Sunday, December 31, 2006

Water and Wind

Scotland’s biggest Hogmanay party in Edinburgh’s city centre, where more than 100,000 people were expected to join in, has finally been called off due to adverse weather conditions.

The storms are gathering force and in the last 10 minutes, we've discovered that water has opened a crack in our bedroom ceiling – presumably the winds have blown some slates off the roof – and has soaked our bed! I don’t suppose I can really complain. At least I have a roof over my head. But it’s not an ideal start to the New Year.

Happy Hogmanay!

Scots used to celebrate New Year by watching Andy Stewart sing traditional, patriotic songs on the telly. Then they'd go out to "first-foot" (visit) family members and friends after the midnight bells and spend most of the night drinking whisky and eating shortbread.

These days, people gather in town squares and listen to DJs playing club records. Or in cities like Edinburgh, pay a great deal of money to listen to major international rock groups in near-blizzard conditions.

Anyway, this video - The Corries, singing Scotland the Brave, with somewhat altered lyrics - is a blast from the past and seems perfect for Hogmanay. It's of its time of course (early seventies) and not exactly pc...

Happy 2007 when it comes!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

My 2006 Round-Up

Here’s my round-up of the year’s poetry. I’m sure I’ve missed out things I’ll later remember, but it will have to do.

Best Poetry Collections published in 2006

After – Jane Hirshfield (Bloodaxe)
Bad Shaman Blues – W. N. Herbert (Bloodaxe)

Best Poetry Books read in 2006 (but not published then)

The Emperor’s Babe – Bernardine Evaristo (Penguin)
New and Selected Poems – Philip Levine (Knopf)
The Good Neighbour – John Burnside (Cape)
Lives of the Animals – Robert Wrigley (Penguin)
Each Happiness Ringed by Lions – Jane Hirshfield (Bloodaxe)
Scattering Eva – James Sheard (Cape)
Twenty-Three Poems – Michael Mackmin (HappenStance)

Books Published in 2006 I haven’t read yet, but want to soon

Orpheus – Don Paterson [versions of Rilke] (Cape)
District and Circle - Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber)
Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid - Simon Armitage (Faber and Faber)
Horse Latitudes - Paul Muldoon (Faber and Faber)

Favourite Poems Published in 2006

Found Audience – Sarah Wardle (Poetry Review)
Fire – George Szirtes (in his blog, around July/August, I think)

Favourite Poem read in 2006 (but not published then)

Bear Dreams – Robert Wrigley

Favourite Poem posted to a Workshop

Paper DollsPaula Grenside (during NaPoWriMo)

Favourite Poetry Magazines

Poetry Review
The Red Wheelbarrow

Favourite Poetry Webzines


Most Cringe-Inducing Comments on Poetry

One of the judges of the Forward Prize calling Sean O’Brien’s (very good) winning poem “as close as it is possible to come to a perfect poem.”

A critic commenting, in a major UK magazine, on a poet’s debut chapbook (best to leave both nameless), that a certain poem “suggests just why everyone is so glad of [this poet’s] arrival on the scene.” (who is “everyone”? Whose "scene"? What is meant by “arrival”?)

Best Essay on Poetry

Michael Schmidt – StAnza lecture: What, How Well, Why?

Best Live Poetry Gig

Jackie Kay, at the Shore Poets in Edinburgh

Thursday, December 28, 2006

First you fall in love...

...then you find a girl,
then you find another girl.

The words of a song by Roy Moller (it may have been co-written with a guy called Rob Smith - perhaps not), who I haven't seen in years, not since I moved to Italy six years ago. At that time, he was playing in a band called Meth O.D, who were really excellent, a kind of psychedelic rock/pop hybrid. They released two fine albums, Texas God Starvation (particularly good) and Dry Riser, and there's a third one, unreleased, which was quite amazing - not everything in it worked, but it was never boring and the good bits were very good. I also played in a band, Pure Television, and for a while we collaborated in an event called the TV O.D. Club, which featured ourselves and a special guest each month in a Glasgow pub. My band never got anywhere, but Roy was really talented, as you can hear at his MySpace site.

Click on First You Fall in Love, which is a terrific pop song, and would have been the Christmas number one, had there been any justice in the world. The other songs are good too.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

This is Love

Last night my neighbours decided to party until 3am. In one room they had prog rock. In another room, there was a karaoke machine. I particularly remember some boring prog band around 2am while the rest of the family howled Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love at the top of their voices.

I got woken up at 7.30am, went to the living room, which is next to their bedroom, and played this, from PJ Harvey, at a loud volume.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Christmas!

I’ll be back blogging sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day with my picks of the year.

Two poems of the season by George Herbert (1593-1633) below:

Christmas (I)

After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up the next inn I could find.

There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers' most sweet relief?

Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger:

Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.

Christmas (II)

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n His beams sing, and my music shine.

Friday, December 22, 2006

If you are a David Lynch fan...

...and need poetic inspiration for the Christmas holidays, you could try writing something for a new anthology of poems based on Lynch's movies, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

I have both movies on DVD and it's been a pleasure watching them again and reflecting on them. Every time I watch Lost Highway, I notice something that escaped my attention before - the number 26, the music playing on the garage radio, Mr Eddy's shift of identity - it's an astonishing conception.

The deadline for poems is 31 December. So not much time.

StAnza 2007 Programme

The full programme for the StAnza Poetry Festival 2007 was released yesterday, although tickets aren't yet on sale. The festival has an international flavour with poets from all over the UK as well as the USA, Malawi, Slovakia, Russia, Italy etc.

And as well as famous names, there are ‘up-and-coming’ poets (I’m never quite sure who qualifies for that accolade and who doesn’t), and those who are simply coming, whether up, down or in between.

I am on, under the ‘Pamphlet Poets’ banner in the 'readings' section, on Sunday 18th March from 11.30am-12.30, along with Diana Hendry and Lyn Moir.

In addition, there is the 100 Poets Gathering. I am number 55 in the cute multicoloured diagram, a shade of pale green.

Poet, Colin Will, who designed the website, explains why you should go.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

In Praise of Coldness

I discovered the poetry of Jane Hirshfield recently and have been hooked ever since. I like the space she leaves for her readers to fill in. The connections she points to between images are neither so obvious as to be not worth making, nor so tenuous that her poems feel fragmented or meaningless.

Her poem, In Praise of Coldness (from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions: Selected Poems) is a case in point. It’s considered a virtue in modern poetry, particularly its North American variety, to exhibit coldness, to draw back from explicit emotion, particularly if you are writing on an emotional subject. If you turn up the emotional volume in a poem about death, illness, or depression, you’ll be accused of manipulating the reader.

For instance if you talk about “tears scalding your cheeks in waves of despair,” you’ll find readers telling you (rightly) that you’re going over-the-top – that tears don’t actually “scald” and that “waves” contain far more liquid than those falling tears at a funeral. Your images attempt to manipulate the reader into feeling the depth of your grief, but they aren’t true. They are sentimental manipulation. If you want to move the reader, you need to find some other way.

So Jane Hirshfield begins her poem by observing this “preserving dispassion.”

In Praise of Coldness

‘If you wish to move your reader,’
Chekhov wrote, ‘you must write more coldly.’

Herakleitos recommended, ‘A dry soul is best.’

And so at the center of many great works
is found a preserving dispassion,
like the vanishing point of quattrocento perspective,
or the tiny packets of desiccant enclosed
in a box of new shoes or seeds.

“Desiccant”, which contains ideas of both dryness and preservation, is the perfect image here, and illustrates this poet’s penchant for precision of image. I don’t understand enough about 15th century Italian art to fully comprehend the previous image, but “vanishing point” has an ominous air about it, a duplicity of meaning – the central area of coldness and dispassion is also the place of disappearance and evasion. Yet, the coldness is to be praised, and this tension inherent in the poem's title is tightened more and more as the poem continues.

