Archive for March, 2008

April

This month’s box of delights:

Jean Sprackland, Tilt (Jonathan Cape, 2007, winner of the 2007 Costa Poetry Award)
Ian Duhig, The Lammas Hireling (Picador, 2003)
Tobias Hill, Midnight in the City of Clocks (Salt Publishing, 2007; my edition Carcanet, 2004)
Roger McGough, The State of Poetry (Penguin, 2005)
Seamus Heaney, Electric Light (Faber and Faber, 2001)

twelve: R.S. Thomas, The Stones of the Field

I thought that some poetry by R.S. Thomas, the rather bleak Welsh poet-priest, would be good for the week after Easter; so I started with The Stones of the Field, his first published collection. I read it in a fantastically good-value collection of his poems up to 1990, which was published to celebrate the poet’s eightieth birthday (and which my father gave me – thanks, Dad). Despite its impressive size it’s a little sparse, with no introduction, barely any biographical information and no differentiation between the staggering twenty-two collections it contains other than on the contents page (i.e. there’s no indication that one collection has finished and another begun). I think more recent editions have an introduction by Andrew Motion. But that’s all a rather irrelevant aside, given that I was reading just the first collection. One last, but worst, complaint: the typeface used makes it very difficult to tell the difference between commas and full stops, which is exacerbated by the fact that Thomas, in his early work, begins his lines with capital letters. It seems a shame that a collected works of such an important poet can have been so poorly served by its publisher.

I really got on with R.S. Thomas, which I thought I would, being a little familiar already with some of his explicitly religious work (‘The Kingdom’, ‘The Coming’, ‘Via Negativa’, ‘The Belfry’), and with his themes of wrestling with God and doubt. The Stones of the Field felt like an invitation to stop and look at things, especially people, and especially people that one (the reader is sometimes directly addressed or questioned) might dismiss as being different, other, not perhaps very useful. ‘Man and tree’ opens with the command ‘Study this man’; ‘Affinity’ with ‘Consider this man’; ‘The Mistress’ with ‘See how earth claims him as he passes by’. Each of these poems – and many others in the collection – creates a portrait of a peasant, or a labourer, or a farmer, and invites you to take an unsentimental look at a man of the earth, while reminding you that ‘his name is also written in the Book of Life’, that

He also is human, and the same small star,
That lights you homeward, has inflamed his mind
With the old hunger, born of his kind. (‘Affinity’)

Once again it’s the combination of a certain toughness with real lyrical beauty – or perhaps harshness expressed through the beauty of words – that really drew me in; lines such as

Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud. (‘A Peasant’)

reflect the spareness, the sparseness of the setting; and yet penning sheep ‘in a gap of cloud’ manages to both express this sense of a tough life within narrow confines and also suggest something transcendent, magnificent.

Another interesting aspect of this collection was the number of strong end-rhymes, very close together; and yet none of it sounded trite, as heavily rhyming poetry often does.

It was a very short collection, and the overall effect was a series of miniatures, all painted in exquisite detail, all suggesting something beyond themselves while at the same time remaining absolutely rooted in a sense of place. Favourites: ‘A Labourer’, ‘A Peasant’, ‘Affinity’ and, appropriately, ‘Spring Equinox’:-

Do not say, referring to the sun,
‘Its journey northward has begun.’
As though it were a bird, annually migrating,
That now returns to build in the rich trees
Its nest of golden grass. Do not belie
Its lusty health with words such as imply
A pallid invalid recuperating.
The age demands the facts, therefore be brief –
Others will sense the simile – and say:
‘We are turning towards the sun’s indifferent ray.’

The Stones of the Field, R.S. Thomas (1946, from the Collected Poems 1945-1990, Phoenix, 1993)

eleven: John F. Deane, Manhandling the Deity

I think this will have to be a very brief, pitiful account of last week’s poetry, given that it’s Tuesday and I’ve only just finished reading it (for shame). I loved it, but it was tough, and again I’m faced with my own incompetence in terms of writing in any kind of meaningful way about a week’s worth of poetry.

