sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
There's an article by Marjorie Perloff in the current PN Review (vol 38 no 3) which it's taken me a week to get around to reading, purely because the title, "Towards a Conceptual Lyric: From Content to Context" was so off-puttingly reminiscent of the most boring type of academic dissertation. But as often happens, it concealed a riveting and thought-provoking article, on what a lot of people nowadays think poetry is, why they're wrong, and why this misconception leads to such truly awful poetry.

The trigger was a workshop for high school poets, held at the White House under the auspices of Michelle Obama and attended by four practising poets, of whom more anon. The introductory remarks, by Mrs Obama and others, stressed the importance of poetry as a teenage escape from real life – "whenever I didn't want to deal with the nonsense of the neighbourhood I would write and write" – and preparation for more important, real-life, adult activities –"it was my writing that prepared me for what I've had to do in my life as an adult". Despite the presence of published poets, it isn't seen as a career in itself; it isn't even for itself. What it is for is self-expression; Rita Dove tells the group "Only you can tell your own story". Some of the students then get to read their own poems. Not surprisingly, given these criteria, they are truly dire. No doubt they were good therapy, and useful as such, but as poems they are quite unredeemed by any sense of rhythm, structure or even feeling for words (witness the one which uses "exceeded" for "succeeded"). All they do have going for them are originality and authenticity, which are clearly seen as cardinal virtues when trying to write a poem.
more behind cut )

Oh bugger

Dec. 14th, 2011 02:08 pm
sheenaghpugh: (Bad news)
I was shocked to hear how old Russell Hoban was when he died - 86 - because Riddley Walker always sounds as if it had been written yesterday. Bloody brilliant book. If there were any justice it would have won the sort of literary prizes the likes of Amis and Co do, but of course it's futuristic so the sort of people who judge those prizes don't count it as litfic. More fool them.
sheenaghpugh: (Bad news)
This man was so much part of my youth. I lived in Nottingham from when I was about 14 to when I went to uni, and at that time Neville ran the Nottingham Playhouse. He made a point of trying to include in the repertoire some of the classic texts the city schools were studying for A-level, which is why I got to see him performing Iago to Robert Ryun's Othello. I saw him in much else too, though never, alas, in the famous portrayal of Petruchio during which, as he flourished a stage sword, the wooden blade flew off and landed somewhere in the audience. Neville made a great show of looking for it, all over the stage. Then he turned to Grumio (Bill Maynard, who told the tale for years after) and uttered what was in fact the next line in the play: "We are beset with thieves". Now that's thinking on your feet. Great actor, great theatre manager.
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
This is one of those posts about Things All Writers Know that turn out to be less clear-cut than you think. In this case it's inversion, the violence that poems sometimes do to normal word order in the name of rhyme and metre. This was commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries, fell out of use in the 20th and nowadays will cause an editor to bin you without a second thought. And quite right too, in most cases. But just now and then, something happens to make you think twice. In my case, it was pondering the construction of Latin sentences while listening to a recording of a wartime George Formby ENSA concert. bear with me; all will become clear, or at least clearer than it is at present )
sheenaghpugh: (Critics)
There's been a lot of debate recently in the literary world about whether women are under-represented in the field of reviewing, both in terms of reviewing books themselves and getting their work reviewed. And editor after editor, some of them female, have complained that "women don't put themselves forward". According to a writing friend of mine in a recent tweet, "she [editor] said "women don't contact her, but men send her lists of books they want to review, and why, and when".

This was all news to me, cos when I was reviewing, editors contacted reviewers, not the other way about. And I can't help feeling that though it may well make an editor's life easier to sit back and wait for reviewers to contact them, it's a bit of an abdication of responsibility. If I were an editor, and Joe Soap sent me a list of books he fancied reviewing, unless I knew him very well, alarm bells would ring; I would think, either these folk are his mates and he wants to puff them, or his enemies and he wants to shaft them, and neither is much use to the reader who just wants an unbiased opinion. I would also feel it was my job to decide what was reviewed and who reviewed it, and that he was being a trifle forward. If I liked his style, I would probably write back saying, none of these are available but you're welcome to review x, y and z if you like. If he refused that offer, I'd take it that I had been right about his having an agenda.

