Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Other Traditions

Last month I quoted a paragraph from John Ashbery's Other Traditions. It's a very interesting book. Ashbery analyses the work of six poets, all of whom he says have had a major influence on his own writing. The six poets are John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding, and David Schubert - a varied selection, to say the least.

Today I came across two articles in Ron Silliman's blog that discuss Ashbery's book and both make interesting reading, even (I think) if you haven't read the book.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The New Music

Her mum could read musical notes by the age of four. Looks like Alyssa is following in her footsteps. She wants to play keyboard all the time. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Poem of the Day

Lorca by William Baurle. What an excellent poem! The final two stanzas are fantastic and I love the glimmering imagery throughout. Well done, Bill.

And Now Tantrum Tamer Trolleys

In the comments section under my shopping trolley post, Heather linked me to an article on Tesco’s plans for a Tantrum Tamer shopping trolley.

'The Wanzl "Tantrum Tamer" will be kitted out with a screen through which harrassed parents can feed their offspring a range of educational DVDs and CDs. Tesco says that almost half of 3,000 parents quizzed confirmed that their little ones had suffered "boredom tantrums" as a result of being forced to trundle up and down between the aisles.'

This looks to me like the worst of bad ideas. When I was a child, I’d go to my parents and tell them I was bored and they’d tell me to go and find something to do and stop complaining. That was a good thing. It’s right that children should be allowed to get bored. That way, they can exercise their imaginations and find some way of applying their minds.

True there may be the odd tantrum along the way, and I know how awful it can be going through a store with screaming child. But the answer is not to stick a child in front of a screen to avoid boredom. Interaction with a child, getting him or her interested in what you are doing, has got to be a better way, both for the child and for the parent.

And if the child complains of being bored, well that’s part of life. Shopping is boring and so are lots of other things. Children have to get used to that and learn to devise ways to make life more interesting for themselves rather than being handed entertainment on a plate all the time.

TV and computer games have their place. They have educational value and are fun. My daughter already loves them. But she needs time to get bored too.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Supermarket Trolleys

When you come out of the Tesco supermarket in the West End of Edinburgh to unload your shopping-trolley, there is a sign a couple of hundred yards down the road which says, “No trolleys beyond this point! All trolleys have a wheel-locking mechanism.”

Has anyone ever tried to go past one of those signs with a Tesco trolley? How do the wheels know you’ve gone past the sign?

A Poem

Here's a poem. It was written by Swinburne in the 19th century and employs Sapphic metre. The first three lines of each stanza scan trochee/trochee/dactyl/ trochee/trochee and the fourth line scans dactyl/trochee (trochee = stressed syllable followed by unstressed, dactyl = stressed followed by two unstressed syllables).

The metre is adapted from Greek qualititative metre i.e. a mixture of long and short syllables, and was employed (perhaps invented) by the poet, Sappho. In English, what would have been long syllables in the Greek metre become stressed syllables in English and short syllables become unstressed.

As a form, it's never been much in vogue in English poetry because English tends to fall naturally into iambs (unstressed followed by stressed syllable) and locking iambs out of a poem is never easy.

But I've used the form several times and I like the intensity of the drive the trochees give, along with the minute pause in the dactyl's extra syllable, which stops the rhythm from becoming monotonous. The short line varies the rhythm, but maintains the intensity, and helps to make the form ideal for poems of passionate emotion, contemplation, grief, and love.

I'm not a fan of Swinburne, but this is a good poem:

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
.....Stood and beheld me.

Then to me so lying awake a vision
Came without sleep over the seas and touched me,
Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I too,
…...Full of the vision,

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
…..Saw the reluctant

Feet, the straining plumes of the doves that drew her,
Looking always, looking with necks reverted,
Back to Lesbos, back to the hills whereunder
…..Shone Mitylene;

Heard the flying feet of the Loves behind her
Make a sudden thunder upon the waters,
As the thunder flung from the strong unclosing
…..Wings of a great wind.

So the goddess fled from her place, with awful
Sound of feet and thunder of wings around her;
While behind a clamour of singing women
…..Severed the twilight.

