Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Being Italian

This short film, made by an Italian, humorously demonstrates how different Italians are from all other Europeans, and brings back many memories (I lived in Italy until a year ago).

More on Tom Raworth

With reference to Tom Raworth in the post two below, I’ve found a better link to the All Fours poem I discuss, in which Raworth reads the poem. He does read it slightly differently from what I imagined, and the speed at which he reads some of the lines surprised me.

I also found another two articles on Raworth. One in Stride, which contains 23 reasons to read Raworth, basically 23 short quotes from his poems. These are quite good, I think. For example:

she came in laughing his
shit's blue and red today those
wax crayons he ate last night
(from 'Morning')


trust marginal thoughts
some like shoes will fit
(from 'How Can You Throw it all Away on This Ragtime')


the albatross drawer
this is where we keep the albatrosses
('Taxonomy', entire)

and finally:

'a semiotic gorilla named boko
was thought by its keeper quite loco
when it claimed that the farthes
it released in the barthes
clearly signified "two cups of cocoa" '
(from 'Catacoustics')

These reveals a playful wit that I didn’t detect in All Fours. Perhaps I’ve chosen the wrong poem to analyse. The cynic in me protests that it shouldn’t be hard to come out with 23 quotable quips in a career as long as Raworth’s, and with 600 pages of a Collected Poems to choose from. But maybe there’s a lot of good stuff in those 600 pages.

Also, a longer article at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/perloff/articles/raworth.pdf (you'll have to cut and paste it into your surf bar if you want to read it. I tried a hyperlink but couldn't get it to work), which analyses a couple of Raworth pieces. I felt that the reviewer, Marjorie Perloff, read too much into the first poem, These Are Not Catastrophes I went out of my Way to Look For, but I guess (post-) modernist poets invite more imaginative participation on the part of the reader to provide meaning than in traditional poetry. Some of her observations were thought-provoking, but not all were convincing. I found it hard to get interested in the discussion of Ace.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Helen McCookerybook

I was reading Stephen Burt’s blog and was amazed to find that Helen McCookerybook has a blog.

Helen McCookerybook was lead singer of lo-fi band The Chefs in the 1980s. I used to listen to The Chefs on the John Peel show on Radio 1, which played music no one else on the radio even dreamt of playing. As a result, I rushed out to buy The Chefs' first(?) single 24 Hours, and I still have it. In fact, it still sounds like a great pop record.

She went on to play in a band called Helen and the Horns, which was exactly what it sounds like.

And now she turns up again in Blogland, writing a book on Lost Women in Rock, and still recording and playing gigs, including one "with poets".


Tom Raworth

CA Conrad recommended that I read some Tom Raworth, a UK poet in the modernist tradition.

I found a few poems online, but couldn’t make head or tail of them, and I didn’t get the buzz I get when I read, say, a poem by John Ashbery or Geoffrey Hill, when there’s clearly a lot going on at the level of diction, and at the level of “fuzzy logic”.

The reason could be that I’m not familiar with Raworth’s work and I don’t understand what he’s trying to do. I don’t know how to read him or what to look for. I often feel with (post-) modernist writers that a real attempt at becoming familiar with their work is necessary even to begin to appreciate them.

Raworth was born in 1938, has been writing for many years, and has published over 40 collections and chapbooks, including a Collected Poems on Carcenet Press, one of the UK’s most important poetry publishing houses, so he's clearly someone to take seriously.

Anyway, I’ve decided to make a real attempt to read a Raworth poem and give close attention to it over the next few days. I then plan to post again on whether my opinion on the poem changes as a result of grappling with it. At the moment, to be frank, the poem means nothing to me, but I plan to keep an open mind.

However, I thought I’d post the poem here, and invite comments on it. Anything, positive or negative, would be a help. I’d like to make some headway and would value thoughts and opinions.