She continues the next stanza with a typical deceptive simplicity.

But still the vanishing point
is not the painting,
the silica is not the blossoming plant.

And the coldness and dispassion is not the poem. It is the means by which the poem paints or blossoms, but not the end in itself. Paradoxically, the coldness helps to produce the heat of colour and scent and beauty.
As an aside, I love the effortless use of sound here – the point/painting/plant alliteration, distanced enough to have its effect without the loud –p becoming too loud, and the echo of desiccant in silica. Again, that precision with words.

What comes next is unexpected. At least it was for me.

Chekhov, dying, read the timetables of trains.
To what more earthly thing could he have been faithful? –
Scent of rocking distances,
smoke of blue trees out the window,
hampers of bread, pickled cabbage, boiled meat.

Scent of the knowable journey.

Nothing could be more dispassionate than a train timetable – those lists of numbers and place names, neatly tabulated, hardly stimulating material. And yet, Jane Hirshfield looks behind the surface of the sheets of paper, the tables and figures, and sees the “knowable journey” – its smells, movements, colours, tastes, images. The timetables become a map of memory and an image of faithfulness to the earth, even as death approaches.
More importantly it fixes the reader both on his/her journeys and also on his/her mortality, for we all know where our knowable journeys end. The coldness of the image is belied by its associations.

Then a further jump.

Neither a person entirely broken
nor one entirely whole can speak.

Now here, the poet tantalises the reader. How can she say this, on the basis of what’s come before? It’s a clever technique. The final line, which is still to come, holds the key to making sense of this, in the context of the rest of the poem. At the moment, Jane Hirshfield has succeeded in cranking up the tension to breaking-point. Then comes the final line, which is like a proverb, and proverbial endings are so unfashionable in contemporary poetry that she deserves bravery points for attempting it:

In sorrow, pretend to be fearless. In happiness, tremble.

So you’re not to let it all hang out. Just as Chekhov’s timetable was only the surface of a multi-scented, stimulating journey that he clung to in the face of death – his faithfulness to life was not broken by death’s approach, but he was unable to release himself wholly to the unknown journey either – so the reader is asked to live within a similar tension between life and death, holding on and non-attachment, emotion and tranquility; that preserving dispassion, which is vital to the painting or plant, but which is not it.

Jane Hirshfield asks for pretence, calls for lies even, so that the truth may be revealed. It’s the kind of poem that invites the reader to revisit it and to ask its questions again and again, as many of her poems do.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

10 Questions, More Answers

Very Like a Whale asked me 10 Questions a while back, and at the link you can now find answers to the same questions from Scavella and Julie Carter.

It’s good stuff.

A Question...

Imagine you feel like a spot of live poetry and you see that a few poets are reading in a well known poetry venue. You don’t know much about the poets, but the venue tends to have good stuff.

Do you feel more inclined to go if the event is:

a) free.
b) Costs about £3 / $5.

In other words, does free mean a) great! Just what you always want!, or b) that what’s on offer can’t be worth hearing?
And does payment indicate a) a degree of quality, or b) nothing whatsoever?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Become a Supporter...

…of HappenStance.

For only £5 per year, you help to support one of the most enterprising poetry chapbook publishers in the UK, and you also get:

advance notice of each new publication, by post or by email with at least one sample extract

warm and appreciative invitations to launches

15 percent off the cover price of each publication

the chance to order a pre-signed copy of new publications

a chapter of The HappenStance Story each year (very entertaining publication)

one free copy per year of a HappenStance publication

courteous and helpful feedback on your own work, if submitted, though chances of publication remain exactly the same as everybody else’s.

If you’re in the UK, send a cheque for £5 to the address here, detailing your name, email address and postal address, and the chapbook you would like a free copy of (there’s a list of publications at the site).

If you’re outside the UK, and can’t pay in pounds sterling, it’s probably best to email Helena Nelson and make an enquiry at the email address here.

What better way could you spend a fiver?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

X-Factor Final Result: Leona Wins!

Heh. Well, my prediction was wrong and Leona won.

They both had to sing the same song to finish off the show, A Moment Like This, which I understand was a Kelly Clarkson hit - that might explain why I don't remember it. The song was entirely forgettable, but Leona wiped the floor with Ray. Ray sang it with warmth and expression, but he couldn't get anywhere near Leona's vocal performance.

Here's Leona’s version. Here’s Ray’s version. It does strike me that the song was obviously chosen with Leona in mind – a touch of unfairness perhaps?

And here's the announcement of the result and Leona’s reaction. At first it’s surprise and obvious joy, which quickly seems to change to complete shock. She can’t string two words together, although she was able to sing again.

Credit to Ray for being the best of losers. He seems like a nice guy. Now Leona will get a Christmas number one and put out an album with the X-Factor crew. I'd like to see her sing original soul songs, but she probably won't be allowed to - a shame, as she has an amazing soul voice. Maybe one day.

X-Factor Final: Half-Time Report

Well, Ray and Leona have sung their allocated three songs. The view of the judges is that Ray = entertainer and Leona = voice + big-selling album, so although they seem to be sitting on the fence, there's no doubt who they want to win the £1m album contract.

On the night Ray entertained well. He has a great career ahead of him on the stage, on variety shows, maybe on TV. But if he makes an album, who is going to buy it? Leona sang a nervous Whitney to start off with, a few uncharacteristic dodgy notes that the judges generously overlooked. Then she sang two ballads perfectly. I think Simon has made a mistake in not giving her an up-tempo soul number tonight.

My prediction - I think Ray will win, even though Leona is much better. Results are due in just over an hour's time.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Carmen Consoli

When I lived in Turin, I couldn’t find anyone who liked Carmen Consolì, from Sicily, even though she is one of Italy’s most popular recording artists. People I knew commented on her “nasal voice” and screwed up their faces. I liked her a lot. She combines intelligent lyrics with strong melodies and she is much less bland than most Italian rock singers.

Shades of Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, but no one’s totally original.
Three song videos:

Amore di Plastica

Contessa Miseria

Parole di Burro

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Poetry Pamphlet Party and Fair

Yesterday evening, I was staffing the HappenStance stall at the Poetry Pamphlet Party and Fair in Edinburgh along with Eleanor Livingstone.

The “party” element was free wine. The fair itself was quite busy, despite the stormy, miserable weather, and the HappenStance stall sold fairly well. There were lots of poetry reading sessions, each poet with a two-minute slot. As always at these events, some read well and others really need to stand in front of a mirror and take a long, hard look at themselves reading poetry.

I bought a few chapbooks and exchanged several. Namely:

23 Poems – Michael Mackmin (HappenStance)
The Theory of Everything – James Wood (HappenStance)
The Small Hours – Tom Duddy (HappenStance)
Under the Threshold – Dorothy Lawrenson (Perjink)
Landing on Eros – Tony Lawrence (Tiplaw)
The Faithful City: Visual Poems - Stephen Nelson (afterlight)
Pillars of Salt – Judy Brown (Templar)
Peeling Onions - Apprentice (Tyne and Esk Writers)

Also, I can report that the new edition of Sphinx (number 5) is just out, and looks very interesting, with articles on Shoestring press, Dreadful Night Press, and Donut Press, along with a hatful of chapbook reviews, including my review on Here, a chapbook by Shetlandic poet, Lise Sinclair.

In addition, a cute publication titled The HappenStance Story: Chapter 1, by Helena Nelson, is hot off the press. It tells the story of HappenStance and all its writers from the editor’s point-of-view. It gives an insight into the workings of a small publishing press, and includes an example of work from each chapbook. A good, entertaining overview.

I bumped into the editor of a Scottish literary magazine on the way home, and we took the bus to Princes Street. We’d both had a few glasses of wine, and…let’s just say the editor was forthright on the dire state of Scottish poetry today. I don’t agree, but it made me think on whether the top Scottish poets today will still be so admired in 20 or 30 years time. It’s hard to know, of course.