Editors are a kind of journalist, and as far as I know, journalists do not wait for news items to put themselves forward; they go out and look for them. If editors content themselves with those reviewers who put themselves forward (dear God, what an unBritish thing to do!) then we shall indeed hear from a narrow group of people. They may well be mainly male; they may also be disproportionately privately educated, because those schools, while in my view (and I'm speaking here as an ex-uni admissions tutor) offering no better an education than state schools, do tend to imbue their pupils with a self-confidence that sometimes amounts to an inflated sense of their own importance. If reviewers are mainly male, and choosing their own texts to review, then those texts too will be overwhelmingly male. I know this because more than one editor has noted a reluctance among male reviewers to assess women's writing - when I was reviewing for Poetry Review in the relatively happy days of Peter Forbes' editorship, I once asked him why he sent me so many women poets to review. He said he had to send women's books to women, because many of his male reviewers refused them. To his credit, he then sought out female reviewers who wouldn't say no; another editor, who was having trouble getting her regular reviewers to look at books from a certain part of the kingdom, simply jacked in the attempt. Me, I'd have concluded those reviewers came from too narrow an educational and geographical pool and that I needed to look elsewhere.

Editors have a hard and often thankless job, but I think it is part of that job to be proactive and independent. They, and no one else, should decide what is to be reviewed; if they go along with the suggestions of would-be reviewers they are opening the door to a great deal of intentional or unintentional nepotism, because many reviewers are also mentors of writing, and of course they think their own ex-pupils are the brightest and best; that's how teaching works. And there's nothing wrong with their promoting those whose talents they believe in as long as they do it in their own space; I use this blog to review and interview those I believe in and who might otherwise be overlooked. But part of what an editor is for is to counteract the influence of those with the loudest voices and widest connections and make sure quieter voices get heard as well.
sheenaghpugh: ("It's the bloody Indy!")
I posted a blog review of Victor Tapner's fascinating poetry collection set in East Anglian prehistory, Flatlands, some time back, and also did a blog interview with him. Now I can report that Flatlands has been shortlisted for two awards, the 2011 Seamus Heaney Centre Prize and the East Anglian Book Awards. Fine book: hope it wins.

sheenaghpugh: (Default)
The title "From the Dark Room" is a phrase from a sequence of poems called "Travelling Light". Some unexpected things happen with light and dark in this collection. In "Rare Old", whisky abandoned in Antarctica and "protected by the freeze" is "brought into the damage of light". Nesting house-martins in "Hemispheres", by contrast, are pictured "sliding the dark around themselves" in an act of protection, while "Globe" ends with the sinister volcanic image of
what might ooze if the egg

of the Earth were cracked, light
hatching from the world's blown sphere.
more behind cut )

sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)
Woman emails to berate me for saying on my website that I dislike one of my poems - "whenever I read this remark, it makes me very cross". Well don't read it then, pal. It's a free country, even the author has a right to an opinion and NOBODY HAS A RIGHT NEVER TO SEE SOMETHING THAT OFFENDS THEM.

Fairly seething, to be honest. I could have taken the damn poem out of circulation and prevented its ever being reprinted anywhere; as the author I'd have been well within my rights. I didn't, because I know that some folk, particularly those prone to depression, find it comforting. But I'm damned if I feel obliged to keep quiet about my own opinion of the thing as an artistic production. Clearly she feels that by criticising it I'm implicitly criticising her taste in poems, which may well be the case, but when did that become illegal? And if this remark, which AFAIK appears only on my website, offends her so much, why does she keep reading it?
sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
Some writers definitely have a formula, even if they aren't aware of it. As Aristophanes pointed out in The Frogs, Euripides opens prologue after prologue with a sentence in which the main verb is delayed by a long subordinate clause, while Aischylos has a habit of leaving a main character onstage for yonks without saying anything.

