Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Coffee stains

"A manuscript is not a manuscript without a coffee stain" – Joseph Brodsky.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Surface Faults

One of the neglected books published in that momentous year 1922 is Robert Graves' On English Poetry (William Heinemann). From the vantage point of 2014 its 61 short and chatty sections read very like blog posts.  Sadly much of this book and much of Graves' Poetic Unreason and other studies (1925, Cecil Palmer) are omitted — following Graves' own later abridgements — from the Collected Writings on Poetry in Carcanet's otherwise wonderful Robert Graves Programme of editions.

Geoffrey Hill in his Oxford Professor of Poetry lecture 'A Deep Dynastic Wound' (30 April 2013) mentions these two early books: "Two of Graves's early prose books ...[he gives the titles and dates] ... I would certainly recommend as required reading for auto-didactic self-apprenticed deeply eccentric young poets." (at 45 min 15 sec)

Hill names three pieces from these books dealing with the task of revision: "Putty" and "Surface Faults, An Illustration" and "Secondary Elaboration." Only the last of these has survived into the Carcanet edition, although somewhat self-referentially this piece both in its original 1925 form and its later much reduced form presented in the Carcanet edition does itself contain a revised and slightly expanded version of "Surface Faults".   In "Surface Faults" Graves presents a sequence of pre-publication drafts of a few lines from one of his poems. Here is the whole text as originally presented in the 1922 edition:

"The later drafts of some lines I wrote recently called CYNICS AND ROMANTICS, and contrasting the sophisticated and ingenuous ideas of Love, give a fairly good idea of the conscious process of getting a poem in order. I make no claim for achievement, the process is all that is intended to appear, and three or four lines are enough for illustration:

1st Draft:

In club or messroom let them sit,
Let them indulge salacious wit
On love's romance, but not with hearts
Accustomed to those healthier parts
Of grim self-mockery ...

2nd Draft: (Consideration:— It is too soon in the poem for the angry jerkiness of "Let them indulge." Also "Indulge salacious" is hard to say; at present, this is a case for being as smooth as possible.)

In club or messroom let them sit,
Indulging controversial wit
On love's romance, but not with hearts
Accustomed ...

3rd Draft.  (Consideration:— No, we have the first two lines beginning with "In." It worries the eye. And "sit, indulging" puts two short "i's" close together. "Controversial" is not the word. It sounds as if they were angry, but they are too blasé for that. And "love's romance" is cheap for the poet's own ideal.)

In club or messroom let them sit,
At skirmish of salacious wit
Laughing at love, yet not with hearts
Accustomed ...

4th Draft. (Consideration:— Bother the thing! "Skirmish" is good because it suggests their profession, but now we have three S's — "sit," "skirmish," "salacious." It makes them sound too much in earnest. The "salacious" idea can come in later in the poem. And at present we have two "at's" bumping into each other; one of them must go. "Yet" sounds better than "but" somehow.)

In club or messroom let them sit,
With skirmish of destructive wit
Laughing at love, yet not with hearts
Accustomed ...

5th Draft. (Consideration:—And now we have two "with's" which don't quite correspond. And we have the two short "i's" next to each other again. Well, put the first "at" back and change "laughing at" to "deriding." The long "i" is a pleasant variant; "laughing" and "hearts" have vowel-sounds too much alike.)

In club or messroom let them sit,
At skirmish of destructive wit
Deriding love, yet not with hearts
Accustomed ...

6th Draft. (Consideration:—Yes, that's a bit better. But now we have "destructive" and "deriding" too close together. "Ingenious" is more the word I want. It has a long vowel, and suggests that it was a really witty performance. The two "in's" are far enough separated. "Accorded" is better than "accustomed"; more accurate and sounds better. Now then:—)

In club or messroom let them sit,
At skirmish of ingenious wit
Deriding love, yet not with hearts
Accorded etc.

(Consideration:—It may be rotten, but I've done my best.)"

