Thursday, June 30, 2011

Quick Word on Moderator Controls

I’ve installed moderator controls, more as a precaution than anything else, as I’m out a lot at the moment. But I’ll continue to publish anything that isn’t nasty or libellous. Apologies to all readers for the inconvenience of comments not appearing instantly, but it’s only a temporary measure. Promise.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Poetry Society Chaos Update

Since I first posted about the Chaos at the Poetry Society three weeks ago, quite a lot has happened. Or, rather, nothing has happened. Or, I’m not really sure. Katy’s article at Baroque in Hackney sums up pretty much all anyone knows about what’s going on. Three weeks ago, I made a low level plea to the Poetry Society, which now must seem humorous in an uncomfortable kind of way:
“ becomes important to make some kind of statement. Not a bland statement which says nothing, but a statement which accurately and as fairly as possible tells the story...”

The Poetry Society has released two statements since, one of which said “business as usual”, and another which said, “moving forward”. Three possibilities suggest themselves to me from these statements:

1. The Poetry Society has something to hide
2. The Poetry Society is beyond useless at public relations
3. The situation is much worse even than it seems, so bad that things can’t possibly be made public

It’s hard to know which to go for. Of course, all or none could be true. I am impressed with Fiona Moore’s assessment of the situation from a public relations perspective. It won’t make happy reading for the Poetry Society, who ought to start listening before it’s too late. Into the vacuum has come a great deal of speculation, culminating yesterday with an article in the Daily Telegraph, which suggested the dispute was mainly about money. This explanation may have some truth, but it doesn’t add up. The Poetry Society received an increase in its grant from the Arts Council of England. The application must have been for specific purposes and must have been in accordance with its own stated aims and objectives. If people on the board, after receiving the grant, want to spend money on something different to what they’ve just received it for, they simply can’t do it. Unless they are “reinterpreting” what the application means, when it will still have to be generally in line with what ACE understood it to mean. This all smacks of politicking behind the scenes, people with opposing visions seeking dominance. The Telegraph suggests that ACE is becoming uneasy. If so (it is a big “if”), that’s not exactly great for staff morale, given that their jobs depend on this money, but I doubt ACE would want to pull out. I imagine the silence must be due to current sensitive negotiations between ACE and the Poetry Society and between different schools of thought within the society. Apparently there is a July deadline for a report on precisely how some of the funding will be used. That document should make interesting reading!

Lemn Sissay stepped in with a blog article a few days ago. I'm sure it's written with integrity and the best of intentions, but I also think it’s fair to say that he doesn’t really present a coherent argument. The main thrust of the article is to defend Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, the magazine of the Poetry Society. He feels that FS is being stitched up by people with a vested interest in her being removed. I guess there are a number of people who would like to see her booted out. I have no view on this, as I'm not a subcriber and haven't submitted anything for years. I think Fiona Sampson has offered the magazine strengths (translated work) and weaknesses (lack of range). But the extent of Fiona Sampson’s involvement in the current disputes is impossible to determine. Lemn Sissay says she has nothing to do with it. Other people say she is central to the arguments. People argue about these things on Facebook, on blogs, on newspaper comment sections, on the basis of facts which may not be facts. An entire discourse develops around happenings which may not have happened, figures which may not tell any story let alone a whole story, personalities which may be phantoms.

Charles Boyle summed it up well when he wrote:

I have no inside info; I don’t even have gossip. But what to me is a little bit interesting is that in the absence of hard fact, the speculation that fills the vacuum can become what a thing is about and start to influence what happens next.

Very true. But speculation requires a vacuum and the Poetry Society, in my opinion, is largely to blame for creating one. Its public statements have been evasive and cagey and the resulting speculation has led to a vast number of people joining the society simply to sign a petition calling for an EGM to get full answers. Some of the questions I have seen mooted for a potential EGM don’t seem quite adequate in that they can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and a few monosyllabic answers won’t tell us any more than the Poetry Society’s press releases. I reckon questions need to be open enough to require a thorough explanation.

I know Kate Clanchy initiated a call for names to call an EGM (around 340 are required, I believe), but I’m unsure whether that has now been derailed or not. (Actually, it's still on track. Katy EB writes in the comments, "Kate C is definitely still collecting names; anyone who wants to be on the list should email her at kateclanchy at gmail dot com. She has a barrister advising as to process and content of a possible EGM; email her for more information"). If anyone else is leading the call with an agenda set up and specific questions on the table (as required), I don’t know who it is. But I'm sure we'll find out sooner or later...