Ah the singing, ah the delight, the passion!
All the Loves wept, listening; sick with anguish,
Stood the crowned nine Muses about Apollo;
…..Fear was upon them,

While the tenth sang wonderful things they knew not.
Ah the tenth, the Lesbian! the nine were silent,
None endured the sound of her song for weeping;
…..Laurel by laurel,

Faded all their crowns; but about her forehead,
Round her woven tresses and ashen temples
White as dead snow, paler than grass in summer,
…..Ravaged with kisses,

Shone a light of fire as a crown for ever.
Yea, almost the implacable Aphrodite
Paused, and almost wept; such a song was that song.
…..Yea, by her name too

Called her, saying, "Turn to me, O my Sappho;
"Yet she turned her face from the Loves, she saw not
Tears for laughter darken immortal eyelids,
…..Heard not about her

Fearful fitful wings of the doves departing,
Saw not how the bosom of Aphrodite
Shook with weeping, saw not her shaken raiment,
…..Saw not her hands wrung;

Saw the Lesbians kissing across their smitten
Lutes with lips more sweet than the sound of lute-strings,
Mouth to mouth and hand upon hand, her chosen,
…..Fairer than all men;

Only saw the beautiful lips and fingers,
Full of songs and kisses and little whispers,
Full of music; only beheld among them
…..Soar, as a bird soars

Newly fledged, her visible song, a marvel,
Made of perfect sound and exceeding passion,
Sweetly shapen, terrible, full of thunders,
…..Clothed with the wind's wings.

Then rejoiced she, laughing with love, and scattered
Roses, awful roses of holy blossom;
Then the Loves thronged sadly with hidden faces
…..Round Aphrodite,

Then the Muses, stricken at heart, were silent;
Yea, the gods waxed pale; such a song was that song.
All reluctant, all with a fresh repulsion,
…..Fled from before her.

All withdrew long since, and the land was barren,
Full of fruitless women and music only.
Now perchance, when winds are assuaged at sunset,
…..Lulled at the dewfall,

By the grey sea-side, unassuaged, unheard of,
Unbeloved, unseen in the ebb of twilight,
Ghosts of outcast women return lamenting,
…..Purged not in Lethe,

Clothed about with flame and with tears, and singing
Songs that move the heart of the shaken heaven,
Songs that break the heart of the earth with pity,
…..Hearing, to hear them.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Poetry and Myth-Worlds

This month, the theme of the Guardian’s poetry workshop was set by Scottish poet, John Burnside:

For this workshop, I want you to go to a tradition outside your own, a way of seeing alien to your own, and write from there - not in an imitative way ("now, here's my pseudo-Aboriginal poem ... ") but by living for a while in someone else's myth-world in order to renew your own.’

I thought that was interesting. It’s clear that different cultures live by different myths, but how that affects their poetry is far from clear. Yet poetry varies from country to country. I know I’m speaking in a general sense and that in a country like the UK, there are countless poetic styles and obsessions, but if you compare UK poetry to Japanese, say, you’ll find a different tradition and different myths in the background.

What’s less clear is whether you’d find a significant level of difference between British and Italian poetry or between British and North American poetry. In the case of the former, I see clear differences, although it’s hard to express what these are with any great clarity. The influence of surrealism on Italian poetry has perhaps led it in a direction that the mainstream of UK poetry has been reluctant to follow.

Between UK and American poetry, I also see differences. American poems tend to come down very hard on all but the most necessary modifiers and strip every sentence to its bare bones. They often have a conversational tone, “conversational” in the sense of Hemingway-style dialogue. I also see more of a focus on logical progression in American poems, a distrust of quasi-surreal imagery and mystery. Of course, as soon as I write this, I think of many U.S. poets who don’t fit into these categories at all, but it could describe an overall sensibility that can be contrasted to the UK.

I’m not sure whether this can be explained by reference to our respective national myths or not. I did wonder whether I could have sent a poem to Burnside’s workshop claiming it to be in a modern North American style based on that myth-world. I didn’t do that though.

