Monday, December 29, 2008

Clive v. Cyril - journalism built to last

In his memoir North Face of Soho, Clive James describes how reading Orwell's collected journalism led him to realize that 'periodical journalism could be built to last' ... 'Here was the proof that it took effort to write plain prose but, if you could do so, the results might have the effect of poetry.'

Against this we can set Cyril Connolly's remark in The Unquiet Grave: 'All excursions into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda and writing for the films, however grandiose, are doomed to disappointment. To put of our best into these forms is another folly, since thereby we condemn good ideas as well as bad to oblivion.'

'To put of our best' is clearly what James aims at. He is conscious of this, writing of 'the standard accusation, often levelled at my prose, that I was putting everything I had in the shop window'.

Connolly's remarks were first published in the periodical Horizon, so that now they seem to go some way to offering their own refutation.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Monstrous Certainty

Janice Harayda has given her 'Gusher Award' for hyperbole in reviewing to Clive James for a recent essay in Poetry. She points out sentences, such as “Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten that moment.” Interestingly, James can spot a similar tendency in others: "Though Grigson was an excellent editor and an unrivalled anthologist, his own poetry, nervously echoing Auden's oratorical verve, was never distinctive enough to establish his credentials for such an ex cathedra confidence."

In his wonderfully wide-ranging, entertaining, and enlightening Cultural Amnesia James maintains a tough line on intellectuals who failed to stand up against the totalitarianism of the 20th century - Sartre and Borges for example get the treatment; Camus gets a commendation. But James' tone is ex cathedra - more so than Camus' at times whose doubts and uncertainties show through his pronouncements - and it was Camus who said the only party he'd belong to is the one that's not sure that it is in the right. I'm rather vague as to the source of this pseudo-quote of Camus' - but then James remarks that Borges was often very approximate about the details of his enthusiasms, as if to score a point, although James himself elsewhere writes: "Listening on the same day to the Lester Young quintet and a string quintet by Ravel ... " A wonderfully eclectic playlist no doubt, but is there a string quintet by Ravel???? I am reminded of some lines from Geoffrey Hill "I tell myself don't wreck a good phrase simply to boost sense."

Camus is on the money - certainty and ex cathedra judgement is where the danger lives. I'll leave the final words to that great polymath & humanist Jacob Bronowski, in his 'Knowledge and Certainty' episode of The Ascent of Man:
The Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science--or outside of it--we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined, within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses: First, in the engineering sense--science has progressed, step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance. But second, I also use the word, passionately, about the real world. All knowledge--all information between human beings--can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or in any form of thought that aspires to dogma. It's a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance--and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair.

The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it, the ascent of man, against the throwback to the despots' belief that they have absolute certainty.

Bronowski concludes the episode by wading in his suit into the mud and slime of a pool of water at Auschwitz into which the ashes of the slaughtered were flushed, his final imploration that we must 'touch people' made as he reaches down and drags up a fistful of the greasy mud:

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality--this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken." I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leó Szilárd, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A kind of Jingle in his Words

The 2008 Lady Margaret Lectures are available as mp3 files on the Christ's College site. Geoffrey Hill's lecture - entitled 'Milton as Muse' is a highlight.

Here is Addison in The Spectator, of Saturday, February 9, 1712, pointing out Milton's defects, although for us it helps reveal the similarities with Hill's work:

A second Fault in his Language is, that he often affects a kind of Jingle in his Words, as in the following Passages, and many others:

And brought into the World a World of woe

- Begirt th' Almighty Throne

Beseeching or besieging -

This tempted our attempt -

At one Slight bound high overleapt all bound

I know there are Figures of this kind of Speech, that some of the greatest Ancients have been guilty of it, and that Aristotle himself has given it a place in his Rhetorick among the Beauties of that Art. But as it is in itself poor and trifling, it is I think at present universally exploded by all the Masters of polite Writing.

So to Addison, Milton was no Master of polite Writing. One suspects that he might have considered Geoffrey Hill downright rude.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Collectible words

In the poem 'Francis Bacon's Studio' appearing on Justin Lowe's BluePepper blog, Mark O'Flynn kicks off with the words "From the perspex doorway" ... setting aside the problem of how a doorway (as opposed to a door) can be perspex, the use of the word 'perspex' acts to pin down the poem's temporal setting. O'Flynn also uses the word 'bloodshot' - which also has something of a contemporary feel to it, although it was used by Keats and Matthew Arnold and Hart Crane, & always coupled with the word 'eye', O'Flynn also uses it to describe an eye, whereas Peter Porter has used the word more imaginatively in the phrase "the bloodshot hills". There are moments when O'Flynn seem to tap into what the language is using us for ... the phrase 'holy, primal mess' is interesting: "holy mess" plays with the colloquial "unholy mess" but also carries with it echoes of "holy messengers", so the words acquire a resonance beyond their literal meaning.

The word 'perspex' appears in poems by both Peter Porter and Roy Fuller. Porter uses it as a prop to give a sense of the contemporary or futuristic - "watch the the cuckoo in your perspex panel"; whereas Fuller uses it to find a fresh image, a fresh comparison "the rain had stopped and through the perspex air", which is the sort of thing Auden was up to when he likened the chimneys of a power house to recently fired rifles. This drive to capture the details of the physical world, all its detritus, reminds me of the title poem of Donald Platt's 'Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, Guns'

Mozart once said that he wrote music
    by finding the notes
that love one another and putting them

    together. But remembering how
the dissonant opening bars of his string quartet
    in C major grate

against each other and yet somehow cohere,
    I like to think
he found a different kind of order,

    the same principle
of musical composition that inspired the roadside sign
    I saw on Rt. 29:

Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, & Guns.
    It makes me do a U
-turn pull over, and park among the rusted-out

    pick-ups. ...

Browning had a magpie's approach to grabbing the shiny new bits of language and putting them to use ... he used the word 'cocktail' and referred to the striking of a match only about a decade after matches were first introduced to Britain. But whether it's Platt on Route 29, or Auden with his goal post, wind-gauge, pylon & bobbing buoy, or Adam Kirsch with his humvee - the collective project of using poems as Cornell boxes of contemporary nouns is clear. A recent debut collection by Kathryn Simmonds, Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren 2008, winner of the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection) displays the same tendency. In one short poem, appropriately entitled 'News', she mentions the tube, the night bus, Woolworths, flatmates & fake Chanel. In another poem (which was featured at Todd Swift's Eyewear in August) Simmonds' category of human types - hillwalkers, Hare Krishna followers, war photographers, ambassadors, sous chefs, surveillance officers, apprentice pharmacists - takes us right back to Horace's Ode I,i, which Donald Hall reimagined in The Museum of Clear Ideas.

... I know that some people
require fame as athletes; still others demand
election to office or every gadget
for sale on 42nd Street; Tanaquil
enjoys dozing in the British Museum
and its pub; she prefers them to Disney World,
while her Chair, who won an all-expenses-paid
weekend in Rome, Italy, would have favored
Las Vegas. Marvin enjoys drinking himself
quadriplegic, Joan backpacks through Toledo,
Kim helicopters into Iranian
deserts, and Flaccus shoots tame wild antelope
in a hired game preserve. ...

