Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Poetry and Emotional Impact

Just spotted this curious review of Lavinia Greenlaw’s new collection, The Casual Perfect, in The Independent. Its curiosity isn’t altogether the reviewer’s fault. She’s obviously been given a maximum word count and 281 words is hardly sufficient to review a poetry collection with any real insight. It may even have been edited down by someone else to emphasise an attitude that might not have been prevalent in its original draft. Maybe. It’s impossible to tell. The attitude is represented by:
"There is some emotion to be gleaned from these cool, opaque poems."

So the reviewer is analysing the poems to glean emotion from them and largely isn’t succeeding. When she does glean some emotion from a poem, she writes:

"Nicely earthy, it contrasts with the cerebral tone of much of this collection."

Now, a poem’s emotional impact is one measure of a poem’s success. But it is hardly the only measure. We can enjoy poems because they turn our brains inside out, because they transform the way we’ve always looked at something, because their words sing in a way which isn’t merely clever but somehow invigorating, because they coolly hit the nail on the head, because they connect ideas and themes in ways we’d never before imagined, and so on and so on.

I have read some of The Casual Perfect and I think “cool” and “opaque” are both fair words to describe the poems I’ve read, but their payback doesn’t depend so much on a gleaning of emotion as a surrender to and engagement with mystery. Why demand emotional impact when a poem is offering something else entirely?

Monday, September 26, 2011

On Katharine Kilalea's 'Hennecker's Ditch'

One poem I didn’t write about in my review of The Best British Poetry 2011 was Hennecker’s Ditch by Katharine Kilalea, and perhaps that’s just as well, as Don Share has just posted a fascinating reading of it at the Carcanet New Poetries blog, a better way of reading it than I would have managed. The text of the poem is also at the link and, although it’s long, it’s well worth taking time to read it.

I read it a couple of times when going through the anthology and felt taken aback. I had read (indeed, had reviewed) her first collection, One Eye’d Leigh and had liked it a lot, but I didn’t remember it containing anything quite in this mould. It felt like a step forward rather than a repeat of what she’d already done. There was so much going on, so much that wasn’t obvious, that I mentally filed it under Go Back to Read Again Later. I now have done and am intrigued, as I often am, to reflect on why I can enjoy a poem when I don’t understand much of what’s actually happening in it. Each phrase is in itself entirely clear – nothing muggy or vague about them – and the syntax is relatively standard. But the poem doesn’t occupy a linear time-scheme and it took a few reads before details of the world it creates began to map themselves in my head. So what makes the poem so effective?

Partly it must be memorable lines and images (“the trees walk backwards into the dark”, “the washing machine shook so badly/ that a man asleep four floors down reached out to hold it”), partly the sound, rhythm and the music Don Share mentions. The language, with its shifting tones, is is never predictable – the first section alone contains the lyrical “pages of a book/whose words suddenly start to swim”, the informal “Wow. The rain”, the strange “Ickira trecketre stedenthal, said the train”, and the consciously poetic, “Dear Circus...the painèd months are coming for us”. Perhaps, also, it feels like I am being taken to a half-lit world and shown something beautiful, haunting, and intimate, and then I’m left there to build my associations at first hand – the dark, the many different kinds of light that emerge, the trees and coastline, the human relationship(s), the bath and water, the dog, the moon, the different winds, the bakery, the house and the surrounding houses and gardens, the curious addresses to the Circus. Some obscure poems send me to sleep. Nothing about them draws me in, but the world of Kilalea’s poem feels like a place I am happy to spend time in.

You can hear her read part of the poem here on YouTube (where it's called 'Dear Circus'). You can read the full poem online at the link above or on paper in New Poetries V or in The Best British Poetry 2011.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Troubadour Poetry Prize 2011

I thought I’d bring the Troubadour Poetry Prize to your attention, if you don’t yet know about it. The deadline is 17 October, judges are Susan Wicks and David Harsent (who both read ALL the poems: no sifters). The first prize is £2500 and there are several other prizes. Full details and entry process is at the link. The entry fee is £5/€6/$8. Your fee, of course, (as well as paying the costs of holding the competition) supports future live poetry at the Troubadour – a good cause.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: The Best British Poetry 2011

I wasn’t sure whether I would like The Best British Poetry 2011. I know some of the poets in it and was fairly sure I would like their poems but I was more interested in what I’d think of the rest. I tended to avoid reading the British mainstream (until, of necessity, I had to engage with it through becoming Magma’s reviews editor) and much preferred to spend time with American and European poetry collections, along with a few Scottish favourites, and I had the fear that an anthology of British poems selected from magazines would contain too much bland and boring work.

I have to say that my eyes have been opened. I really enjoyed some poems in this anthology from writers I knew by name but had somehow bypassed. It’s certainly a positive introduction to contemporary writing in Britain – a far wider range of styles and schools (and both the famous and lesser known, both the established magazines and the new) than is customary in British publications. I will pay more attention in future. Poems that struck me (not counting those by my friends) included those by Emily Berry, Judy Brown, Fred D’Aguiar, Sasha Dugdale, Ian Duhig, Giles Goodland, Patrick McGuinness and Deryn Rees-Jones, and there were several others I much enjoyed. OK, there were also poems that struck me as pretty ordinary, but nowhere near as many as I had expected, and no one is ever going to like everything in such an anthology.

Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘The Rose of Toulouse’ got my attention with its opening section in which the streets are “not a scene for former slaves”:

Or their feisty descendants, wearing their life
Savings, nursing wounds from history, no track
Record in an ocean with bones for a library.

The poem is an evocation of French city life, into which is woven a subtext centring on the poet’s children and another one focusing on justice and domination in history. At the back of the anthology are 40 pages of short author biographies and a few paragraphs on the poets’ impetus for writing their poem. I noted from Fred D’Aguiar’s reflections that the poem seemed to me to be about more or less what he also thought it was about.

That wasn’t always the case. Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Shepherds’, according to its author, “is an elegy for the last dwellers on the [South] Downs, and a hymn of praise to the hills themselves.” Now that she mentions it, I do see how that makes sense. But I felt the poem centred on questions of religious faith. There’s an ambiguity at its heart – the Bible-carrying shepherds also read the earth’s Bible – the one written “in chalk, in rabbit droppings, and lady’s smock” which now has “no meaning for anyone, except the shepherds/ Who are gone.” The pastoral world of the Bible (both the literal one and the metaphorical Bible of the earth) is rendered unreadable in an urban age. That may be a statement of how the poet views the world, but the elegiac tone also suggests to me that something seems lost by this shift.

I found the variance between my own interpretations of poems and those proffered by the poets to be a source of considerable fascination. Both the writer’s and the reader’s ideas are admissible, of course, and a difference between them isn’t evidence of failure on either side. It may even point to a welcome complexity that the poem can’t be summed up in explanatory prose. Several poets expressed a discomfort about offering comment on their poem and I felt an initial scepticism at first glance, but I have been won over. It is simply interesting and doesn’t negate other readings. Now and again, I did realise that I hadn’t read the poem carefully enough and saw it with new eyes after reading the author’s thoughts. Sometimes, the comments were just a little pretentious..., but not as often as you might expect in an anthology of poets.

I am always happy when poets come across as unusual people and when Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch confessed (in her prose comment) that “lining objects up on tables has always fascinated me” and that she attended a “table etiquette course in Somerset three years ago,” I found new reason to trust her advice in her poem, ‘Table Manners’:

..........................Do not remove your shoes or
show any flesh. Tilt your soup’s light towards
her, like an invitation to swim. Sip
as though you’re working on it.

Perhaps not all of that will impress on a first date, but I hope someone puts it to the test. But remember the sting in the tail, that "cutlery is a code" and "ten to five means it's over." Don't say you haven't been warned. So, yes, there are more good things happening in British poetry than I had expected and The Best British Poetry 2011 will offer, to most readers, a number of welcome surprises and send them rounding up the back catalogue of at least a few of the featured poets.

The Best British Poetry 2011, ed Roddy Lumsden, is published by Salt, £7.99

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Courtesy of Shiraz: Geoffrey Hill's Clavics - 1

It’s 10pm, my wife is out being an actress, my daughter is asleep. I have settled down with my laptop, a glass of Shiraz – an inordinately large glass – and a review copy of Geoffrey Hill’s Clavics, posted to me by Enitharmon Press. The collection is described in the dust jacket as “an elegiac sequence for William Lawes, the Royalist musician, killed at the Battle of Chester.” So we’re in the 17th century during the ill-fated reign of Charles I. It isn’t the first time I’ve picked up Clavics, which consists of 32 page-long poems, each in two fetchingly-shaped sections. I’ve read poems at random off and on for some time now. I recognise that certain names, phrases, and ideas slip from one poem to another and several long, coherent, note-taking reads are no doubt necessary to review it properly, but I am not going to review it properly. I am simply going to record a few impressions and I’m going to begin with the first poem. In future posts, I plan to say more. I am intrigued, for instance, by the relationship between the two sections of each poem which sometimes seems tenuous, and this is a question which (strangely?) no previous reviewers have addressed. How can they possibly not address that?! One good thing – in the course of writing this paragraph, the Shiraz, pretty rough at first, now tastes much smoother. This has ridiculous metaphorical possibilities when it comes to discussing a Hill collection, but I will refrain.