Monday, September 29, 2014

The play of satisfied expectation

Randall Jarrell, when characterising Pound's The Cantos as "less a 'poem containing history' than a heap containing poetry, history, recollection, free associations, obsessions," quotes Kenneth Burke's statement that "Form … is a satisfied expectation," and elsewhere, in writing an introduction to Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, he quotes Burke again and goes on to say that Stead's book also "has a good deal of the deliberate disappointment of an expectation that is also form."

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, in her wonderful little book Poetic Closure (1968) describes in detail how the continual play of expectation through a poem is what gives it form: "The perception of poetic structure is a dynamic process: structural principles produce a state of expectation continuously modified by successive events." The main focus of her book is how poems end ... "Closure allows the reader to be satisfied by the failure of continuation or, put another way, it creates in the reader the expectation of nothing."

Friday, September 5, 2014

Water where you can't quite touch bottom

Dannie Abse, when castaway on the Desert Island Discs of 27 August 1977, said of his poetry: "It's more conversational than lyric, especially in latter years, and I have said that I would like my poetry to be lucid, or apparently lucid, to be a deception in fact, to be as translucent as water, but when you got into the water you couldn't, as it were, quite touch bottom."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The most corrected

Pope remarked, in relation to his heavily corrected and interlined original workbook for his Iliad, "I believe you would find upon examination that those parts which have been the most corrected read the easiest."

Spence comments "What a useful study might it be for a poet to compare in those parts what was written first with the successive alterations; to learn his turns and arts in versification; and to consider the reasons why such and such an alteration was made."And gives the example of the lines

That strew'd with warriors dead the Phrygian plain,
And peopled the dark shades with heroes slain.

which were reworked into this

That wrath which hurled to Pluto's gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain.

Monday, June 2, 2014


Catching up on Anthony Lawrence's Signal Flare … the long opening poem, an elegy so clearly reminiscent of Slessor's Five Bells,  has these lines which nicely draw out the word 'kilter' from it usual environment, highlighting its strangeness

your absence the start
of a long playing record

of scenes and conversations
that are not out of place
or kilter with you death … 

In fact, the only other use of the word in a poem that comes to mind is by Peter Porter, and there it is ensconced as always with its known associates …. 

And in The Age of Epigram
When an out-of-kilter cummerbund
Or a wrong caesura in hexameters
Was most of what was worrying in art
Some brutal primitive was marketing
A colossal apparatus raising myth
To high symphonic shouting.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Clive James, Glass Globes, and a Sea-eagle of English feather

In a recent TLS (May 16, 2014) Clive James holds up a passage from Chapman's Homer as an example of alliteration done right (which he opposes to Swinburne's alliteration overdone wrong) …

Then took he up his weighty shield, that round about him cast
Defensive shadows; ten bright zones of gold-affecting brass
Were driven about it, and of tin, as full of gloss as glass,
Swelled twenty bosses out of it …

The double use of "gl" must indeed be a temptation for poets wanting to overdo alliterative effects … Burns has "glens gloomy and savage" and "glaikit, gleesome, dainty damies".  Byron has a commonplace book argument which "glibly glides from every tongue". W. E. Henley has "gladdening glass", while Coventry Patmore offers up "glowing gloom" as well as "trackless glories glimpsed in upper sky".  Spenser had his "gloomy glade" and "gold / Whose glistering glosse darkened with filthy dust", and "glistering glory" and a "glassie globe", and "gladsome glee".  John Tranter follows suit with "glassy gloom", and has "a cul-de-sac choked with  / expensive shops towards whose glow and glitter / her soul inclines". Hart Crane's "Pullman breakfasters glide glistening steel".

The "glassie globe" in Spenser (which Merlin made), reappears in Crabbe's The Parish as a fishbowl - "A glassy globe, in frame of ivory press'd; / Where swam two finny creatures", and Oscar Wilde as the earth itself "a brittle globe of glass", and then it surfaces again in a poem by Lynda Hull as a snow-globe in the palm of your hand:

 … Should I say the Mississippi knows
the story of the room left behind, the bad deals?
Like a scene playing out in a glass globe
I might hold in my palm, I can watch them:
oh look at those fools, the cold carving
them up to some version of bewildered miracle.

