Friday, 23 October 2009

Season of Mists, Eliot, Pam Ayres and Question Time.

I was surprised when T S Eliot was voted as the best loved Poet of all time in the Latest BBC survey. Had the T. S. Eliot Society been block voting, cornering people in the streets, canvassing at poetry readings, doing deals with the supporters of Keats and Coleridge in smoke filled back-rooms like some sleazy Republican Convention in Chicago? However in another way I am not surprised because Eliot for all his tortured emotions and poetic craft was an emigrant, an American who found the old world fitted his temperament more than the new and converts are often more deeply embedded in that which they embrace than those born to it. I have written about Eliot before dear reader I know but surely he and I can withstand another look.

I watched the odious BNP man on Question Time last night and concluded here was a man not of intelligence but of deep cunning mixed with not a little fantasy. Indigenous people of England, for god’s (Christian, Muslim and any other religion or secular way of being that hold to gods of true justice and compassion) sake is the man not aware that all men are mongrels. All of us have DNA coursing in our veins that stem from the four corners of the world; we are all passing migrants in a way on a planet that is so small it will soon burst at the seams. Mr BNP seemed like a huge antediluvian dinosaur peeing in the corners of his territory as if that act itself would keep away those that would take his land and his right to roam it as he sees fit.

So why did this man drive me to read Eliot’s Four Quartets again and in particular Little Gidding; because here is a poem written by an immigrant writing about a place that spoke to him and yet transcended all sense of place and looked to something more important beyond the greater importance of which particular piece of earth our first footsteps trod.

Little Gidding is just a short drive from where I live, I have eaten my lunch in the graveyard there when passing. It is at the end of a tiny single track road that ends with the house and this tiny church. The lovely people that live in the religious community there, who often come from all over the world to stay there bring you tea and homemade cake and ask for no money other than a donation. I can see what Eliot may have felt here because it is also a place where you can go no further so have to turn back on yourself. I go there and find it has a sort of quiet steadfastness (an old fashioned word I know) yet at the same time the people there, some from war torn or chaotic places in the world, bring to it a sense of it being the beginning of something for they usual come not to hide from but to gain strength to run back towards the outside world which they will soon have to cope with and try and change for the better. I am neither a Christian or particularly religious but I do, I hope, understand spirituality, hope and a striving for good in the world. Most religions have been and continue to be the cause of great suffering but that’s like a Martian looking down and thinking Mr BNP, his views and actions, represents everyone in Britain.

Little Gidding in a wonderful place to go to in the autumn as the foliage on the trees is now reaching that critical point of turning to fallen. There is that point when they give off that last fire before they drop. Nothing like the glories of New England of course but still just enough glory to fill a tea cup and that can be enough for anyone. In his poem about Little Gidding Eliot talks a lot about fire and I tend to think he may have those autumn fire colours in mind and not just the metaphor of fire in Christianity and I think he also speaks to earthly love and suffering of all kinds.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

It is strange that Eliot, a complex man not without his fair share of unfathomable blindspots and unkindnesses, not least of which was the ease with which he embraced the Anti-Semitic language current in his day, should write something which I personally find so full of thoughts that not only attempt to understand human emotional suffering in some ways but also to give a kind of solace within that suffering. Thousands of people have read the last stanza of this Quartet to breathe in some sense of peace or at least a measure of hope from it. I think it may be one of those times when the poem is greater than the sum parts of the poet. I have often heard poets speak about the demands a poem makes of them; that in some way it has its own sense of what it is or could be which we ignore at our peril. The old tale that Michelangelo, looking at a block of Carrere marble, spoke of merely releasing the statue already formed from within the stone, is often also related to the poet and the poem being released from a block of words. Perhaps Eliot’s Four Quartets is one of those experiences; writing out of our skin or beyond ourselves is perhaps only an experience the greatest of poets have but I am sure we have all sometimes wondered at the weird way with which a poem can sometimes insist on being other than what you first intended it to be. Judge for yourselves about that last stanza of Little Gidding.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I apologise dear reader if I have rambled on but the strange conjunction of stars which provide Eliot as the nation’s favourite poet, Mr BNP on Question Time, autumn, the turning of life and seasons and the smell of burning leaves coming from the garden three doors up as I write have put me in this place. Next blog I will try and discuss the phenomenon which is Pam Ayres, which is not a joke, I truly believe the woman is rejected and despised as a vernacular poet by some of the literary glitterati because she packs out venues and is never up her own arse about the importance or historic legacy of her work and is unafraid of rhyming little with peanut brittle.

