Tuesday, April 08, 2008

National Poetry Competition 2008 - Sinéad Morrissey

Interesting to read Carol Rumens’s comments on Sinéad Morrissey’s poem, Through the Square Window (you can read its full text at the link), which has won this year’s UK National Poetry Competition.

When I first heard that Sinéad Morrissey had won the competition, I was very pleased, as I had really enjoyed her last collection, The State of the Prisons, one of my favourites from 2006 when I read it.

But when I first read this winning poem, I was less sure. Is it any good? Carol Rumens doesn’t really think so. I glanced through the comments after her post but got fed up very quickly – too much inane stuff.

So I’ve read it a few times. One of the things people seemed stuck over was the final image of the narrator waking with a cork stuffed in her mouth, and it bewildered me at first. But now I have an idea.

The poem is about death and, more to the point, it’s about how death seeks to inhabit us and threaten us. The dead arrive, in a dream, at N’s house “to wash the windows”. Clouds also gather, and at times the dead and the clouds appear practically synonymous. They threaten her baby son, but he is untroubled by the battering on the window. Then they go away, but leave behind “a density in the room,” which makes breathing (in the dream) difficult. It’s as if water from the clouds (which are the bringers of death) has flooded the room. But then N wakes up with this cork in her mouth “like a herbalist’s cure for dropsy.”

Dropsy is excess fluid in the body. One old superstition was that a toad should be reduced to ashes and the ashes bottled, but no other element should be allowed to mingle with those pure ashes. The ashes would be taken by the patient three times a day. So the narrator is the remedy or, more accurately, the superstitious attempt to ward off this growth of water in the body, this incremental death. But I think that the dead have indeed breached the defences of the room. They’ve gained ground, and no mere superstition is going to hold them back forever.

The title contains an image of innocence, as it references a UK television programme for young children. What looks like a “shining exterior” (S5 L1) is actually the dead “sluicing and battering and paring back.” (S4 L3) While the baby is indeed “inured” (S4 L2) from reality, the narrator certainly isn’t, and the closing image is one of conscious horror – not a dummy/pacifier, but a cork and a mouth “stopper-bottled.”

As far as craft goes, I have several issues with the poem, some of which mirror Carol Rumens’s reaction:

S1 L3 – the final “with” is surely unnecessary.

S2 – I can’t fathom the reason for the comparison with Delft. The poem doesn’t revisit the town and I can’t see how it illuminates the image of stacked clouds in Lough.

S3 L2 – the line-break on “his” is odd. What’s the point of breaking the phrase there?

S5 L2 – I just don’t understand this image of the rag in teeth “like a conjuror”, mainly because I can’t remember ever seeing a conjuror with a rag in his/her teeth. But maybe Sinéad Morrissey has done!

S8 – Although I can (I think) make sense of the final image, it seems rather contrived. It’s a nightmarish vision, like a bad dream that continues into waking life, and I see why the water image beneath the skin is relevant, as death has also crept in. It’s a jolt of an image, it made me think, it was surprising, but it feels contrived nonetheless, something labouring to fit the demands of the poem rather than emerging naturally from it.

So I’m in two minds about the poem. I’m still glad that Sinéad Morrissey won, as I like her stuff a lot. I think the poem has a definite appeal. But a winner?

(by the way, no NaPoWriMo 'thread of the day' today. This instead!)


Jane Holland said...

It is laregly inane stuff, I agree. Contributing to the Guardian blogs can feel like trying to formulate a coherent thought in a tank full of crocodiles. One's first instinct is 'Get me out of here!' and critical appraisal comes way down the list after that. But that doesn't mean we should entirely abandon the attempt to engage critically with some of these Guardian blog posts. Even if I do get barked at continually for attempting to do just that.

I wasn't hugely enamoured of this poem, it has to be said. But then I'm rarely excited by poems that win competitions. I'm not sure if that's because they've won or because there's inevitably some element of safety or predictability about the majority of prize-winning poems.