Matt Merritt

Poet, Matt Merritt, finally has a blog. And about time too…

Ashley Cole, Melanie Phillips, Victoria Beckham - what a brilliant year it's been for fine literature

This article from The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman is hilarious.

"...Even intellectuals must relax from time to time, though, so I made sure to pick up a copy of That Extra Special Little Bit Extra: Victoria Beckham's Guide to Fashion, Healthy Eating and All-Round Psychological Stability. As soon as I read about it on Amazon ("Customers who bought this book also bought The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins") I knew it was one for me. And I wasn't disappointed: apart from all the bits about high heels and lipstick and women's clothing, it is a richly imagined tour de force, astounding in the sheer scope of its ambition…"

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Poetry Zines

I’ve recently added quite a few magazines and web journals to my “literary zines” section, halfway down the right-hand column of this blog. It’s not that the zines are new in themselves, but they’ve either just created a website recently or I somehow hadn’t got around to including them before.

I’m particularly impressed by the Blackbird web journal.

And it’s good to see that Chapman, Scotland’s top literary magazine, now has a good website, as the previous one was awful (I suspect that was due to lack of funding). The same goes for Poetry Review, as their previous design was a real mess. Much better now (in comparison), although the clash of colours is strange. Is the yellow the main culprit?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Scribbling it Down

Scavella has had the idea "to post a poem in progress — yes, one of mine — for people to see it in its various states of undress and to watch and contribute to the process," which sounds worth following.

This made me think of how poems progress, from that elusive initial spark to getting something down on paper. I tend to draft a lot of my poems on my computer these days, but now and again, I resort to paper and pen. The sonnet I wrote for this week's Sonnet Sunday, Bethlehem, began with two-and-a half lines in my head that I transferred to the computer screen, and then I switched to pen and paper. The resulting chaos is below.

As you can see, my mind was not in good shape on Sunday (I think you can tell that, even if you can't read any of it - but if you click on the picture, you can read it, I think)! I then switched back to the computer again. When I feel I have a reasonable degree of coherence in a poem, I call it a first draft. And if it's Sunday, I post it to this blog. The poem isn't at all finished, but I am often surprised at how persevering with a page full of scribbles can at least eventually end up with 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone by writing a sonnet for Sonnet Sunday that would also work on our Christmas cards. However, despite the seasonal references, the poem didn't turn out card-friendly. Here it is anyway.

Bethlehem (early draft)

The soldiers staggered from the Empire’s fringes
with reindeers, sleighs, and lager crates, the sour
perfume of the town’s christingle oranges
drawing them forward, closer by the hour.

Between killings, they raved through crazy days.
Drunk on cheap booze and the adrenaline
of violence, they partied nights, and those delays
cost vital hours. But when they reached the inn,

they sensed their power. People followed on,
guided by starlight, each of them afraid
of emptiness, of flight, of being alone,
of God being gone, or lost, or left for dead.

Most claimed the shape of God remained, impressed
on hay. The soldiers shook in heavenly rest.

The X-Factor Semi-Final

The X-Factor was a touch dull last night. I couldn’t get interested even though, as ever, I made an attempt to overcome my musical prejudices and think about who was best in performance.

I’ve never liked Ray, but he did OK yesterday. He is from Liverpool, and his genuine tears of emotion after singing You’ll Never Walk Alone probably got him the extra votes he needed to take him into the final. This song was easily his best moment in the series (see how generous I am! I can’t stand him). I think he’s fine for staged musicals, but I don’t much of a recording career for him. We already have a Tony Bennett. Ray just doesn’t convince me.

Poor old Ben! The judges loved him. I didn’t. Last night he growled through the awful Bryan Adams song Everything I Do (I Do it for You), and then growled through U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. He growls roughly in tune, true, but it’s still a growl, a commercially-oriented growl, and it’s become really tedious. Although I’m sure he has miles more talent than Ray, I think, on the performances, he deserved to get booted out. He didn’t cry afterwards either, which may have lost him a few sympathy votes.

Leona was good, again way, way ahead of the others. It appears that a tiny margin separated all three contestants. If that’s the case, I can only assume that people vote for the style of music, the personalities, who they fancy most, and the songs they like best. If they voted for talent, Leona would win by miles. She sang a rather boring Whitney Houston song (I Have Nothing) effortlessly, but then did a terrific rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which showed how good a singer she is. Like Ray, she was in tears afterwards.

So the final is next Saturday – Ray vs. Leona. It should be a foregone conclusion. But it probably won’t go to plan. Whoever wins, only one of the contestants in the entire show has ever stood a chance of being a star, and whether she wins or not won’t make any difference to that.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

New from HappenStance

Twenty-Three Poems by Michael Mackmin, editor of top UK magazine, The Rialto. This should be good. Take a look at the sample poem.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Mind The Gap

John Burnside’s fascinating cross-cultural essay on reading American poetry, from Poetry Review. I’m glad to see this is now online (thanks to Frank Wilson for spotting it). Also good to see Burnside's appreciation of the excellent Robert Wrigley .

My Amazon Ranking

The Clown of Natural Sorrow has a current Sales Rank of 1,256,951 in Books.

Not bad. Only 1,256,950 ahead of me. Dan Brown should look out. I’m closing the gap on him every day. Of course, buying from HappenStance directly is an even better idea.

Well, Christmas is coming. What better excuse to give the book a plug…

(the illustration is from a cover of Ambit magazine)

10 Questions

I am the first victim in Very Like a Whale’s 10 Questions series.

The questions were interesting, but not easy to answer, and I might have responded to some of them differently one day to another. I tried not to fudge them.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Send-Off by Sian Hughes

This poem has won the prestigious UK Arvon Poetry Competition. It seems to be about the abortion and hospital-grave burial of a child identified with the extra chromosone that causes Down’s Syndrome.

I’ve read it a few times and I think it’s pretty good. And brave. A hard poem to write, still harder to live.

I might say more about it soon. A quick section from the poem

…My darling, sleep well in your bed.
Don’t come out on the landing where it’s cold

because, you see, I won’t come home
in my long dress and necklace

and blow you kisses up the stairs.
I won’t carry you back to bed

to rub your blue feet better
or fetch blankets from the box.

No, you don’t need a bottle, cuddle,
special rabbit, teddy, bit of cloth.

You don’t even need to close your eyes.
They were born that way, sealed shut…

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Without You: Story of a Song

Following Leona’s rendition of the song Without You, on Simon Cowall’s X-Factor show last week, I was amazed at some people who compared it to Mariah Carey’s version, suggesting that Leona had outclassed Carey. I have no argument with that. I can’t stand Mariah Carey, and her version of Without You sounds more an excuse to show off her famed vocal range than an attempt to sing the song with the sensibility it deserves.

But surely if comparisons are going to be made, they should be made to the original, I thought, by Harry Nilsson, back in 1971. Nilsson’s version is terrific – a plaintive, desperate cry, combined with great vocal control. It’s poetry in a way – an example of how emotion can often be communicated more powerfully through well-timed restraint than by histrionics (like Carey).

However, when I looked at the sleeve notes on Nilsson’s album, I realised he hadn’t written the song. Then I realised there was an eerie story behind it.

The song was written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of the band Badfinger, and released as a track on their 1970 No Dice album. Nilsson recounts how he was wandering about his house humming the tune. He got out all his Beatles albums to seek out which album it was on, and found nothing. Eventually, he discovered the Badfinger album, recorded Without You in 1971, and Nilsson's version became a massive international hit. You can hear a snatch of the lo-fi, but interesting, Badfinger original here (towards the bottom of the page).