I specifically chose Manhandling the Deity for last week, which was, of course, Holy Week. I’d read the three ‘Officium’ poems (‘Spare me Lord for my days blow like smoke. / What is man that you should magnify him; / why do you tender towards him your heart of love?’) and thought that the grappling with religious themes, along with the dark, melancholy tone of much of the collection, would make good seasonal reading. It was; it also fed my own writing, though I have a long way to go before I get anywhere near the kind of weightiness coupled with emotional restraint that Deane masters. ‘The Apotheosis of Desire’, in particular, is perfect Holy Week reading, as was ‘Knock’ –

the perfect pilgrimage is a circling
or better yet a wilful stomping in place,
or best of all, eyes closed, attending, and standing still.

A lot of this collection moved me deeply, and in the midst of a tiring and difficult week it was real solace. I found it hard work – perhaps I need to read a lot more Irish poetry. A lot of it was just beyond me. Still, in a hard week, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

So many favourites! And so many favourite words (‘dreep’, ‘mistle’… lovely). Particularly towards the end; it was almost a bit too much. I had to stop and pause between each poem. But here’s the list: ‘Old Red House’, the three ‘Officium’ poems, ‘Knock’, ‘Seafarer’, ‘On Firm Ground’, ‘For the Record’, ‘Fantasy in White’, ‘Runt Bird’, ‘Scandal’, ‘Recessional’ and ‘Canticle’.

Perhaps what I’ve loved most about this collection is how it speaks to me of the already and the not yet – the tension of the kingdom of God having broken into our world, but not yet come fully; the deep down goodness of things set against the darkness and brokenness of life. Faced with this, the poet’s encouragement (in ‘The Wild Meadow’) is to ‘Attempt the ordering of rhyme. // Attend, be guardian. Love, and offer praise.’

And, impossible as it is to pull out just one favourite, another poem about finding the way home, ‘From a Far Country’:-

Space, this sunbright autumn day
between rains; a beech hedgerow
ochre-gold and amber and tender-green,
stands classical in its fetchedness; the holly

rises to a clear sky, its clutch of berries
still and redolent; moments you touch
the equitable pulsing of the earth; mostly
our world is a high stone-studded door

and there is no way through; but, through,
God is at home in his and our suffering
and it is we who dawdle, language-lost,
in a far country we call our own;

He is beyond horizons and beyond beyond,
unviable, impossible, but still we stand
on a sunbright autumn day and breathe
with satisfaction the green word: home.

Manhandling the Deity, John F. Deane (Carcanet, 2003)

ten: Paul Farley, The Ice Age

Well, I seem to have lost my poetry blogging touch, so it’s a double whammy tonight as I catch up with what I’ve been reading for the last two weeks. In my defence, I’ve been away the last two weekends, and hastily trying to write my own first commission, a three-sonnet sequence…

So Paul Farley. Another thank you to my friend Katharine for this collection. I loved it; it’s up there with Gillian Allnutt for me, in terms of what I’ve read so far this year, although it was Lynne Wycherley that he reminded me of, a little (even before I’d got to ‘Surtsey’, a poem about the volcanic island that Wycherley also writes about in her ‘Fire Child’).

Farley won the 2002 Whitbread Poetry Prize (now the Costa Book Awards) for The Ice Age, and it’s easy to see why. On a very personal level I liked all the references to Liverpool (where I spent some of my childhood), and related to that, the sort of melancholy wistfulness he encapsulates in his poetry, the loneliness/happiness of being a child. ‘Dead Fish’ and ‘Peter and the Dyke’ are two poems that explicitly deal with childhood, both of which I fell in love with –

Dead fish in uniform, oblivious
to dinner-ladies’ sticks poking their ribs,
still wash up on my mind’s floor when it rains
in school hours. Blink if you remember this.

I also enjoyed teasing out the connections in ’11th February 1963′; I suspected, without really knowing, that the poem might be to do with Sylvia Plath, but it took me a few reads to get there, and then a little internet sleuthing to arrive at the Beatles. Something else worth looking up (why don’t I do this more often?) was the compelling fact that during the Second World War, the National Gallery’s connections were squirrelled away in a mine in Wales (‘The National in Exile’).