Of course it's not just the nouns ... those verbs 'to backpack' 'to helicopter' do a lot of the work. Hall concludes his rendition of Horace I,i

I know that some people exist to look thin,
others stare at television sets all day
until they die, and others expend their lives
to redeem the dying. As for Horsecollar,
Decius, he'll take this desk, this blank paper,
this Bic, and the fragile possibility
that, with your support, the Muse may favor him.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Billy Collins latest book - Ballistics (Random House, 2008) - continues his line of light accessible wit. Lines from his poem on Liu Yong (柳永) "If only he appreciated life / in eleventh-century China as much as I do" illustrate well the charm of the self-mocking tone he typically adopts. The slightness or lightness of the occasion of some poems reminds me a little of John Ciardi (for example Ciardi's poem on a neighbour complaining about his dog soiling her garden). Collins' title poem is in the entertaining tradition of poems on the less-than-charitable thoughts a poet might harbour towards other poets. Clive James' psalm-like 'The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered' is one of the best of this mini-genre; there's also August Kleinzahler's 'An Autumnal Sketch' which describes professors, "sensitive men paunchy with drink" parked where the suburb ends waiting like hunters for a duck:

They will take it and make it their own,
something both more than a duck
and less.

They so badly want a poem,
these cagey and disheartened men

Collins describes a photograph of a bullet passing through a book; the poem ends:

But later, as I was drifting off to sleep,
I realized that the executed book
was a recent collection of poems written

by someone of whom I was not fond
and that the bullet must have passed through
his writing with little resistance

at twenty-eight hundred feet per second,
through the poems about his childhood
and the ones about the dreary state of the world

and then through the author's photograph,
through the beard, the round glasses,
and that special poet's hat he loves to wear.

The Georgia State University digital archive contains a version of this poem where the penultimate stanza is missing. Presumably the stanza was added later, and it brings an energy and vividness to the close of the poem both in focusing on the violence of the bullet by describing its velocity in precise mathematical language, and also in depicting the conventional subjects of the target's work.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Cossacks and Bandits

Katia Kapovich's latest collection - Cossacks and Bandits (Salt Publishing, 2008) - continues the appealing lyrical narrative style of her earlier Gogol in Rome. The two collections trace a shifting focus, from émigré to immigrant, from memories of Russia to observations of the United States. There's more of the present in the new book, and not only in the references to JPEGs and, but in the reservoir of experience from which the poems are drawn. The juxtaposition of two narratives in the poem 'The Bells' where the sequiturs aren't quite clear achieves a stronger effect than some of the simpler more direct pieces; but the simpler lyrical pieces are very appealing and have something of the affable clarity that you might find in the work of, say, Hugo Williams, although the content is quite different. There are the slight dislocations of language: "now you must rebuild the whole structure / out of the rabble in your mind" ... should that 'rabble' perhaps be 'rubble'? A blending of words possibly stemming from the absence of a short u sound in Russian? Or the odd strange article: "An obnoxious driver of the orange Porsche / changing lanes like a pigeon hops branches" ... here a pleasant enough insight is cut through by what seems like a wrong article, giving a strange electrostatic charge to the lines. But of course Kapovich is deeply aware of the ambiguities around the linguistic position of the immigrant, and the possible advantages its outsider status can confer upon a poet. In the poem 'Tutor' she recounts a story of teaching a Russian kid with some language and learning difficulties some basic English, managing to go as far as basic statements such as 'The sky is blue. The grass is green. The paper is white.' The poem ends with what could be a metaphor for the language trick of poetry:

The next thing I knew, he was dating an American girl.
"Anton, my goodness, how did that happen?"
He looked at me seriously. "I told her, 'Look! The sky is blue!
The grass is green! The paper is white! What is your name?'"

Monday, October 13, 2008

Baedeker poetry?

Kris Hemensley in a recent post looking at an essay by Petra White zeroes in on her use of term 'Baedeker poetry' - specifically in the context of her question "Can we write about the effect a place has on us, avoiding Baedecker poetry?". The derogatory import here of the term 'baedeker poetry' would perhaps seek to invalidate one of the occasions for poetry; and it is tempting to see all poetry as occasional. Laurie Duggan in a diary entry from August 2003 wrote "I’d mentioned to Kris that I’ve started to see myself as a kind of ‘occasional’ poet – no less a seriousness about poetry, just an awareness of its contingency". Duggan's recent poem on Milan and those poems John Forbes wrote while in Rome seem Baedekerish, but they are good poems. To disparage poems written in response to travel seems 'occasionalist'. Although of course the occasion of travel, like the occasions of love or love-gone-wrong, might inspire a lot of third-rate work, but that's another matter. Petra White has described "a dreary parade of random otherness" and this might locate the problem - poems should simply not be dreary. But if this is the crux of the objection, why the term 'baedeker poetry'?

The term was used in a 1969 paper by Vladimir Markov which was a 'reappraisal' of Konstantin Dmitriyevich Balmont (1867 - 1942), poet & translator of Poe and Shelley and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Markov described Balmont's sequence Аккорды (Akkordy - Chords) as 'baedeker poetry': it contains short lyric pieces such as Пред картиной Греко В музее Прадо, в Мадриде (Before a picture of El Greco in the Prado Museum, Madrid), Английский пейзаж (English countryside), В Оксфорде (In Oxford), and Крымская картинка (Crimean picture). This is work in the same line as Wordsworth's "Memorials of a Tour in the Continent, 1820' and 'Memorials of a Tour in Italy, 1837'.

Taking a broader view we could even see the origins of pastoral being cityfolks' nostalgic descriptions of a distant country life: Theocritus scribbling his idylls amid the clamour and stench of Alexandria. And of course the nostalgia for a lost bucolic life is rendered also in the classical Laments for Adonis - elegy and pastoral meet. Here is Theocritus rendered by Barbara Hughes Fowler:

Bear violets now, O brambles, bear violets, thorns, and let
the lovely narcissus bloom on juniper trees. Let all
be opposite of all, and let the pine bear pears
since Daphnis is dying. Let the stag drag the hounds.
From mountain tops let owls sing to nightingales.

Which sets the tone of deploration for poetic grief for the next couple of thousand years:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!

Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death!

Anyhow, as a reader who has been known to enjoy books by Bruce Chatwin or Bill Bryson or H. V. Morton, I think there's definitely a place for the undreary baedeker poem and its parade of details.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cioran's tatters

#6 of Kris Hemensley's The Merri Creek is out, or rather up. A poem by David Wheatley caught my eye; it's called 'Emil Cioran in Tatters' - an interesting title in that Cioran - the Romanian writer whose 1820 page Œuvres (Quarto Gallimard) & the 999 page Cahiers 1957 - 1972 (nrf Gallimard) are almost entirely composed of fragments and aphorisms, gnomes and apothegms - could be seen to have always been in tatters - pre-tattered, as it were. Tatters - torn scraps - was his considered approach. Wheatley's poem displays an appealing clarity in the language, and its dance of thought is engaging. The poem reads like a jazz improvisation over a selection of Cioran's remarks, and this brings with it something of Empson's 'puzzle-interest' or Elgar's Enigma, a game of 'spot the reference', so the twelve numbered stanzas (ordered in reverse like a NASA countdown or a microwave's metronomic progress) can seem like a quick quiz from the pages a popular magazine: 'Are YOU a real Cioran buff?'. I scored maybe 3 out of 12. Wheatley writes: 'I'd rather have been a plant, you bet,/ and spent my life guarding a piece of shit" which reminds me of Cioran's ' "One is in paradise only as a plant". A risk of the approach is that the underlying theme may strike some readers as more potent than the variation: to Wheatley's "Approach each day as a Rubicon / not to cross but to jump in and drown" I prefer Cioran's "Chaque jour est un Rubicon où j'aspire à me noyer" ("Each day is a Rubicon in which I aspire to be drowned"): that word 'aspire' hits and holds a high note in the sentence's melody, and packs much force into its punch. Similarly we may compare Wheatley's "Never to sleep, the insomniac's curse:" with Cioran's "Le paradis et l'enfer ne présentent d'autre différence que celle-ci: on peut dormir, au paradis, tout son soûl; en enfer, on ne dort jamais." (transl. André Vornic) ("The only difference between paradise and hell: you can sleep in paradise, never in hell.") Cioran died in 1995 at the age of 84 - in his youth he had been an active supporter of Nazi ideas - I wonder if he's sleeping.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Typo Brides

