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August 29, 2007

How to be Bad and How to Be Good

Part of all of us does not like writing, or rather does not like effort. We displace that dislike on to our circumstances or on to other people in an effort to throw responsibility elsewhere. Some writers make this a lifestyle, but it is hell for those around them, and their teachers. There are other choices, and effort becomes a lot easier and routine with practice. It ceases to feel like effort, and this allows you to go beyond yourself as a writer. You escape the banal traps of personality, and write beyond your intelligence.


How to be Good

Being good simply comes down to having routine and little rituals, and getting on with believing in your work. Begin by finding the place that best suits your writing, and make this your territory: ‘a room of your own’. It could be a garage, café, library, outhouse or the traditional study if you can afford such luxury. Work in that space, and reward yourself in doing so, in small ways. After a while, the mere act of going to that place will begin to trigger the routine of writing.

Find the times of day that best suit your writing process, but bear in mind that you will find this time changes as you get older: young night owls end up as middle-aged nine-to-fivers. Stick to this time, though, while it works. Again, find some small way of rewarding yourself for beginning work, and for putting in the time at the end. Practise this daily, until it becomes ingrained, and you miss it when you do not follow it.

Having worked in your space for a fixed amount of time it will be tempting to start taking breaks—ten-minute vacations from concentration (smokers are especially culpable)—but such breaks disturb and corrupt creative momentum. The novelist Ron Carlson puts it strikingly, ‘If you want to be a writer, stay in the room!’ I take it that you want a life, as well as a life as a writer. If you are not a Stay-in-the-Room-Writer, then your work will take very much longer, and you then have less time for life. One old trick of politicians and businesspeople is to snap the working day into two sections, separated by lunch and a catnap, allowing one to continue the second session with as heightened a concentration as the first. It yields two days from one. The enforced discipline (rather than a self-enforced one) is a strong attraction of creative writing courses in universities. They offer you a strict timetable for reading, writing and re-writing; weekly support and criticism; and they force you to stay in the metaphorical “room” of the course. You then take these enforcements into your own life.

Being good can mean simply reaching a word-count chosen beforehand. It is not the amount of time, but the kind of time and how you use it. Journalists pick up this habit as part of their job. Both Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene allowed themselves a relatively low daily word limit of writing. It is a pattern to imitate; it frees the rest of the day for experience and incubation. Many novelists and nonfiction writers set themselves targets. Writing The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin suffered a lack of discipline, so he set up stones in a small cairn on the sandwalk outside his study. Each stone represented a point Darwin wanted to make within a daily quota of writing. Each time he made a point, he knocked a stone from the cairn. Some writers find easy composition unnatural, but still force themselves forward. For the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, two lines of poetry a day represented a good effort. Gustave Flaubert often wrote thirty-five words. Given this constant daily accretion, you will find that books make themselves slowly and surely, like cairns, before your eyes.

Being good also means completing your task for the day, which you set the day before. Within your working day, try to complete a section of a novel or a piece of creative nonfiction, or take a poem through to its pre-final draft. Do not ask too much of yourself, but make practical targets and stick with them, and quit while you are ahead. Do not leave something uncompleted; it will call for you psychologically, goading you to finish. It is a good tip to complete some aspect of work, then think about what you aim to achieve the following day, even beginning the first lines or sentences of that new work. Go no further into it than as if you were unlocking the cage around it, but leaving the door still closed. You may now leave the next day’s work to escape by itself; and it will do so unconsciously. You will find it waiting at the end of your fingertips the next morning, having nudged the cage-door open. Writers often find it useful to warm up their minds at the beginning of a writing session by revising and rewriting the work they have completed the day previously. This form of self-reading reminds you of what you were doing, and where you might want to get to next.

Your regime need not be puritanical and punishing for this would have the opposite effect in the end. As you get more experienced, you should increase your word-count, and include a substantial amount of re-writing time to begin your working day. You should build in time for reading, for daydreaming, and for creating moments of receptive idleness. Dorothea Brande believed that reading immediately before writing was a bad idea, and that you should build in time for what she called ‘wordless recreation’. She does not mean that you stop reading as a writer. She means you should stop prevaricating, and leave yourself open for your own language to emerge.