As well as those already mentioned, favourites include ‘Cod’, ‘The Ages’, ‘Diary Moon’ and ‘Thorns’; click here to listen to the poet reading ‘A Tunnel’. Best of all I love this beautiful poem, ‘For the House Sparrow, in Decline’ –

Your numbers fall and it’s tempting to think
you’re deserting our suburbs and estates
like your cousins at Pompeii; that when you return
to bathe in dust and build your nests again
in a roofless world where no one hears your cheeps,
only a starling’s modem mimicry
will remind you of how you once supplied
the incidental music of our lives.

In an article/interview on winning the Whitbread, Farley says this, which I like:

Poetry is hardwired into our psyche […] It goes right back to the oral tradition, it’s closer to song and the human voice than prose. And people will always turn to it, reading or writing, in difficult circumstances, as we’ve seen in recent times.

The Ice Age, Paul Farley (Picador, 2002)

nine: Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems

Another apology for another late post. My excuse this time was being laid low all weekend (and yesterday and today) with illness. I need to start looking after myself a bit better, I think: 2008 so far seems to have been the year of sickness. Or perhaps someone’s been slipping me some goblin fruit…

I was pleased to be given Goblin Market and Other Poems for my birthday last month (thanks, Caroline), so as to slot in some non-contemporary poetry and slake my thirst for something a little older.

I studied Christina Rossetti (and specifically Goblin Market, her longest and most-discussed poem) at university – with Tom Paulin no less – but I have to confess, regretfully, that I can remember nothing about our tutorial, other than the suggestive boldness of these lines:

White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood, –
Like a rock of blue-veined stone
Lashed by tides obstreperously, –
Like a beacon left alone
In a hoary roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire, –
Like a fruit-crowned orange-tree
White with blossoms honey-sweet
Sore beset by wasp and bee, –
Like a royal virgin town
Topped with gilded dome and spire
Close beleaguered by a fleet
Mad to tug her standard down.

It’s a fascinating poem, open to all sorts of readings, particularly protofeminist ones; it’s also a complete joy to read, with its luscious fruit and rolling rhymes (not to mention the juiciness of the sexual undercurrents, and the rather sweet homoeroticism of the sisters).

Of course Rossetti is also well known for her religious poetry (which would include the poem/carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’), which I found deeply affecting, particularly ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’ and ‘A better resurrection’. Weirdly I’d always thought of Rossetti’s religious writing as a bit twee, but (for the most part) it’s pretty tough stuff – as would suit her evangelical nature I suppose – is it just the rhyme-schemes that fooled me?

I will accept thy will to do and be,
Thy hatred and intolerance of sin,
Thy will at least to love, that burns within
And thirsteth after Me:
So will I render fruitful, blessing still,
The germs and small beginnings in thy heart,
Because thy will cleaves to the better part.—
Alas, I cannot will. (from ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’)

Aside from the frankly brilliant ‘Goblin Market’, then, and the two mentioned just above, favourites were ‘A triad’, ‘Remember’, ‘An apple gathering’, ‘Another spring’, ‘Up-hill’, ‘The bourne’, and, because the sun dared to shine today amidst all the rain we’ve been having, ‘Spring’:

Frost-locked all the winter,
Seeds, and roots, and stones of fruits,
What shall make their sap ascend
That they may put forth shoots?
Tips of tender green,
Leaf, or blade, or sheath;
Telling of the hidden life
That breaks forth underneath,
Life nursed in its grave by Death.

Blows the thaw-wind pleasantly,
Drips the soaking rain,
By fits looks down the waking sun:
Young grass springs on the plain;
Young leaves clothe early hedgerow trees;
Seeds, and roots, and stones of fruits,
Swollen with sap put forth their shoots;
Curled-headed ferns sprout in the lane;
Birds sing and pair again.

There is no time like Spring,
When life’s alive in everything,
Before new nestlings sing,
Before cleft swallows speed their journey back
Along the trackless track—
God guides their wing,
He spreads their table that they nothing lack,—
Before the daisy grows a common flower,
Before the sun has power
To scorch the world up in his noontide hour.

There is no time like Spring,
Like Spring that passes by:
There is no life like Spring-life born to die,—
Piercing the sod,
Clothing the uncouth clod,
Hatched in the nest,
Fledged on the windy bough,
Strong on the wing;
There is no time like Spring that passes by,
Now newly born, and now
Hastening to die.