Tucked in the back of his A&R New and Selected - a copy once borrowed by the poet in haste before a reading and returned many months later inscribed as a gift, if memory serves - I recently found a letter from John Forbes. It is dated 27 October 1993 - he was in the Australia Council Rome apartment at the time. In it he seems to make a typing error - instead of 'Harbour Bridge' he writes 'Harbour Bride'. Peter Porter records a similar typo in his poem 'Brides come to the Poet's Window' whose first line explains "Birds, it should have been, but pleasure quickens." Forbes jokes about a MONUMENTAL STATUE of John Tranter "to be erected over the south pylons of the Harbour Bride like? The Harbour Bride? che cosa?" and then follows a draft of the poem which was later published as 'The Harbour Bride'. I'll leave it to the scholars to determine if this is the first draft.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Which verb for a scrutiny?

And as I scrutinised the down-turned face
With that pointed narrowness of observation
We bear upon the first-met stranger at dawn

Sound familiar? That's Eliot In the second typed draft of 'Little Gidding', perhaps unconsciously echoing Milton's "narrower scrutiny" in Paradise Regained. Eliot reworked this in the third typed draft:

And as I bent upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the first faint light

John Hayward - with whom Eliot corresponded at length during the process of revision - wrote in the margin 'scrutinised / bend a scrutiny?'. Perhaps it was an idiom with which Hayward was not familiar. I found an old page from the Palmyra Democrat (New York) of the 1890s with the phrase "He bent a scrutiny". "He would bend intent scrutiny to the dial" appears in Louis Joseph Vance's first in a series of novels about a jewel-thief turned detective - "The Lone Wolf" (1914), and Mrs Woodrow Wilson uses the figure in her 1917 book 'The Hornet's Nest' (a title which was incidentally used by former President Jimmy Carter for his novel about the Revolutionary War).

The phrase appears again in Vernon Watkins' poem 'Swedenborg's Skull'

Caught up from the waters of change by a traveller who bends
His piercing scrutiny

In the end Eliot decided on fixing a scrutiny rather than bending one.

As I fixed upon that down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Unpacking the Boxes

Donald Hall's latest book - Unpacking the Boxes - is a memoir covering various periods in the poet's life: school, Harvard, & Oxford are dealt with in turn; the first marriage is skipped over, so too the years with Jane Kenyon which were covered in his earlier The Best Day The Worst Day. Some of the childhood and family background material goes back over ground already explored in his earlier Life Work. The large gaps for both marriages give the book a strange feel - like what is left over from a piece of card when shapes have been cut from it. The last chapter deals largely with the blow-by-blow difficulties and indignities of health problems he suffered immediately preceding his appointment as U.S. poet laureate; the chapter opens with a wonderful paragraph: "When you are three years old and your socks are falling down, somebody says, "Pull up your socks, Donnie." Then you are twelve, solitary, reading books all day, then twenty-five and a new father, burping your son at two A.M. When you turn forty, divorced, your life is a passage among disasters. Then you marry again, you are happy, you turn sixty, your wife dies. Then you are eighty and your socks fall down again. No one tells you to pull them up."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fire double issue

The latest issue of Jeremy Hilton's Fire has arrived: 'Nos 29/30 Special International Double Issue'. At 392 pages it weighs in with other heavy periodicals such as the annual Fulcrum. Pricing for print runs and costs of distribution no doubt push towards the annualization of magazines, but this does perhaps make the reader's life a little more difficult: 400 odd pages is a daunting bolus of work. 30 pages arriving once a month would be so much more digestible. The fattening of publications has been noted also by Alan Baker in the context of Print-On-Demand books, where minimum page count constraints are imposed. He and Laurie Duggan both comment on the increased importance of pamphlets or chapbooks serving as interim collections, on the road to the new standard fatter collections.

The new double issue of Fire contains a large and somewhat bewildering diversity of work: poems and translations by Nathaniel Tarn, translations by Christopher Middleton and Peter Robinson, a translated excerpt of Platonov, 16 Finnish poems translated by Anselm Hollo, poems in the original Chinese, Bengali and Greek with facing translations, Afghan poets, Austrian poets, Vietnamese poets, even a couple of Australians ... it doesn't make sense to try to list all the nations represented. Fire now appears annually, so I guess I've got twelve months to get through it all.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Burnt birds

The burnt bird as an emblem of 20th century destruction appears in the work of two major poets: Pablo Neruda and Zbigniew Herbert. Neruda uses the image in his 'Oda al Átomo' ('Ode to the Atom')

La aurora
se había consumido.
Todos los pájaros
cayeron calcinados.

'The dawn had been consumed. All the birds burned to ashes' (Margaret Sayers Peden's translation).

Herbert uses a fractured version of a similar image in his poem 'Dom'. The last four lines are:

dom jest sześcianem dzieciństwa
dom jest kostką wzruszenia

skrzydło spalonej siostry

liść umarłego drzewa

which in English goes ...

home is a cube of childhood
home is a small bone of emotion

the wing of a burnt sister

the leaf of a dead tree

(my translation)

Herbert's approach to the image is more complex; there's an almost cubist re-assembling of imagery that has already appeared in the poem ... 'the cheek of a sister', 'dry ashes of a nest' so the poem has a tight interwoven structure analogous in effect to a piece of Baroque keyboard music.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kirsch's Metaphysical Invasions

Adam Kirsch's second collection of poems, Invasions (Ivan R Dee, Chicago, 2008) compriss a sequence of 16-line rhymed lyrics, reflections in the main, with a brief interlude of versions from Boethius. Kirsch thinks about things, and his references range widely - there is plenty of metaphysical 'yoking' going on: a strip of flowers along the Broadway median is a homeopathic remedy is litmus paper is a St Patrick's day ribbon (page 22), and much topicality - 'the embedded editor who rolled / His Humvee to the bottom of a dune' (page 48).

Robert Frost in his short piece 'The Figure a Poem Makes' (1939) wrote: "The object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other, and the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, meter are not enough. We need the help of context - meaning - subject matter. That is the greatest help towards variety ... The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless." And it is this variety that Kirsch strives for. The poems wear their form lightly, which is perhaps à la mode in this uncertain age, with the smoke of New Formalism's polemic still drifting over the academies. Modernism put form on the back foot, so that one find's statements such as Donald Davie's recommendation that one could write in form but get away with it, by writing blank iambic trimeters with a liberal use of substitution; form relegated to the writer's crutch. Auden's remark that "formal verse frees one from the fetters of one’s ego" is in neighbouring territory.

Kirsch's 16-liners at once raise the precursors of Meredith's Modern Love and Tony Harrison's The School of Eloquence. Meredith is of course working squarely inside the tradition, so form plays a prominent part in the structuring of the pieces, and works satisfyingly with the reader's expectations of pattern. Harrison plays with form brilliantly - there's something of what Bunting referred to as 'a boast' & 'a see-here' in Harrison's display. Kirsch lets the form recede into the background, not a bad thing, but one wonders about possibly unhappy choices such as ending rhymed pentameters on the relative pronoun 'whose' (pages 13 & 29), or the 'like' or 'as' of a simile (pages 28 & 58).