How to be Bad

Being good requires a certain degree of ruthlessness, but the ruthlessness is directed at your own character, not at others. The error made by some writers is to exact silence and servility from those around them in order to affect routine and order. What they create may prove in the end to be good writing, but no writing is good enough to require other people to suffer for its creation. Also, any conniving of circumstances to bring about your downfall is your own creation, a kind of anti-creation and self-destructiveness.

Do not whine about self-inflicted wounds in your time and work. Write about them, if you must. The corollaries of any inertia on your part are that no writing will get finished, and what writing there is will suffer in quality because it has received insufficient time and attention. Without a routine, the times when writing seems “given” will decrease or become erratic as your fluency stutters from lack of practice, and submerged guilt.

As any such creative moment arrives, should your discipline have been lax, anxiety can lead to panic. Literary panic is an estranging emotion. Like literary envy, it has physiological effects on the body and mind, leading sometimes to immediate action or, more often, to a disabled sense of skill, hopelessness and helplessness. The self-made wound becomes septic. Leave it and it will fester, and bring disappointment down on you, as you grow older, blaming everybody else except yourself for your lack of progress (or even success).

This is what psychologists term a kind of “learned helplessness”, and it needs to be confronted and understood as an insidious self-enemy, as you would if it were an addiction (for in some ways, for some writers, failure, like acclaim, is addictive). You must fight yourself by staying in practice, and knowing that you have only yourself to blame if you do not succeed. At least you and those around you will know how hard you tried. At least you might write from that experience.

August 03, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 11: Geoffrey Holloway

Siobhan and Gabriel

Double Vision: Spring

The cat among the grasses nodding as it sniffs —
like a new-bathed infant shaping for a kiss.
The swans opulent, their bulrush-furry throats
ringed, rippling, with filamented light.
Shadows that are swallow-blue, yet brittle-clear,
that match the trespass of chrysanthemums released
by lancing heels of divers whanged from trees —
and all along the towpath the spun rod,
the dainty float cavorting in the sun.
To have eyes. To see.

The stagnant salmon like a crippled submarine
leprous in the shallows by the dripping arch —
a bone-white mouth insensitively working,
a quiet stammer, hung with sentences of death.
What was colour, kick and phallic exultation,
that shook the stream with the torpedoes of a myth,
laid-up like David for a chit of useless warmth,
like sunken David (that prodigious king)
for a stone tribute, a buck’s delinquent sling.
To have eyes. To see.

Geoffrey Holloway was born in Birmingham in 1918. His early years were spent between Liverpool and Shrewsbury. Before the war he worked in the Shropshire County Library, then in 1939 he went into the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in a field ambulance, a general hospital and, later, in 225 Para Field Ambulance, dropping on D Day and over the Rhine. After the war he went to Southampton University, emerging with a qualification in Social Science. He then worked in a mental hospital, as a Prisoner’s Aid Society agent, and from 1953 to his retirement in 1983 as a mental health worker for Westmoreland then Cumbria County Council, where he lived in the same village, Staveley, for over forty years. He was one of the leading spirits of the group called the New Lakes Poets that included – among others – Norman Nicholson, Dorothy Nimmo, Jacob Polley, Peter Rafferty, David Scott, Christopher Pilling, Neil Curry, Patricia Pogson, William Scammell, M.R. Peacocke and, for three years, myself.

However, Holloway was not some local poetic hero. He began to publish poems nationally as early as 1946, contributing to the Times Literary Supplement, The Listener, Encounter, London Magazine, Yorkshire Post, PN Review, Poetry Review and countless other small magazines and anthologies. He was also an intensely active and visible figure in the small press scene for many decades. In some ways you could say that he embodied that scene – moving between the mainstream and avant-garde with dexterity; developing a mastery of formal and free verse, of demotic as well as a classical syntax; and oscillating between the sublime and realism in subject and theme.