However, Badfinger didn’t benefit from the royalties for long. Their manager, Stan Polley, was allegedly embroiled in dodgy deals and the group couldn’t get an album released due to litigation. Pete Ham, in inexplicably desperate financial straits, hanged himself in his garden in 1975 and wrote a note to his girlfriend and her son, which read, “Anne, I love you. Blair, I love you. I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better. Pete. P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”

In 1983, Tom Evans and another member of the band, Joey Molland, had an argument, reportedly about the share of royalties each deserved from Without You. Immediately afterwards, Evans hanged himself, also in his garden.

Mariah Carey covered the song (what is she smiling about? And what’s with the choir? Does she have no respect for words?) and released it as a single in the USA on 15 January 1994. Harry Nilsson died of heart failure later the same day…

(this final coincidence appears to be disputed, as the date of Carey's release is given, by some sources, as 24th January, and one source also gives this date for Nilsson's death, which is wrong. So this may be an urban legend, however believable, or perhaps even inevitable, it might sound)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Gerry Cambridge

I don’t know how I managed to miss this at the time, a week-long blog by Gerry Cambridge, answering questions from Scottish schoolchildren. I’m glad I’ve found it now. It’s really good. You’ll learn from it (among many other things) how many poets it takes to change a lightbulb, why poetry isn’t just for sissies, and:

I remember a bit of advice about writing poems, which also applies to readings:
"If you can't make it good, at least make it short."

The worst types of readings are those the poet begins with, "I don't usually read in public my long, difficult poems about the fate of modern man, but tonight I'm going to make an exception..."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

Hot off the press...

Vacant Sonnet
(first draft, with a few tweaks)

I waited long and finally, it has
arrived, and just as suddenly departs –
the vacant poetry of nothingness,
where lines push at the margin and collapse;

where assonance means –o and metaphor
is like, but never like enough, and rhymes
flaunt their verisimilitude. The fewer
words, the closer zero’s paradigm.

The void beckons, and some welcome its pitch
hollow. The pause between each phrase, each act
glossed over, fill the toothless gaps from arch
poets in love with their own intellect.

And I confess, I wrote these lines today
with no space left, and something still to say.

The X-Factor: who can stop Leona?

Whoever thought up the idea of having a Barry Manilow theme to the X-Factor last night, out of all the songwriters in the world to choose from, should be forced to listen to Manilow at volume 10 non-stop for a week in penance.

The contestants’ versions of Manilow’s songs were pretty forgettable. Even Leona didn’t sing with her usual intensity, despite the raves she got from the judges. The Macdonalds, Ray, and Ben were all dreadful. Manilow himself looked to me as though he had undergone several plastic surgery operations too many. His face stretched out like a rubber mask. I was amazed he was capable of speaking through that slit that once was a mouth, and there was something weird about the way his head rocked about when he sang, as if it had been stuck on at the neck with sellotape.

The second half, in which the contestants got to choose their own songs, was better. The Macdonald Brothers chose the Bay City Rollers’ Shang-a-Lang, which at least was a good laugh. They got booted out though. So the run is at an end. Will they go back to being a wedding band, or will they find some kind of employment in the music industry? It’s a hard one to call.

Ray sang My Way. It was terrible. I don’t like the song, but it’s like getting a 10-year-old to read The Waste Land with conviction. Ray is a teenager, he looks 12, and he’s singing about how he’s lived his life his way. Nah. And he didn’t sing it well either. Astonishingly, the judges all loved it, which makes me wonder about them.

Ben did an a cappella version (along with a gospel choir) of Queen’s Somebody to Love. Full marks for bravery. I don’t know that it quite worked all the way, but it was interesting and he sang it well, with more restraint than he’s shown in recent weeks. When he aims for high notes, he seems often able only to shout his way up to them. Nothing like Leona’s control. He definitely deserved to go through and he will surely be in the final against Leona. However, I detect something of the prima donna in him. I hope he doesn’t win.

Leona sang a truly great song, Without You. I love the original version and last night, I didn’t think Leona had carried it off, despite the great cheering of the crowd and the judges falling over themselves to say how brilliant it was. But actually, when I listened to it today, I realised that she had done a very good job.

If anyone other than Leona wins the X-Factor, there is something badly wrong. Although I still think she will have a better musical career if she comes second or third.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Mull Historical Society

The Mull Historical Society might sound like an odd thing to be interested in, although no odder than poetry, I suppose. In fact, the MHS is a one-man band, a guy called Colin MacIntyre, from the Isle of Mull, Scotland, who has released some of the my favourite albums of the current decade. Apparently, the next album will be released under his own name.

This is the video of Watching Xanadu from the 2001 album, Loss. You might detect a late Beach Boys influence in this song, but the MHS takes its influences from a variety of bands and stirs it into something new. If you like it, you'll also like How ‘bout I Love You More.

Better than anything in the charts.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Poetry Promise

I’ll be saying more about the StAnza Poetry Festival soon, but for now – from the sample poems offered by participants, enjoy this from Roy Fisher: "Poetry You Can Count On” indeed.

A humorous poem that is actually funny.


I am ‘featured poet’ in the first issue of Umbrella, edited by American poet, Kate Benedict .

This means you can read nine poems by me, mainly (as you'll note) in mystical and spiritually questioning mode. And, in addition, I'm the subject of an interview conducted by Katy Evans-Bush.

It seems to me like an excellent debut for the zine. There are some strong poems and prose pieces in there, with a wide variety of poets and styles, and it’s very well-produced. Looks great! I’m really pleased to be a part of it.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Robert Fanning's Green Stephania

Scoplaw makes an interesting close reading of Robert Fanning’s poem, Green Stephania, and in the process, examines how poems work. He tries to make his examination accessible to beginners and advanced poets alike. It's long, but worth coming back to, I think. I'd never heard of Robert Fanning until today.


…in which I get talking to a very charming barmaid in the Bar Brel, Glasgow, where I used to participate in live poetry readings every month in the late nineties:

Me: Do you still have a monthly poetry-reading event here?
Barmaid: Never heard of that.

Me: It used to happen in the little room upstairs. The readings would always be interrupted by crashing pans and plates.
Barmaid: That’s because the room’s next to the kitchen. But no, we don’t have it anymore.

Me: It’s still on the Scottish Poetry Library’s list of events. I’ll email them and ask them to delete it (I did this and it's now gone).
Barmaid: I think they have poetry readings in a café down the road. I always thought it was kind of… weird.

Me: Weird?
Barmaid: Well, you know…

Me: I suppose it depends who’s reading. It might be weird. But not always.
Barmaid: It’s just… This bar is more into live jazz and stuff. I can’t imagine poetry here (shaking head). It's a strange thing to do.

Me: It was a good event. Really. And you had jazz back then too.
Barmaid: Well, at the jazz events, we always get good sales at the bar. I expect that’s why the poetry got stopped.

Me: (speechless…)

Sounds like poetry has something of an image problem!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Traffic Calming, A Trapped Painter, and a Poet

A strange day today. I was back at work after my all too short holiday. I left my wife to cope with the chaos around our house, and not just a tornado of a four-year-old.

Firstly, signs had appeared on our street a few days ago warning us that we couldn’t park from Wednesday onwards for a week. The traffic-calming bumps were to be dug up and new bumps put in their place. There seemed no reason for this, as the present bumps are fine. However, any cars parked where they shouldn’t be would be towed away, so we had to comply. Most of the street was covered with signs, but my wife managed to find a parking space about 8-minutes-walk away last night. Today, no work took place. Indeed most of the No Parking signs disappeared, except for a fifty metre area outside our house. So we’ll wait to see if anyone turns up to drill the street away tomorrow. It will be interesting to see what happens as our next-door neighbours haven’t moved their car. Maybe they know something we don’t!