PS. The Boo has just bought a brand new motor bike (a Suzuki Van Van…what company calls a bike a Van Van!). All positive vibrations for her continued well being and the wish that she does not end up as a smear on the roads of County Durham gratefully received. But, hurrah, as she points out, this one has an electronic ignition not a kick start so things are now retro styled but not retro labour intensive.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Faber New Poets, Jerwood and the J word in Strictly Come Dancing and Poetry

On Tuesday I was on the door doing my impression of meet and greet and where’s your money please for the opening of the new season of poetry readings at Michaelhouse run by CB1 Poetry. The four winners of the Faber New Poet Award, Fiona Benson, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Jack Underwood and Heather Phillipson. The Faber Poetry Editor Matthew Hollis introduced them and did a fine short reading himself. There is always something exciting about hearing a young poet beginning to explore their craft. It feels like watching something being planted that could blossom into a magnificent tree, or maybe an orchid or even a hardy shrub or it may never reach its potential and wither in the cold. Who knows but these four new young Faber poets are being carefully nurtured by Faber and the Arts Council, it won’t be for the lack of fertiliser and tending that they don’t grow but then as Sean O’Brien pointed out in his review of their pamphlets in the Guardian it is the next forty years that may hold the proof of their growth. Although I think there are some poets who have been loved and admired through the centuries who never produced a large body of work, who may even only have written two or three great poems that somehow stuck in the national consciousness. There may be the poetic equivalent of one or two hit wonders in contemporary music but that doesn’t mean that the poems themselves are of any less worth if they don’t come from the pen of a poet who has produced collection after collection of good poems. Most poets might I suspect swap their whole career and oeuvre for one perfect magnificent poem because every time you stare at a clean sheet of paper or a black document on the computer screen it is filled with the possibility of magnificence and that is probably what makes you keep writing. There is no holy grail of poetry, no one yard stick by which we can ever measure such a thing but we have a sense of always striving for this elusive cup of words and even if we fail by a mile or a gnats whisker we keep trying and I hope taking risks.
Risk taking is something the young might be more prepared to do, or is the poet with a so called ‘reputation’ under their belt more able to caste aside the safety net and take risks. I think every poem should be a risk of some kind. The safe poem that merely strokes the sleeping dog versus the one that risks waking the wolf is to be applauded. it may not always come off but at least the intent was there. I thought Fiona Benson managed with her pamphlet to pull of the difficult feat of appearing to write very quiet almost studious poem but which were actually infused with huge risk, the quiet swan with the engine feet paddling away underneath and which might break your arm if you get a little too close and assume it safe.

The short list for the Jerwood Prize for best first collection have been announced, my publisher, Salt has two poets in there. Sian Hughes for the Missing and and Andrew Philip for The Ambulance Box. The others poets short listed are J O Morgan, Philip Rush and Dawn Wood. I list them all as in those interviews on the television about at upcoming election in which the BBC interview one candidate but in the interests of even handedness all candidates including those representing the Monster Raving Looney party has to be mentioned, blessings be upon the head of Lord Reith who was a stickler for such things including radio news reader wearing Dinner Jackets. I shall be rooting for Andrew as I think Ambulance Box is a stunning piece of work that floated my boat in terms of what interests me in poetry. Prizes are such odd things, a product of the amalgam of judges opinions.I have been informed by some who have been judges on some other competitions that sometimes if there isn’t a clear winner then a sort of haggling takes place in which the collection everyone is able to live with as the winner comes to the fore. We’d all like to be a fly on the wall at such meetings, I imagine that at Aldeburgh it will be extremely civilised and no one will throw tea cups at each other in the Cragg Sisters tearooms.