In the introduction to his collection of essays The Modern Element (Norton, 2008), Kirsch sets up his terms of reference for the contemporary poet: "In contemporary poetry, it is striking how often the tools of the modernists are used to summon a factitious authority and prestige, to obscure premises that would not bear plain examination. Still worse is the use of the ludic, fracturing techniques of postmodernism, which emphasize the poem's difficult texture in order to conceal its absence of genuine insight, accuracy, and challenge." (page 12). He discusses the virtues and vices of contemporary poetry: "The virtues are daring honesty, subtle self-kowledge, an intimate (if not always explicit) concern with history, and a determination to make language serve as the most accurate possible instrument of communication, even at the risk of estrangement. The vices, which correspond to the virtues and call them into question, are sentimental egotism, an obsession with staying up-to-date, and a belief that distortion of language is interesting and praiseworthy in ts own right." (pages 11 - 12); with so many Scyllas and Charybdises it might seem the poet-critic must steer a slalom course through the recognized faults of others. Kirsch is still on his skis.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Nylon Smiles: Lawrence Durrell

Here is Lawrence Durrell, from a 1966 episode of Midday Dialogue:
"Let me take just one simple word, for example, an ordinary word, say 'nylon'. Supposing a poet wanted to write a poem about, say, a married couple that hated each other, and he said something like "Their satiric wicked nylon smiles". The use of the word incorporated in a poem would give a rather an interesting resonance because one always knows that gangsters wear those nyon things over their heads to rob banks - i.e. rob women - good Freud - and also anybody who's had a girl or is married to a girl knows how often the nylon goes wrong and there are ladders down it, so you get a wonderful series of reference off it."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rain and Pearls: Simon Turner

You Are Here, Simon Turner's first collection, is published by Heaventree Press (Coventry) and has a baffling cover without a single word on the front, no title, no author's name; the spine and back cover are normal enough. There are plenty of sequences here, including three 'Storm Journal' poems scattered through the first section. Turner shows a fluency of description, and an emphasis on images, some fresh (lightning making sound of 'tearing fabric' or thunder 'punching down behind the houses opposite') and some familiar ...

clatter of shovel-blade scraping on concrete.
Rain-pearls on the window-glass getting the light.

The rain-pearls echo Wilde in nature-poet vein:

In vain the sad narcissus, wan and white
At its own beauty, hung across the stream,
The purple dragon-fly had no delight
With its gold-dust to make his wings a-gleam,
Ah! no delight the jasmine-bloom to kiss,
Or brush the rain-pearls from the eucharis.

Frost also uses the image "the rain is pearls so early, Before it changes to diamonds in the sun". This is a descendant of the similar dew/pearl image, which Dryden used a few times:

'Twas on a joyless and a gloomy morn,
Wet was the grass, and hung with pearls the thorn;

As well as the image of drops of water looking like pearls, there is also the image of pearls or beads falling like rain. Browning has 'Break the rosary in a pearly rain' and Tennyson also, somewhat circularly describes the water of a fountain in terms of raining pearls:

The fountain of the moment, playing, now
A twisted snake, and now a rain of pearls

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rain and Ruin: something recalcitrant

Jane Holland has posted her compressed version of the Exeter Book's The Wife's Lament. It is interesting how much 'resonance' with the language itself is achieved here. In an earlier post I talked of how the language seems to keep saying certain things over and over, and it's this that gives us the building blocks for the musical composition of poems; it gives us the notes to play on the instrument (the instrument that Ed Dorn speaks of when he says re Gunslinger "It's really just an attempt to meditate what there is left of the available instrument. It's not an epic, but it's going to work that kind of trip.") And it's the repetitions and refrains of the language that lend good poems that sort of 'alienated majesty' that Geoffrey Hill mentions (lifting the phrase from Emerson).

In Holland's 'The Wife's Lament' the rain/ruin conjunction appears in her rendering of the line "under stanhliþe / storme behrimed" (under stone slopes / by storms berimed"). Holland's line runs "in ruins under the rain" ... this brings 19th-century associations: Longfellow's "Upon the ground I saw a fallen nest / Ruined and full of rain", or Swinburne's "For winter's rains and ruins are over" or Wilde's "Time hath not spared his ruin,---wind and rain / Have broken down his stronghold", or Stevenson's lines ..

Bursting across the tangled math
A ruin that I called a path,
A Golgotha that, later on,
When rains had watered, and suns shone,

Going back in time, Pope has

So from each side increased the stony rain,
And the white ruin rises o'er the plain

That 'white ruin' also evokes Auden's lines:

Oh dear white children, casual as birds,
Playing amid the ruined languages.

And Pope's 'stony rain' brings into view the stone/storm conjunction present in the Exeter Book, and in Pound's Seafarer: "Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten". Coming forward in time, Rexroth, in his Letter to Auden, juxtaposes "The steel rain // Voices in the old ruin".

Geoffrey Hill, in his 'A Postscript on Modernist Poetics', writes "In the act of creation we alienate ourselves from that which we have created, or conversely, the genius of language alienates us from itself. We are no longer masters of a well-considered curriculum vitae in free verse, or blank-verse sonnets, or whatever; the anecdote is no longer the agency of our self-promotion; something recalcitrant has come between us and our expectant and expected satisfaction."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Details compiled and what the language keeps saying

"What is the language using us for?" asks W. S. Graham: the theme for the variations he composes at the start of Implements in their Places (1977). There are things the language keeps saying, or perhaps things that our so similar minds express with the blunt tool of the language. But when a poet repeats or echoes these universal tics is it resonance or cliché? In the opening poem of Pleats (1975), Andrew Crozier writes:

held in the direction of home
for the time being
while everything behind us dims

And it captures well something of the pathos and fragility of a homeward journey through failing light, and much depends on those words "everything" and "dims", in which Crozier echoes countless similar formulations: "till all is dim" (Wordsworth), "till all the paths were dim" (Tennyson), "the world grows dim" (Yeats), and so forth.

Crozier breaks free of the language's formulae with the addition of specific details:

a hedgehog in the gutter
a hearse goes by the other way

Crozier's poem reminds me of the fourth and final of Dannie Abse's 'Car journeys' poems from Funland and other poems (1973).

Driving home

Opposing carbeams wash my face.
Such flickerings hypnotise. To keep awake
I listen to the B.B.C. through cracklings
of static, fade-outs under bridges,
to a cool expert who, in lower case,
computes and graphs 'the ecological
disasters that confront the human race.'

Almost immediately (ironically?),
I see blue flashing lights ahead and brake
before a car accordioned, floodlit, men heaving
at a stretcher, an ambulance oddly angled, tame, in wait.
Afterwards, silent, I drive home cautiously
where, late, the eyes of my youngest child
flicker dreamily, and are full of television.

'He's waited up,' his mother says, 'to say goodnight.'
My son smiles briefly. Such emotion! I surprise
myself and him when I hug him tight.

Here Abse's accumulated details of observation serve his telling of a story in a succinct, vivid and emotive way. Everything is focussed on clearly conveying the narrative, distractions are minimized; the almost Martian compact visual image of the 'car accordioned' does not interrupt the fictional dream (to use John Gardner's term). Unfortunately, real life added an unpleasant resonance to this poem: in June 2005 Dannie and his wife of 54 years, Joan Abse, were driving home after a poetry reading when their car was involved in an accident; Joan died at the scene.

