Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Complexity and Shining Moments: Part 3

  • Well, I’m always happy to see some good-natured controversy erupt over my blog, so I hope I don’t put a dampener on it all now. First, a few thoughts:

  • I don’t think that all poems that close with shining moments are bad. In fact, some are very good.

  • I don’t think that writing about domestic life is bad either. Often these poems have a bearing on human relationships or on some way a person relates to the world. They may seem like small, unimportant subjects, but I agree with Julie that poetry is capable of revealing something captivating in what appears at first only mundane.

  • Also, poems that take domestic scenes as their cue often have more complex issues at their core.

  • What Peter Porter was meaning about David Harsent’s war poetry was that Harsent didn’t resort to using shining moments to end his poems. Nor did he simply focus on a detail and blow its significance out of proportion – to provide a shining moment in the face of unspeakable cruelty, grief and violence. Instead he grappled with the complexities necessary for writing on the subject of ordinary people with ordinary lives, caught up in horrific civil conflict. One of the complex juxtapositions was the fusion of domestic activities with the awfulness all around. Shining moments wouldn’t have been an adequate solution.

  • In a hundred years time, I doubt many of today’s “shining moments” poems will be read by anyone. A few no doubt will, but if you think of poems of past generations that still resonate with us today and are held up as “classics”, they tend to be poems that grapple with the complexities of human life, conflict, belief and endurance. And funny poems of course, as we always need a laugh.

  • Not that we need worry about this too much, as we won’t be around.

    I found a few examples of ineffective “shining moment” poems in magazines, but I don’t want to use them in case their authors (who I don’t know) stumble across this blog and get mad at me. Instead, I thought I’d choose a poem of my own. I wrote it this morning for NaPoWriMo and posted it to my PFFA thread. Later, I realised that, besides a bit in the middle being wholly illogical (the newborns, not the medic, need warned), the ending was a tagged-on shining moment. Now, OK, I wrote it in 40 minutes, but I suspect with a some nipping and tucking, I could get it published in a magazine, with the existing ending. However, I have now changed the ending and the bit in the middle, and edited my PFFA thread. It’s getting less shiny. But here is the original first-draft 40-minute version.

    The future buries itself in green lawns
    or blows like ash down universal corridors.
    Either way, it’s best not to get
    too familiar, because the future
    will let you down. The psychics
    who claim they know it well
    are bankrupt with gambling debts.
    One told me I’d be dead tomorrow
    but forgot to warn the little girl
    who stepped into a park
    livid with bushes and shadows,
    or the medic who smothered newborns
    while mothers slept. This psychic
    was up in court for fraud, but failed
    to predict his own defeat. I kiss
    my girl goodbye, tell her I’ll be back
    at 5. I talk as if the future
    is a friendly ghost
    who’ll walk through walls for me
    unconcerned that I can’t return the favour.
    But the future is ground in stone
    even if, now and again, it believes
    in something beyond itself.

    That ending (the last two lines) is awful. It’s a shining slither of hope slid under a crack in the door. Basically, I’d run out of time and had to end the poem, but I’ve written similar poems to this in which I have deliberately contrived such an ending (I’m ashamed to say). The ending doesn’t really tackle the issues and questions posed by the poem. It just tags on a little hope, a little illumination, but that hope doesn’t emerge from the rest of the poem. If there is hope (and I believe there is), the poem should struggle to it and not allow itself to be seduced by the easy solution.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Complexity and Shining Moments Revisited

Both Eloise and Ren have brought up interesting questions on my post below about complexity in poetry.

Peter Porter gave me pause for thought with his quote. I don’t find it easy to place a firm dividing-line between complex poems on difficult subjects and poems that isolate shining moments.

If you take Derek Mahon’s famous A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford , you have a poem about mushrooms growing in a dark shed, but in reality, the poem is a cry of the dispossessed and persecuted, a raging against evil, and incorporates some of the darkest references in history. The poem works on many levels and doesn’t shirk from tackling the horrific and unaccountable.

The same with many of David Harsent’s poems from Legion. The first half of the collection contains war poems, often how ordinary people are affected by the horrors of war. It’s clearly a complex subject and Harsent doesn’t simplify it or offer merely “shining moments” as solutions.