Illustration for the cover of Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) by the poet’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (Dover Publications, 1994)

March

Although I decided I’d like to read both my Saul Williams books back to back last month, to get me primed for his performance at the London Word Festival, it only just occurred to me that in doing so I’ve invalidated the title of this blog. Oh well. Perhaps I can slip in a bonus book one week I’m on holiday or something.

As well as the poetry primers I picked up last week, I’ve got these collections to look forward to this month:
Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (Dover Publications, 1994)
Paul Farley, The Ice Age (Picador, 2002)
John F. Deane, Manhandling the Deity (Carcanet, 2003)
R.S. Thomas, The Stones of the Field (1946, from the Collected Poems, Phoenix, 1993)

eight and a half: Saul Williams, , said the shotgun to the head

So I had the huge pleasure of seeing Saul Williams perform at the London Word Festival last week. It turned out it was a spoken word event rather than a performance of the new album, but to be honest I didn’t mind. He’s an amazingly charismatic performer, with real presence on the stage and an almost magical ability to connect with the audience – he had the whole place pretty much captivated (and very excited). And I was both surprised and pleased to find that he had a silliness and playfulness that balanced/matched his poetic intensity.
Part of the pleasure of hearing him perform was that so much of it was familiar – from Slam, his albums and the books of his I’ve been reading; he ended his performance with the first section of last week’s collection, , said the shotgun to the head – which was really special, given that I’d just read it that morning.
, said the shotgun to the head is basically one long book-length poem, about a kiss that changes the poet’s life (‘here is the account of a man so ravished by a kiss that it distorts his highest and lowest frequencies of understanding’). Divided into ten ‘chapters’, it’s laid out on the page in different fonts, weights and settings, which added to the playful nature of the book (and made it fun to read).
As with She there was a lot in it that went way over my head, but the lyrical inventiveness of Williams’ writing made it a pleasure to read nonetheless (and I was reassured by his own confession, on Monday, that he’s not entirely sure what everything he writes actually means). But thinking about understanding poetry got me thinking about the fact that modern poetry would be more accessible if the reader has an awareness of what’s gone before – that is, twentieth-century poetry – of which I personally am largely ignorant, beyond Yeats and Eliot. Saul Williams’ poetry is clearly hugely influenced by beat poetry (he quotes Bob Kaufman in , said the shotgun…), and again, I’ve read nothing of any of the beat poets.
So I went looking for an introduction to twentieth-century poetry, to fill in a few of the gaps for me. I didn’t really find the book I was looking for, but I did get hold of Ruth Padel’s 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem (nicely synchronous I thought), which looked like it was worth buying for the excellent introduction (the ‘rules’ of modern poetry and the renaissance of British poetry) alone. I haven’t finished it yet but she makes the excellent point that 1: not only is the ‘difficulty’ part of the pleasure of reading poetry – ‘the sound or music of the poem seduces the ear and lures in our imagination to make us work at understanding the meaning’ – but also 2: we are used to difficulty in other art forms – films, comedy and so on – it’s just that most people haven’t kept pace with the way poetry evolved over the twentieth century. Just as modern poetry can be baffling if you haven’t read anything beyond the Romantics, so would modern cinema – its plots, editing and so on – be utterly confusing if you had stopped watching cinema when it was still silent and black and white. (Of course the bulk of the book is a collection of fifty-two columns on individual poems that were initially published in the Independent, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into them, too; maybe, too, they’ll help me up my game a little in terms of writing this blog.)
I also picked up a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry, which provides contexts and an overview of the most important/influential modern British poets. I guess it won’t help me with the beat poets, but it looks good.
So thanks for the prompt to go a little deeper, Saul. Again, due to there being no separate poems as such I can’t pull out any favourites. But here’s the opening, with the Bob Kaufman quote:

CITIZENS,

children of the night,

bearers of the day torch:

scorched and burned.

BURN NOT.

the dam is broken.

the curse is fled.

once muddied and still,

the river runs

RED!

“ALL

those ships that never sailed

the ones with their seacocks open

that were scuttled in their stalls

TODAY

i bring them back

HUGE AND INTRANSITORY

and let them sail

FOREVER!”

And here’s a fantastic picture of the man in action:

Saul Williams

(photo © Liberation Frequency, from this set on flickr)

, said the shotgun to the head, Saul Williams (MTV Books, 2003)