(incidentally, I don't mind comments on this, but please keep them from being abusive to individuals. I will delete comments which contain either abuse or libellous material)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 10

Poem number 10 from In Memoriam continues the theme of the previous poem that the ship carrying Arthur Hallam’s body will make it back safely to England. Tennyson knows he would feel better if his friend were buried than if he should be lost at sea.


I hear the noise about thy keel;
I hear the bell struck in the night:
I see the cabin-window bright;
I see the sailor at the wheel.

Thou bring'st the sailor to his wife,
And travell'd men from foreign lands;
And letters unto trembling hands;
And, thy dark freight, a vanish'd life.

So bring him; we have idle dreams:
This look of quiet flatters thus
Our home-bred fancies. O to us,
The fools of habit, sweeter seems

To rest beneath the clover sod,
That takes the sunshine and the rains,
Or where the kneeling hamlet drains
The chalice of the grapes of God;

Than if with thee the roaring wells
Should gulf him fathom-deep in brine;
And hands so often clasp'd in mine,
Should toss with tangle and with shells.

I don’t find this one of the stronger portions of In Memoriam, but it has its moments. The opening stanza with its repeated “I hear” and “I see” and end-stopped lines has rhetorical power and brings the scene right before the reader’s eyes and ears. The positive list in the second stanza closes with the idea that the ship is also carrying a “vanish’d life”, which is a great phrase – very moving.

I really like the third stanza. It’s not quite what I was expecting – idle dreams, home-bred fancies – a detour into the hearts and minds of those waiting for the ship, which continues in the ideas expressed in the closing stanzas. He wants Hallam to have a proper burial: the earth is fed with sunshine and rain, and the prayerful people are depicted as the hamlet where the chalice of God’s grapes is drained. There is nurture and peace compared to the “roaring wells” and “toss with tangle” of the final stanza’s sea. It may be possible to read this as a depiction of Tennyson's own emotional state. At the beginning, he's beset by anxiety, noise and turbulence, and his hope for a resting place for Hallam's body may reflect his own hope that a burial might bring about some comparable inner peace.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 9

Tennyson imagines Arthur Hallam’s remains being carried home by ship from Italy. Poem 9 of In Memoriam is a ‘prayer’ (invoking the ship) that the remains will be carried safely. The poem shifts along fairly well itself, without mishap, until the final two stanzas in which it really takes off.


Fair ship, that from the Italian shore
Sailest the placid ocean-plains
With my lost Arthur's loved remains,
Spread thy full wings, and waft him o'er.

So draw him home to those that mourn
In vain; a favourable speed
Ruffle thy mirror'd mast, and lead
Thro' prosperous floods his holy urn.

All night no ruder air perplex
Thy sliding keel, till Phosphor, bright
As our pure love, thro' early light
Shall glimmer on the dewy decks.

Sphere all your lights around, above;
Sleep, gentle heavens, before the prow;
Sleep, gentle winds, as he sleeps now,
My friend, the brother of my love;

My Arthur, whom I shall not see
Till all my widow'd race be run;
Dear as the mother to the son,
More than my brothers are to me.

The penultimate stanza pleads the weather to be calm and still and then Tennyson uses some extraordinary language to describe loss in the context of two men whose friendship was platonic:

My friend, the brother of my love;

My Arthur, whom I shall not see
Till all my widow'd race be run;
Dear as the mother to the son,
More than my brothers are to me.

“The brother of my love”, “My Arthur”, “my widow’d race”, and then those final comparisons to his mother and brothers: Tennyson views himself as a wife who has lost her husband, the repetition of “my” from line to line building the intensity. It still seems extraordinary 200 years later and I guess it must have seemed extraordinary at the time. I wonder, when he first wrote “till all my widow’d race be run” or "more than my brothers are to me", if he ever thought, ‘I can’t write that!’ because that’s often the moment that lifts a poem out of the ordinary and soon-to-be-forgotten. As long as the poet doesn’t score it out which I suspect often happens.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 8

Tennyson really took me by surprise in poem 8 of In Memoriam. I suspect most poets would have stopped after the third stanza feeling they’d done a decent job, but Tennyson wants more than just decent.