I found the poem here

All Fours

though it might have been chronic
around his neck and shoulders
filled with thick high weeds
the road was lined with stone

almost entranced she started
ordering quantities of everything
down the windows of your station
combed and perfectly normal

bees through blood and perhaps
night air while we rode back
followed him to the front porch
and the chimney bricks were fallen

she hasn't heard from him since
filled in on the background
large machines can dig them
forced to take shelter in that house

watching her move about the kitchen
a uniformed policeman was standing
out like magic on the glass
we were living under siege again

two more men came in carrying
pages of an appointment book
not very good lights things happening
younger all clean and prosperous

a grievance a legitimate grievance
rumbled as the rain began
heavily where the blades pushed it
round doorways little brown children

in your car and go somewhere
dead or senseless at the wheel
crouched there taking no part
on the highway the sedan fishtailed

mosquitoes had been real fierce
with that wind coming off
substandard materials and workmanship
years of polishing have dulled

professional sound of a woman singing
damnation at an empty chair
soft black soot coats the slate
too splendidly suburban for adequate

illegible smears of block printing
held motion to a crawl
skimming over book titles
postured alluringly around the room

the important dynamic was between
peculiar and unique powers
to collect on his insurance
that portion of it reported

lovely little thing with eyes
as efficient as she had to be
shambling on down the tissue
range where embers had gone out

looking at everything said suicide
the area about her had the look
you see in old chromos
breathing not daring to smoke or cough

practically an abandoned road
several varieties of mushroom thrived
standing motionless in the shade
small common objects of assault

blown cell with a dusty bulb
an instant to blank shining glass
blocking out the moon and stars
vending machines on every floor

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Jorie Graham

Ouch! Luke Kennard reviews, or at least pastiche-reviews, Jorie Graham’s latest collection in Stride magazine.

Ouch! again. But as ever with Stride, there’s no shortage of entertainment. And the final word is left to the excellent John Ash, quoted as follows:

...If, nevertheless,
you have to worry, confine your worrying
to one subject: money is always a good choice.
Never worry about 'the absurdity of existence,'
or similar large vaguenesses which are really like
the memory of a grandmother who died before you were born.
What good will it do you? And do not become enslaved to anything.
(John Ash, 'Some Words of Advice: After Hesiod')

Friday, February 24, 2006


Not in my computer, but in me. It hit me yesterday evening big time, and this morning I feel lousy. So at least I have an excuse now for being unable to come up with even a single double dactyl poem, or anything else for that matter.

My wife had the virus too and it lasted for 3 days, so by any luck I'll be feeling better around Sunday/Monday.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Challenge

I’ve hardly been able to string two thoughts together over the past few days, let alone anything so complex as an entire paragraph. There isn’t any reason for this. It just happens every so often and I’ve learned not to worry about it. I’ve tried to write poems and have got nowhere.

Then I found a challenge to write a “double dactylic” poem (thanks to Helena Nelson for the idea) and I tried one. But I couldn’t even do that!
I’ll try again tomorrow, but here are the rules if any of you feel like having a go. On a good day, I expect it’s possible to write one every ten minutes or so:

First line is nonsense (Higgledy Piggledy or something similar)
Second line is a double dactylic name (e.g. Anna Karenina.)
Total poem has two four-line stanzas.
Second line of second stanza (if you can manage it) is a single double-dactyl word.

A fairly well known one, as an example, is Wendy Cope on Emily Dickinson.

Higgledy piggledy
Emily Dickinson
Liked to use dashes
Instead of full stops.

Nowadays faced with such
Critics and editors
Send for the cops.

Monday, February 20, 2006

She's Back!

Ater a long break, not-a-finger has begun to write her online diary again, which brightens up the days no end.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Stuffed Animals

This afternoon, I went with my wife and daughter to Edinburgh's Royal Museum. There were, I thought, three attractions to keep my daughter interested (she is not far off 4-years-old) - tropical fish swimming in a pool, butterflies under glass cabinets, and stuffed animals of every imaginable variety.

Well, she liked the fish. She liked the butterflies for about 30 seconds. But she hated the stuffed animals. She couldn't get away from them quick enough and announced that she wanted to go to the café and have something to eat.

This led me to wonder what the point of stuffed animals might be. They look creepy, frozen forever in one pose of perpetual semi-naturalness. They don't do anything. At least, what they do is to remind me of what they once were. And all this in a city that boasts the best zoo in Scotland, where people can see real animals doing real things.

