has an extensive range of subject and reference, from the Scottish Parliament to the islands of Samoa and Tonga, from the interior life of a beehive to a minutely detailed metaphysical examination of a bucket. A Place in the World is Bamforth’s fourth collection of poems. It is a copious, fastidious, and highly rewarding book containing several years of writing.
‘Bucket’ in fact shows Bamforth heterogeneous perception in extremis. I have debated its manifold effects for at least a week with several entranced readers. It is one of the most painstakingly observed and linguistically taut poems in the book. It needs to be listened to aloud, as well as read in silence:
A bucket stands collecting rain.
Blunt container, it collects
essence of only ocean
above some dun African savannah.
Capsizer of your head
should you try to plumb it.
It irons a puddle; no wider
wetness than its expanding sense:
matter as a meaning
steadily, irreversibly filling
something (say it bucket, say it)
at the bottom of its need.
All night, a lake lies shocked
above a bucket’s tegument. Rain
spites its face. This red morning
foliage brightens the rim,
and hope is such a terrible violence
you, rider, hedge your bets.
Who is talking to whom, and riding where? What is memory and intelligence but a system of stop-start conversations with our own perception? Bamforth’s poetic effects can be as interpenetrating and involuted as a rose’s genetic design. His language works hard with the eye and the ear to the degree that it mirrors patterns of synapse development, in which particular and even disparate stimuli trigger novel and complex neural networks. As a result such work is rich in perceptual acquaintance, making it not only intelligent but also extremely sensual. To read them makes the patterns of our minds richer too – as when we read Hopkins or Wallace Stevens. The fact that these poems are readily accessible and inevitable is a small miracle of composition.
Such range has many charms and challenges – Bamforth is a extremely civil and generous poet – and his polyvalence neither intimidates or displays. He observes his former Strasburgian patients, many from the civil service, with precision and shrewdness:
Some of them like double-agents cultivate
a sense for the nod
and hardly perceptible wink.
Some are amorists of the ice shelves,
adulterers of is and ought.
They climb to slaughter in their dreams.
Others admit it, but not in public.
They know how to cross the threshold
in any of several languages —
those major character actors of our time.
All are sardonic masters of protocol,
the art of making sure syntax
stops the eye seeing what the hand does —
lovers of the people, which can’t love itself.
‘Life of the Civil Servants’
Bamforth writes from a Scots tradition: the bracing, embracing version of it. This is a vagrant Scottish tradition that extends Scots culture outside its borders, where Robert Louis Stevenson walked it. He is a quite the synthesist, drawing poem after poem into an looping arc of argument, the bottom line of which is to probe how Anglophone writing might expand imaginatively towards the cultural and linguistic variety of the European continent in a way that is neither appropriative or colonial.
From his level space, Bamforth surveys the circles of European culture, searching for ethics and civil society within its changing order. This provides some wide-awake writing:
Deserted esplanade swept by Boreas,
cathedral spire with its cardinal’s hat of scaffolding,
tiles ripped off and Latin trees knocked down
that formed a palisade to German forest,
guard to the counterscarps and bastions of Europe,
the solid vegetable peace of post-war.
No place for the ass of Arcady . . .
but it’s coming, with the soft patience of all donkeys,
out of that prayer on the road to paradise
(now a tourist subtract of eternity),
from a Cevennes of deserted whitewashed churches —
Modestine sold for a burton in St Jean-du-Gard —
to the concrete bridge across the Rhine.
Admire it standing beside me steaming in the rain
getting what it expects: its just deserts,
the wrong use of the rope. Lord Hamlet’s quagga,
Fourier’s zebra-minus-stripes, Buridan’s ass —
it’s a writing mule, obedient and still;
upon its uncomplaining back the burden of my thoughts,
a ribambelle of nostrums for the saddlesore.
‘Travels with a Donkey to the Bridge of Europe’
A Place in the World is a ‘total book’ rather than the common and garden portfolio book of poems, in the spirit of say Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III. It is almost impossible to offer a quote from a poem without unfolding a longer example, or risk falsifying the poem entirely by isolating single components. This marks it out among a number of new collections that offer the reader far greater range and scale than they might be used to. It could be part of a new cluster in fact, one that celebrates patience and precision.
It is a symptom of Dr. Bamforth’s generosity that he, too, has waited and has worked this material so long. His translation of Fernando Pessoa’s manifesto poem ‘Isto’ (‘This’) could be a policy declaration for the book’s variety, honesty and concision:
They say I fake or lie
With the written word. Not a bit.
It’s simply that I
Feel with a kind of wit.
Heart doesn’t come into it.
All I put up with or embrace —
Hurts and harms, life’s only end —
Is like a level space
Hiding the space beyond.
Some enchanted place!
And this is why I write
As if I’d taken flight
From suffering and the real,
Serious about what isn’t.
Feel? — Let the reader feel.
March 01, 2007
WHAT DOES IT TAKE BECOME A FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT?
Journalist and Broadcaster
(The Times, Time Magazine,
The Washington Post, CNN, Milliyet)
As I said, Maureen Freely and I have invited a guest writer to speak with you about writing non-fiction. This will be especially useful for 2nd years in Composition and Creative Writing, and 1st years in the current Modes of Writing sessions about nonfictional prose. The guest will not be ‘speaking to our syllabus’ but coming from outside with a real-world take on how and why this kind of writing matters.
The first session for all students will be at 4.30 p.m. on Wednesday 7th March in Room H148 in Humanities (1st floor).
Andy will also be holding office hours for you on Thursday morning between 10:30 and 12:00 in
H538. You are all welcome. See you there.