Secondly, we are having our window-frames, outside doors, and guttering painted, which means we have to leave windows and doors open despite the chill winter temperatures. Today, the painter was on the roof, painting the window-frames at the front of the house. My wife was with our daughter at the back. She heard a thumping noise, but ignored it. About half an hour later, the doorbell rang. A frail, elderly man told my wife that someone was stuck on the roof. The winds had blown the painter’s ladder off the wall and he had been stuck up there for 30 minutes, shouting to passers-by, who had all ignored him! Neither the old man nor my wife could lift the ladder, so my wife opened a window, which only opened a quarter of the way, and the painter managed to lever himself from the roof through the gap into safety.

I read a few poems by Jane Hirshfield earlier this evening. I know she is famous in the USA, but she was published for the first time in the UK only last year. The poems I read were really good, and it’s made me want to read more.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

From Each Skull, A Story

I’ve downloaded Rik Roots’s new .pdf e-book, From Each Skull, A Story.

So far, it looks like a worthy addition to the Rik canon. Well worth checking out (and if you email Rik quickly enough, he has 5 free copies of his excellent paperback, The Rik Verse to give away).

Louis Jenkins on the Prose Poem

Louis Jenkins, in Magma, talks about the prose poem – what he aims at when writing one, how trends have changed over the years, and how the prose poem relates to more formal poetries.

I thought this bit was great, especially the hayseed got up in the tuxedo and the “even though there may be no real poetry happening” –

It seems to me that most free verse has a kind of formal quality, even though it may be written in the most prosaic language, relate the most prosaic experience, and lack any insight. It’s like some hayseed got up in a tuxedo. This is due primarily to line-breaks. They give the thing the look of a poem even though there may be no real poetry happening. I thought why not just write it out in prose and see if this ‘experience’ has any poetry about it? I know some poets will argue about ‘the music’ etc, etc… That doesn’t interest me. I think that whatever it is that makes a poem work, that sort of mysterious moment of recognition (Robert Frost called the poem “a momentary stay against confusion”), can happen in a prose poem as easily as in any other kind of poem.

I like the music of poetry and get frustrated when I read poems without any, of the kind he describes. But writing it out in prose seems more honest. If it’s prose, why not make it look like prose? If the layout of a piece leads me to expect prose, I might enjoy its prose, rather than keep wondering why it’s been written in lines.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

For this week’s Sonnet Sunday, I’ve written a Curtal Sonnet. I’ve already written one about Pluto, and thought I’d try Venus this time.


When bright Venus catches his eye, he will spare
a glance for the darkness that surrounds her. It rings
her face in a field of unrequited love, the unknown
and overlooked who shyly burned up from afar,
the valentines left un-guessed at, the short-lived flings
that might have lasted, the silence of a phone.

She tempts him with an simple show of light, a spark
of silver. She is easy to like. He can’t help but admire
her beauty and wonders why she seems so alone.
When he finishes seducing her, forgetful of the dark,
he's lost his desire.

X-Factor Update

Leona had tonsillitis this week. She could hardly croak a note by Wednesday and was filmed sitting on her bed pretending to sing. But even a Leona with tonsillitis is more than a match for the rest. I had asked in a previous blog entry whether the world needed another Whitney Houston, and Leona obliged by singing a Whitney Houston song, I Will Always Love You, exactly the way Whitney would. She also sang Lady Marmalade, very much “voulez-vous chanter avec moi ce soir?” as opposed to “coucher.” Would I like to sing with her this evening? Huh?

She still blew everyone else off the stage.

The group who have consistently endured the most cutting comments from Simon Cowell have been Scottish duo, the Macdonald Brothers. He calls them a wedding band, which is indeed what they did before entering the X-Factor. This week, they decided to sing the Proclaimers classic, 500 Miles.

It backfired on them a little when the Proclaimers’ manager was asked to offer his support for his fellow countrymen, and instead barked that the Macdonalds hadn’t half the talent of the Proclaimers and represented “everything that was wrong with this kind of show.”

He’s right in a way. The Proclaimers do have vastly more talent. People who can write a song as good as Letter from America (brilliantly ironic video too!)are way ahead of anyone on a TV talent competition. But the manager also misses the point, I think, as the X-Factor isn’t really about talent, despite being billed as a talent show. It’s entertainment – the sparring of the judges, the unpredictability of the public vote, the way acts can be hyped one week and booted out the next, the backstory of each of the contestants and the way we begin to feel we almost know them.

And frankly, the Macdonalds shone for the first time last night, and although they added nothing to the Proclaimers’ original, they looked as if they were finally enjoying themselves. And Simon was forced into telling them that it was “very good.” Yay! Well done, guys...

I’m still working on a sonnet for Sonnet Sunday. Coming up. Before midnight, I hope.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Quasimodo Again

I’ve translated another two Quasimodo poems, the first two from his 1947 volume, Giorno Dopo Giorno (Day After Day).

On the Willow Branches

And we, how could we have sung
with a foreign foot pressed on our heart,
among the dead littering the piazzas
on grass brittle with ice, over the lamblike
crying of children, over the black howl
of the mother who stumbled upon her son
crucified on a telegraph pole?
On the willow branches, as offerings,
even our harps were suspended,
and rocked gently in the mourning wind.


This silence frozen in the streets,
this apathetic wind, which now slinks
low through dead leaves or rises again
to the colours of foreign flags…
perhaps my anxiety to send word to you
before the sky once more shuts
over another day, perhaps the inertia,
our most contemptible evil… Life
is not in this terrible, dark beating
in the heart, life is not piety, life
is no more than a bloodsport where death
is in flower. O my sweet gazelle,
I remind you of that bright geranium
on a wall riddled with bullet holes.
Now, does even death hold no consolation
for the living, even death for love?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Class C

C-List Blogger Like Rik, I am a C-list Bloglebrity, which suits me fine. To find your status in the star-studded blogworld, go here.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Out of the Blue

The text of Simon Armitage’s poem, Out of the Blue, which was written for the 5th anniversary of the September 11th attack, got a mixed reaction from people commenting at this blog.

Anyway, you can now see it as it was originally intended to be seen, as a film, with the poem read by Rufus Sewell, a British actor. I have doubts over the legality of this video being uploaded to the Internet, and I have a feeling it might not be there for very long! But those of you who had no access to UK television at the time can now at least have a look.

It’s split into 4 sections of between 4-8 minutes each (part 1 is at the bottom of the page at the link). The whole thing lasts about 25 minutes. Clearly a dial-up connection won’t get you very far. But it’s worth watching, although – obviously – quite chilling.


I quite like the Smoking Ban in public places and venues in Scotland, although I understand why many smokers won’t agree. The atmosphere in pubs and restaurants is much better. However the ban on performers lighting up on stage is crazy, particularly when it infringes on a theatrical work of art.

I can stand on a stage, and give a speech on the benefits of smoking, and that would be OK. But if I was playing a character who smoked, lit up a cigarette, and later in the play, died of cancer, I can be fined. Even herbal substitutes aren’t allowed. What’s the point of this?

Theatre companies are finding ingenious ways round the legislation. The best one was during a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Rosencrantz attempts to roll a joint, but is told by Guildenstern that smoking is banned. Rosencrantz's response is to throw down the joint he has just rolled in disgust. He picks up his powder box and delivers the same speech as a cocaine-induced rant.

So a Class-A drug is fine for the stage, better than cannabis or nicotine!

Despite repeated requests from theatre companies to amend the legislation to make smoking on stage legal when it’s important for the performance, the Parliament have refused to budge.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Battle of Britain

I don’t often talk about football on this blog, but last night’s game in the European Champion’s League between the top side in England (Manchester United) and the top side in Scotland (Celtic) merits a mention. It’s more than just football that’s at stake of course. This is Scotland v. England. This is two nations with something to prove.

It wasn’t a good game. Celtic’s tactics in the first half were ill-conceived. They sat back and defended without ambition, even though they were the home side. They showed United far too much respect. Luckily for them, United weren’t in the best of form in the final third of the park and couldn’t break the deadlock.

