Sunday, 30 January 2011

A Smattering of Mattering. Darwish and Ayyappan.

There have been awards doing the rounds, Costa to Jo Shapcott, Eliot to Walcott, Picador to Richard Meier. All very worthy winners and everyone on the short and long list are worthy of some recognition from, not just other poets, but other people ( I sometimes wonder whether other poets and other people inhabit the same universe). If you want the low down from someone who was at the Eliot reading you should go and have a read of Baroque in Hackney’s blog

I live in the sticks and don’t get up to London a great deal so I regard myself as an outsider and observer of such things. You read about them and you may have a little bet with yourself about possible winners or hope certain collections do well because you enjoyed the poems or were moved by them but even as a published poet I don’t feel that involved with the world of the big prizes and media attention.

Now I may be saying that because I have no hope of achieving any or I might be saying it because it is true and of course both may be true at the same time. I will not go into any navel gazing about this only to say that I might be more involved if the prize business helped poetry matter more to people in general. I sometimes wonder if ‘mattering’ matters at all. Something really matters if its absence threatens your physical survival; food, water, warmth, shelter being the basics. Things really matter if they threaten you emotional well being; nurturing, love, a sense of worth to validate your existence. Poetry and literature in general may inhabit the grey areas that filter into and help establish not just an individual’s sense of worth but a society’s.

In some of the poorer countries in the world, poets are revered, they are part of the fundamental fabric of society, poetry does matter to many people other than a select few. Ok here a few poets get media coverage but somehow it always seems very polite, a tad nice and respectful, even a tad quirky as if writing about a poet is being slightly eccentric. Where is the fervour that poets in some parts of the world can generate? Take the death of the poet A. Ayyappan in Kerala. He virtually lived on the streets, always a bit disheveled, drunk on occasions but he had twenty collections of poems to his credit and thousands came to pay their respects when he died three months ago. Likewise when Mahmud Darwish, the Palestinian poet died, thousands came to his state funeral. Their work mattered to people and continues to matter, and perhaps poetry matters the most when you have less to loose and so much more to gain than a prize.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Opening Your Presents Before the Party and Keeping it Simple

Well what have I been up to, nothing much, then again a lot of reading which is far from nothing, in fact it is the creation of whole worlds. There are as many reasons why people read as there are books and we read different books for different reasons. However why I read fiction is mostly to experience a story, hopefully told in a way that makes me suspend my current reality and enter another one yet bring back from that something that makes my current reality just a little better. To be convinced to the point of letting go is something almost akin to a chemical high, in fact I wonder if we could look at the brain chemistry of the fiction reader there would be a correlation between what we are reading and the release of adrenalin, endorphins and the like. Is our visual cortex firing up as we read a description of a landscape or a character? I never think of the reader as a passive recipient of words but someone who actively engages with the words, who creates and paints images on an internal screen, hears whole dialogues, arguments, orchestras playing, tastes the food, feels the velvet dress a character smoothes down. A good book takes you to a place you and the writer have created together. When you look up from the page just for a second you forget where you are, that is the kind of feeling a good book gives me.

Not only are you there, you are desperate to want to know the future but not enough to spoil the delight of finding out page by page. As a child I never ‘cheated’ and read the end of a book, it felt a bit like opening your birthday presents that you find at the back of the wardrobe and then wrapping them up again to feign surprise on the day of the party just to please your parents. The present is not just about the having of it, it is about the ritual and delight of receiving it and so with a good book the reading is not all about having it ticked off on your ‘I have read this’ list it is about the whole experience of it coming into your inner world. I love books, so with World Book Night upon us in March, I and a friend are busy organizing an event to celebrate this, to celebrate books and libraries and the right every individual has to have access to books. Without books seems to underline the old biblical saying of 'Where there is no vision the people perish', Ezekial's vision of the valley of dry bones might as well be a vision of a world without books, without libraries.

I sometimes wonder if we can get too analytical about poetry, too eager to show how cleverly we can dissect a poem to find what makes it tick .Isn’t it just enough and everything to say we simply loved reading the poems, that the experience of letting them into our inner world was something special? Perhaps not, perhaps we have to ensure every last drop of what the poem has to offer us is squeezed out of it until the pips squeak but sometimes I just want to let the poem tell me its own story in its own words and keep it simple.

Do readers ‘get’ you? was a question posted on Facebook by Roddy Lumsden which generated many comments. Here is mine

I think sometimes readers 'get' themselves in a poem or a poet ..they come up to you after a reading and say I loved that poem about x' and I ponder on that and think I didn't read a poem about x. Everyone brings something to a poem and takes something away,... a mish mash of themselves, their personal iconography of words, the poet, the poetic form, even the context in which it is read. They may not get me at all, they may get something not me, more them but I think the important thing is the process of 'getting' rather than being got, that dialogue between reader and poems where all the creative spark lies. If no one can even be bothered to try getting even one of my poems then I worry. I am on the whole seen as an accessible poet but actually I do strive for something underpinning that and that's the process I want to engage in with the reader, digging underneath. As I say there might not even be a 'me' to get but the fact that a reader or listener might be bothered to dig is heartening. I could get all mystical and propose that poems are more than the sum of their parts and thus the ghost in the machine is what the poet may hanker to be got ...well ghosts and poets can sometimes be quite difficult to get hold of, slippery little buggers.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

That Scottish Play, the Wholeness of the Poem or is it a Polo Mint ?