I am wondering why I am yet again hooked on Strictly Come Dancing, the parade of minor B celebrities and athletes trying to master the tango or the quickstep and parade the result of their efforts for public consumption and even humiliation on prime time TV. I have come to the conclusion that I should come out of the closet about it because I have managed to convince myself that it is ok be glued to how well people’s frame, heel leads and hip action is coming along. The ‘journey’ is the buzz word; it’s all about travelling and not the arriving and therein lies the metaphor for all things. Is writing about the process, the love of it, the attempt to master it, or the product? It’s about both of course but for those of us that struggle with how you can sometimes be so bad, so mediocre, so clumsy with the words, with the medium you love so much, then that J word can be amazingly relevant. Can she manage to pull off a beautiful waltz, can she manage to conjure up a crafted yet amazing sonnet. Can he really do that fiery tango, is there something that drives the words an underlying controlled passion. I am of course dear reader writing myself towards justification. I should be reading something worthwhile or classy or out there experiencing real life in the fen fast lane. But you know what, a curry in front of the Tele on a cold night watching people trying to do the Viennese Waltz or Jive who usually long jump, box, act like wooden planks in soaps or read the sports news is fine by me. There is always the extraordinary to be found in something ordinary and the journey between those two things can arrive somewhere interesting and visit a few bizarre service stations on the way.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Nietzsche and Hegel and She-Ra in the Closet

I was wading through a wardrobe in what was The Boo’s bedroom and discovered her Crystal Castle lurking at the bottom. It was a Christmas present given nearly twenty years ago. Of course the uninitiated or too young may not know that The Crystal Castle was home to She-Ra, ‘Princess of Power’. She was never called just plain old She-Ra just as He-man never got away without the tag line of ‘The most Powerful Man in the Universe’ follow him. She-Ra was a revolutionary, the freedom fighter against the domination by all evil forces who would subjugate the ordinary people. She was Obama, our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, our fight against all evils that threaten a democratic way of life rolled into one. Swap Hordak or Skeletor, the baddies in these two cartoons for Ben Laden, the Taliban or generally anything anti-American ( it was made in America) and there you have the right and the wrong of it all, the morality tale that all children want to identify with. She-Ra of course did good by stealth never revealing her true identity but once she lifted that old sword there she was in all her glory, tight figure hugging costume, knee high gold boots and a good legth of thigh showing as she goes out to battle against the evil hoard. As He-Man was the mild mannered Adam (think bumbling Clark Kent to Superman) so the fluffy headed Princess Adora became She-Ra. All this came back to me as I was moving The Crystal Castle, even back then the power of marketing was a thing to behold, I think the Boo had the lunch box too, plus all the action figures. Should I have been encouraging her to play with more politically correct toys but no one was marketing the Marie Curie doll complete with toy laboratory and I certainly wouldn’t have bought her a Thatcher Doll complete with handbag to make her feel girls could be leaders of men. It was all roughly around the ‘girl power’ era when the marketing men realised that girls might not just want baby dolls and Barbies but action figures or pop stars that looked like they might kick a few butts and were generally proactive rather than passive. I think the toy industry was a tad slow on picking up on the feminist revolution but then Mattel etc still wanted to cling to the Stepford Wife concept I expect. They did not have many women on their board of directors until recently and they still have one woman executive in charge of 'girls toys' as if girls and their parents need a special range for them alone.

The finding of the Castle comes at a time when I am in the middle of reading Stephen Dobyn’s Book, 'The Wrestler’s Cruel Study' which I am enthralled with and the She-ra thing and this book collided in my brain. It is a surreal, even bizarre book which is set in a New York full of varying and arcane heretical Christian religious groups who meet to dispute at the top of the Chrysler Building about what is true and the nature of good and evil. The plot (if you can call it that) is driven by the classic hero’s dilemna. A wrestler called Michael Marmaduke who’s wrestling name is Marduk the Magnificent trying to find and rescue his kidnapped girlfriend Rose White. His world weary and philosophic manager, Primus Muldoon, whilst trying to help him and advise also spends time lingering on the nature of ‘the gimmick’ in wrestling and ‘the mask’ and how these relate to how people function in ‘real’ life. He has a love of Nietzsche and relates much of what happens in professional wrestling to our desire to cling to or to look for stereo types and pared down simplicities and our search for power of all kinds but Muldoon has a Hegelian nemesis. I won’t spoil it for you by saying too much but I never though Gnostic heresies, philosophy and wrestling could be brought together in a strange yet satisfying mix. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Dobyn’s is a well known poet as well as a novelist and his language and voice is right up my street.
Of course American wrestling seems a tad more violent than the world of Sport 19 70’s version I recall.