What disappointed me was the Celtic attitude. It was as though they were saying – we are the Scottish champions but we can’t beat a team like Manchester United. It was a dreadful advert for Scottish football, particularly from a team who have real quality. They didn’t show it.

The second half was a little better. Celtic at least gave signs of wanting the ball and made a game of it. But with 10 minutes to go, things finally heated up and Shunsuke Nakamura scored with an amazing, curling free kick from over 30 metres out to put Celtic ahead.

And here is the goal everyone is talking about.

From that point, all the excitement of a normal 90 minutes were compressed into 10. Louis Saha missed a sitter for United, believing he was offside. He claimed to hear a whistle, but he was the only one. Then from a United free kick, the ball crashed into the wall. The referee awarded a penalty as the ball had struck a Celtic player’s hand. I looked at the slow motion replay and found it impossible to tell whether the defender could have got his hand out of the way or not. The newspapers this morning can’t even agree on which player the ball struck. It all happened so fast. It seemed like a very harsh decision. Fortunately, Saha’s penalty was saved by Boruc, saving the referee from the inevitable criticism.

So Celtic won 1-0. United got what they deserved for failing to score despite having the ball for most of the game. But Celtic will have to take a different attitude if they want to progress further. They’ve only lost one game at home out of twelve in the history of this competition, and they should be confident by now of attacking opponents on their home ground. In-form strikers would have punished them last night. Celtic rode their luck. Not that that dampened the spirits in Glasgow last night…

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


You can now download free the first e-issue of Rattle magazine. Rattle appears in print every six months, but these e-issues are a great idea.

There are some very good poems, and so far, I’m especially taken by Erik Campbell’s Twelve Stanza Program. G. Tod Slone's review of Best American Poetry 2006 is hilarious. I haven't read the book and can't therefore say whether I agree or disagree, but the lines he quotes from it are so terrible they made me laugh out loud. Either he is being highly selective or the truly best American poetry of 2006 missed getting into this volume.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Leona on the X Factor

Simon Cowell’s X-Factor UK talent show has become a one-horse race with five weeks still to go – at least that will be the case if there is any justice left in the world. Leona is so far ahead of the other contestants, it’s amazing the rest pick up a single vote between them. But that’s the UK public for you.

My musical tastes are more Nick Cave/Leonard Cohen/Morrissey, but even I can recognise the commercial potential of a fine singer when I hear one. This is Leona singing Bridge over Troubled Water on last week’s show. Her performance belongs in a different league from the rest.

Or perhaps her version of Summertime a couple of weeks before was even better?

The one question is whether there is life after X-Factor, and that’s whether the public vote for her to win or not. Does the world need another Whitney Houston? We already have one, albeit an American one. Or can Leona become her own person? I suspect it will be to her advantage if she doesn't win.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

I struggled to come up with a sonnet today. In fact, I thought I was going to have to post an old one from the great unpublished archive. Then this one arrived, for better or worse.

The Bottle

The years it took to finish the device
had taken their toll. His face was lined, and grey
with lack of sunlight. But at last the day
had come to demonstrate the merchandise
and thousands gathered round. So calm, precise
in measurement, he shared the Beaujolais
with all – from one bottle. Without delay,
he called the press to witness paradise.

The bottle had a button, and when pressed,
would fill again. Can that be a miracle?
The press were busy stalking borderline
celebrities and had no interest
in pop religion. Most were cynical.
Some staggered to the bars. Some built a shrine.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

'Telling' in Lyric Poetry

I’m much enjoying the essays in the After Confession book I mentioned a few posts ago as one of my three recent purchases. I’ve just finished Sydney Lea’s piece.

Lea laments the “show, don’t tell” advice. Sometimes telling is necessary, but it works only if the point of view is earned by the poem as a whole, not simply because the writer, or the “I” of the poem, makes an assertion. Lea carries out a fascinating examination on several of Keats’ best known poems and shows how Keats managed to show, tell, and justify his rhetoric every time.

Lea concludes;

Vocal authority, however accomplished, is essential. Pronouns are not people. If, having composed a draft of a lyric, we ask ourselves Who says so? we must have a more compelling answer than the naked ‘I.’

North Berwick 'Gig'

I was in North Berwick last night for an open-mic type event, mainly because Apprentice had suggested it might be a good evening and would give me some much-needed practice in reading my poems in public.

I enjoyed it. There were some very good writers there – some reading poems, others prose, which ranged from memoirs to fiction. People seemed friendly and the wine was fine. I read three poems. Two came from my chapbook – Taxi and The Actress – and I read In the Last Few Seconds because the organiser, Alan Gay, had asked me to.

One good thing about live readings is that I see at first hand how poems go down in that setting. The Actress, which is about my admiration for the pre-Hollywood Penelope Cruz, with a sideswipe at the less interesting forms of confessional poetry, got a lot of laughs, so I’ve noted that one as a crowd-pleaser – one I can sandwich between the heavier stuff.

It was nice to meet Apprentice, who was a good reader of her work. Colin Will was also there, and his poems came over very well. I went off with a copy of Alan Gay’s chapbook, but when I decided to rummage through the rest (in between talking with folk), they had disappeared. Maybe another time…

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Another Quasimodo

I’ve managed to translate another Quasimodo poem, but not one of his pre-war efforts. This is post-war, that hint of ever-present doom within the pastoral scene, and yet...

Almost a Madrigal

The sunflower bends to the west
and the day already accelerates
to ruin within its eye and the summer air
thickens and already twists the leaves and the smoke
of building sites. Everything recedes with the dry
flow of clouds and screech of lightning –
the sky’s final trick. Again,
as ever, my dear, we are struck by the change
in trees cramped within the circle
of canals. But it is still our day
and still that sun, which departs
with the thread of its tender ray.

I no longer have memories, I do not want to remember;
memory rises again from death,
life is without end. Each day
is ours. One will stop forever,
and you with me, when it seems late to us.
Here on the canal’s bank, feet
swinging, like children,
we watch the water, the nearest branches
in its shade of darkening green.
And the man who approaches in silence
does not conceal a knife in his hands,
but a geranium flower.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I've gone Beta...

I finally gave in and clicked the Beta-Blogger button. As you can see, it hasn't yet made any difference to the blog's look. I'll have to give that some thought.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Don Paterson's Rilke

Mark Doty sings the praises of Don Paterson’s new “versions” of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. I can’t wait to read the book, but I’ll have to hang on for the paperback version. The price of hardbacks is crazy, considering the paperback will appear in (I guess) about 6 months time. I am trying not to give in.

“Don Paterson's new versions - his term, to distinguish the poems from more assiduously faithful renderings - of this legendary sequence… create a warm, far more earthbound Rilke. Paterson gives the sonnets, perhaps for the first time in English, a true sense of an inhabited skin, a pulsing body responding to the life of the senses.”

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

I've had a desperately busy week. But I've managed to pull a sonnet out of the hat this evening. The term "sweetiewife" is of Scottish origin, meaning an endlessly chattering woman:

My Friend, Marie

My friend, Marie, no longer needs her life.
She had it once, and though she never died,
she let things slip, until the downward slide
became unstoppable. It seems a knife
had sliced her from her past – the sweetiewife,
the bubbly girl, the smiling baby – tied
together, then torn apart, a divide
wide as heaven and hell, as peace and strife.

“She’s got no life,” they say. She shrugs, moves on.
She cracks her crystal balls, burns tarot cards.
She starts in Zion, walks to Babylon.
She sells religion, science, waves placards
against it all. She screams through sex by phone.
She eats and shits. It’s life she disregards.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Last Three Books

Poetry books are expensive, but I do like to buy them. I borrow as well, which helps the Scottish Poetry Library to justify its existence (not that it needs to really, but some people might think so). However, it also seems important to support publishers who take the risk of publishing poetry.