A happy lover who has come
To look on her that loves him well,
Who 'lights and rings the gateway bell,
And learns her gone and far from home;

He saddens, all the magic light
Dies off at once from bower and hall,
And all the place is dark, and all
The chambers emptied of delight:

So find I every pleasant spot
In which we two were wont to meet,
The field, the chamber, and the street,
For all is dark where thou art not.

Yet as that other, wandering there
In those deserted walks, may find
A flower beat with rain and wind,
Which once she foster'd up with care;

So seems it in my deep regret,
O my forsaken heart, with thee
And this poor flower of poesy
Which little cared for fades not yet.

But since it pleased a vanish'd eye,
I go to plant it on his tomb,
That if it can it there may bloom,
Or, dying, there at least may die.

The poem starts with him imagining a man visiting his lover and finding her absent. He’s very sad about this, as if all his expectations have been dashed. Her entire house, it seems, has been “emptied of delight”. Then comes the first terrific line at S3 L1:

So find I every pleasant spot

What’s good about that? Well, there’s the dramatic contrast between the lover’s temporary loss and Tennyson’s all-encompassing one, enacted in a single, simple line. And look at the rhythm! You could scan it as purely iambic, but each of the first four syllables has a heaviness about them, even the technically unstressed first and third syllables – “SO FIND/ I EVery... “ That’s the sound and rhythm of anguish.

That could have been the end of the poem at the end of that stanza: a strong expression of personal sorrow – “all is dark where thou art not.” But Tennyson isn’t content with a decent poem and he goes for broke. The action switches back to the absent woman from the first two stanzas. She is out walking and finds a flower “beat with rain and wind” she’d once taken care of. Tennyson finds in this a metaphor for how he feels about Arthur Hallam, his late friend, particularly in poetry. And the great lines mount up poem by poem:

...this poor flower of poesy
Which little cared for fades not yet.

We could stick that on our fridges or Facebook statuses and wear it as a badge of hope. But Tennyson still isn’t finished, but has saved the best lines for last. He will plant his poem-flower at Hallam’s tomb:
That if it can it there may bloom,
Or, dying, there at least may die.

Morrissey may have said that he was more Wilde than Keats or Yeats (in 'Cemetery Gates'), but he may not have been accurate in saying that and his famous lyrics from ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ have at least one prototype here in Tennyson’s poem. The flower may die at his friend’s grave, which would at least be something. But, carefully placed only on the penultimate line, it also may bloom.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 7

In poem 7 from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, I’m struck as much by the skilful manipulation of rhythm and metre as of anything else. The poem has Tennyson visit his late friend Arthur’s house by night, but of course he comes away feeling only his absence, made all the more acute by the busy, unaffected universe trundling along as usual.


Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

In the first stanza, Tennyson doesn’t reveal the precise nature of his syntax, which only becomes clear by line 2 of stanza 2. Each line in S1 begins with a heavy stress – a trochaic or spondaic foot – a rhetorical device we often use unconsciously when making an address. The first line of S2 then echoes the final words of S1, “a hand”, emphasising acutely that it can no longer be clasped. Then in S2 L2, we realise for certain that he is addressing the house, asking it to “behold me”.

Just imagine if Tennyson had been writing bad free verse (hard, I know)! He might have begun:

I stand by the dark house
in the long unlovely street
at doors where my heart used to beat
quickly, waiting for a hand

that can be clasped no more.
I cannot sleep...

Many contemporary poems, even some which are published in magazines, aren’t far away from that – dull prose, and that’s only with a few changes. Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. The basic sense and narrative is all still there, but Tennyson’s rhetorical and emotional intensity has been ripped clean away. I write mainly free verse myself, of course, and it’s not free verse that’s the problem. I’m no formalist dinosaur. It’s all about recognising how poetry works and how important style, rhythm, music, manipulation of syntax, and...well... imagination are in making a memorable poem.

Tennyson imagines he is under the house’s gaze, a poor wretch creeping to the door of absence. The first line of S3 is terrific – “He is not here; but far away”, which sounds roughly what we might expect, but the following line removes even that far-off consolation:

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again

The noise of life is far away, not Arthur Hallam. Tennyson did of course believe in an afterlife, but “far away” wasn’t far enough for that idea.