What was always consistently right in his work was tone. This was all his own, and his integrity of feeling and response was the heart of it. His many subjects included the memory of war, the consolation and difficulty of love, and his alert responses to the natural world. With W.S. Graham, his exact contemporary, he was one of the most distinctive voices in twentieth century British poetry, with a genuinely gifted ear for the music and the movement of language.

Readers recognised and responded to his gifts. Between 1972 and 1997 Holloway published twelve collections of poetry, including the book that established his reputation, Rhine Jump, a Poetry Book Society Choice in 1974. Rhine Jump is an astonishing book which still yields a huge energy and alertness in its language. Subject-wise, it feels like a massive gamble made by a poet who did not wish to speak much about his war experience, but could no longer resist the ghosts trying to speak through him. The honesty and humility in its tone makes the book very distinctive and necessary within our own time. It is still one of the best places to start reading him.

Geoffrey Holloway died in October 1997. He was mourned by his many friends and admirers, by fellow poets and dedicated readers – his books were cherished by those who possessed them. Holloway’s reputation as a poet quietly increased as more and more readers and writers began to realise not only how much they missed his presence, but how much they missed the poems that made a small magazine worth reading because it had Geoff’s poems in it. After his death, Holloway’s poetry also became important to some poet-critics. He occupied a similar critical position to W.S. Graham. That is, his excellence was in danger of oblivion through simple neglect. Like Graham, Holloway needed critical champions. Not only that, but many readers also voiced the necessity for a Collected Poems, for Holloway’s work to be offered to generations of new readers.

Therefore, when Geoffrey Holloway’s widow, the poet Patricia Pogson, contacted me with a view to editing his work, I could not have been more honoured. Geoff had been exceptionally kind to me when I was making my way as a young poet and scientist, looking at my early poems and suggesting reading. To my mind, he was, and remains, a poetic exemplar. What I then set myself to do is read, digitise, and then check every poem from every volume published by the poet during his lifetime. These included more easily available volumes such as All I Can Say from Anvil Press (1978), but also cyclostyled and stapled pamphlets with short print-runs such as Percepts Without Deference – Holloway’s bold attempt to write contemporary English-language poetry within strict Welsh verse forms – from the fugitive press Aquila (1987). Patricia also photocopied poems that had appeared in magazines but were unpublished in volume form, and sent these along to me for consideration and scanning. She forwarded other poems she considered substantial – including the delightful ‘Migrant’ dedicated to his friend the poet Gerda Meyer which features as the final poem in this book (see my main blog for this poem).

In some ways, the easiest part of the project was over once the book was edited – for publishing a Collected Poems is itself a greater feat these days than putting the poems together. Before his death, Holloway had complained to me about the problems and pitfalls of poetry publishing in the United Kingdom. The haphazard nature of the enterprise had caused him to migrate from press to press. He knew also that, although that poetry publishing had its difficulties, when you made that leap into publication, getting the British poetry world to give notice to the output of any small, independent press was nigh-impossible. Faber, Chatto, Secker and Oxford University Press were the sleekly visible part of a small but skewed market in the 1970s and 1980s, and there was worse to come.

By the mid to late 1990s, if poetry were a species, it would have entered the red list. 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 powerful specialist presses such as Carcanet and Bloodaxe. However, one of the unpredicted and unpredictable results of this cultural shockwave was the subsequent rise of independent small publishers, and an increasing sophistication in their publishing and marketing methods – not least through the use of websites and print-on-demand technology. New presses such as Arrowhead Press, Salt and Heaventree began to occupy some of the ground left by mainstream operators, and show them not only how to do the job better but how to keep their stable of poets in print. I suspect that Geoffrey Holloway would have been wryly amused to know that his Collected Poems is now published entirely within a renewed – if still penniless – independent sector, and again by a specialist press in the North of England.