It's true of poets too, as occurred to me while at a Simon Armitage reading yesterday. I'm not saying they do it all the time, but they do develop habits of composition. For instance, Billy Collins, in whose Ballistics I've been happily immersed, has poem after poem in which he sets out his stall and then, right near the end, introduces a "but" or "however" that changes the poem's direction and partially undermines what has already been said. "But for now I am going to take a walk" (The Poems of Others), "But what truly caught our attention" (Scenes of Hell), "but I am here to remind you" (Adage).

That's a syntactical tic: Armitage's is more a compositional one. A lot of the poems at this reading were constructed on the basis: "this fairly dull thing happened to me, but what if it had gone off at tangent x", whereupon he follows Cpl Jones off into the realms of fantasy. I don't recall this happening so much in his early work, but you could almost predict when the veering-off-into-fantasy is coming now.
sheenaghpugh: ("It's the bloody Indy!")
I've got a couple of poems online in the latest edition of Horizon Review and the thought occurs that this is certainly the way to get feedback; post links on FB and Twitter and blow me if comments don't roll in - now with a print mag, you could wait from now to the end of the century for any indication that human eyes had actually seen the thing.

And when you get feedback it can sometimes reinforce your confidence that editors don't always know best. The first of the poems up there, "Extremophile", spent ages looking for a home in a print mag in vain. When that happens, sometimes you start thinking: well, maybe it isn't as good as it should be. But insofar as I ever like mine, I was quite made up with this one and didn't lose faith in it, eventually finding it a home when the discerning Katy Evans-Bush took over as editor of HR. At least half a dozen editors had turned it down first, though. And whaddya know, this is the one that's getting lots of positive feedback from yr actual reader...
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
There's currently a thread on the Magma poetry blog about imagery and it started me thinking. Metaphor is a trickier beast and needs thinking about longer, but I found I could pretty quickly identify the two similes that always come first to my mind if I'm looking for good examples.

The first is Thomas Wyatt, in the Tower and with good reason to fear for his life, praising the faithfulness of his pet falcons, who stay with him (I don't suppose they had much choice) when his friends have unanimously mislaid his address:
But they that some time liked my company,
Like lice away from dead bodies they crawl.

This must have had enough of an impact in his own day, but it comes as a real shock to a modern reader, as much as anything because we suddenly realise that he not only knows whereof he speaks, he has almost certainly seen it, both dead bodies and lice being a deal commoner back then. It works in other ways, notably the grim pointer to how close his own death may be, but its principal virtue for me is that it creates a sort of immediate trust on the part of the reader; you just sense, without ever having seen such a thing yourself, that he's got it right, that this happens, and the picture in the head is so immediate and striking that it takes a long time to get rid of.

The other is not from a poet at all but a politician, Daniel O'Connell's famous remark that Sir Robert Peel's smile was "like the silver plate on a coffin". I think this works partly by the surprise it creates; we expect "is like" in this context to mean "looks like" (or "sounds like", "smells like" etc), and in this case it isn't so. I suppose, stretching a point, a stiff, tight-lipped smile could be said to physically resemble a rectangular coffin-plate, but it isn't really a physical likeness we are being asked to see at all, more a likeness of function. The silver plate is the decorative, ornamental aspect on an otherwise unprepossessing and sinister object, and the comparison speaks volumes not so much about Peel's smile as his personality.

Of course I'm now wondering what the fact that both my favourite similes are so morbid says about me...
sheenaghpugh: (Trollfjord in Norway)
I've been involved in a Facebook discussion about the naming and evoking of places in poems, and how the naming of places, while it can sometimes invite the reader in, can also sometimes exclude. At one point the poet and translator Peter Daniels, who's kindly given me permission to quote him, remarked 'There are poets that can evoke "my place" as a magic invitation to the reader (e.g. Yeats with Innisfree, Longley with Carrigskeewaun), and others (e.g. Brooke with Grantchester) that are too much of a private party - "you had to be there"'.