Choosing a subject like war or oppression hardly guarantees an effective poem, but a poem written well on a big subject stands a chance of having a more lasting effect on a reader than a “shining moment” poem.

The Waste Land handles its complexities with depth and skill, but there again, so does Shakespeare’s “Let not the marriage of true minds…” Human relationships can be as complex to write about as any poem on ‘how I feel about the state of the world today’.

But so many poems in current poetry magazines are of the “I was looking out of the train window and I saw a tree and it shone in the sun and suddenly I knew myself to be part of something bigger than this poky little carriage when I saw myself reflected, with the tree, in the window frame” variety.

Or one I picked up just now at random, and I paraphrase of course – “a woman throws bread into a dirty pool and sees other people doing the same, but the river is so polluted. She puts her fingers in the water and senses a hunger than affects her to her very soul.”

Exactly how these moments of illumination are justified by the rest of the poem, I’m not sure, but lyric poetry is full of such examples. The lyricism carries the reader along, but when you actually think about what the poet has said, it often amounts to nothing much! I’m sure that my own poetry is full of such examples too.

Perhaps it’s the isolation of the shining moment that’s the problem, if it feels tagged on for the sake of conclusion, or emerges too easily, rather than stemming from a complex struggle within the poem.

I don’t know Ted Kooser’s poetry, but I fully believe it’s possible to write about ordinary things at one level, but really be writing about something extremely complex on another level. I mean, you could write about hanging the washing out, but really be writing about your lover whose washing is no longer around because she is dead or gone, and you could enrich the poem with all the complexities the human heart has to offer, with a brilliance of writing to match.

On the other hand you could write about hanging out washing and have a shining moment when a bird lands on the line and you think “I am just like that bird, wild and free, but hanging on a thin line in mid-air. That is how I feel too while I put the washing out.”

I bet you someone has written that poem, and has had it published in an important magazine too.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Complex Subjects

Peter Porter, reviewing David Harsent’s book, Legion, in the Observer newspaper some time ago, suggests one reason why Harsent’s poetry stands out from the pack.

“Harsent’s commitment to lyricism has caused him to fight hard over difficult territory, since he is not content to isolate shining moments, but is driven to tackle complex subjects.”

It strikes me that the isolation of shining moments is characteristic of much poetry at the moment. A poem starts off with a domestic scene – hanging out clothes, walking the dog, looking out the window – and suddenly becomes infused with epiphany.

But complex, difficult subjects are going to make for poems that really get under the skin in a way that shining moments won’t do, or will do only momentarily.

As long as the complex, difficult subjects are handled well, of course.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The KittyCat Dance

Writing a poem-a-day for April has kept me from updating this blog as much as usual. Apologies for that. If, like me, you feel the need to escape from poetry for a few minutes, you could do worse than check out the KittyCat Dance. You’ll need a Flash Player. Sorry if you then feel that two minutes of your life have been irrevocably stolen from you.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

John Kinsella and Pleasure

In a recent edition (95:4) of Poetry Review , John Kinsella wrote:

My poetry is a direct result of my politics and ethics, and form for me is a box to be pushed against; to be used pragmatically at times, but ultimately to be tested at every opportunity. I do not want my poems to give pleasure, I don’t want them to be comfortable, and I don’t want them to “tell”. I want my poems to suggest and to bother – to irritate and to instigate.

The rest of the essay (on linebreaks) can be read from the Poetry Review link above. It does make interesting reading even if you don't agree with it.

In the latest edition (96:1), William Oxley responds:

John Kinsella has precisely articulated why scarcely any contemporary poetry sells and reaches a large audience, if most of its practitioners share his aim.

He goes on to liken Kinsella’s attitude to that of:

a celebratory (sic) chef insisting all his meals be made of putrid ingredients.

I wonder whether poetry readers do primarily seek pleasure. Perhaps many have a masochistic tendency. Perhaps they want to be “bothered”, shaken out of a complacency they see in the world.
That’s clearly a minority pursuit, but what’s preferable? To have a small group of irritated people reading contemporary poetry as it is, or to have a large group guffawing their way through poems that are liable to sell in large quantities. Think what sells – Berlusconi-style game shows, reality TV, Mills and Boon romance. Should we advocate and promote the poetic equivalent? That would seem absurd to me.