When I was scanning his poems into my computer, a letter to me from Geoff fell out of one of the books. In that letter he voiced his desire for more pleasure and challenge in contemporary poetry. As he put it he wanted ‘to hear poems by folk who speak personally, directly, lyrically if you like. One to one.’ We no longer have the pleasure of Geoff’s company, or the delight of any new poems, but we do now have the pleasure of this book which contains all of the pieces he published. Personally, directly and lyrically, this book returns him to us, one to one.

_The Collected Poems of Geoffrey Holloway _edited and introduced by David Morley are published by Arrowhead this Autumn.



That month the weather launched into brilliance,
a sun-blitz, ridiculous.
Our Field Ambulance was stood by
when they started to leak down the road,
a bizarre May Day Procession:
kids on scooters, tethered goats,
carts so jerrybuilt with chattels they lurched.
I remember girls in furs gnawing lumps of spud
and a woman with a white handkerchief
whose eye was red jelly.
Two cloaked poilus sat a Renault roof.
And nuns passed (maybe paratroops disguised).

Stukas had been their closest neighbours:
a machine-gunning yowling sound-track
sealing off the impossible past.
Now all they could do was move;
anywhere, so it was further off.
But quite a few spoke, some good English,
some pidgin — like the whores we’d known in Lille.
And more than one wished us luck.

Later, in an empty house,
we found a blackbird, caged.
Left as a talisman perhaps, to say
this wasn’t really happening?
Or, with the backhanded cruelty of the victimized,
lust left?

And we, did we let it go,
to fly with shrapnel, sing for worms?

Dead questions. Soon buried.
Like Belgium, France.

Words of Thanks

Patricia Pogson – now writing as Patricia Holloway – was central to the making of this book. Neil Curry prompted the project, read the pre-final manuscript and made helpful comments. Roger Collett and Joanna Boulter at Arrowhead Press bravely took on this book for Arrowhead Press. My thanks are also due to all the individuals and organisations who have helped, especially colleagues in the Warwick Writing Programme and the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick; to my wife Dr Siobhan Keenan with whom I discussed the poems and the various drafts of the book; and to Michael Schmidt for his encouragement with the project at a time when I thought it might not succeed. Finally, I acknowledge all Geoff’s publishers for their generosity in allowing us to print these poems. Their names make for a roll call of great independent publishing. Anvil Press. Aquila Pamphlet Poetry. Arc Publications (on behalf of Littlewood Press). Crabflower Pamphlets. Enitharmon Press (on behalf of London Magazine Editions). Flambard Press. Free Man’s Press. Grand Piano Editions. National Poetry Foundation. Redbeck Press. To those saints of the small press, thank you.

July 18, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 10: John Burnside

BurnsideJohn Burnside was born in 1955, and now lives in Fife. There is a marked divergence in theme and tone between his poetry and his prose work. He allows poetry sequences to emerge organically in his imagination, without much conscious intervention. The Hoop (1988) was followed by Common Knowledge (1991), Feast Days (1992, winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize), The Myth of the Twin (1994), Swimming in the Flood (1995), A Normal Skin (1999), and The Asylum Dance (2000). Elvis Presley, an iconic figure to the young John Burnside, gives his name to the title of the short story collection Burning Elvis (2000). His novels, in contrast to his poetry, are the result of a controlled process and they are altogether darker. The Dumb House (1997) is a sinister tale of children being used in a crazy experiment on language. Questions concerning the nature of masculinity have inspired The Mercy Boys (1999), centring on the hard-drinking Scottish male, and The Locust Room (2001), an unnerving but ultimately tender take on male sexuality. The Asylum Dance won the 2001 Whitbread Poetry Award.

Gift Songs by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape, 2007) is his latest collection. This piece recently appeared in Poetry Review to whom I am thankful as always.

‘No one invents an absence’ writes John Burnside. For Burnside, presence is everything: presence is invention, presence is perception. Some natural thing – a capercaillie, a meadowlark – can ‘centre and stake the imagination’ (in Seamus Heaney’s phrase); but Burnside also knows that natural selection yields unstable versions as well as subversions of life – much as a poet drafts multiple metaphors for one aspect of reality, and why most poems that are ever written must ultimately fail in time.