I'm now asking myself why I thought my daughter would want to see stuffed animals. For some reason it's the kind of thing that 3-year-olds are supposed to like. But perhaps we do children a disservice by assuming that such an activity could interest them.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Cautionary Tale

This is a revision of a poem I wrote a few years ago. I’ve tried to tidy up a couple of stanzas where the rhyme scheme unaccountably went ABBA rather than ABAB.

The legend of Charlemagne and the ring appears in many different versions. I found a few of them in a book of essays by the Italian prose writer, Italo Calvino, and thought they might be good material for a narrative poem.

The Ring

Old Charlemagne smiled, obsessed
with a fair maid of twenty-five,
and left his empire unaddressed.
To the barons’ relief, she died.

His love survived. And with each dusk
the bed shook two, the one embalmed
and cold, the other hot with lust.
His kisses never were returned.

So Turpin, the Archbishop, scanned
the body for himself. A charm,
he thought, had warped his master’s mind.
He checked around the toes, the arms,

within the earhole, the slack mouth.
Beneath the tongue, a garnet ring
lay hidden. Turpin fished it out
and dropped it deep within his gown.

Not deep enough. At first light Turpin
was summoned. Charlemagne pinned
the startled Holy Father on
the quilts; his lips straight for the groin.

For three days Turpin did his royal
duty, until the girl was buried
near the lake. He flung the jewel
to the flat water, barely stirred

the surface. Charlemagne lost
his appetite for love and moped
by the high banks, the awful waste
and pain of drowning all that stopped

a suicidal dive. Each glint
in the waves cut him like an arrow,
but always he sneaked one more glimpse –
the lake’s blank face, a sparkling zero.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


when the bus breaks down just beyond
the point of no return, we stand
and wait for a new destination

when the sun beats down but nothing
melts as it should, our bodies store
its rays in blocks of ice

when rain staggers down the scraped glass
of the shelter, we watch the rainbow
dissolving in the daffodils

each touch of love that seems to leave
no trace is buried in a fold and will
unfold in a different place

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Great Poetry Exchange

I’m intrigued by the Great Poetry Exchange, which is coordinating a free exchange of poetry publications through the world.

From the website:

“To participate you must volunteer to mail one copy of one poetry book that you have written to one other person participating. Just one book. In exchange, you will receive in the mail one copy of one poetry book written by another participating poet.Your book must be a physical entity. Even if it's self published, or 'one of one' that you printed from your computer and stapled together...but please, no e-books. In the middle of March, we will randomly assign the books to each participant and email to you the name and address of the person you are supposed to send your book to.”

I like the chance element in this. I’ll think up 50 words to describe The Clown of Natural Sorrow and make my submission tomorrow.

The Volta

In her response to my sonnet immediately below, Eloise mentioned the volta, and her comments led me think about the volta issue. A volta means a “turn”, a “twist”, a “shift”, the point in a poem when something changes. A volta isn’t easy to handle well.

Modern poets have experimented with the sonnet form – unrhymed sonnets, sonnets that don’t use the traditional iambic pentameter, sonnets with quasi-metrical long and short lines, sonnets in couplets, sonnets with 13 lines, 15 lines, and 16 lines etc. But the two main traditional types are Petrarchan and Shakesperian, and these are still the two most common forms employed by poets today.

In a Petrarchan sonnet, where the poem is split into 2 stanzas (the first rhymes ABBAABBA and the second has a variety of rhyme schemes such as CDECDE or CDCDC) the volta traditionally comes on the 9th line. The main difficulty with the Petrarchan sonnet is to find effective rhymes. The volta comes at the point of clear stanzaic division anyway.

In a Shakesperian sonnet (rhymed ABAB CDCD EFEF GG), the situation is more complicated. The volta often comes in the final couplet, which often reverses expectations built up in the rest of the poem. That worked well for Shakespeare. The problem is that for the modern ear, such a reversal, coupled with the pat finality of the closing couplet, can come over as too definite, too easy a solution, at times too moralistic. Poets have tried to get round this by using slant rhyme, by offering a “fuzzy” couplet which deepens the meaning of the poem without offering any solutions, or by dispensing with the volta completely.

