Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Poetry Readings and Sofi's

There have been moments when I’ve stopped doing readings, more or less, and even stopped attending them (with occasional exceptions made), mainly so there’s no danger of me writing for a live audience and all the instant satisfaction that requires. Not that all poems at a reading have to be “instant”, but I don’t want any pressure to knock off stuff that goes down well on first hearing. A poem, for me, needs to have enough of an instant hit to encourage readers to read it again, but the re-reads are where poems can be best appreciated (or can fail!). I apply the same standards when reading poetry collections by other people and have never yet reviewed a book I’ve only read once. At the moment, I am reading loads of poetry and attending live poetry readings and (coincidentally?) suffering from a dose of writers’ block. At some point next year, I may have to become a hermit again, curb my reading to a few favourites, and write like mad.

That said, I do enjoy the act of live performance and, last night at Sofi’s Bar in Leith, I had the opportunity both to read a set and to hear a variety of diverse poetic voices. Rachel Amey, a performance poet with a political, feminist angle, who performs her work from memory, was on top form - thoughtful, provocative and engaging material. The open mic featured seasoned readers Colin McGuire (organiser of the event), Roddy Shippin and Claire Askew, all of whom read with their accustomed poise and skill, and also the guy behind the bar (I don’t know his name) who was reading, I think, for the first time and did very well. Sofi’s always comes over to me as a friendly, welcoming place and the event attracts both the normal ‘poetry audience’ and people who go to this event because the bar is local to them. The readings take place in the main bar, not in a function room, and not being shut off is one reason people who don’t ordinarily go to poetry readings have begun to make it a monthly habit. A few people opened the door, realised poetry was happening, and walked straight out - their prerogative, of course, and poetry isn't for everyone any more than antiques roadshows or One Direction albums. A crowd of joggers stopped to receive glasses of tap water and then jogged off again, another regular occurrence each month. Perhaps they found extra sustenance in Colin's poem about pancakes?

I read an unusual set, beginning with poems from my back catalogue that weren’t in my full collections but which I didn’t feel ashamed of writing. Below is my set-list with the years each poem was published:

1. Do You Remember Henry Healey’s? (1999)
2. Designer Birthday for Little Brother (2002)
3. The Actress (2005)
4. The Clown of Natural Sorrow (2002, 2005)
5. Shopping List (2009)
6. Hangover (2011, 2012)
7. The Packs (2011, 2012)
8. Blade Runner (2012, 2013)
9. Locus-a-Non (2013)
10. The Dull Bulbs (newish, unpublished)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Few Thoughts on 'Beyond the Alps' by Robert Lowell

While many poets seem to have got their knickers in an unsavoury twist over royal shindig invitations, I (good republican that I am) have been thinking about Robert Lowell. More specifically about ‘Beyond the Alps’, which kicks off his most famous collection, Life Studies, and also the little Faber Selected Poems, edited by Michael Hofmann. I believe several versions of the poem exist, some with extra stanzas, but I’m going to stick to the one from the Hofmann Selected (two 14-line stanzas, one 12-line stanza and a final couplet). The poem isn’t online and I’m not going to reproduce it here (I can’t afford Faber’s copyright fees), so this post will continue a long line of Surroundings articles which have, at best, a limited audience. Given Lowell’s lack of popularity in the current climate, that audience may be almost nil, but not quite. This “not quite” is exactly what Surroundings is about and, I hope, it's a "not quite" that is set to grow.

Now, ‘Beyond the Alps’ is a fantastic poem. I love it! It concerns a train journey from Rome to Paris through the Alps, with various diversions – the failure of a Swiss group to climb Everest, the train stewards (from the restaurant carriage?) who, amazingly, go “forward on tiptoe banging on their gongs”, a “skirt-mad Mussolini”, and the Pope’s purring electric razor and pet canary. The poem is about Catholic faith, perhaps the loss of it or at least a distancing from its orthodoxy. The train moves off from Rome and heads into the mountains and, as it leaves the Alps and comes back to ground-level, each stark peak begins to resemble a “fire-branded socket of the Cyclop’s eye.” The landscape, where we might expect woolly snow, feels more like a barren burned-out desert: clearly also a psychological state. One of the main arguments concerns the ambiguous closing couplet:

Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up
like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.

I stared at this for a little while, as it seemed a curious way to end. It contains the virtue of surprise, but also evades any sense of closure. Or, even if “closure” isn’t desirable, the couplet asks more questions than it answers and not all the questions stem from what’s happened previously in the poem. There is debate on this online in the New York Review of Books – Jonathan Raban and Edwin Franks debating with James Fenton. The debate sheds some light on the poem, I think. The reference to the Etruscans must have to do with a great civilisation, vastly influential in its cultural milieu, which nevertheless disappeared and left behind no literature and whose geographical power collapsed completely. The killer kings have themselves been killed by events, time, shifts of culture and power. Paris feels the same to Lowell. His world-view is disintegrating as he nears the city and he seems himself in it or, perhaps sees himself as it.

Paris would be black, as Raban and Frank suggest, because it would have seemed grimy at the time compared to Rome. However, why “our black classic” is the real question, as Fenton says. If something is “classic”, it is untouchable. It has status, accorded by the influential. A ‘Penguin Classic’ (Morrissey aside) or a “classic album” is such because it has been ‘canonized’ by those who have the power to make such decisions. Paris has that canonical quality. It is a great, iconic city. It is a “classic”, but a sooty, tarnished classic here. It mirrors Lowell’s internal crisis of faith, dramatized within the poem by the Pope (expressly exercising papal infallibility) making the Assumption of the Virgin Mary a dogma in 1950, the idea that Mary was bodily taken up into heaven at the end of her life:

The lights of science couldn’t hold a candle
to Mary risen – at one miraculous stroke,
angel wing’d, gorgeous as a jungle bird!
But who believed this? Who could understand?

Lowell’s loss of faith in strict Catholic dogma has led him to a city breaking up before his eyes, a city beyond the Alps where gods once held sway. It is a poem that still resonates in the shattered cities, physical and psychological, of 2013.