Still less would I like to speculate on whether there is a genre of Scottish poetry distinct from that south of the border. But if one can talk of the “New York Poets”, as expressing a distinctive style as well as a geographical unity, then maybe there is a “Scottish Poets” movement out there and I just haven’t recognised it.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

New HappenStance Chapbooks

Last night I went to the Scottish Poetry Library for the launch of two new chapbooks on HappenStance Press, Matt Merritt’s Making the Most of the Light and Eleanor Livingstone’s The Last King of Fife.

I often find readings and launches boring, average poems read badly to friends and groupies, but I couldn’t say that of last night – far from it. The poems were humorous, imaginative, unsentimental but packed with emotion, and intelligently crafted. The poets read them pretty well.

Eleanor Livingstone’s poems approached their subjects with humour and empathy. They were accessible and multi-layered. I enjoyed her Last Chance, about her hometown of Leven in Fife. She draws a parallel between Leven and old USA frontier towns:

“…These days the ‘Indians’ are take-aways

but cowboys roam from door to door and drive hard deals
in double glazing. Meantime for the good, the bad
and others back on Main Street, music loud with drink

spills out of each saloon while cash tills play a tune
which sure ain’t bluegrass…”

Matt Merritt read several good poems. He clearly likes to play with sound and rhythm. Vocabulary, which dealt (on the surface) with the technical language that family members pick up when visiting cancer wards (Merritt’s sister died of cancer in 2004), had the biggest emotional pull. The last few lines are heartbreaking:

“…Every evening is cocktail hour –
methadone, codeine, immodium – a chance to discuss
the many meanings of serious, before they come
to make us comfortable,

and we can watch the sun go down,
red and furious.
It is unbearable.”

At only £3 each (£4 from outside the UK), these chapbooks are great value and are available from the HappenStance website (see my links) along with two other excellent chapbooks by Helena Nelson and Andrew Philip. It’s good to see such high-quality poetry coming from this new Scottish publishing house.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


This is a first draft. I think it's going to need a lot of effort to make this work the way I want it to.


Inside the sky
a long arch of leaves

and inside the arch
four lines of cars.

Inside a black Mercedes
behind a partition

a man organises
what’s left of his life.


‘Is she young?’ she asked.
He was thinking about

Gruyk’s theory, and finding it
lacking in logic, raised

a Budvar can and drank in
the news that she knew.

What difference does it make?
he thought out loud.


The awful crem harmonium
squeaks psalms in his head.

Deadlines on Friday, lunch
with Sue on Saturday –

‘I’m an architect,’ he told her
on first meeting. Collect

the casket on Monday. Smoke
from the funnel is ash-free.


Cause of death unknown
to spare his feelings,

the undertaker whispered.
He dumps the verdict

in a rarely-dusted corner
of his brain; everything

has its own cell. It takes
three weeks with paracetamol.


Sue is young. The car
crawls down the tunnel

of leaves. Saturday at ten
they will make love;

he will kiss only Sue’s lips.
She stood near the back

at the crematorium.
Good of her to come.


He locks away
fifteen years of marriage

in the love-cell.
The homily he keeps

for public admiration,
stores it like stained glass

in a cathedral. What he
can’t see, can’t hurt him.


The leaves are thick,
but thin strips of light

spindle down his black tie.
When he sees the road ahead

mirror the sky’s naked glare,
he fears losing

himself in so much space,
in white and boxless air.


Beyond the partition
outside the car, the trees

draw back their branches,
and the sky waits

for a cloud, for a haircut
on Tuesday, for a man

it doesn’t know to step out
and leave the door ajar.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


I was told that my profile photo was too nice. Anyway, this is me with my hair shaved off. Be afraid!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Since my daughter started at nursery, she brings things home with her - viruses, coughs, infections of various kinds. I suppose it's astonishing that she hasn't passed any of them onto me.

Until now. I'm running a fever. Not too high. Nothing too serious. With her it lasted 36 hours or so. The only problem is that I have to work tomorrow morning and evening. Ugh.

Why I'm writing this now rather than going to bed, I don't know. I'm going to bed.