But details do not have to be compiled in such a focussed way. John Ashbery's collages of language, despite (or perhaps because of) their non-sequiturs and juxtapositions, the dream-like changes, manage to suggest multiple meanings. And his phrases do lodge in the memory ... "And in the garden, cries and colors" (from 'Last Month' in Rivers and Mountains (1962)).

Eliot - in typically magisterial and somewhat paradoxical mode - wrote: "The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all." Eliot describes here an approach which Christian Wiman has characterized as that of "poets of culmination", as opposed to "poets of observation". Ashbery is far down one end of that spectrum; he takes ordinary emotions, or more particularly the ordinary phrases and turns of phrase that flock and swarm in our ordinary lives, and 'works them up' into new things. In his latest (not counting the selected) A Worldly Country (2007) he piles the phrases up high. Here are some snippets from the poem 'So, Yes' ...

all the stepchildren
it took to get here


It was right to behave as we have done,
he asserts, sending the children on their way
to school, past the graveyard


we're lost in a swamp with coevals
who like us because we like to do things with them.


All this language operates within some sort of force-field, a presiding consciousness, or the perhaps the tutelary spirit of the language. What is the language using us for? So, yes, the language keeps saying the same things, and we ordinary people keep saying the same ordinary things, but the possibilities of combination are endless, and new meanings are always springing to life.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Kleinzahler's new New and Selected

August Kleinzahler's latest - Sleeping It Off In Rapid City (2008) - is subtitled 'Poems, New and Selected', and is described on the front flap as the "first broad retrospective" - the Australian retrospective edition Like Cities, Like Storms (1992) now too old to qualify. The new book is a hefty enough tome - 234 pages - and very many of the early poems haven't made it through the cull. So many didn't make the grade: 'Indian Summer Night: The Haight', 'Love Poem', '16' , '1978, Montreal', ...

Kleinzahler had over time assembled a sequence of poems called 'Four Worthies' ... one poem, on Thomas Urquhart, appeared in A Calendar of Airs (1978). The sequence has been dismantled again and now of the worthies only Australian poet John Tranter remains in the poem 'Tranter in America'.

The new book is organized in five sections which seem to represent selections from earlier books as follows 1. New poems 2. Early poems (Storm Over Hackensack (1985), Earthquake Weather (1989)), 3. Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow (1995) 4. Green Sees Things In Waves (1998) and 5. The Strange Hours Travelers Keep (2003). However it is worth noting that the poem 'Vancouver' which appears in the first section is a much longer version of an old poem with the same title. Is this an earlier draft reworked, or have other poems or fragments been invisibly mended into the fabric?

In the previous collection - The Strange Hours Travelers Keep - a number of old poems - 'Hot Night on East 4th', 'The Gardenia', '86', and a significantly reworked second-half of 'Evening, in A minor' - were stitched together to make the poem 'Montreal'.

Kleinzahler keeps tinkering with his poems. 'The Last Big Snow' in Earthquake Weather, was divided into two numbered sections when re-collected in Live From the Hong Kong Nile Club (2000). 'The Lunatic of Lindley Meadow' appears in the new book, its major transformation having occurred twenty years ago between A Calendar of Airs, where it was called 'The Lunatic of Mt.Royal' and was built from four-line stanzas, and Earthquake Weather where the stanzas have three lines. '1978, Montreal' was called 'Radio' once ... after the lines 'Down the same shaft old TV westerns / in French', Kleinzahler inserted ''Allons, Monsieur Hopalong". Anyone one day working on a bibliography or critical edition will have their work cut out.

Kirsch v Collins

Adam Kirsch, in his book The Modern Element, takes the reasonable line that Billy Collins is a poet of wit, and proceeds to take issue with the dismissive way in which Collins employs his wit, whether for example in pointing out the silliness of the language in a lingerie catalogue, or - and this is where he seems rub Kirsch the wrong way - giving a superficial synopsis of 'Tintern Abbey'. The Alps stand no matter what remarks tourists may make, and we can enjoy a clever put-down, even while admitting that so doing doesn't display the noblest side of our nature. Kirsch comments: "Relentless joking can be a way of discouraging curiosity, ambition, and endeavour, without which there is no greatness in art" before - like a skillful prosecutor before a jury - backing away somewhat ... "This may be too grave a charge". Yet is there not room enough in poetry's wide terrain for entertaining pieces, short enough to be read in a minute or two, which offer up some bite-sized and easily digested 'take' on everyday experience or topics most likely to be discussed in the common rooms of English Faculties, not particularly exercising our intellects, or doing all the things great poetry can do, but diverting us nevertheless? Reading Billy Collins (admittedly in short bursts, more than ten pages at a sitting seems to cloy my mind somewhat) I smile more than frown.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Horses' Mouths

Reginald Shepherd reminds us of Allen Tate's essay where he discussed 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' and says that he is far from an expert on his own poems. Once I discovered by chance that one of my poems had been used in a Year 12 (VCE) examination paper (no one had informed the poet) .. when I got hold of the paper, which included at least one multiple choice question asking what the poet had intended, I found myself quite unsure of what the examiners thought would be the correct answer, as I recall two of the four options seemed plausible, but neither hit the mark.

A recent post by Jane Holland describes some rough notes she made on the composition of long poems. This prompted me to dig out my old copy of Helen Gardner's The Composition of Four Quartets, and it struck me how much useful and interesting is this sort of simple work record than the more common commentary and interpretation. Getting a glimpse of a poet's revisions, and explanations in correspondence of various phrases, lines, and passages, provides more insight than a shelf of criticism. Gardner's book shows how Eliot was - amongst other things - striving for clarity. And surely this is true even of many 'difficult' poets: Geoffrey Hill in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin wrote "I have no ambition to be famously - or notoriously - obscure. The difficulties of daily living get in the way and my poems, unavoidably it seems, collide with the densities of common existence"

Friday, April 11, 2008


In one of his recorded talks with Peter Porter, Clive James places the ability to make memorable phrases centre-stage: "On any given contemporary scene, but especially the one we have now, there are many, many, many poets who canít make phrases. They write poetry with a capital P but they don't do the essential thing that poets do - or I think it ís the essential thing that poets do but maybe I'm old fashioned."

Given the recent uproar in the letters section of Poetry (March 2008) issue there are plenty of Pound defenders who would agree with that label "old fashioned". But the lines that lodge in our brains are surely integral to the manner in which reading poetry transforms and enriches day to day experience - the lines pop into your head, and there's this whole expansive dimension at hand. Kris Hemensley writes - in a comment on an earlier post "For me it's as often lines or parts of poems as it is the complete poem or a poem or two as much as the poet's complete works that sustains me or maintains that particular poet in my mind."

I've been enjoying Don Share's collection Squandermania, not least because of his talent at making phrases. Often enough the good phrases are shows of wit, lifting the poem with humour ...

Patience comes
to those who wait -

or (echoing a Joni Mitchell lyric)

Paradise can't exist
till it's gone.

There are many observations, appealing in the same sort of way as Billy Collins can be, but the texture and language of the verse is quite different

Joke shops are always
in bad neighborhoods.

But Share's phrase-making can be turned to serious effect. In a poem which sets out with a reference to "ground zero" the final line starts with a phrase which has all the weight, balance and import of a line from the classics:

disaster marries us

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Spatial model of tradition

Alfred Corn writes about replacing the temporal model of tradition (modernism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism) with a spatial model; he describes a one-dimensional space, a spectrum, ranging from avant-garde to "regular speech-based modes". Corn mentions Hakan Sandell's 'retro-garde' movement.