My own poems almost never win competitions like this. They lack the shape and feel of prize-winning poems. I used to get quite depressed about that. But there's nothing I can do about it, except possibly submit to a poetry-by-numbers approach to writing.

Which I refuse to do, and don't think I could anyway. Not any more. My mind's just too strange for that sort of malarkey now.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's "between panes like a conjuror" which is the intended meaning, i.e. because he's between panes, and not because of the rag? I'm not sure that makes the image any clearer though ... but it can be read both ways. A foggy piece of grammatical construction.

Maybe one of those glass cases they escape from?

Not crazy about the poem, but then I also thought CR blogging about her indifference to it was a rather pointless lemon-sucking exercise.



Matt Merritt said...

I agree. I'm not exactly bowled over by the poem, although there are plenty of things I like about it too. But Carol Rumens' post just comes over as rather unnecessary.
The comments fluctuate between inane and hilarious - some of the posters seem to think that all Carcanet poets meet in some regular secret conclave. Imagine if that was true, and of all poetry publishers - I wonder what venue the Bloodaxe conspirators would use?

Andrew Philip said...

Interesting thought, Matt. What venue would hold JH Prynne and Adrian Mitchell, to name but two, and what conspiracy would draw them together?!

Frances said...

I'm not sure if the Delft reference is meant to put us in mind of the blue and white of the pottery or maybe that's too simple. I don't think the stacked clouds image bears repetition in one stanza.

Rob, can you remind me of the date you'll be reading at the Troubadour?

apprentice said...

On the Delft I wondered if it was the china rather than the place, might also explain the "blue boy".

Barbara was tutored by Sinead Morrissey last year. Maybe she'll get some insights on the poem?

The Penelope Shuttle's masterclass at Stanza was a revelation at how you can have as many interpretations of poem as there are folk in the room!

And I agree the Guardian blog can feel like a tank of crocodiles

Michael Peverett said...

In a general way the Delft reference refers to the kind of stratocumulus clouds that Dutch artists liked to paint; more particularly Derek Mahon's "Courtyards in Delft".

I quite like the poem. In a general way I feel it's about the Troubles or more exactly about poems about the Troubles, in other words Morrissey obliquely reflecting the poetry of Mahon and Heaney in registering the inevitably different experience of a younger poet in a different time

hazel said...

I'm not crazy about the poem but I think it's good it has attracted so many comments - and so many different points of view. I read it as a woman who has died and left her child behind. Death arriving slowly and taking her to an afterlife (maybe Delft :-)).

I prefer it to the 2nd & 3rd prizes.

Rob, I've seen a conjuror pass coloured rags through his mouth so I had no problem with that image.

Jane, that blog is certainly a crocodile den!

Colin said...

in defence of the 'overhanging 'with'':

(by the way i would never have chosen this poem to win a comp, but i do disagree with Rumens about the 'with')

isn't an uneasy, haunting, awkward 'with' a contribution to this poem? doesn't it illuminate at the grammatical and semantic level the half-death that the poem describes?

i feel the same about the 'ins' that Rumens objects to in the last sentence, i quite like their clumsiness, their lack of slickness, their 'difficult to breathe in' quality. i wouldn't say these are the things in the poem to object to.

Background Artist said...

(un)interesting to read, Carol Rumens’s comments on Sinéad Morrissey’s poem, Through the Square Window were, being hinest, critically weak and a shoddy do al round, from first choice to this now, hundreds of gabbey yakkers, all first heardz D Sinéad morrissey won and we all had a massive pissup with the five grand, and which idecided not to inviote macca to, coz i think he's being dishonest; as i was and in fairness, played a farly active - unknowingly perhaps - immensely important, yet droll mechanistic role, as people who support sinead and are very, very pleased, she won the five thousand, which is not a lot; for a prize like this, as the voices in the canons blew when the hanging "with" hung at the very edge of line 3 or 4, 2...whatever, it was the second line after, five perhaps, Delft appeared, which i, due to - not only mis-reading sinead's piece from the off, compounded by the simultaneously mis-reading and incredibly rewarding for me personally as a boring event-active engagement, placement and pavement, and as the emjambed word/s quartered in the verse their ghosts aired, I really enjoyed her last collection, The State of the Prisons, one of my favourites from 2006 when I read it.