Another solution is to change the place of the volta. In my poem, the volta comes halfway through line 9 (quite a common solution, to be honest), but you could also argue that there is another mild volta at the closing couplet.

I’ve seen some interesting variations in modern sonnets. There are upside-down sonnets which have a first stanza of 6 lines and the volta coming at the beginning of the second stanza of 8 lines. I’ve seen voltas coming at lines 7 and 10. I’ve seen the volta coming only on the final line. I’ve seen plenty of sonnets with only one stanza of 14 lines, although usually there is a volta buried there somewhere.

I do like a good volta though, a point where the poem shifts gears and becomes something more than I thought it was going to be. When the volta doesn’t work, it’s often because it appears that the poet has “forced” it and the material of the poem doesn’t support the switch. That’s why it’s so difficult. A volta can be subtle, dramatic or outrageous, but it has to feel right. And unfortunately, there is no checklist of rules to ensure that.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Sticking In

Rising from lochs the mountains cradle cairns
on top, towers built by the rambling crowds
who add their pebbles from freshwater burns
and man-made paths. Haphazard clouds
hang like filthy rags at half-mast. Kings
have strayed up here and added stone to stone
as if by stretching heavenward, their bings
of earth and rock might seize another crown,
another life. I trust an empty bag of crisps
to the grace of thorns. I wedge chewed bubblegum
in a cairn’s crevices, used husks that grasp
at gaps and rifts, sticking out their time.
A stationary fly is frozen by
a boot’s shadow, which sprints across its sky.

Acceptances and Rejections

Unusually for me, I've posted a lot of poems out to magazines recently. Before, I'd tended to stick to the same faithful few every now and then, but I decided to spread my wings and try some new venues.

As a result, I've had some poems accepted in a couple of Scottish publications. Three poems - Light Verse, Openings, and The Kingdom - will appear in the annual anthology of Scottish writing, Pushing the Boat Out.

One poem, Song for a New Morning, will be in the next issue of Poetry Scotland.

But to balance things out, I've also had two rejections. One from New Writing Scotland, who have always published my poems when I've submitted there before! There's a first for everything though, and that includes rejections.

The second was from Mcsweeneys who rejected a sestina in the nicest possible way - "This really tempts me, but I'm afraid that I'm going to pass in the end. We just get more good sestinas than we could ever hope to publish."

You know, I'd love to publish a sestina in Mcsweeneys and I love the Mcsweeneys' sestina e-zine. So I'm going to have to write another sestina, as good as I can manage, and try again in a few months time. This is my new ambition for 2006 - to be in Mcsweeneys. Surely that's not too much to ask?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Reworking of an old Door Poem

The Last Door

This is the last door, so they say. There’s no keyhole
to peek through, no slice of sunlight waxing
from a crack. Perhaps the door is locked, a cosmic

joke, and in this door, every door you’ve opened
slams shut. No pressure, you can stand and knock
for eternity, the vacant paradise or inferno fit only

for those who walk. Or maybe they lied and billions
of doors beyond wait for this one and all others
to open and close, open and close, with linear

precision. How far along the chain is the cupboard
you locked your son in, ten minutes of dark
for every tantrum, until he learned to stay quiet

and wait? How far the taxi door that hammered on
your fingers as you reached to stop your wife
from tearing him away? One thing for sure –

every blind alley swivels towards this point, every
lesson you didn’t learn. The door creaks; it needs
oiled with thoughts you don’t know you’ve had yet.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

More on the Cartoons

Both Mike Snider and George Szirtes (entries on 3-5 February) have also been reflecting on this issue in different ways.

God Bless Denmark

(click picture to make it bigger)

Some Moslems are offended by a cartoon depicting Mohammed. The cartoon satirises the link between Islam and terrorist violence. Some Moslems are so offended by this that they march down roads bearing placards calling for extreme violence to be carried out against the infidels and they burn down a few embassy buildings to make their point. Unbelievably the Vatican then declares that freedom of speech doesn’t entail the right to offend people, a clear gesture of support for their fellow-religion.