There is a vague two-dimensional spatial metaphor behind Eliot's concept of tradition in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', although it is not at all clear what the axes of this space might correspond to. "The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them." The image conjured seems to be something like a sculpture park of the canonical. Eliot continues "The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations." A river through the sculpture park?

I have recently be reading some of the work of a UK poet Sean Elliott, which often employs a simple clear unvaried iambic pentameter line, at points reminding one of Larkin, or Dannie Abse. Abse's Funland collection has many such apparently 'old hat' lines - "And silence matched the silence under snow" sticks in the memory - but the poems aren't old hat at all: they work.

The whole territory is available, poets do not necessarily have to work at some frontier, except of course for the temporal frontier of the present. The relationships between the poems that already exist are highly subtle and complex - involving all manner of influence, allusion, formal concerns, subject matter, genre issues, and so forth - there is possibly some mathematical way to model this and derive some multi-dimensional or fractal-dimensional space to house all these poems. But maybe the disorganized bookshelf and the stray echoes and reflections in the reading mind is the best system of all.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Between words

Read poetry aloud ... that's the general cry. Because it's in the phonetics. So much doesn't properly live when the words stay on the page. Look at the gaps between words, and how the pace of a line can be slowed or its flow interrupted by the choice of consonants that bracket those white space characters. Listen to this line from Yeats:

In this blind bitter land

'blind' and 'bitter' slow us down; it is not so easy to end one word with 'nd' and start the next with 'b'. The mouth has to take it carefully; put 'bitter blind land' and the line is utterly changed.

Tennyson provides well known examples such as:

On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Of course the alliteration of 'b's plays its part, and of course the monosyllables, but the broken flow caused by bald + street and then street + breaks and finally blank + day is a significant element of the technique. And again of course there's

Break, break, break

which echoes Milton's

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon.

Of course there are other ways to slow a line down, putting long quantities on metrically unstressed syllables ("what dark days seen"), or using monosyllabic words:

Times past, what once I was, and what am now.

But the selection of consonants that end one word and commence the next is a more flexible instrument. Think of Bunting and his repetitions of the same consonant: 'sweet tenor' ... you have to pause if you are to say each word clearly and correctly. In the following excerpt each line contains one such pair of repeated sounds across a word-gap:

Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave's slot

'Painful lark', 'solemn mallet', & 'grave's slot' ... the repeated consonant serves as a mini caesura to help mark each line.

I can't finish without an example from one of the greatest technical show-offs, Alexander Pope; in one line he includes rs+r, f+v, s+sh, d+l, and k+th, almost now two consecutive words can be said smoothy:

The hoarse, rough verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Poetic Genres

William Matthews' 'Four Subjects of Poetry' has been getting a bit of attention lately, and I suppose with National Poetry Month in the USA, with many people aiming to write one poem a day, there will be plenty more birds hatched to slot into those pigeonholes.

I wonder if there are serious & statistical generic analyses of contemporary poetry out there somewhere? Something like the very useful and interesting 'index by genre' in The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509 - 1659 would be fascinating. The Renaissance's hierarchy of genres and sub-genres is an intricate matter; today's de facto equivalents are no doubt no less subtle & diverse.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sleeping it off

I notice that August Kleinzahler's new book Sleeping It Off in Rapid City is released today. It's a 'new and selected' and I'm looking forward to seeing it. The title reminds me of an old Origin Press publication: Clive Faust's Sleeping It Off (1992).

Tony Frazer interestingly notes on the Shearsman recommendations page that despite Faust living in Bendigo, none of his books have been published in Australia.

Sleeping It Off is a beautifully produced chapbook - quoting from the colophon: "bound into Ingres Antique Camel endsheets with letterpress printed Indian Wool covers".

Faust provides snatches of urban scenes caught vividly with emotion and a sense of humour which aren't a million miles from Kleinzahler ...

... The flags
on the flagpoles at the R.S.L.
stay floodlit
in white arches of the portico, each
month monday -
that'd be

but generally the texture of the verse is a sort of article-free pronoun-free string of newspaper headlines, which - like any formal device from heroic couplets to Berryman's contorted syntax - serves to constantly present the reader with the fact that this is conscious art. Here the prolonged and static description, blow by blow, is somewhat in the vein of Joyce:


bolts gate, lugs carcass off truck,
hangs slippery liver from a free
hand, closes to gate on black leopard pacing
the double mesh, tosses liver in, secures
gate on outer wire, opens inner
from angle to slip meat through; shuts lock bolts each
gate to respective fence.

I'm reminded of one of the clauses of Bunting's advice to young poets: "Cut out every word you dare" ... one advantage of stripping out the little words is that the others words take on more individual clarity, they stand out the more. What is the origin of this article-less style? Pound with 'May I for my own self song's truth reckon, / Journey's jargon' and 'Set keel to breakers', or Hopkins? Or what about:

Blind sight, dead life, poor mortal living ghost,
Woe's scene, world's shame, grave's due by life usurp'd,
Brief abstract and record of tedious days,
Rest thy unrest on England's lawful earth,

Shakespeare an introduced species

Laurie Duggan has posted a old photo of two boys (his father and a friend) dressed in Shakespearian garb amidst the landscape of country Victoria: the image has the discord and incongruity of collage, that surreal element that is intrinsic to colonization's culture transplant. Shakespeare is an introduced species.

Peter Porter's poem 'Reading MND in Form 4B' (from the 1962/63 section of his Collected Poems) captures something of the languid boredom of the pre-air-conditioning school classroom in the Australian heat, and the alien nature of the European set texts.

Philomel with melody - a refrain
Summoning the nightingale, the brown bird
Which bruits the Northern Hemisphere with bells -
It could not live a summer in this heat.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Imitations and Serial Translation

Jane Holland has pointed out that Harry Mathews poem 'The White Wind' in P.N.Review 180 is a paraphrase of Wyatt's 'Whoso list to hunt', and that Petrarch's sonnet which served as Wyatt's model features a 'white hind' (una candida cerva) which has undergone a strange transformation in Mathews' title. It seems a little odd that no credit to Wyatt is given, but I guess poets have been using poems as models from the outset, and generally without explanatory acknowledgments. Even so, here at our 21st-century postmodern terminal moraine, maybe a small note wouldn't have been amiss.

I suspect several poets go in for this sort of thing in the privacy of notebooks - dismantling clocks to see how they work, or trying things to help move them towards a new voice or expand their range.

Derek Walcott, in an interview published in Contemporary Literature, Vol 20. #3 1980, remarked: "you know you just ravage and cannibalise anything as a young writer", and the 40-ish Robert Lowell explained, in his introduction to Imitations, that his loose translations were done from time to time when he was unable to do any work of his own. He said he was trying to write "alive English" and to do what the original authors "might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America."

Peter Porter, in a conversation published in Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop's 1972 book British Poetry Since 1960, said of his translations of Martial: "They're not translations at all but more - in musical terms - realisations ... They are done to give me the pleasure of reading his poems - in a very brutal and egotistical way. The only way I could enjoy his writing was to rewrite it myself." Donald Hall's drastic recasting of Horace's Odes in The Museum of Clear Ideas is another good recent example.

And of course translators typically study other existing translations when available, even build upon them. Alan Jenkins, for example, in his translation of Rimbaud, Drunken Boats (Sylph editions, 2007) states that he has stolen what he needed from Lowell and Beckett.