The presences of nature have traditionally offered Burnside subject, theme, and even modus operandi. In this new book, those presences now also present him with adaptive forms, perceptions and language. For example, some of the sequential poetic forms and patternings in this book are like nothing you will have read before; while Burnside’s poetic sentences fleer over line after line with an astonishing lope of syntax and skid of reference.

Unpredictability and unreliability are in fact the most natural of characteristics, in matter as well as nature, and Burnside shows as much in the conditional philosophy of many of these poems:

Everything maps this world
and what world there is
is the current sum
of all our navigation:
networks of panic and longing,
road maps in gorse,
the river at twilight
vanishing into the sway
of cattle and bees.

There is a world’s weight of being in that line break of ‘…is / is…’ from the second to third lines. The critic Jonathan Bate argued in the fine ecopoetic text The Song of the Earth that, ‘poets let being be by speaking it’ (echoing Archibald MacLeish’s assertion that a poem should not mean but be); and Bate went on to say, ‘our world, our home, is not earth but language’. What might we find by looking and listening to that language? What is the nature of a dwelling made of those particles called words? It can be argued that poetry is one of the crucibles, along with research science, in which language crackles and transmutes, and Burnside’s work certainly crackles. The fastest evolving species is language—poetry sets temporary dwellings on that shifting edge. I believe the main aim of Gift Songs is to attempt get to the heart of this relentlessly fertile reality, and find consolation in its caprice. In another life, Burnside should have been a particle physicist at CERN (the mind’s destination of choice for many poets). Like particles on their trajectory from their particle-ghosts, these poems often show the ‘I’ travelling out from the self, or as he puts it: from the dark
self or not-self)

— something that comes

but something between the two
like the shimmering line
where one form defines another
yet fails to end…

Burnside is also one of the best artists of the process of human memory I have read. His perceptual world is one where we know ‘…what it is we are losing, moment by moment, / in how the names perpetuate the myth / of all they have replaced…’; and that we can do nothing about it but to watch and learn, and make language that, perhaps, collapses less easily than apparent fact and perceptible reality. John Burnside never lies to us about any of this necessarily tattery business. It is why we trust him as a poet, and why his reliability shines as a virtue.

Accretive and adaptable, poetry is as natural an art form as memory; and Burnside is now one of our most natural and adaptable poets – accretive too for this is his tenth book, but quite his most ambitious. Previously, his poetry appeared to evolve scrupulously, yet you could identify the species of his poetry by its scrutiny of the numinous, hear it by the searching and usually calm and calming voice. Burnside’s reliability as a poet could be “comforting” in some ways: never doctrinaire, never working with a palpable design on his readers; his close perceptions beguiled. Gift Songs alters any general critical perception of Burnside; it signals a dramatic change in the ecology of his poetry, maybe some quality we could liken to what he calls in one poem a ‘scavenger warmth / emerging from the cold’. Ecopoetics could have been developed with John Burnside in mind; and the poet continues to supply wonderfully provisional answers within the ecology of his poems – provisional because his poems never pretend to an exact science; wonderful because neither is nature exact, nor for that matter is language.

July 16, 2007

Sandpipers and Turnstones Season


This Teaching Blog will resume activity in September. I am off to look at sandpipers and turnstones off the coast of Brittany.

March 12, 2007

Calling All Poets


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

A Student–Led Festival of New Writing and Writers


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

Writers at Warwick


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

Poetry Chronicle 9: David Scott

scoitt iron

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 facesaltmarshes 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
then following
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,
nobly, silently,
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.

Scott end

I am grateful to “P.N. Review” in which a version of this piece recently appeared.

March 07, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 8: Jane Draycott

Thaw 1

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 Janeheadlights 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. Thaw 2

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

Poetry Chronicle 7: Iain Bamforth


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 bamhas 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 thistto 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 . . .

Perhaps not,
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 to Become a Foreign Correspondent?


Andrew Finkel
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.

February 19, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 6: Alan Brownjohn

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 Towerwe 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…’:

Which 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
In England…

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”.