I’d probably feel the same about the ending as I did with the previous poem. How do modern readers feel about those adjectives being used to create emotional mood – “ghastly”, “bald”, “blank”? Put it this way, contemporary poetic sensibility would ask anyone producing a poem like this not to rely on them – show, don’t tell; avoid possible sentimentality. And yet, the final line is beautifully crafted. The rhythm is broken up by the two unstressed syllables at the beginning, then three stressed, one unstressed and then two stressed to finish. But yes, it can all scan as iambic tetrameter. The interrupted rhythm, the strong –b alliteration, combined with the different vowel sounds slows the pace of the line right down. It’s as heavy as the day is about to become. Form mirrors sense.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 6

In poem number 6 from In Memoriam, Tennyson’s target is the clichéd words of comfort offered by friends –“other friends remain” and “Loss is common to the race”. His rebuttal is that death being commonplace makes his loss harder, not easier. He illustrates this by various people waiting for a loved one to arrive home, who dies even as they wait. The weight of loss keeps increasing and gives the poet no sense of ease at all. In fact, the point is that his specific loss is not common – it is specific. His friend, Arthur Hallam, has died and that particular person is irreplaceable.


One writes, that `Other friends remain,'
That `Loss is common to the race'—
And common is the commonplace,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain.

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break.

O father, wheresoe'er thou be,
Who pledgest now thy gallant son;
A shot, ere half thy draught be done,
Hath still'd the life that beat from thee.

O mother, praying God will save
Thy sailor,—while thy head is bow'd,
His heavy-shotted hammock-shroud
Drops in his vast and wandering grave.

Ye know no more than I who wrought
At that last hour to please him well;
Who mused on all I had to tell,
And something written, something thought;

Expecting still his advent home;
And ever met him on his way
With wishes, thinking, `here to-day,'
Or `here to-morrow will he come.'

O somewhere, meek, unconscious dove,
That sittest ranging golden hair;
And glad to find thyself so fair,
Poor child, that waitest for thy love!

For now her father's chimney glows
In expectation of a guest;
And thinking `this will please him best,'
She takes a riband or a rose;

For he will see them on to-night;
And with the thought her colour burns;
And, having left the glass, she turns
Once more to set a ringlet right;

And, even when she turn'd, the curse
Had fallen, and her future Lord
Was drown'd in passing thro' the ford,
Or kill'd in falling from his horse.

O what to her shall be the end?
And what to me remains of good?
To her, perpetual maidenhood,
And unto me no second friend.

The biggest success of this poem is to situate death right in the middle of life. It overshadows everything in Tennyson’s world. A young woman at the mirror turns “to set a ringlet right,” to look at her best for the man she loves, a small gesture that seems insignificant, but this is the very moment in which her lover dies. This cycle is repeated constantly – the lover may have died by drowning or falling from his horse, or whatever, Tennyson satirises the idea that the specifics are irrelevant – it’s all very common, the same kind of thing happening all the time. Except that to the woman, it is anything but common.

The ending is intriguing. Tennyson asks what remains for the young woman and for the poet in his loss:
To her, perpetual maidenhood,
And unto me no second friend.

This refers back to the first line in the poem. Tennyson denies the cliché. I find it interesting to consider that it would be impossible to finish a poem in that way today. Most contemporary readers would view this as melodramatic, over-the-top, an example of exaggerated emotion – why should the maidenhood be “perpetual”? And, of course, he will make new friends! But perhaps this attitude denies the very real fears and feelings people have, feelings we’d rather dress up in more sophisticated garb. Apparently Tennyson could hardly bear to read this poem to others, as it made him too upset. I wonder if 19th century readers would have found the poem melodramatic or if they would have regarded it as nailing the emotion with complete accuracy?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 5

Well, if I was slightly underwhelmed with section 4 of In Memoriam yesterday, it’s all made up for today in section 5. In twelve lines, Tennyson gets more into a single poem than some manage in an entire collection. For anyone who thinks that 20th century theorists invented a distrust in words and their ability to convey information, this 19th century poem is for you:


I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

In the first stanza, the rhyme between “reveal” and “conceal” on either side of a line-break emphasises the limitations of words and, in this case, poems. At the same time, the poem virtually disproves its own thesis! Which is, perhaps, what Tennyson most hoped for.