The more I think about it, the more I think it hinges on the fact that places, at least as far as people are concerned, exist in time and context. However much we may love a place for its landscape, its light, or anything else intrinsic, it will also, in our minds, be the place where we grew up, or fell in love, or were happy in our work. And while everyone's particular place-references will be different, the roles those places occupy in their history will be similar and can be evoked by a writer referring to a quite different place, provided he/she somehow finds the universal element that links them. As usual, example is easier. William Barnes has a poem called "The Wife a-Lost" (he wrote in Dorset dialect) in which a grieving widower spends all his time in a gloomy grove of beech, a place his wife disliked and never spent time in. The rationale is simple:
Below the beeches' bough, my love,
Where you did never come,
An' I don't look to meet ye there,
As I do look at hwome.
- he feels some easing of his grief in this grove because it's the one place where he does not expect to see her at every turn. Now this particular place-association is specific to the poem's narrator, but almost any reader could empathise with the basic idea, and substitute his own place for the beech-grove.
more behind cut )
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
One of the more fascinating things about writing is how you can, while doing it, assume not only another persona but opinions and feelings you never held, experiences that never befell you, etc. I can write about being widowed, though I never have been; one just steps into the skin of Lady Franklin and uses one's imagination.... I could, though an atheist, write from a religious viewpoint: I'd feel vaguely uncomfortable about it, which is probably why I have only ever done it when translating from others, but it's perfectly possible.

Hilaire Belloc was a religious man, or so he always claimed, a practising Catholic, but you wouldn't gather as much from this poem, one of his "The world's a stage" sonnets. Some of these are frivolous; this is not:

The world’s a stage. The light is in one’s eyes.
The auditorium is extremely dark.
The more dishonest get the larger rise;
The more offensive make the greater mark.
The women on it prosper by their shape,
Some few by their vivacity. The men,
By tailoring in breeches and in cape.
The world’s a stage —I say it once again.
The scenery is very much the best
Of what the wretched drama has to show,
Also the prompter happens to be dumb.
We drink behind the scenes and pass a jest
On all our folly; then, before we go,
Loud cries for “Author”…but he doesn’t come.

Now one could argue that the fact that the "author" - God, in the context of this extended metaphor - doesn't show up doesn't mean he doesn't exist. R S Thomas's God is similarly and discouragingly absent, and undoubtedly believed in. But this isn't usually how Belloc visualises his God. It's also possible that he was in an uncharacteristically gloomy mood at the time. I know very little about him biographically since he's a long way down my favourites list, either as a poet or a person, so I don't know if he was depressive or subject to metaphysical doubts. But I'd then expect that when his mood changed he might have been iffy about publishing this in its current form. I wonder therefore if he's consciously in persona here, trying to see the world through the eyes of someone who genuinely sees it as a pointless and unauthored sham. If that's so, I'd be impressed, because it doesn't usually work that way round; while atheists are fascinated by the thinking of the religious, most religious writers are supremely uninterested in the viewpoint of the other side and unconvincing when they attempt it (vide C S Lewis and his pantomimic villains). Whatever the impetus, this is one of Belloc's more impressive efforts; the extended metaphor is well sustained and the last line is terrific.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
... even I come over here to find out what's going on. I might even have to try to get this journal looking half-decent.

At last!