Poetry Chronicle 5: Geoffrey Holloway and Pauline Stainer


‘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 Stainerreversible 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

Poetry Chronicle 4: Tim Kendall

Ken 0

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’.

Ken 3

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. Ken 2

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,
indelible. Indelible
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.

Ken 4

February 05, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 3: Paul Muldoon's 'Tribe of Paul'

Mul 1

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.

Mul 2

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. Mul 4

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.

We should have a pool tournament to see if these poets live up to their repute. But the diagnosis of master-to-apprentice is plain from that triangle of quotes.
Mul 5

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). Mul 6In 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’:

Dawn approaches.
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
of Axminster
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

Poetry Chronicle 2: M. R. Peacocke and the Small Press Crisis

Peacocke 1

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.

Peacocke 2

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 3

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

Poetry Chronicle 1: Charles Tomlinson

Charles T

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”.

Tomlinson with Gabriel

England’s Glory

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:

T Hughes

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.

January 19, 2007

What Does a Title Perform?

What does it do, sitting there on its own like a little crown prince of your continent of writing?

The title offers a first impression to readers. Like it or not, it may tip the balance between your work being read or not, and it might form part of what is graded within a writing course.

You must make your title work as hard as all the words in your piece; harder in fact, for the title is a door for the reader to open, or a little window through which they peer at the interior, an intrigue making them question whether they should enter or take part. A lazy or imprecise title can damn an entire book.

This applies to poems, stories, novels and creative nonfiction. Spend a great deal of conscious time on your titles, and produce many maquettes of it: several versions and variations that you can trial on your fellow writers in your workshops, or your tutors.

Use a working title to begin with, even if you dispense with it later, since evasions like Untitled, Story or Poem carry no charge. You might borrow a phrase from a well-known literary work, but make sure there is a precise resonance between the phrase and your own work; or go through your own piece and locate a phrase that either summarizes it or captures its spirit.

It may be that one of the character’s names, the setting, or the time, contains that spirit too, as might your theme, or some over-riding idea, or trick of structure.

Titles require a reader’s eye, and many titles come to their authors a long time after composing, when writers can become a reader of themselves again.

Choose wisely and, if you do not have that leisure, at least choose precisely.

Playing and Planing Language

January 18, 2007

Shaping a Collection of Poems

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Shorter poems are sometimes set in a sequence, unified by one or more threads, such as narrative, form and theme. This unity need not be frictionless: the shorter poems may be dissonant with each other in some ways. For example, each part might take a different point of view, and the sequence as a whole provides the arena for this variousness.

Taken further, some poets order their collections carefully so that the poems in it, individually and as a whole, resonate in some way with each other and with the title of the book. In this way, the book itself becomes a type of poetic form – although you should be warned that many readers simply and naturally “dip” into a poetry collection rather than read it as they would a novel.

Begin reading your poems with these ends in mind. For example, do some of the poems share the same concerns, or even images, and might they be brought together in some way to make a more powerful piece? Are there leitmotifs in sound between poems that would be clearer if the poems were grouped in some sequence?

By shuffling and reshuffling your poems, is there some kind of narrative running through them, and might this be a sequence, or the best order for your portfolio of coursework, or first collection? If so, what title might illuminate these connections, or even challenge and subvert them?

Writers often use their notebooks as “commonplace books” to collect pieces of writing that impress them, show them something new, or speak to them emotionally and to their own need to write. When you have assembled at least two-hundred poems of these types, make copies of them, and begin looking at them all with the view of creating your own anthology.

What unites them? Are they mostly in form or free verse? What is the gender and background of the authors? Is there a theme or themes? In multiple permutations, try ordering these poems so that they speak to one another in sequence; and ensure the final order has inner logic from a reader’s point of view.

This is excellent practice for examining poems from many angles, and for developing discrimination. You will find it helpful for when you order your own poems into a portfolio, poetic sequence or first collection. Later, should you become a poetry editor (as many poets are, however briefly), this practice will be of use in creating a poetry magazine or a published anthology of poems.