Indeed serial translation, where one translator builds on the good bits of earlier translations was once the norm. Felicity Rosslyn, back in PNR 111 (1996) wrote a wonderful overview of this important and relatively neglected topic.

She demonstrates how the opening of Dryden's Iliad (1700):

The wrath of Peleus' son, O Muse, resound

Whose dire effects the Grecian army found.

was clearly in Pope's mind when he wrote in his 1715 version:

The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring

Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess sing!

Two days after Pope's Book I, a rival - one Thomas Tickell - brought out his ...

Achilles' fatal Wrath, whence discord rose,

That brought the Sons of Greece unnumber'd Woes,

O Goddess sing.

Pope angrily annotated his copy of this, but admired the clear initial focus on Achilles, and the unnumber'd woes, and for his 1736 edition rewrote the opening:

Achilles' Wrath, to Greece the direful spring

Of woes unnumber'd, heav'nly Goddess, sing!

Thus the completion of Pope's final Iliad can be seen as the cumulative results of many hands working in the one unified tradition - the tradition of heroic couplet translation - and thus, along with Gothic cathedrals, quantum physics and wikipedia can be seen as the flowering achievement of a dedicated community.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

James Sutherland-Smith from Belgrade

P.N.Review 180 has arrived and there's another of James Sutherland-Smith's Letters from Belgrade.

Back in PNR 175 he described well the attraction of living immersed a foreign language: " ... the advantage to a poet of not understanding. For poets whose gift is to write poems where their language is distilled to the highest proof, a babble around them, or at best only a surface understanding of the others languages spoken around them, creates no interference with the language within them. It permits an enormous concentration. For poets, whose gift is to clarify meaning, attention to the babble around them is useful training for the poetic processes of making meaning precise and lucid."

I'm not sure which of these varieties of poet JSS considers himself ... back in an even earlier Letter from Belgrae (PNR 169) he wrote: "When I write a poem I have the desire to make something potentially useful for the English language. 'Potentially' is the whole of it, either to indicate a direction the language can take or to conserve a way of saying something that is in danger of being confined to the notes in the OED. ... There is also a measure of self-assertion when I write a poem. I am establishing and making public my own idiolect."

Of course not everyone takes that approach - I can't imagine Berryman's idiolect, no matter how much he drank, ever getting close to the syntax of his poems.

But Sutherland-Smith is right about the effects of being in foreign parts. When you have to express yourself in a language you have only a weak grasp of, or say something unambiguously to someone who has rudimentary English, it focuses the mind on how meaning is conveyed and on how it can be undermined, for instance by the use of idiomatic turns of phrase.

As one ventures into reading poetry in another language and attempting to translate it, one quickly appreciates the impossibilities, and how the deep contextual associations at the level of each single word are utilized to establish meaning, tone, effect.

In the latest letter he touches upon the topic of the day job, line managers and performance review grades: Larkin's toad and 21st century Human Resources tactics.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Oh the moon shone bright on Mrs Porter

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter

And on her daughter

They wash their feet in soda water

- from The Fire Sermon

I was looking today at Lawrence Rainey's annotated edition of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and was surprised to see a reference to a popular American ballad called 'Red Wing', the chorus of which starts:

Now the moon shines bright on pretty Red Wing

The breezes singing, the night birds crying.

and no mention of the WWI music hall 'ding dong' sung to the same tune ...

For the moon shines tonight on Charlie Chaplin

His boots are cracking, for the want of blackn'ning

And his little baggy trousers they want mending

Before they send him to the Dardanelles.

Isn't it likely that it was this version that Eliot - a keen fan of the Music Hall - would have heard?

On Eliot's recording he chants the words to the following rhythm which, at least as far as 'daughter', is a rough match to the song. (No attempt has been made to annotate the near monotonous but slightly rising pitch of his rendition).

An interesting line of connections which supports the music hall version as being the source, is that Jean Verdenal, Eliot's close friend and dedicatee of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) was killed in action in the Dardanelles in the doomed Gallipoli campaign. The Prufrock dedication reads :

To Jean Verdenal

1889 - 1915

This was revised in 1925 collection to include an explicit reference to the Dardanelles, and a Dante epigraph:

For Jean Verdenal, 1889-1915

mort aux Dardanelles

Or puoi la quantitate

Comprender dell' amor ch'a te mi scalda,

Quando dismento nostra vanitate,

Trattando l'ombre come cosa salda.

(Roughly, awkwardly, word-wise: 'And now the quantity, you can understand, of the love which scalds me, when I don't think of our emptiness, treating the shadows like a thing solid')

Eliot's only comment about the Ms Porter lines is that they were reported to him from Sydney, Australia - and given the strong Australia / Gallipoli connection this raises further speculations on the Dardanelles/Mrs Porter link.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Unrhymed iambic tetrameter?

Roy Fuller, both in a short note on rhyme (Agenda Vol 28 No 4, 1991) and in one of his Oxford lectures (collected in the Owls & Articers volume, 1971) mentions Housman's salvaging of Coventry Patmore's dictum (from his 'Essay on English Metrical Law') that 'a series of octosyllables ceases to be verse if they are not rhymed'. C. H. Sisson's response to this: "seems plainly to be untrue" (the same issue of Agenda).

Patmore's original statement is: "The common eight-syllable iambic, for example, ceases to be metre on the removal of the rhyme, although the six-syllable iambic, which is catalectic on, or has a final pause equal to, two syllables, makes very good blank verse."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ires & Ishmaels: Bunting, Strindberg, Catullus, Hill & Co.

Don Share in a couple of recent Bunting posts has touched on the themes of the writer's indignation and exclusion - Bunting in a crossed out notebook entry wrote "The scholar ought to be like the poet, an Ishmael, scouted and feared" Wild Ishmael, scornful Ishmael (Milton) - his hand against every man, and every man's hand against him - has long been a sort of patron for some writers. A character in Strindberg's The Road To Damascus calls Ishmael a 'scoffer' and explains that that was why he was driven out. The scoffing and scornful outsider: Bunting can wear those shoes.

In the preceding post Share refers to Bunting's Ode II.6 and quotes I.12, with its doctored line from Catullus 47 - all three fine examples of poems sparked by indignation. The image of the poet cadging drinks on streetcorners is a enduring emblem of lack of recognition - like the young penniless Johnson following the older penniless Savage on his habitual night patrols of the affluent West End.

Strindberg explains the usefulness of anger in a letter to Siri (27 June 1875) "Anger is the most powerful emotion, so if you can recall something with anger or sadness the words will become more potent." That "anger or sadness" launches a volley of references ... Hill's "a sad and angry consolation", or D.J.Enright's book title "Sad Ires" ... Pound's early 'Planh for the young English King" ending each stanza with the words "ire and sadness", and then straying a little from the track, Rowland Mallet's fits of angry sadness (Roderick Hudson), and "the sad influence of the angry Moon" (Byron).

Maybe there's a connection between the anger and pride of the excluded (or self-excluded) that accompanies the very notion of setting out to be a poet: inner worth not being recognized or rewarded by the world. "You don't know what's inside me" shouts Sue Bridehead - she's been accused of being nothing unconventional - and she lets Jude know what it is inside her: "The Ishmaelite".