He sees a therapeutic use for poetry (“the sad mechanic exercise”). It numbs the pain of grief. Perhaps Tennyson wrote far more than he published at this time – I’m not sure – because this poem is as far from a “mechanic exercise” as it’s possible to get. The third stanza is surprising and astonishing. He carries on the exercise, so wrapping himself in words, which are like clothes (“weeds”, not of the garden variety!) keeping cold out. And then the fantastic close:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

The “large” grief is himself, the one wrapped around with words. His entire being is depicted as grief-shaped (what an amazing image), although it is “given in outline and no more.” But the emotional impact of these lines is so great that we do indeed get more than an outline, more than could be humanly expressed if we could indeed see the real Tennyson going about his life before our eyes. His own doubts over the efficacy of poems to convey accurately an emotional state has become a catalyst for doing so.

True, his “measured words” conceal that real, physical sense of his being and consciousness that only he can know. But they reveal, across the centuries, something more than we could have known otherwise. Such is (great) poetry.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 4

Poem 4 of In Memoriam. Well, it’s OK, but I’m not quite as impressed with it as with the first three and, consequently, I have less to say about it. Tomorrow’s poem, however, is a cracker, so don’t give up just yet.


To Sleep I give my powers away;
My will is bondsman to the dark;
I sit within a helmless bark,
And with my heart I muse and say:

O heart, how fares it with thee now,
That thou should'st fail from thy desire,
Who scarcely darest to inquire,
'What is it makes me beat so low?'

Something it is which thou hast lost,
Some pleasure from thine early years.
Break, thou deep vase of chilling tears,
That grief hath shaken into frost!

Such clouds of nameless trouble cross
All night below the darken'd eyes;
With morning wakes the will, and cries,
'Thou shalt not be the fool of loss.'

Tennyson’s theme is sleep. The first two stanzas seem to connect with poem 2 about the yew tree which ends, “I seem to fail from out my blood/ And grow incorporate into thee.” In poem 4, he is sitting “within a helmless bark” and asks his heart how it feels that it “should'st fail from thy desire”. But while in poem 2 there was almost a longing for a constant raw grief, as opposed to real life’s uncertain moods, here, sleep mutes his sorrow. He can’t even quite be certain of what’s making him feel so sad. I suppose the counterpoint is that sleep offers no escape. The grief finds him even there, albeit in muted form, and he has no control over it. Morning brings full-blown sorrow, but at least it “wakes the will”. The poem suggests that sheer force of will could be what gets him through all this.

I love the line, “My will is bondsman to the dark.” And the idea that clouds are continually passing all night, somewhere between his eyes and brain, is a fantastic conception. But I found the poem less interesting than the others so far, both at the level of meaning and ideas and at the level of diction and great lines. I’m also puzzled by lines 3 and 4 of the third stanza – the grief that shakes “chilling tears” into frost (?), although I can see why breaking the vase might relieve the tension.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 3

Tennyson has just said it might be preferable to live with constant sorrow than life’s more typical unpredictability. In the third poem from In Memoriam, he more or less says the opposite which, in itself, shows how unpredictable living with grief can be.

Sorrow is personified in this poem, each line in the opening stanza is an invocation from the poet to ‘her’, and begins with a heavy rhetorical spondee:


O Sorrow, cruel fellowship,
O Priestess in the vaults of Death,
O sweet and bitter in a breath,
What whispers from thy lying lip?

'The stars,' she whispers, `blindly run;
A web is wov'n across the sky;
From out waste places comes a cry,
And murmurs from the dying sun:

'And all the phantom, Nature, stands—
With all the music in her tone,
A hollow echo of my own,—
A hollow form with empty hands.'

And shall I take a thing so blind,
Embrace her as my natural good;
Or crush her, like a vice of blood,
Upon the threshold of the mind?

Sorrow is ambiguous to the core – “cruel fellowship”, “Priestess...Death”, “sweet and bitter”. He has already said in the first poem that, without feeling this sorrow, his love could not have been real and passionate. But its ambiguity makes it difficult to trust and Tennyson’s mood swings against it.

Sorrow herself invokes a purposeless, blind, decaying universe, a mere “phantom” whose music is a hollow echo of Sorrow’s own and, just to rub the point home, she repeats the word “hollow” in S3 L4. The world is infused with sadness, but even it is just a ghost evidencing Sorrow’s substantive reality. I really like the third stanza here: the parallelism of the repeated “all the...” in the first two lines – encompassing everything in the universe – with “hollow” in the next two, the real state of things whatever their appearance, according to Sorrow.