Pope shows off with three in a row: "Glittering through the gloomy glades", and Shakespeare piles on the effects in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams;
I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright;
For, by thy gracious, golden, glittering gleams,
I trust to take of truest Thisby sight.

The "gl"s are piled up thickly by Clive's friend Peter Porter in his lines: "the little glowworms/of our wounded childhood glitter, glitter / a square piano pounded by an ugly woman".  I very much like here that the alliteration isn't limited to the beginning of words: the hidden alliteration coming mid-word in "ugly" strongly contributes to the effect but in a subtle way: it gets under your skin, or beneath your analytic defences; it sneaks into the brain directly like perfume, or music with too many things going on at once.  Another line of his with a hidden "gl" alliteration is "a single stick of gladiolus". But back to explicit in-your-face alliteration: in his first collection Porter managed a Pope-like trifecta: "Glancing kingdoms enter, the glasses glow".

And even Clive himself gives us "Great in his glory, glorious in his greatness," and "Out in the sea / No waves, and there below not even ripples turning light / To glitter: just a glow spread evenly / On flawless water."

But Swinburne?  Yes, I am afraid so … "as a gleam that before them glided", and there's stuff like "Deep flowers, with lustre and darkness fraught, / From glass that gleams as the chill still seas" and of course the moon is "Bright with glad mad rapture, fierce with glee."  But returning to the idea of hidden or mid-word alliteration, Swinburne has the line "Sea-eagle of English feather" … that's a much better tuned effect to my mind.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The least feigning

In the current Australian Book Review Chris Wallace-Crabbe has a poem whose title 'The least feigning' of course  plays on Touchstone's famous lines from As You Like It:

No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most
Feigning; and lovers are given to poetry, and what
They swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign.

Stephen Gosson's The Schoole of Abuse indeed holds poets up to the charge of being 'amorous' and dwelling "longest in those pointes, that profit least". Gosson's book was dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, whose Defence of Poesie was possibly written by way of reply.

Wallace-Crabbe writes of a directness possible in poetry:

What you say
about poetry
could very well
be stone-
cold factual
because this art
can serve you up
truth without even
so bloody much as
actors or make-up

Sidney himself made bold and innovative claims for the position of poetry, creating a truth and a nature of its own devising:
"Only the Poet disdeining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature: in making things either better then nature bringeth foorth, or quite a new, formes such as never were in nature: as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chymeras, Furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely raunging within the Zodiack of his owne wit."
Jacob Bronowski, who in his 1939 book The Poet's Defence, was an early advocate for the link between Gosson and Sidney's Defence of Poesie, writes elsewhere of the truth that poetry offers:
"There is a common pattern to all knowledge: what we meet is always particular, yet what we learn is always general. In science we reason from particular instances to the general laws that we suppose to lie behind them, and though we do not know how we guess at these laws, we know very well how to test them. But in a poem the specific story and the detailed imagery that carries it create in us an immediate sense of the general. The experience is made large and significant precisely by the small and insignificant touches. Here the particular seems to become general of itself: the detail is its own universal."
Sidney held poetry up as something distinct from other disciplines, including what we today would call science, in that only poetry was not "enclosed within the narrow warrant" of nature, whereas Bronowski sees that poetry - like science - expresses the general by means of "particular instances".

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Never trust a poet who can drive

"Nothing ever happens to novelists. Except - this. They are born. They get sick, they get well, they hang around the inkwell. They leave home, with their stuff in a hired van.  They learn to drive, unlike poets (poets don't drive. Never trust a poet who can drive.  Never trust a poet at the wheel.  If he can drive, distrust the poems). They get married at registry offices. They have children in hospitals - the ordinary miracle. Their parents die - the ordinary disaster. They get divorced or they don't. Their children leave home, learn to drive, get married, have children. They grow old. So nothing ever happens to them, except the universal." - Martin Amis, The Information, p.132

All - in genreal - so true (of the many poets I have known very very few of them drive), and curiously, as with many good novelists, this riff seems to border on poetry.