There have been some very interesting and challenging posts by George Szirtes on his blog about ‘subject’ in poetry plus some interesting comments. They run from January 4th 2011 to Saturday January 8th

They are well worth reading and then re-reading again more slowly in order to digest the points more carefully. It made me think a lot about subject, about ‘the about’ of a poem.

I have just finished watching the film of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart an shown on BBC 4 (you can still see it on BBC iplayer if you are quick at the time of posting, it’s well worth a watch). The Scottish play is of course always seen as a study of power and corruption and what constitutes destiny, do we shape our own or is it already mapped out for us? Do the witches create or simply see the future? Without their prediction would Macbeth have become king, would his wife have embraced the prediction with such ardour that it becomes the engine that drives them to regicide which propels them over the edge, literally in the case of Lady Macbeth? Macbeth loses all sense of any morality in his fight to retain power and even the murder of children in seen as a necessary evil. So I found myself re-examining what this play is about, what is its subject?

Subject and purpose may not be the same thing, purpose implies a considered intent. The dramatist’s intent may be solely to tell us a cracking good story with a few spooky witches and walking woods thrown in as crowd pleasers, a wife who nags and nags and appears very ballsy but who cracks under the pressure and a central character that accepts that the acquisition and retention of power requires that his moral compass always points to the self. However does the beauty and use of the language in which the story is told demand that it becomes in itself embedded in ‘the subject’ of the play? How Shakespeare tells us the story is as intrinsic to the play as are the themes which may or may not underlie it; the plot or story drives the language and vice versa. It may read as if I am simply stating the obvious, Shakespeare uses words so well in his plays that they can come to encapsulate something we acknowledge as important to life itself, that they can exist and be embraced out of the context of the play itself, hence so many Shakespearean quotes that have found their way into everyday parlance without many having any notion of the play they came from.

“Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Yet it is the whole play, that makes of that language something ‘other’, makes it greater than the sum of its wordy parts.

If we take this experience of Shakespeare and apply it to the poem any poem, for me it serves to clarify something. What the poem is about, its obvious subject and its underlying themes have to merge with the how, the wonder of the language, in order to become a ‘whole’ poem. I like the concept of the ‘wholeness’ of a poem, the poem with its own gestalt. Some could argue, and I am more than open to this argument, that the experience of unique and wonderful language is sufficient. There does not have to be a narrative, a subject, an intent, a purpose other than to excite the synapses that connect all those areas of the brain that are capable of dancing and firing in glorious technicolour. There are poems such as The Windhover that I loved as a teenager long before I had any idea about what they might be about, the subject was immaterial or sufficient explanation was as simple as ‘it’s about a man looking at a bird’, the lush language rolled around in my mouth and brain and yet I knew that it was underpinned by something other than the title and the words. There was something that contributed to the ‘wholeness’ of the poem, its life in the world. Hopkins created all that glorious sound and rhythm to be a joy to the senses yet also to praise what he believed was a Christian spiritual experience without the ghost in that language machine the poem is less that it can be for the poet if not the audience. The gestalt of the poem maybe requires an honest exploration of intent, even if that intent is not clear to the reader and sometimes the poet themselves.

How the poem becomes ‘a whole’ perhaps require something as small and as vast as a sense of the total engagement by the poet with the poem. The search for meaning may be the meaning in itself. Sometimes I have written poems which are sometimes more than I meant and frequently less than I meant but I always try and use the best words I can and have the full intent of not cheating the poem or the reader of my full attention. Even if a poem is not ostensibly ‘about’ anything, if is solely about the sound and the use of language then that in itself gives it a meaning, some point of engagement.

Just thinking out loud about it all and need to go and apply this thinking to the collection I am re-reading at the moment...The Complete Works of Amy Clampitt. An American, she published her first poem in the New Yorker at 58 and her first collection at 63 and followed it up with four more before she died eleven years sort of girl in terms of being a late starter like myself. Brought from Beyond is one I am hoping to fathom a little more, but not once do I sense a throw away line or word, Amy is giving me her full attention. I might be being picky but sometimes there are poems I read that seem to leave you wondering what's missing.