I’ve never heard anything so absurd. The Vatican offends certain people in statements it comes out with, but no one’s calling for the Pope to be gagged. But if anyone felt that way, no one would stop that person from making his/her point.

Theatre productions, movies, newspapers, and best-selling novels present material all the time that some Christians find offensive. Sometimes these Christians demonstrate about it, which is fair enough (although usually it only brings more publicity to the events in question), but in the main, they don’t threaten to kill those responsible. And if they did they rightly would be condemned by anyone with sense.

It’s a sensitive situation. I see that. I bought a paper yesterday from my newsagent which is run by a Moslem family of Pakistani origin. They are friendly, kind, welcoming people with a great sense of humour. Whatever their views on the Danish cartoons, they have no more in common with that crowd on the streets baying for blood than I have. No one wants innocent Moslem people to be victimised because of the violent actions of a few. No one other than the political-racist elements in our society, who must be rubbing their hands in glee at current events.

But if we really believe in freedom of expression, we have to allow for the fact that a proportion of people are going to feel offended at almost anything. Those offended should have due recourse. They are entitled to argue their case. They may be able to persuade me that the creators of the Danish cartoons were insensitive and plain wrong, or they may not.

But taking to the streets with threats, violence, and arson, in the name of God, must be more offensive to God and is more offensive to other people than any cartoon.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

How (not) to Write a Poem: Part 4

This is the final part of this series of posts. Continuing from the end of part 3...

When I wrote the bulk of S1, the poem was about an eccentric man who kept half-eaten sweets stuck under his dashboard to eat later and enjoyed victimising tramps. He was to dress up as a giant tangerine and throw himself from a factory balcony. The juice from the tangerine rose, threatening to drown everyone else. All those details – apple cart, strawberry patch, landfill site, moosehead – are decent images and seemed to work well together.

So why was I surprised when Helena scrawled on the manuscript: “the poem starts here” alongside the second strophe? It just hadn’t occurred to me before that these details now had no place in the poem. None of them contribute to his death or explain the death. They are in character enough to explain why he wants to buried near a power plant, but without them, the poem takes on a mysterious quality and may set off questions in the reader’s mind as to why anyone would want such a burial. Leaving out S1 also focuses the poem on death choices – the suicide and the odd request for burial – and gives the final line greater poignancy.

Helena had told me to ignore her comments if I didn’t agree with them, but I was sure she’d got it right here.

On that final line, “part” was changed to “bit” for sonic reasons – “a bit of him slips in” is a subtle improvement, but stronger, I think. I chopped the final strophe in two. And the title was changed, using a line from the axed S1. So the final version:

The Man who Filled Cans in the Fruit Cocktail Factory

On the morning of his death, he strutted along
the factory balcony, pulp caught between his teeth.
He spat. Pomegranate pips grazed uncovered heads,
and seconds later, the scrubbed concrete of the shop floor
sucked up his diminishing silhouette sixty-eight feet down.

His last words as he fell – a glorious death is bolder than life
half-lived, or some similar gripe. His last request –
a burial in the radiated strip by the power plant,
where the apple tree withers and neon-bright rodents
gnaw on roots grown soft as old carrots.

Instead, too mean to buy a stone,
we cast his ashes to the wind.
Now, with every breath, a bit of him slips in.

If you compare this version with the first draft, you’ll see that they have nothing in common, not a single line. That isn’t normal for me. Usually even after a radical re-drafting process, the final poem will resemble the original draft in certain key areas and key lines. Here it became a new poem.

However, it does occur to me now that I should use the penultimate draft of S1 to construct a new poem, and perhaps use the sweet under the dashboard and the tramp circling the roundabout too because they are viable images that have potential. But I think leaving them out was the correct decision for this one.

I’m glad not all my poems take so long to complete. I’m glad that not all first drafts end up without a presence in a final draft. But perhaps that’s wrong. Maybe the presence is there in some way even if not a word remains. Maybe that giant tangerine is still hovering overhead.