Jul. 26th, 2011 10:31 pm
sheenaghpugh: (Trollfjord in Norway)
- after godknows how long. For my seagoing friends, here's a nice little BBC vid of the Tall Ships leaving Lerwick.
sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)

This is the Christian Radich of Norway, (also a veteran of The Onedin Line), at anchor in Lerwick harbour during the Tall Ships races. We were aboard her yesterday, like many other visitors; today of course all the Norwegian ships are closed to visitors and flying their flags at half mast (as are all the rest, in sympathy).
sheenaghpugh: (Default)

I feel very iffy about reviewing this anthology, because I have some poems in it. But it seems to me to have a far more interesting organising principle than your average anthology of "poets under 30" or "women poets", who don't necessarily have a damn thing in common. This is an anthology of poets who came from, or live on, Scottish islands (not just visitors on holiday) and as the thoughtful intro makes clear, this liminality does give their writing traits in common. "The islander's sense of being removed from the heart of things relates, I think, to the writer's sense of being an observer as much as a participant". This is true, though it should not be taken to mean that island poets are unaware of what is going on at the heart of things, just that they can view it with a certain amount of detachment. Jim Mainland's scorching, careering satire "Prestidigitator", which I've blogged about before here, is as committed a modern political poem as you'll find:

Watch this, watch my hands, look in my eyes:
this is viral, this is fiending, this is Celebrity Smash Your Face In,
I'm spooling tissue from an ear, I'm sawing her in half, no, really,
I'm vanishing your dosh, I'm giving it makeover, giving it bonus,
palming it, see, nothing in the box, check out
your divorce hell text tease sex tape, whoops,

but the same writer, in "The Gunnister Man", is acutely conscious of the massive timeline, reaching back centuries, on which he is a point and which connects him to everyone else who has ever lived there. Those who live in small communities are more apt, I think, to have this sense of connectedness to the past; it appears in the poems by which George Mackay Brown and Sorley MacLean are represented here (MacLean's "Hallaig", in both the Gaelic original and the English translation, being a bright particular star).

It is in fact thought-provoking to consider the roll of famous names who fit this anthology's criteria: MacLean, Brown, Crichton Smith, Edwin Muir, MacDiarmuid, and in more contemporary times the recent T S Eliot winner Jen Hadfield. But there are many others less well known, like Jim Mainland, Laureen Johnson, William J ("Billy") Tait, Laurence Graham, who deserve to be more widely read than they are and who should come as a salty surprise to those who maybe picked up the anthology for other reasons but happen on something like James Andrew Sinclair's "Immigrant":

Fill my pockets with lochs
the wind will fit snug in my wallet.
I will weave a scarf of mackerel, haddock and trout
the good fit of sheep on my feet.
My jacket, knitted peat and heather
with a bottle of good humour for the journey.
Planks of fishing boat bound tight as a belt
the sails making dandy trousers.
My back-pack holds the entire ocean
and last but certainly not least
I will wear the sky beneath my hat.

These Islands, We Sing: An Anthology of Scottish Island Poetry is published by Polygon.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
Christopher Meredith is a novelist and poet from Wales. Though he works mainly in English, one of his books for children is in Welsh and he also translates from Welsh into English. He is a professor of creative writing at the University of Glamorgan. His most recent collection of poems is The Meaning of Flight (Seren) and he has just completed a new novel, The Book of Idiots, which will be published in 2012. He is also involved with five artists in the project "Bog-Mawnog", responding to fire damage on a mountaintop in the Black Mountains in Powys. A booklet of Meredith's poems, Black Mountains, with images from the artists is being produced by Mulfran and there will also be an exhibition about the project in Brecknock Museum, 16th July to late September.

Toy Revolver

He loves its pointed symmetry
the lazy, opened hook of trigger
stock shaped to the palm
like a lover's hip,
opens it like unstoppering a flask
of magic that might spill.

He holds the chamber,
sectioned like fruit, close
to see each scoop and groove
each empty socket in the disc,
counts with a fingertip
six spaces for the dark seeds.