So lets get it straight, macca is here to not-get excited, under any circumstances, as if a verdict need be delivered by the lost paridizzy one, who seemes very confused, very pendantic, poe-foe, faced with talking to you or as Rumour first, i chose Shakespeare, and have always done, all my breathing moments of art on the poem of my being, good hair doctatters, shreddd sinead under the guise of friendship, and admit it Clown, you want, "in" "there"; where's here is os virtual, the freer birdsong getz, heard chavin last at the side of the motorway, about to burn solids, gas, rubber-up, get moving into tommorow man, becoming the change and petty little moppers, mope-postextual ekpresses, ekphrasis, the authentic copy of Amergin, all his small stock of three, four? poems, texts, riddles, whatever they are, many generations, 50 generations, lived in the books, live poetry for 1200 years even, is a very logical stance, my lifetime is not greater than that stacked delf, above it; look at at the two rotund baloon flare shapes, the gilded baloon, where i will be headlinging on the closing night, in a apcked gaffe, macca putting me up, a weekend of quaffing back special brew, and pretending it is like this, all the time? dublin's the same, a few crappy shows and regular art events, comprehensive listings and really, absolutely no excuse not to enjoy one's quotidian, common-place self first; the dour kirk in all, or perhaps this is insensitive to the Norman's many fuax foe fawned boring ass-guzzling rasppy slithering snakes in the pit; take taking the gloves of pretty quickly...as i so foolishly did, and knowing you set about copying, very very quick to believe summat untrue, and worse, publically state this and not retract it; not come to your senses after a minor wobble of total madness. i demand you remove this offensive respionce which i as a very concerned artist, with live in capabilty of finding and interesting subject at least, squared, smooth you all are, i know, i know, please, do not hate me for my gift, i did not choose to be better than you; but it happens, we all think we are worse than the others, who populate the topography of our totally fictional realms, mt birt on loan to south east hq, lewisham, the beauty there, holland, w=is the memory of Shakespeare, who i was immensely privileged, that the gods apportioned a very early taste of true verbal art. And whilst i do not wish to create division when non exists, i do think it only fair, and totally honerable, to point out that this cobblestones patch of tank and crock, knifed-winds whipped, round the edge of red brick, brig flatts, the spars, sourced force and appearance there of our words, and we can iron it when i avail of your very generous offer, or rather, very real dream i have of wanting to spend not just a fortnight, but a season there..!!! there, it's out. my real want is to be discoverd by filmaker or e17playwright and lots and many fellow writers on the theatrical blog, and also, first i played up front, w
But when I first read this winning poem, I was less sure. Is it any good? Carol Rumens doesn’t really think so. I glanced through the comments after her post but got fed up very quickly – too much inane stuff.

So I’ve read it a few times. One of the things people seemed stuck over was the final image of the narrator waking with a cork stuffed in her mouth, and it bewildered me at first. But now I have an idea.

"S1 L3 – the final "with" is surely unnecessary....no question mark suggests a fixed critical point in your first response rob; although just as you kicked off, you mentioned the stream from which this passie reflectional object, whatever it is, a new poetic perhaps, re-connection to the genuine source, was not possible before. delft and with, whilst not belonging to any specific cliquey family of chime, assonance and rhyme and sameyness, you go on to speak:

S2 – I can’t fathom the reason for the comparison with Delft. The poem doesn’t revisit the town and I can’t see how it illuminates the image of stacked clouds in Lough.

And you carry on in this vien, you just do not geddit rob, macca...mister Mackenzie, Lord sir macca you could be the next muirm dunn or whatever you do, execute it, by being yourself

[comment banning order in force)

Rob said...

Thanks for all those comments. They certainly have helped to improve my reading of the poem.