On the other hand, poets who write with a contempt for their potential audience have no grounds for complaint if their work is met with similar contempt. If a poem gives no pleasure, I’d go and read another one that does. But if that new poem both uses form and pushes against it, if it suggests, bothers, irritates, and does so with a brilliance of language, then all of that, oddly, stands a chance of becoming part of the pleasure. So Kinsella’s argument is more subtle than Oxley gives it credit for.

However, I find Kinsella’s statement that his poetry “is a direct result of [his] politics and ethics” disturbing in itself. I don’t trust poetry when it’s put to the service of a program – political, ethical or otherwise. Surely the program is there to be pushed against and resisted as much as anything else, and a good poem may even call its author’s values into question.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


I review Still, a 2005 chapbook collection by Liz Atkin (Flarestack Publishing, 8 Abbot's Way, Pilton, Somerset, BA4 4BN.).

So, on the basis of the review, would you consider buying it? Or would it make you think, “No chance!”

I wrote a review in the latest print edition of Sphinx as well, of U.S. writer Norbert Hirschhorn’s chapbook The Empress of Certain, available from Poet’s Corner Press (www.poetscornerpress.com).

On perusing the press’s website I found my review on their site, which was a surprise. Not that I mind, but it’s nice to at least know when someone reprints your work in its entirety. Perhaps they did ask HappenStance?

Anyway the chapbook is very good and my review is now handy for anyone to read.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Websites, Poem, NaPoWriMo, Virus

I’ve added a new section to my blog underneath my bloglist, for poets’ websites. I’ll add to that as time goes on, but there a few good ones to start off with.


Thanks to Julie for pointing me to Jessy Randall’s A Letter to Henry in Snakeskin ezine - a poem with a difference! It made me laugh.

Check out poems in the latest edition by Julie herself, Eloise , R.A. Dusenberry (aka senia), Robert S. Daley (aka bobbyd), Helena Nelson, Eleanor Livingstone, Roddy Lumsden, and other fine poets.


I must admit, I’ve been really impressed by some of the poems being written for NaPoWriMo at PFFA this year, and not just by people I’d expect to turn out decent drafts (even at the rate of one a day). Some of the beginning and intermediate poets there are producing better work than I’ve seen from them before, as if they’ve been energised by the need to live and breathe poetry for a month.


Bad news for me though. I (not my computer) have a virus and feel pretty bad. I’m writing this because I don’t know what else to do with myself. My poem for tomorrow is going to be awful if this keeps up.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Emperor's Babe

I felt intimidated at the start of Bernardine Evaristo’s 250-page novel-in-verse, The Emperor’s Babe, but I needn’t have worried. She successfully alternates bursts of lyricism with a fast-paced narrative, kicked along by couplets, that makes the chapters fly by.

The poem is set in 3rd century Roman-occupied London and concerns Zuleika, a Sudanese immigrant who is now a Roman citizen and trophy wife of Felix, a older, rich and unfaithful Roman businessman. Her affair with the Roman Emperor, who spots her at a theatre production, is the defining event of the book and changes Zuleika’s life.

Evaristo has done her research and the book abounds with authentic, juicy details of Roman life. I particularly enjoyed the menus – stuffed thrush and lentils, dormice cooked in honey and poppy seed, fried jellyfish, sautéed peacock brains, lark’s tongue in Gaul garlic spiced with perfumed peacock feathers and peppered rose petals.

But this is no ordinary period drama. A bawdy humour typical of London’s contemporary East End skids through the book. Zuleika and her friends are sassy girls-about-town with very modern aspirations. One of the poem’s main achievements is to successfully blend the contemporary and historical so that neither seems an anachronism

Some passages are lyrically tender. Zuleika describes Felix during the early stages of their marriage, a poignant description of a man who can’t express himself emotionally:

He has grown more fond of me than expected.
He needs me to love him, methinks.

He wants to reach out to me,
but he can’t reveal himself –

the son of a patrician is not taught how.
Sometimes he curls his arms around me

at night as if I am the most precious
thing in the world, as if I am his soul

and without me he would be empty.
You make life real, he’d often said.