Tennyson can’t embrace sorrow as a good thing in the grief process. Rather he feels he ought to crush her. Grief counsellors would screw up their faces in dismay at this poem, as those who bottle up their grief in this way are only storing up further problems for themselves, but Tennyson isn’t afraid to say the incorrect thing. Nor is he the least bit worried about contradicting himself. He describes a feeling. 'In Memoriam' isn’t a step-by-step therapy session but a poem which opens its doors even to thoughts even the poet may have preferred not to have.

The phrase “vice of blood” from the fourth stanza is striking, as if he regards sorrow as a kind of poison or infection. He won’t allow it entry but kills it off at the mind’s threshold. It does seem a curious, but interesting, way to describe his attitude. People who lament that modern poems don’t always say things straightforwardly ought to read Tennyson to see that good poetry has never stuck to the straightforward path.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 2

Poem 2 from Tennyson’s In Memoriam symbolises the yew tree as the power of death. No life-giving symbols are sufficient to block it out. Tennyson even envies its “hardihood”.


Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.

The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.

O, not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who changest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.

The first stanza shows the stranglehold death exerts on human beings, even if this is unseen. The tree “graspest” at the stones which commit people to memory, its fibres “net”, its roots “are wrapt about” the dead below the ground. Whatever Nature does to give the appearance of hope is answered in the third line of the second stanza, “And in the dusk of thee, the clock” – the internal half-rhyme of “dusk” and “clock”, the two heaviest stresses in the line, connects them intimately, and the sole spondaic syllable in the entire stanza, “Beats out”, enacts as much as describes the process of time going past.

Nothing can alter the tree, whatever changes happen elsewhere in the world. Tennyson envies the tree this hardiness, but the final lines, if I understand them correctly, are highly double edged. The fluctuating moods of grief affect him deeply, so deeply that he longs for the tree’s resilience against everything that tries to change it. However, that existence is also unremitting gloom. Tennyson feels himself becoming like the tree, hardened and resilient, but this also condemns him to to eternal dusk.

However, yews do actually bear fruit, and some critics have asked what Tennyson can mean by “O, not for thee the glow, the bloom...” in S3 L1. The presence of fruit does seem to blow a hole in the whole idea that the yew is unchanging. On the other hand, both its leaves and fruit are highly poisonous, but that’s a slightly different point. Maybe we just need to grant Tennyson a little poetic license here...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 1

Continuing the In Memoriam series with Poem 1, which begins the first cycle – Grief (there are four ‘cycles in work: grief, hope, peace, and joy).

I held it truth, with him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones,
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.

But who shall so forecast the years
And find in loss a gain to match?
Or reach a hand thro' time to catch
The far-off interest of tears?

Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown'd,
Let darkness keep her raven gloss:
Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss,
To dance with death, to beat the ground,

Than that the victor Hours should scorn
The long result of love, and boast,
‘Behold the man that loved and lost,
But all he was is overworn.'
Tennyson considers his theoretical belief that grief and hardship are character-building, that time is the great healer and we’ll see we’ve gained a great deal from our times of sorrow when we look back. In stanzas 3 and 4 he rejects that simplicity. This summary, of course, does nothing to describe the imaginative shifts and unexpected ways with which Tennyson carries out his argument.

The poem is a model of economy and image-making. Lines 3 and 4 have a graphic, painful image. Tennyson held it true (before the death of his friend):

That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.

“Stepping-stones/ of their dead selves”. What an astonishing way to put it! And I love the end of the next stanza too, the hand reaching through time to grasp the ‘benefit’ that present tears have granted. Tennyson cuts through the ‘wisdom’ of the day, and time hasn’t moved on much. Today people still console the bereaved by saying “Time is a great healer.” I have never heard anyone respond by quoting Stanza 2 of this poem, but it is worth committing to memory, just in case you ever need to use it (although probably easier in such circumstances just to nod grimly).

The third stanza begins with an entirely unexpected thought, “Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown'd”. Without such intensity of grief, love would mean nothing. They both belong together or else neither can be authentic. Again, Tennyson’s economy of phrase is striking – so much in one line. It’s simply enough expressed, but it doesn’t deal with simplicities. Rather it leads into the idea that it’s better to be “drunk with loss” than merely “overworn” through time, better to “beat the ground” than submit to love being “scorned” by the hours. Dylan Thomas must have been listening when he came to write his villanelle...