Ishmael and Isaac stand another enduring emblem, ever topical: divided blood ever makes loud discord. Remember Lancaster and York.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

North 41 - and blabbing

The North 41 has arrived - I've always liked their 'blind criticism' section, in the spirit of Zukofsky's A Test For Poetry - and on a quick skim through I noticed a few poems - such as Catherine Smith's 'Picnic' which is about sex in somebody's office followed by a raid on the staff fridge - which put me in mind of Hugo Williams' essay where he contrasts Bly's concept of 'Leaping' poetry with a sort of confessional 'Blabbing' ... the word comes from Patrick Kavanagh's Self-Portrait:

"What seems of public importance is never of any importance. Stupid poets and artists think that by taking subjects of public importance it will help their work to survive. There is nothing as dead and damned as an important thing. The things that really matter are casual, insignificant little things, things you would be ashamed to talk of publicly. You are ashamed and then after years someone blabs and you find you are in the secret majority." - Kavanagh

'Blabbing' it seems equates to the "rather shameful" "personal confidences" that M. L. Rosenthal found is his review of Life Studies. This approach is presumably underwritten by the idea - expressed once by Martin Amis - that the writer hopes that the particular will turn out to be universal.

Smith's 'Picnic' juxtaposes sex pressed up against a manager's in-tray with a memory of a child's first picnic. Andrew Motion once said something about leaning two things up against each other and seeing what happens. As formulae go, it's a good one.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ludic lines

David Caddy has written an appealing piece on Tom Raworth, drawing connections back to the verbal play of radio programmes such as Much Binding in the Marsh and The Goons. This is a useful insight, although I now fear that I will always hear an inner Neddie Seagoon when reading Raworth. I recall one of John Forbes' titbits of advice to me - he used to visit when I lived not far from him in Carlton - was that one could spot the crap in your own poems if you read them aloud in a silly voice ... he recommended Japanese Science Fiction voices.

Raworth stands in that tradition of 'ludic and literary self-consiousness' which Morrison and Motion picked up on - for them it was primarily manifested in the work of the Martians (or the School comprising English poets with the initials C.R. - the U.S equivalent including Charles Reznikoff and Carl Rakosi is another thing altogether). The somewhat notorious use of the word 'ludic' came after M&M had curiously commented that nothing much had seemed to be happening in England in the 60s and 70s. But of course the playfulness goes back at least as far as those 'proto-ludic' figures, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Although here of course we do run into the unclearly marked divide between light verse and serious. Oscar Williams' A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry had a separate substantial section at the end for light verse. The anthology was influential if only because Geoffrey Hill's father bought him a copy on a shopping-trip into Birmingham when the young Geoffrey was about fifteen. Hill carried the Little Treasury around Worcestershire in his jacket pocket for years until it disintegrated. At one time he knew by heart every poem in it. Bunting in his seventies carried the Penguin Njal's Saga around in his pocket. An enquiry into poets' jacket pockets through history might prove enlightening.

Funkhouser, Fairchild: More of the world

I recently went back to look up a poem by Erica Funkhouser that I first read in The Atlantic Monthly back in December 1995. It is called 'The Accident' and was collected in her 1997 book, The Actual World with a few minor changes (the main change was dropping the two last words of the line " but the neighbor knew he was going to cook for her.") The poem presents a high-resolution depiction of an incident where a wife suddenly realizes simply by observing the smallest details in a moment of crisis that something has been going on between her husband and the woman next door. The thing that struck me going back to it was that it was a much longer poem than I had recalled, that there is more of the world in the piece. Raymond Carver used to say that his stories from the collection Cathedral onwards were fuller and "more generous" - "generous" is a good word for Funkhouser's poem.

The common drive to get more of the world into the poems is nicely caught in the title of Albert Goldbarth's New & Selected 1972-2007: The Kitchen Sink. But one poet who stands out in this regard is B. H. Fairchild whom I first came across by googling for something about the story of Mozart at table folding and refolding his napkin in intricate patterns (which seems to embody something fundamental about the way the artistic mind strives to shape and investigate possibilities of form, the bedrock of theme-and-variations ... and this could lead off into a discussion of Bunting's ideas of musical form) ... google led me to the poem 'The Art of the Lathe' which includes the lines ...

I listen to the clunk-and-slide of the milling machine,
Maudsley's art of clarity and precision: sculpture of poppet,
saddle, jack screw, pawl, cone-pulley,
the fit and mesh of gears, tooth in groove like interlaced fingers.
I think of Mozart folding and unfolding his napkin
as the notes sound in his head. The new machinist sings Patsy Cline,
I Fall to Pieces. Sparrows bicker overhead.
Screed of the grinder, the bandsaw's groan and wail.

There's a strong element of Fred Voss's factory-floor vignettes in much of Fairchild's work, but something else is going on: there's a richer inclusiveness of reference.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

John Clarke, daring to be sentimental

"Tortoise Jelly-Mould" by John Clarke is in Smiths Knoll 41. Some things are only hinted at in the poem ... "while nanny read and re-read the telegram" ... the central lines read:

The last one was eaten long ago
by a girl who could run like a hare

and who so loved tortoises
she ate a pink one every night

There's the pathos and sentimentality here of the adult perspective on childhood. I am reminded of Coventry Patmore's 'The Toys' ... the father goes up to check on the child scolded and sent to bed ...

For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein'd stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.

Lowell said of Laforgue: "If he hadn't dared to be sentimental he wouldn't have been a poet. There's some way of distinguishing between false sentimentality, which is blowing up a subject and giving emotions that you don't feel, and using whimsical, minute, tender, small emotions which most people don't feel but which Laforgue and Snodgrass do. So that I'd say he had pathos and fragility - but then that's a large subject too."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Tropical rhymes

Metre and rhyme can exert interesting and unnatural pressures on words. Nick Cave has a lyric - and here I'm interested in the rhyme words 'tropical' and 'hospital' - that runs:

Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles
while writing Das Kapital
And Gauguin, he buggered off, man,
and went all tropical
While Philip Larkin stuck it out
in a library in Hull
And Dylan Thomas died drunk in
St. Vincent's hospital.

That drawing out of the last syllable of 'tropical', that slight distortion foisted on the word by the rhyming line, makes the language that little bit more striking. And there are echoes here of something but I'm not sure what. Perhaps it's Lowell (Cal rhymes with tropical) ... an early draft of 'Home After Three Months Away' ended:

For months
My madness gathered strength
to roll all sweetness in a ball
in color, tropical ...
Now I am frizzled, stale and small.

Are there other poems that use rhyme with 'tropical'? Peter Porter has it at a line end, but no rhyme for it in sight:

In the chartreuse
glow of the tropical
fish tank, the doctor
tells me his good news:
the better the new cures
the longer the teeth
of the thing that
gets you in the end

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Angela Cleland in Smiths Knoll 41

Angela Cleland has a memorable four-liner called 'No Backwards Glance, Departure Gate 5' in Smiths Knoll 41. The poem not only is short but also compact: there's a lot going on. A memory "surfaces like a cold white face", paralleling the famous "wet, black bough", the station of the metro being updated to a gate lounge, but the effect is one of image turned to epigram, and closed cadentially with full rhyme.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Who is Sean Elliott?

Recent issues of poetry magazines form nagging piles. One name I've been noticing is Sean Elliott. No book yet? There's a lucidity and tautness in the lines that stands out. Something reminiscent of Alan Jenkins perhaps in the settings and material, and there's an echo of the intimate tone of Hugo Williams. There's a strand of poetry that emerges from the editorial influence of Ian Hamilton: pared back (few-don'ts-wise) and somewhat confessional.

The first poem of Elliott's that I noticed was, I think, about Ingmar Bergman films; I can't locate it now, buried as it must be in one of the many now unnagging piles of the skimmed and perused.