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 cafĂ© 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.”