Great use of imagery, a shifting and surprising argument, economy of phrase, and a sense of emotional rawness conveyed with exquisite control: all those combine to make this poem a stand-out.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - Prelude

In Memoriam recounts the effect on Tennyson of the death of Arthur Hallam, his closest friend. It’s no simple recounting of times spent together, but a splintering of the mind and heart, revealing the poet’s experience of loss and how he deals with it. The work contains 131 poems, with a prelude and epilogue, all in the same form – iambic tetrameter quatrains with a rhyme scheme of ABBA. Here’s the prelude:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou.
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,

But vaster. We are fools and slight;
We mock thee when we do not fear:
But help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.

Forgive what seem'd my sin in me;
What seem'd my worth since I began;
For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.

Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.

I’m just going to pick out a few things that strike me.

In the second and third stanzas, there’s constant repetition of the word “made” and its variants, emphasising how human beings stand before God. But repetition carries through the poem: “our wills are ours” in S4, “have their day” in S5, the word “know” throughout the poem, “ bear” in S8, and various other word and phrases. It’s a rhetorical device used for purposes of argument, but also purposes of lyricism. It brings both passion and order to the poem and neither one cancels out the other, which is quite an achievement. I like the way he parallels faith and knowledge, knowledge and reverence in stanzas 6 and 7. Together, he hears them as making “one music”.

Memorable lines, for me, include, “Our wills are ours, we know not how;/ Our wills are ours, to make them thine” from S4 - wonderful, aphoristic parallelism, and such an economic way of saying it. The most heartbreaking lines are from the penultimate stanza, “I trust he lives in thee, and there/ I find him worthier to be loved.” Yet, he is so overwhelmingly absent, but Tennyson isn’t glossing over that absence in sentiment. He’s just asked God to forgive his grief “for one removed”, so the lines reveal the intense pain of loss and separation.

The emotional centre of the poem comes in stanzas 7 and 8. It’s the one occasion of enjambment (a line running on) from one stanza to another. In fact, there is very little enjambment even from line to line in this poem – most lines are self-contained, so the heavy enjambment of, “May make one music as before,// But vaster”, stands out all the more. You can’t read “But vaster” without a long pause, and indeed the long sound of the syllable “-vast” draws the phrase out even more. The phrase looks longingly towards a new reality, in which grief, loss, faith and knowledge become reconciled. Until then, with struggling but determined faith, Tennyson is left with his “wild and wandering cries,/ Confusions of a wasted youth.”

Friday, June 10, 2011

Anyone for Tennyson?

Every so often I feel the need to do something completely uncommercial on this blog and write about poetry I feel unaccountably interested in, the more unhip the better. This is fuelled by comments I sometimes read from other poets and performance artists who imagine they are being ‘dangerous’ or ‘cutting edge’ by saying things like, “Forget all that Milton/Wordsworth/Shelley crap with all their rhymes and metre and rules. X [Insert name of contemporary poet] is where it’s at!” Anyone who has read a literary biography of Milton etc will know what ‘danger’ and ‘cutting edge’ means and they usually put our contemporaries well in the shade. And as for rules, these guys twisted them out of shape and reinvented them. They aren’t rules anyway, but form, and the only poets who don’t employ form, including those who write free verse, are those who don’t know what they’re doing and ought to find out.

Anyway, I’m going to write some posts over the next while on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. I’m not an academic and, for anyone wanting an academic analysis of the poem for exams etc, you won’t find much to help you. I’ll be responding to the poem as a reader and as a writer. I won’t cover the whole poem and will stop when I feel like doing so. I hope some readers of this blog will join me.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Chaos at the Poetry Society

I’ve been following the news from the Poetry Society, the little that has emerged in the past couple of weeks, with a degree of confusion. I’m not a member and I don’t suppose what happens makes any difference to me personally, but it nevertheless is becoming a genuine concern.

A week or two ago, the director of the Poetry Society, Judith Palmer, resigned. The story I heard was that she and some members of the board were pulling in different directions as regards administrative structure. This didn’t quite ring true. Directors don’t resign just because of disagreements over structure. But the board and staff were asked to observe confidentiality and so little accurate news emerged.

I do see the point in this, unlike some others who want everything aired in public. People on a board have to feel secure in speaking their mind on difficult issues while knowing what they say in private isn't going to be broadcast all over Facebook ten minutes later. But secrecy only works if nothing gets out. The minute people begin to leak hints and whisper slanted stories and Facebook threads become viral and rumours of rumours spread by word of mouth, email and on social networking sites, it becomes important to make some kind of statement. Not a bland statement which says nothing, but a statement which accurately and as fairly as possible tells the story, without attributing private opinions.