I was at The Essex poetry festival yesterday mainly to see an old friend,Joanna Ezekial, from an Arvon Course way back, read. It was wonderful to catch up and talk about where poetry and writing has lead us over the years. I never cease to be amazed by what people are prepared to sacrifice and give up in order to make writing an important part of their lives. Poets especially usually gain no financial reward at all from their writing but have to rely on all the workshops, residencies, teaching etc that brings in a crust. Yet people still give up well paid jobs and potential careers in order to do it. It gladdens my heart that people are still willing to do this and it makes me feel sad that there is so little money in the Arts pot now that such people are going to be fighting hard for what minute amount there is. Of course you can write magnificently even if you have a full time job as a sheep-dipper, cashier, lawyer or water board official but it is a struggle and I sometimes wonder how many great poets or poems may have been lost to the world because they could not juggle earning a living with writing. A brilliant poet will triumph over financial necessity and adversity you could say but then maybe not and society may or may not be the poorer for it. I note that Eliot has been judged the nations favourite poet, I wonder how he would have coped in maintaining his personal writing life in the current financial wasteland when he would have had to pour endless time into keeping a publishing house afloat plus all the networking and endless meetings with the Arts Councils maybe to get grants?

Friday, 2 October 2009

Larissa Miller, Francis Ponge and Conviction in Poetry and Politics

The Kings’ Lynn Poetry festival was a joy as ever, an interesting mix of poets and the sun shone. This was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the festival so a surprise special anthology was put together to celebrate the event. It contained poems written by poets who had read at the festival over the years. I must say it was an honour to be in there snuggled between Pascale Petit and Peter Porter, a position I doubt I shall ever achieve again and which I only owe to the vagaries of alphabetisation.

Pascale Petit read some of her new poems that she is writing that are based on the work of Frida Kahlo,. These were impressive and as I love Kahlo’s work I shall be looking out for that collection when it comes out. Michael Hulse, Kit Wright, Annie Freud, Moniza Alvi, John Harley Williams, Lachlan Mackinnon were there but I was interested especially in the work of the French Poet Valerie Rouzeau, the Basque poet Eli Tolaretxipi and most of all the Russian poet Larissa Miller
I have included the links to their biographies and websites so you can read some of their work for yourself.

I found the power of Larissa Miller’s work particularly moving but then I am a sucker for that big Russian lyrical melancholy and poems wrung from experience of repression that most of us may never experience. It is worth listening to some of Larissa’s poems read by her in Russian on her website as then you get a true sense of the rhythm, sound and tone. There is something about listening to good poems read out in languages I have no knowledge of that I savour. There is still that sense of sound and rhythm, the moment now and then when you realise the universality of the spoken word, the sound and cadences of a voice saying something that matters. Of course I always have the sense that anything such as the instructions for putting together an IKEA bookcase may sound interesting and somehow beautiful in many languages and I wonder whether the same could be said of English, I shall have to ask an English non-speaker.

Speaking of foreign language poets, I gave a friend a copy of Unfinished Ode to Mud, a new translation of some of Francis Ponge’s poems by CB Editions for her birthday. The man is a superb poet, he looks at the simplest of things in the simplest of language and he never turns away, he keeps looking until everything is seen. To look without blinking is a rare skill. In a notebook, I have had for some years I have an extract from one of his prose poems, Memorandum, which C K Williams translated, in which Ponge writes of ‘the only interesting principle according to which interesting works can be written, and written well.'

“You have first of all to side with your own spirit, and your own taste. Then take the time, and have the courage, to express all your thoughts on the subject at hand (not just keeping the expressions that seem brilliant or distinctive). Finally you have to say everything simply, not striving for charm, but conviction.”

It has always seemed like a good way to tackle writing of any kind to me.

Come to think of it, in this season of the party conferences, Ponge’s Memorandum might be a good thing for politicians to embrace. The Sun has announced grandiosely that it will no longer be backing Labour as if this statement alone ensures that the coming election is a dead cert for the Tories. As we all know the Sun is the great arbiter and dictator of political wisdom and the common man’s opinion, hence the topless models as the essential statement of how women should be viewed. Rupert Murdoch no doubt rests easier knowing he is now in bed with the future government of the UK, as what the Sun says goes of course, elections he probably sees as mere formalities. Perhaps it’s the other way round and David Cameron is relieved to be in bed with Rupert. All that snuggling up on the media mogul’s yacht last year must have paid off and was worth the fuss in other newspapers that attended it about the free flights. Real convictions in politics rather than the snake-charming of the electorate are probably too much to hope for in the run up to the next election. I am sure The Sun will put me right on who is the most likely to be convicted ( I think that’s not the verb from conviction but it sounds about right).