So what were the last three poetry books you bought? Post them to your blog and say whether they are worth buying. Something might appeal to me, and it’s good to get recommendations.

The last three I bought are:

After Confession edited by Kate Sontag and David Graham – a collection of essays on poetry, specifically on the lyric “I” e.g. the nature of authorial responsibility on telling the truth, the autobiographical impulse, the blurring of the distinction between fact and fiction etc. It looks really interesting.

The Long and the Short of It by Roy Fisher – this is Fisher’s Collected Poems from1955-2005. Fisher is one of the most interesting and imaginative UK poets and what I’ve read so far has been most enjoyable.

Sushi and Chips by Colin Will – Colin lives in Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland. I’ve only had a chance to read through a few poems, which were subtle and well written.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Salvatore Quasimodo is an interesting figure because his poetry changed completely through extreme historical circumstance.

Before the Second World War, he was one of the “hermetic poets”, along with Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale, who drew inspiration from the French Symbolists. They sought an unadorned verse in which an image would evoke its object in the purest form possible, but they used a personal and obscure set of symbols that can be difficult to interpret without knowing the “key”.

After WW2, Quasimodo’s poetry made a radical change. On receiving the Nobel prize for Literature in 1959, he referred to this in his acceptance speech:

War, I have always said, forces men to change their standards, regardless of whether their country has won or lost. Poetics and philosophies disintegrate "when the trees fall and the walls collapse ". At the point when continuity was interrupted by the first nuclear explosion, it would have been too easy to recover the formal sediment which linked us with an age of poetic decorum, of a preoccupation with poetic sounds. After the turbulence of death, moral principles and even religious proofs are called into question. Men of letters who cling to the private successes of their petty aesthetics shut themselves off from poetry's restless presence. From the night, his solitude, the poet finds day and starts a diary that is lethal to the inert. The dark landscape yields a dialogue. The politician and the mediocre poets with their armour of symbols and mystic purities pretend to ignore the real poet. It is a story which repeats itself like the cock's crow; indeed, like the cock's third crow.

Quasimodo’s poetry became an exploration of Italian society in the wartime years and how that experience continued to affect it post-war. There is a search for meaning through the agonies of guilt, violence, and shame. I’ve translated one of these poems below, and it has a urgent and direct power (or at least, it should have if I've done my job adequately):

Man of My Time

You are still made of stone and sling,
man of my time. You inhabit the fuselage,
with evil wings, the sundials of death,
I have seen you – on the fire wagon, at the gallows,
at the torture wheels. I have seen you: it was you,
with your perfect science committed to extermination,
without love, without Christ. You have killed again,
as always, as your fathers killed, as the animals
killed on seeing you for the first time.
And this reek of blood is as the day
when a brother said to his brother:
“Let us go to the fields.” And that cold, stubborn echo
has reached as far as you, in your days.
Forget, O sons, the clouds of blood
risen from the earth, forget your fathers:
their tombs sink into ashes,
the black birds, the wind, cover their hearts.

- Salvatore Quasimodo, 1947.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

It's Sonnet Sunday, and I did blast this one off this morning. It comes, I think, from a drive in the countryside yesterday. I've never sen so many dead creatures in one journey - hedgehogs, pheasants, foxes - name the animal, I probably saw one. It's the only explanation I can think of for why the mood seems so dark in this sonnet.

Room with a View

This window is not for you to see outside,
only to look within. The rattle, when
wind shakes the pane, stays rippling under skin.
The smear of road-kill can be understood
by shadows on the lung, by blurs of blood
that keep shifting. Your body has a twin
that will outlive you, in the view. The scene
portrays the lives, or deaths, still to be tried.

A bird floats by from right to left and leaves
you to an empty sky. A shadow waves
from a flickering void, then turns the television
off and on. Then off. A widow grieves
with curtains closed for months; so many graves
to choose from, you can’t come to a decision.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

God, the Via Negativa, and Beyond

Todd Swift, of Eyewear, makes some very interesting observations about being in search of God.

Most dialogue about God at the moment is on the basis that God, if he/she exists, should answer our questions and conform to our methods of exploration. And if he/she doesn’t, then the Deity must either be a human delusion or simply (and for some, sadly) inaccessible to those who can’t ‘make themselves’ have faith. Questions are then aimed at those expressing faith, questions which originate with these assumptions.

But Eyewear takes a different approach to faith:

God is the despite, is the still, is the just about, is the almost - may even be simply the perhaps, or it could be. God is the barest sliver of hope, when all hope is gone. As such, it is a via negativa, and one's faith can only be fully sounded when the instrument one plays is beyond need, is denuded of the self - when one mourns not for one's own self, but for a greater love of another.

This made me think of a passage from one of the letters that theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote from the Tegel prison in Berlin in 1944 before being sent to Buchenwald and then Flossenberg, where he was hanged for his involvement in the bomb plot to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer tried to find a way of expressing faith in an inhuman time, and the instrument he is playing is certainly “beyond need”:

Religious people speak of God when human perception is (often just from laziness) at an end, or human resources fail: it is in fact always the Deus ex machina they call to their aid, either for the so-called solving of insoluble problems or as support in human failure – always, that is to say, helping out human weakness or on the borders of human existence.

Of necessity, that can only go on until men can, by their own strength, push these borders a little further, so that God becomes superfluous as a Deus ex machina. I have come to be doubtful even about talking of “borders of human existence.”

Is even death today, since men are scarcely afraid of it any more, and sin, which they scarcely understand any more, still a genuine borderline? It always seems to me that in talking thus we are only seeking frantically to make room for God. I should like to speak of God not on the borders of life but at its centre, not in weakness but in strength, not, therefore, in man’s suffering and death, but in his life and prosperity.

On the borders it seems to me better to hold our peace and leave the problem unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the solution of the problem of death. The “beyond” of God is not the beyond of our perceptive facilities. Epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is the “beyond” in the midst of our life.

And it’s worth remembering what “life” he is placing God in the midst of. In that existence, God is also, I think, “the despite, the still, the just about, the almost… the barest sliver of hope, when all hope is gone.”

Monday, October 30, 2006

Divine Chocolate Poetry

Divine Chocolate is a company committed to fair trade, giving a proper wage to cocoa producers based in Ghana. They have support and input from organisations like The Body Shop, Christian Aid, Comic Relief etc. The chocolate they produce is very good and is on sale in supermarkets throughout the UK.

This year, the company is holding a poetry competition.

The theme is “poems of persuasion” and well-known poet, Adrian Mitchell, is the judge. The idea is to write a poem “that features chocolate or Fairtrade (or both) – and aim to put an argument no one could say ‘no’ to.”

I’ve got to say – I can’t think of a more difficult type of poem to write! It would be so easy to churn out propaganda, or a sermon, or a political tract. But to write a good poem…?

Anyway, I’m up for a challenge and will give it a shot. I don’t know if I will manage to come up with anything worth writing or entering. Entry is free, and the prize is a month’s free chocolate (!) and some book tokens. The deadline is 20 December so there is time to think about how it can be done.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

At the poetry event in Linlithgow, I fell into conversation with a woman afterwards. She told me about how she used to work in a newsagent. Every week at the same time, a woman would enter the shop and buy a single packet of blancmange. She did this for years and never bought anything else. I thought this was an intriguing story, and the woman I was speaking to told me I should write a poem about it.

Well, it’s Sonnet Sunday, and I had to write a sonnet about something… Of course, my imaginary account of the shop and staff is entirely fictional.


Each Saturday she braved the village store
to buy a packet of blancmange. The aisles
were narrow, prices high. She could ignore
the hygiene of the staff, their filthy nails
and noses running through the cold meat section,
but not their lack of welcome after years
of patronage. She timed death to perfection,
collapsing in the eyes of the cashiers.