Interview and more poems behind cut )

Links to other poems and information

Breaking Wood - Christopher Meredith reading his own poem on YouTube.
What flight meant - a poem of Chris's featured on Jo Preston's writing blog.
Christopher Meredith's website
Seren, Christopher Meredith's publisher
Christopher Meredith's page on the Contemporary Writers website
A Woollen Line - the blog of Pip Woolf, who is involved with Meredith in the Bog-Mawnog project.
sheenaghpugh: (Default)

Review of Melog by Mihangel Morgan, translated by Christopher Meredith (Seren 2005)

Melog is a novel with a rich cast of characters, but the only two who really matter are Melog himself, an avatar of that perennial literary type, the Mysterious Stranger Who Changes Lives, and "Dr" Jones, the hapless protagonist whose life is changed. Dr Jones is a failed academic on the dole, devoting his middle years to somewhat nebulous study of the vast 19th-century tome, The Welsh Encyclopedia. At least, however, this is a real book, whereas the one for which Melog spends most of the novel searching, The Imalic, may well exist only in his imagination, as may several other things like his country and his history.

Melog is a young man, emaciated, with striking blue eyes and unusually white skin and hair, whom Dr Jones first sees theatening to throw himself off a high building. He's thus in an accidentally rather angelic pose (he is also stark naked) and Dr Jones' first impression, indeed, is that Melog is extra-terrestrial. True, the first request an angel makes is not usually to be taken to the nearest chip shop, nor are they generally portrayed as habitual liars, thieves and fantasists.
cut for length )
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
(a concept possibly more familiar in fan fiction than in litfic.) You know what I mean, that way a writer can casually drop a shared cultural reference which not only conveys in one or two words a huge cargo of meaning and information to his/her readers, but does it more powerfully than by any other method, both because of the weight of emotion and memory it already carries and because the reader has pretty much arrived at the meaning independently rather than being led there. It's extremely common in fan fiction because that relies on shared cultural references, but one good litfic example is Francis Lauderdale Adams' poem "Hagar", where by giving this title to a poem about an outcast unmarried mother, he conveys to anyone acquainted with the book of Genesis that not only is the girl in this condition, the man who caused it was almost certainly some patriarch, some pillar of the community (think master and housemaid).

It's harder to do in litfic these days, precisely because you can't rely on readers having heard of Abraham, Circe or various other mythological/historical personages whose names and stories were once common currency. And as soon as you have to add footnotes, much of the effect is gone. Nonetheless, one of my favourite poems is an 8-liner from 9th-century China which takes this technique to such extremes that when A C Graham translated it in his Poems of the Late T'ang (Penguin 1965) he had to paraphrase it for Western readers. Obviously these references wouldn't have been anything like as arcane to a T'ang Chinese reader as they are to us, and one can only guess at the way the meaning would have insinuated itself, trailing all the emotions and associations he's haunted it with. In the vague hope of re-creating something of that effect, the background info first:

The lovely and dissolute Queen of Wei once gave audience to Confucius behind a brocade curtain.
Prince O, out in a boat with his lover, piled embroidered quilts above her for warmth.
In the dance Drooping Hands, girls wear jade waist-pendants; in the dance Snapping Waists, they wear saffron skirts.
Shih Chung cooked a banquet over the flames of massed candles.
Hsun Yu exuded a natural perfume which lingered where he had been.
The poet Chiang Yen dreamed that a poet's ghost visited him to take back his brush of many colours; when he woke, he found he had lost his ability to write.
A goddess slept with King Huai in a dream; when she left he asked her name and she said "At dawn, I am the clouds of morning; at sunset the driving rain."

and here's the poem )
I never tried this on students, because some were ready enough to cry "elitist" if any poet used a reference they hadn't come across. But even without being able to experience it as a T'ang Chinese would have done, I still find its technique utterly enchanting. What interests me is that I can't think of any Western work, offhand, that uses this technique in the same intense, concentrated way as this one (unless indeed it would be certain fan fiction stories). I suppose Eliot is the obvious candidate, yet no poem of his works quite the way this does for me. It surely could be done, though, even with the decayed state of our cultural currency, and it'd be interesting to try.

EDIT: I've just realised I was 16 when I first read this in 1966 (the book was a birthday present from my best friend at school, thanks, Anna Cortens and where are you now?) and it totally changed my perception of what poems could be and do.
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