Instead of a list of goals achieved.
That was as far as he could take it.

Evaristo times passages to end with a sting in their tail to perfection and, by them, also manages to keep her characters from becoming caricatures – even Felix, an unfaithful slob who attempts to imprison his young bride in his house when he is away, still deserves a degree of pity.

Zuleika, married off to Felix at the age of 11, loses her innocence and goes through periods of depression, trapped in her loveless marriage and with no good experience of sex of the sort her friends talk about. After she meets the Emperor, her tone changes and her poetry (she has a poetry tutor) takes on a new dimension:

I like you two ways
either take off your crown of laurels
drop your purple robes
to the floor
and come to me naked
as a man

or dress up.

That's probably as good as Zuleika's poetry gets, mind you. She never becomes as good as she'd like to be, and her "poetry slam" evening, which turns into an orgy, is one of the funniest sections in the book.

One of my favourite passages shows off the poem’s black humour to great effect. Zuleika is at the amphitheatre and watches as 300 human beings are marched in before they face the fighting animals and near-certain death. This ancient spectacle is handled with contemporary flair, pathos, and a tone that shoots from energetic lyric to tabloid vernacular and back again:

I had expected the famous Über-hunks

with pumped-up biceps and sex-packs,
the preening supertarts who were pursued

by every promiscuous debutante
who fancied a bit of wotless rough,

who were Guests of Honour at feasts,
intimate soirées and in-crowd orgy parties,

who were millionaires if free, and freed if not,
who lived in vulgares villae overstuffed

with Greek reproduction statues
and murals of themselves in heroic poses,

their penes super-enlarged and upstanding,
who were regulars in the news tablet Ave!

and were thus idolized by the lower classes,
analysed by the chattering classes

and satirized by the smug classes
in comic sketches at the theatre

where they appeared as air-heads
wot ‘adn’t mastered the lingua Latin proper,

wot didn’t know their Horace
from their hors d’oeuvres, and who’d turn up

at the premier of a bowel movement
with their simpering, pretty-babe wives

wot came from the ‘amlets of Essex.
But it was not to be.

Few of this merry bunch had diplomas
in Gladiator Moves from the Academia.

Most were from the ranks of old slaves, convicts,
Christians, prisoners of war and the poor

making a bid for solvency and stardom.

I can understand why one review said that this poem was “like an episode of Sex in the City written by Ovid”.

The book puts ideas of dominion and Empire under the microscope as well as personal themes of ambition, desire, and love. It’s also a most entertaining read, with generous measures of comedy and tragedy, and if you feel intimidated at the thought of 250 pages of poetry, this poem will surprise you by how (increasingly) hard it becomes to put down.

Monday, April 03, 2006


While cooking the dinner today, I listened to an album I hadn't heard in a while, Patti Smith's Easter, from 1978. It's an under-rated album, always in the shadow of her classic debut Horses.

There are a couple of weak tracks on Easter, but they are more than made up for by the strength of the rest. Songs like Till Victory, Privilege (Set Me Free), and of course, Because the Night are killer tracks, great songs performed by a band on top of their game.

Two things stood out today. One is the use of poetry, which she cuts into songs to great effect. Patti Smith's poetry isn't great on the page, but she is a terrific spoken-word performer, even hearing her in a kitchen from a CD player. Whether she's reciting Rimbaud, the 23rd Psalm, or her own words, she sounds out-of-control and electrifying.

The second thing that stood out for me was how dangerous it sounds. A song like Rock'n'Roll Nigger still sounds shocking today, and not just because of the n____r word (which works well in context). There aren't many songs of nearly 30 years ago that would raise an eyebrow these days. When she gets to the chorus - "Outside of society, that's where I want to be" - it sounds like she means it, whereas with most bands, it's no more than stylish affectation.

I saw Patti Smith play live a few years ago. Her hair was long and grey and she spoke calmly like an oracular earth-mother (with a touch of humour). Her band were astonishing and played both old and new material. I liked the way she had changed, that she hadn't tried to perform as if she was trying to recapture the old days. She is worthy of respect.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

NaPoWriMo is Here

I've begun my new-poem-every-day-of-April exertions. Anyone interested can follow my progress here. It won't always be pretty.