Some had thought her crazy. Others spoke
as if they’d never known her. Later, when
the council came to clear her house, it took
an inventory. Nothing much had been
kept over time, but cupboards bore the weight
of decades, unopened, and out-of-date.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Linlithgow Gig

I had a good time at the Poetry and Jazz event in Linlithgow yesterday evening. The hall was like a large living room, tastefully decked out with a vast fleet of candles, low tables, and comfy sofas. About 30(?) people crammed into the room.

Phil Melstrom started off with a short jazz guitar set, and he performed between each of the poets. When I watch people like Phil playing, I’m reminded both that I play guitar after a fashion, and also why I never made a career out of it. He made it all seem so effortless - Miles Davis standards? Herbie Hancock numbers? A spot of improvisation at lightning speed? Chords that look impossible to stretch anywhere near? He could do it without any problem. Really enjoyable.

I kicked off for the poets. I began with a couple of gently surreal new poems about angels and window cleaners (respectively), then a couple of older ones that had a jazz theme, then a few from The Clown of Natural Sorrow, and finished off with a newish one about war, a Davide Rondoni translation, and In the Last Few Seconds. People seemed to enjoy the set.

Douglas Briton was a good performer. His poems were rhythmic, self-effacing and mainly witty, although he had a few darker poems in there as well, and several on imaginary conversations between characters of the Bible.

Andrew Philip finished off the evening with a fine reading. His poems nearly always have an impact that never seems contrived or forced in any way. The writing is subtle and powerful.

Certainly, the evening was a good advert for variety, as each poet on show had a completely different style of writing and performing. So something for everyone, and hopefully an event that will bear repeating in years to come.


It’s been a really busy week. Hectic at work for a start, which has meant I’ve been burning the midnight oil and the dawn candle every day to make sufficient writing-time. I had to, because today was a week of deadlines.

This week I wrote two poems on the theme of “windows” to submit to Poetry News (deadline 1 November). I wrote a children’s story-in-verse to submit to a competition run by Lion Books with a first prize of £1000 (deadline 31 October). I tweaked six poems on the theme of “city life” to submit to Magma magazine (deadline 31 October). I wrote a review of a chapbook for Sphinx magazine (deadline 27 October). I revised and submitted poems for the UK National Poetry Competition (deadline 31 October). I read poems last night at an event in Linlithgow (more about this later). Tomorrow night, I’m off to the Shore Poets to hear readings from Donny O’Rourke, Nancy Somerville and Carla Jetko. I’m still reading Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems.

On a positive note, I’ve had work accepted by several publications in the last week or two. First by New Writing 15 who have taken two poems – very good news! Second by Umbrella, a new webzine edited by Kate Bernadette Benedict. Kate has taken several poems, the exact number still to be confirmed. And finally, excellent Scottish-based print magazine,The Red Wheelbarrow, have taken some poems for their ocean-themed issue due in December.

I had a couple of rejections too, but I can live with them.

Friday, October 27, 2006


Thanks to CE Chaffin, Rob, and Barbara for the comments on the last poem I posted (now deleted from the blog). I made a couple of changes due to your intelligent readings and another few because they seemed right. It's now in the post.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Poetry and Jazz in Linlithgow

Warm thanks to fellow HappenStance poet, Andy Philip, for inviting me to Linlithgow on Friday to read with him and Douglas Briton, along with music by Phil Melstrom, in the Poetry and Jazz evening at the Celebrate Linlithgow! festival. Poetry and Jazz! Definitely my kind of scene. It looks like it will be a good evening’s entertainment.

When Andy told me about the event, he didn’t mention that the venue stocks only soft drinks, but I’m sure I’ll manage to smuggle in a whisky flask somehow (just kidding). It’s been six months since I’ve read poetry to a live audience and I’m looking forward to it.

In case any of you happen, by some miracle, to be in Linlithgow on Friday, the event is being held in Bryerton House in the Linlithgow High Street from 8pm. Come and say hello.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Prizes and Literary Criticism

I’ve noticed a few articles recently suggesting that literary criticism has been replaced by a culture of prize-giving, that our tastes and purchasing habits are shaped less by critical analysis of works than by how many awards they have won. This article in The Guardian makes the case pretty well.

Interesting quotation from Ezra Pound, back in 1928 – The whole system of prize-giving... belongs to an uncritical epoch; it is the act of people who, having learned the alphabet, refuse to learn how to spell.

On the other hand, prizes can help to launch (or save) the careers of writers who have been unjustly ignored by the critics and whose books have not sold well through lack of publicity. The Guardian’s case-in-point is Lionel Shriver, who wrote seven novels (the seventh of which didn’t find a publisher) and sold her eighth to a small publisher for a £2,500 advance. This novel won the Orange Prize. Shriver now has all her books back in print and a lucrative contract with HarperCollins. She deserves it for her perseverance alone. Without the prize, it might never have happened.

You could argue that there are hundreds of other artists equally as deserving and just as talented, which is probably true, but without the prize, they would still be in the difficulties they are currently in. The only difference is that one other writer would still be with them.

But the point about prize-giving replacing criticism as a symbol of cultural value is a real one. Could the fault lie with the quality of much current criticism as much as with the culture of prize-giving? Or are there wider issues that lead people to dismiss what a critic says as “just one person’s opinion”?

I like the final paragraph of the Guardian article. The first Nobel Prize for Literature was won in 1901 by Sully Prudhomme. Who? What did she (he?) write? Exactly… And one of the losers on the shortlist that year was a certain Leo Tolstoy – with War and Peace!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

It's Sunday, and therefore Sonnet Sunday, as inaugurated by C E Chaffin .


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Poetry Lists

I used to be a compulsive list-maker, but I haven’t made a list in a long time. Tonight I decided to go through the poetry books on my shelf and choose my 25 favourites. This proved an impossible task so I narrowed it down. The poets had to be alive and only one volume per poet was allowed. I couldn’t include anything I’ve read that wasn’t on my shelves (for example, books I’ve borrowed from the Scottish Poetry Library). The books had to be in English.

Here’s the list in alphabetical order:

Simon Armitage – Zoom!
John Ashbery – Where Shall I Wander
Ros Barber – How Things are on Thursday
John Burnside - The Good Neighbour
Michael Donaghy - Conjure
Carol Ann Duffy – Mean Time
Douglas Dunn - Elegies
Stephen Dunn – New and Selected Poems
Bernardine Evaristo – The Emperor’s Babe
Marilyn Hacker - Desesperanto
Seamus Heaney – Opened Ground
Kathleen Jamie – The Queen of Sheba
Philip Levine – New and Selected Poems
Roddy Lumsden – Mischief Night
Edwin Morgan – Selected Poems
Sinéad Morrissey – The State of the Prisons
Paul Muldoon – Moy Sand and Gravel
Don Paterson – Landing Light
Rik Roots – The Rik Verse
James Sheard – Scattering Eva
Charles Simic – Looking for Trouble
John Stammers – Stolen Love Behaviour
George Szirtes – Reel
Wislawa Szymborska – View with a Grain of Sand
Robert Wrigley – Lives of the Animals

Then I decided to make a list of my top 5 poetry chapbooks. I barred the HappenStance Press chapbooks from this. It would have been impossible to choose between them:

Jim Carruth – Bovine Pastoral (Ludovic 2004)
Anna Crowe – A Secret History of Rhubarb (Mariscat 2004)
Norbert Hirschhorn – The Empress of Certain (Poets Corner 2005)
Edwin Morgan – Demon (Mariscat 1999)
Donny O’Rourke and Richard Price - Eftirs/Afters (Au Quai 1996)

I thought about doing a list of poetry e-books, but as I’ve read only two – by Julie Carter and Paula Grenside – there wasn’t much point. However, both are highly recommended!