If that doesn’t happen, you get stories like this one from the Evening Standard appearing. It sounds bad. It makes accusations that the board (and one person in particular) wanted to change the Poetry Society’s focus. If this is true, I imagine it will go down extremely badly with the rank and file members of the society. The article also carries a call from an unnamed source for an EGM to ask for the board’s resignation.

The only problem is that this story comes from the Evening Standard. It may be true, it may not be true. It may be sensationalising gossip, it may be bitterness. It may have hit the nail on the head or it may be someone throwing a few darts and missing the board (apologies for the pun) by miles. Who knows? I’m only amazed that so many intelligent people on Facebook seem ready and willing to trust a British rag without question!

On the other hand, this does once again reveal clearly the urgent need for an accurate and fair statement on the situation from the Poetry Society, with input from the factions on both sides. If a statement doesn’t come, then members and interested onlookers can form their opinions only by what they read in the tabloids and on Facebook. They have nothing else to go on, and it makes the Poetry Society look as if they are being secretive, doing something improper, and adds fuel to the fire this newspaper article is obviously delighted to fan.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Lachlan Mackinnon on Geoffrey Hill's Clavics

There’s been a fair bit of talk concerning Lachlan Mackinnon’s review of Geoffrey Hill’s Clavics in The Independent. Obviously, people disagree over whether his dismissal of the work is justified or not but discussions have focused more on the nature of reviewing itself.

It is true that most broadsheet critical reviews over the past year or two have seemed, well, rather uncritical. Uncritical to the extent that I have wondered what has been going on. This review is the complete opposite of that anodyne tendency, but I disagree with those who suggest it represents a much-needed kick against one of the big establishment names. Hill is absolutely not establishment. He belongs to no school except his own and has pretty much nothing in common with most of the big names in British poetry at the moment.

Nor do I really accept the idea that, just because someone is a big name, they deserve to be taken down a peg or two and given a good trashing every so often. That’s only true if they write a bad book but, sometimes, I get the impression that disgruntled reviewers make a decision to write a negative review before they’ve read a word of the book at hand – either due to peer rivalry/enmity or because they want to draw attention to themselves.

I’m not suggesting that’s true in the case of Mackinnon on Clavics, incidentally. I think it’s a fair review in that he makes his points and backs them up with evidence from the text, and I doubt there’s any underlying personal agenda. There is of course an agenda in the battle for Hill’s reputation. Hill has a massive Collected Poems coming out in the next year or two. It’s what he will be judged on – the early stuff nearly everyone (however grudgingly) agrees is significant and perhaps great, and the later stuff which has so divided critics and readers. Many believe Hill to be the greatest living poet. Others, even those who loved his earlier work, have been driven to distraction by the obscurity (note, I don’t use the words ‘difficulty’ or ‘density’ which could also apply to his earlier work) of the later material. There’s little middle ground in this debate. Hill’s later work is either “the sheerest twaddle” (Mackinnon) or further evidence that he is the “greatest living English poet” (Michael Dirda). In this connection, I’m intrigued by Liam Guilar’s question:

...Can a poet reach a point of eminence where what they write is no longer important because there are enough people ready to find value in whatever they write?

I think the second half of that sentence rings true in many cases, but I haven’t yet read Clavics to know whether the whole question ought to be asked of Hill’s admirers.

I doubt the review marks any real change in the way the broadsheets deal with poetry. They tend to review well known names from the major trade presses and use other well known names from the same major trade presses (often good friends of the writers under review, which is ridiculous!) to write the reviews. The way reviews are conducted in those venues certainly helps with the marketing of books more than the advance of genuine and rigorous critical discourse in this country, and it disappoints me (at times, it enrages me) that reviews have become an arm of the big publishing houses' publicity machines rather than independent evaluations.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Tweet Your Questions to Magma Poetry

For those of you who use Twitter, the editor of Magma 49, Julia Bird, will be answering your questions for the magazine’s first Online Meet-the-Editors Q&A session. You can tweet questions anytime, but most will be answered today (Friday) from 1pm British Summer Time (12 noon GMT) for one hour. Full details can be found at the Magma blog.