Competitions are often criticized for selecting well-written but ultimately bland poems, but I think that this one, the more I look at it, is quite subtle, multi-layered and thought-provoking. The images work together by association and play on the mind rather than leading up to some obvious closure. So I've warmed to it.

When Carol Rumenas says that if she had been a judge, she would have passed over it quickly, I can't help but feel that would have been a mistake. It certainly deserves greater consideration. Perhaps this in itself illustrates a problem with competitions. When judges, however good readers they are, are faced with huge numbers of poems to read, the more "obvious" candidates will have more chance than the more subtle, multi-layered ones.

I didn't mind Carol Rumens making her comments though. I guess she must have done so with Sinéad Morrissey's permission in any case, as she has quoted the poem in full at her post.

Sinéad Morrissey read the poem and talked about it on The Verb last Friday. It's online for 7 days, which means it will disappear before 9.45pm tonight.

The conspiracy idea is ludicrous. In any case, Penelope Shuttle is currently on Bloodaxe, not Carcanet, and EA Markham's work is available on a large number of presses e.g. Salt , Anvil etc. As ever, people who wish to do so will see conspiracies everywhere and anywhere.

The sad news is that EA Markham died last month. He was a really fine poet. Let's hope his poems continue to receive the attention they deserve.

Rob said...

Desmond, you appear to be attacking me for something or other, but I can't be bothered to decipher your comment to find out exactly what.


But I'd appreciate, in future, that you make your points clearly. Otherwise, I won't feel inclined to publish them. Hope that's blunt enough for you.

Rob said...

On 'The Verb', Sinéad Morrissey said that the "axle image" of the poem, around which everything else revolves, was the phrase "blue boy".

She also said that the final three lines came to her, more or less complete, after she woke up one morning and couldn't move for a few seconds - the experience of the mind waking up before the body. She began searching for a major event, something to hang around that final image.

Rob said...

Frances - the reading at the Troubadour is 26th May.

Background Artist said...

Rob "you appear to be attacking me for something or other, but I can't be bothered to decipher your comment."

OK, no problem. the comment was speculative discourse rob, at the high end of the scale and not for the casual reader operating below this scale, which is level 5 or 6 in the bardic scheme, which i don't think is much up your street, or rather, it is dead centre of where you live, but before the new scottish poetry that began around Burns time, and which is scottish in the sense scottish poets write it in english, not that it is particularly savvy or alert to the bardic influence..

My main point about this post was it was dishonest, or rather, i don't think you are really as pleased for Morrisey as you are saying, as this poem, you talk of it so detached, showing you need more time in the field of practice, i suggest weekly..

love and peace

but apart from this small gripe, nowt else to moan at, o, and to ask if i could stay at yours for a week or so please rob, during this years festival? I will return the favour by getting you a guest spot at naked lunch in dublin, and put you up in my attic and i will stay at my sisters, so that's an attic pad, all to yourself, internet, etc, food, kitchen warn welcome, lodsa new bezzie mates, in dublin, 10 minutes froim town, whaddya say, please?

Jane Holland: Editor said...

One point which cane through clearly from Desmond's post is that he thinks five grand is not a lot for one poem. Could I just say, as someone with a wallet lighter than a Weight Watchers' strawberry mousse, that I would not turn my nose up at such an amount for one poem. Or even for one collection. No siree bob.

All judges of future poetry prizes please take note.

Cailleach said...

I've been away for two days in college and come back to this great debate!

Too late for me to say that yes it was Derek Mahon's poem she was alluding to; she quotes from his work a good deal, and Sinead is a real stickler for proper grammar, so that would why that 'with' is where it is.

Rob said...

Desmond - seriously, you couldn't be more wrong! I am really, honestly, pleased that Sinéad Morrissey won the prize. I very much enjoy and admire her work. No dishonesty whatsoever. As for being detached, I will do a little dance around the room if you want me to! As for staying at my place... OK, I'll think about that, ask my wife etc.

Jane, yes, £5000 is not at all bad for a poem. Not sure what Desmond's rates are...

Barbara - thanks, and not too late.