Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Bob Dylan

I just saw Martin Scorsese's documentary movie on Bob Dylan. It was brilliant. Actually, I feel really moved. The whole energy, creativity, and dynamism that grew up around Dylan is galvanising; not just to look back to, but to grasp and make happen in whatever way it has to happen today.

Strange. I've seen other films on Dylan before and haven't felt like this. Maybe it comes down to Scorsese's genius as a director.

Or something else?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Poem

Sorry. I 've deleted this poem while it's under consideration by a magazine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Automatic Writing

There's this weird idea that if you just churn out words onto a page as fast as you think them, you'll come up with something more authentic than a work that has been considered and revised over time. That idea has been responsible for a deluge of crap poems.

Raymond Queneau wrote:

A very wrong idea that is going the rounds at the moment is the equivalence that has been established between inspiration, exploration of the subconscious, and liberation, between chance, automatism, and freedom.
Now this sort of inspiration, which consists in blindly obeying every impulse, is in fact slavery.
The classical author who wrote his tragedy observing a certain number of rules is freer than the poet who writes down whatever comes into his head and is slave to other rules of which he knows nothing.

I'm with Queneau on this.
I am always amazed that people who champion automatic writing seem to feel they are doing something radical and declare that those who write with a nod to tradition are reactionaries.
In fact, the opposite is true. A splurge of emotions with random linebreaks is more common than any other kind of poetry and it's all crap. None of it will be remembered, which is the only good thing to come of it.

Somebody suggested in a poetry website thread the other day that there was "no such thing as bad poetry" and that if I called anything bad, that was only my subjective opinion. Of course, it is my opinion that bad poetry exists, and it exists in massive quantity. And we must believe in it, if only so that we can call some other stuff good.

Friday, September 16, 2005


I’ve been writing a review of a small poetry collection, the first review I’ve ever done. I thought I’d finished it. Then I read it again. To my horror, I realised that my third from last paragraph read like this:

He can shift from a simple clarity to reach for a different register, the lyricism that points beyond itself towards some deeper mystery that isn’t ready to reveal itself in more than a glimpse or flash of light.

What a load of guff! I almost sound like a reviewer. I’m just glad I didn’t send it to the editor. Now it has gone and a glass of wine has made me believe that the paragraph I have replaced it with is much better. Always a dangerous assumption.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

In Doctor No's Garden

I've been reading Henry Shukman's 2002 collection, In Doctor No's Garden. Outside the wind has picked up and it looks as though we're in for a blustery night. I picked up Shukman's book where I'd left off and read;

The storm has the lane rippling and smoking.
The sky has come apart, scuds by in pieces.
Telephone wires belly between their poles...

That's the beginning of his poem Storm Lines. Most of the poems are narratives with effective lyrical interjections, and when he gets descriptive, I can see, hear and touch his images. It's been an enjoyable read.

It's taking me about five minutes to write even the simplest sentence tonight. Time for bed.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

When the poem doesn't come

It started off well. I wrote an entire stanza of a sestina in about five minutes. But from then on, nothing salvageable. The harder I tried the less ideas I had. So I stopped and watched TV.

Here's the first stanza + one line. Will there be any more? I don't know.

Metaphysical Sestina

The angel chops his wings and emails heaven
with the news. “God,” he types. “Deep in the earth,
there lies a secret. I would give my soul
to own its power.” He buys a spade and trades
his white gown for a boilersuit, his halo
for a helmet, and digs for metaphysics.

He whistles as he digs. The metaphysics,

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Ashbery Explains His Own Poetry

I can’t help but smile at John Ashbery:

"For me, poetry has its beginning and ending outside thought. Thought is certainly involved in the process; indeed, there are times when my work seems to me to be merely a recording of my thought processes without regard to what they are thinking about. If this is true, then I would also like to acknowledge my intention of somehow turning these processes into poetic objects, a position perhaps kin to Dr. Williams’s 'No ideas but in things,' with the caveat that, for me, ideas are also things."
- John Ashbery, Other Traditions, (Harvard, 2000)

He is hugely entertaining when he writes about poetry, even if I don’t have the capacity to know what he’s on about half the time. He likes to wind people up though, and his observations are rarely dull.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

How Not to Write a Poem - Lesson 1

A poet-friend just emailed me to say that she attended a poetry reading a few days ago. One of the poets read a self-penned work that contained the following lines (and this should be a lesson to us all in how not to write a poem):

"I feel the universe experiencing itself through me.
It needs me here, now."

My friend’s reaction – “But it didn't. Oh how it did not.”
Deleted. Currently under consideration by publication. Sorry.

Scotland in summer. Alyssa, my daughter, demonstrates how to prepare.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Why Surroundings?
Other than that I had to think of a name for this blog and had no idea what to call it when the registration form came up on screen.

a) It’s the name of a collection of poems by Norman MacCaig.

b) It gives me a chance to think about how the subject-matter of a poem isn’t always what’s written up-front, in the same way as what your eyes fix on first when you walk into a room may not be its defining feature. The surroundings, rather than the thing in itself.

c) For some strange reason, it was the first word that came into my head, so I went with it. That’s the bland truth.
For the last few weeks I’ve been planning a novel and have enough ingredients in place to make a start on the writing – a man who drives a tourist tram round a fairly untouristy Mediterranean town, the woman he falls in love with, a collection of Greek Gods who think that sophisticated, 21st Century Europeans have ignored them for long enough, and a long quest from the south of France to the summit of Mount Olympus via the Underworld.

I have the characters, some of the settings, the basis of a plot, a few key scenes. Now all I need is the first sentence and I’m away. Someone (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I think) said that the first sentence was the most important, not just because it can hook or unhook a reader, but because it sets the tone for the whole book.

Take three examples:
I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life through the miracles of modern medicine would feel reborn. – Eleanor Rigby, by Douglas Coupland
The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. – Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh
An hour and forty-five minutes before Nazneen’s life began – began as it would proceed for quite some time, that is to say uncertainly – her mother Rupban felt an iron fist squeeze her belly. – Brick Lane, by Monica Ali.

The voice and tone of these first sentences determines how the rest of the book will sound. “The rest is easy,” said Marquez. I know that’s crap.

I was thinking about this too when I picked up a few Carl Hiaasen novels. His first sentences are interesting:

On the morning of December 1, a man named Theodore Bellamy went swimming into the Atlantic Ocean off South Florida – “Tourist Season”.
On the morning of July 6, two hours before dawn, a man named Robert Clinch rolled out of bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes – “Double Whammy”.
On the morning of April 24, an hour past dawn, a man named Palmer Stoat shot a rare African black rhinoceros – “Sick Puppy”.
On the third of January, a leaden blustery day, two tourists from Covington, Tennessee, removed their sensible shoes to go strolling on the beach at Key Biscayne – “Skin Tight”.
On the afternoon of November 25, a woman named JoJayne Lucks drove to the Grab N’Go minimart in Grange, Florida, and purchased spearmint Certs, unwaxed dental floss and one ticket for the state Lotto – “Lucky You”.

I suppose once you find a winning formula, the temptation is to stick at it.