I am sounding a bit pompous, off now to watch Star Wars as I have never seen Attack of the Clones, although all those prequels were probably less than Lucas meant them to be.There was a hole in there where something better should be..the film as polo mint. Will be on the look out for polo mint poems

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Into 2011 with bread slicers, suitcases and serotonin

Greetings dear reader and a happy new year to you, here's hoping it will be a good one, however you may define good. I think I switched off slightly through that strange period betwixt and between Christmas and New Year which many treat as an extended holiday. The sales were on in the shops and the nearest large town seemed full of focused women with sharpened elbows homing in on hot bargains like heat seeking missiles. I usually avoid crowds although I did queue for 20 minutes at my local bakers because they do make the best bread and I am slightly enamoured of their ancient jiggling bread slicing machine with three different settings. I love a good useful piece of engineering, something that man’s ingenuity has created in order to meet a simple need. I suppose a bread knife and a bread board would do but the bread slicing machine does have something enticing about it. As we watched some news about a Noble Prize being awarded my aged mother once announced that she thought there ought to be a Noble Prize for the invention of something small and useful like Velcro or bike clips. She had a point but then small pieces of domestic engineering can hardly compare with the discoveries of DNA, insulin or quantum physics and of course big inventions and discoveries filter down into society and have a myriad of useful applications. I have lost track of the times someone interested in such things has told me that we owe the ceramic hob to the space race. However after again watching the bread slicer vibrate its blades through my loaf in less than 5 seconds I have to say it deserves just a moment of recognition amidst the tidal wave of Ipads and Hadron Colliders.

I listened to the serialisation of Finishing the Hat a programme about Stephen Sondheim’s lyric writing on Radio 4. I was taken by how much of what he said about good lyric writing applies to poetry. Lyrics too tightly packed or not packed enough are something to be avoided. I thought about just how a poem can be fully packed with many levels of meaning and reference yet not be too dense. We often talk about ‘unpacking’ a poem in workshops as if the poem is somehow a suitcase with meaning, images, metaphors and language all crammed into it. You open it up and pull out all the contents, examine it, fold and unfold some and then shove them all back in. This process supposedly makes the poem clearer, more enjoyable, yet the language is the suitcase and also the contents. Some poems defy unpacking, so intrinsic is the language to what it contains. Michael Donaghy believed that the key word to analysing his poetry is "negotiation"; the poem is a matter of form in perpetual negotiation with content. The poem as suitcase feels a little too static and literally contained, I tend to agree with Donaghy that there is something more fluid going on in a great poem. A sound, a rhythm, a line break is seemingly not dictated and fixed by the form but appears to exist entirely to create that one poem. Form for instance in the hands of a great poet exists because it needs to in order for a particular poem to be and say what the poet intends.

Of course in the hands of a poet with less skill rhymed form can seem like the ugly sister desperately trying to cram her large foot into the glass slipper. Tony Harrison’s, Book Ends is obviously a well known and formally rhymed poem. However Harrison is the master of strong rhyme that at its best does not overwhelm the poem in its sheer insistence. The poignancy of this poem is supported rather than sunk by the rhyme.. If you listen to Harrison read his poem the sounds that draw the ear in are not lent upon so that the rhyme becomes the sudden dull thud of the other shoe dropping. The music of it is weighty yet still playful, the rhyme between smithereens for example and between’s could on the page seem strained but once you hear him read it it does have a strange ‘rightness’ as if the second rhyming word is already forged in the first one.

I am fascinated by the concept of how the concept of rhyme works. The ability to hear a rhyme is essential to develop phonological awareness which in turn supports our ability to learn to read. If a child cannot produce even a nonsense rhyming word to follow cat, mat, sat and instead looks at you with a sense that you are somehow slightly deranged in thinking he or she can possibly work out the relationship between those three words yet alone produce another one, then here be dragons! Bun, fun, fat does not auger well for reading but is never insurmountable, however most children, even very young ones hear and love rhyme, that wonderful way that sound can produce the possibility of prediction is a strange comfort but one nonetheless. The concept that we are hardwired for narrative and metaphor is put forward by the linguist Lakoff but I also think in a large number of languages rhyme is almost embedded in our psyche. Rhyme is a basic building block of prediction, if we hear ‘Twinkle twinkle little star how I wonder what you is’ even if you don’t know the correct word it can prove irritatingly unsatisfactory not to have that aural completion. Semantics allow for a level of prediction but once the ear is tuned into a rhyme scheme there is hope that all will be well.

Some languages such as Korean and Japanese have no concept of rhyme and I believe even early Anglo Saxon poetry relied heavily on assonance rather than rhyme. So rhyme is a relatively recent concept in language and its existence can be geographically particular but it is such a fundamental concept in European poetry that it is hard not to believe that it underpins how we assimilate language itself. I did find a tiny bit of research that showed that the serotonin levels in the linguistic areas of the brain were raised more when test subjects were exposed to heavily rhymed poems than to free verse even when the subject expressed a personal preference for the free verse poem, which would seem to suggest that the brain itself finds rhyme physically pleasurable. The skillful use of rhyme is part of the craft of poetry even if we choose not to use it, how sound works with meaning is not old fashioned or ‘establishment’ it is for me part of the excitement involved in creating a poem.

I have had several people contact me wanting to read my Bear story ( see previous post) so here is the link to open it from my public folder.