All this talk of Shiraz etc will no doubt have got rid of the Hill acolytes who swoon theatrically at every syllable he writes. Not serious enough, y’see. There are people who just can’t fathom why readers find Hill “difficult”. They know it all, are vastly more intelligent than ...well... anyone who suggests that there might be a few complexities to overcome when reading Hill. It is reassuring when they use Hill to assert their intellectual superiority without (of course) offering us the slightest proof of their unique understanding. I always enjoy that. Hill knows very well that he is difficult and thrives on the fact. Anyway, the Shiraz is going down nicely and I feel like raising a toast to Astraea, goddess of justice for whom this world was unendurable. Perhaps that owl with the mouse in its mouth, which adorns the cover of Clavics, was one reason why Zeus placed her within a constellation in the night sky. Cheers, Astraea, wherever in Virgo you are (according to that reliable source, Wikipedia, there is also a ‘La Vida es Sueno’ reference, as one of the characters in that play takes on the name ‘Astraea’ when in court. ‘La Vida Es Sueno’ features heavily in Hill’s ‘The Orchard of Syon’). We really need you down here, by the way, Astraea. And Hill also knows it:

Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatise
Numerology also makes much sense,
O Astraea!
Indeed. This is how poem 1 begins, so we’re in the realm of metaphysical digging. The Cabbalah is a way of understanding everything, more or less, although it has no agreed canon and can incorporate internal contradictions with aplomb, which is extremely handy for everyone. Hill adds to the mishmash and invokes the goddess who is watching from her starry haven. I read the invocation as angry, sarcastic. As such, I’m taking a rather different view of this poem to Lachlan Mackinnon in his now infamous “sheerest twaddle” review, where Astraea represents Elizabeth I. Hill is trying his best to get to the truth, to the centre of things, but he is locked into his tradition (as we all are, whether we recognise it or not), and moving things on from it is no easy task. He is unhappy with Astraea’s chilled distance and calls her a “bitch” in his typical politically-correct way. She may have been physically exalted but, in Hill’s eyes, she has returned “rich/ To the low threshold of contemplation”, which at least has given Hill the opportunity to prove himself, as ever, the undisputed master of spitting irony (even rhyming ‘bitch’, ‘ditch’ and ‘rich’ is supremely ironic). I should mention at this point that the poems all rhyme and are technically demanding, to put it mildly – plenty of lines with two (or sometimes one) accented beats. Try the form and see how far you get! Anyway, seeing as Astraea isn’t playing her full part, we’re left with the poet/artist/composer (I presume) as:
Her servile master subsisting on scraps
Keeping station
As one pursuing ethics perhaps.

Astraea seems to function as a pitiless form of Muse here, an object of devotion who nevertheless feeds the artist only on scraps. It is a particularly religious feeling, a severe Kierkegaardian sense of the utterly transcendent God who can barely be approached, yet must be obeyed humbly by e.g. the pursuit of ethics. Time to fill up my glass, although I note there is not enough left in the bottle to fill it up more than half.

The second section of the poem riffs on the writing process, partly through the metaphor of musical notation. It can be done with “care” (like prayer) or with “flair” (which I suspect is not so good). He makes reference to musical stress marks, also surely a mischievous allusion to the curious stress marks which adorn some of his poems in other books. If these are simply flair, mere affect:
Dump my clavic books in the mire
And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff.

No, don’t do that! I quite like Poem 1 and it’s obviously been written with a great deal of care (and flair too, I think, and just as well). Some readers will be saying, “But that’s quite an ‘easy’ poem, relatively speaking.” And I agree. It is highly compressed writing, a more radical compression than most poets would employ and this, combined with the tight rhyme and accentual scheme, necessitate a degree of odd phrasing and strange syntax, which make certain sections of the poem hard to make sense of – but not impossible. Later poems do present more formidable challenges.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Few Odds And Ends

It’s been a strange few months. Not that anything obviously out of the ordinary has happened, but I’ve found myself busy at every turn. There are the usual things which make life busy, none of which are relevant to this blog, but on top of that several reviews had to be written and I found myself writing poems too. I thought I might have enough to draft a new manuscript. When I slotted them together, it turned out I had more than enough – to my considerable surprise. For some reason, I’d been feeling highly unproductive and every poem I tried to write was taking me ages to finish, but I suppose three years of writing adds up.

Then I got involved in writing a cento of a century of Scottish poetry, using 100 lines from Scottish poems, one from each of 100 poets, and fusing them together into something new. I probably don’t need to say that such an undertaking is liable to drive anyone mad. Looking back on it, it seems like I must have had a lot of fun, but I’m certain that wasn’t how I felt during the process of writing the thing.

I went to hardly anything at the Edinburgh Festival and have hardly been out anywhere since. I hardly read a blog post all summer. The poetic side of my life has been writing and revising poetry, along with a few reviews. I couldn’t think of anything to blog about, so I didn’t. Yesterday, I woke up buzzing with ideas for blog posts, so it seems a good time to start up again. Not that I have much more to say today.

It is a rainy Sunday afternoon and the forecast is for rain on each of the next five days. It is the 50th anniversary of my church and I am off to an event there tonight. I am looking forward to finding out how Kona Macphee and Sophie Cooke got on in their week in Lvov and I read a few Zbigniew Herbert poems last night in anticipation. I am listening to the Waterboys playing Yeats. I have just finished The Best British Poetry 2011 edited by Roddy Lumsden and enjoyed it – will say more later. I read the September issue of Poetry and enjoyed that too. I just wish we had a magazine of similar quality and range on this side of the Atlantic. I was pleased with the list of people elected to the Poetry Society board, and I hope they can make a difference. And I have perused a mountain of books sent for review in Magma – still trying in vain to narrow it down to 12. I could tell you what I had for breakfast but that would be pushing at the far margins of what this blog can contain.