Archive for July, 2008

twenty-six: Ted Hughes, Crow

When I was at primary school I won second prize in a citywide poetry competition. I was just as puzzled then as I am now by the question of what makes poetry work, and I remember being utterly perplexed as to why my poem might have done well (our whole class had had our poems entered).

Anyway, the prize was book tokens, and my teacher, Mrs McConlough, took me to a bookshop to help me choose a couple of books of poetry. I don’t actually remember having much say in the matter, but I came home with – strange choice for a ten-year-old? – two books of poetry by Ted Hughes. Admittedly it was two of his ‘nature’ collections – Flowers and Insects and River – but I remember both confusing me heartily.

So Dart was the first contemporary poetry I bought after that, I’m pretty sure, and last week’s Crow was the first Ted Hughes I’ve read since then, apart from the odd anthologised piece here and there, and a bit of Birthday Letters. It’s probably his best-known collection, and it’s pretty full on.

The poems were written between 1967 and 1973 (the edition I have includes some pieces not in the original 1970 edition), and, much more than any of the other collections I’ve read so far this year, it’s very much a sequence of poems. But it wasn’t until I read Kevin Hart in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry that I found out that the subtitle, ‘From the Life and Songs of the Crow’, is a clue to the fact that the poems are apparently part of a much bigger whole – an ‘epic folk tale’, written in prose narrative, punctuated with lyrics. Hughes never wrote this narrative, so all we have, along with the poems themselves, is what Hughes said and wrote about it. In his chapter in The Cambridge Companion Hart summarises the larger story as sketched out (presumably) by Hughes.

It certainly adds a fascinating edge to the collection, although I don’t think you need to know that the poems were written to be part of something larger, or know the story, to appreciate it. The character Crow certainly asserts himself as a trickster in a skewed world, without the ‘quest-romance’ that the narrative would have provided. Read as is, it’s satire, grim comedy – contesting creation myths and giving a particularly dark take on relations between men and women.

Even more interestingly, Hughes himself wrote that he wanted to write ‘songs with no music whatsoever, in a super-simple and super-ugly language’. He certainly succeeded. Hart writes that ‘the poems efface themselves as poems in order to give the impression of anonymous legend or myth’, and that ‘the poetic yield is certainly thin’. So, one of the best-known collections of poetry but a former poet laureate, and arguably one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, and we have to confess that it’s unpoetic… it seems rather apt, given Crow’s character and the tone of the book.

It is a very dark, very ugly, disturbingly comic collection. I’m sure I’ve read a few of the poems before, though I’m not sure when or where. Favourites, if you could call them that, included ‘Examination at the Womb-door’, ‘A Childish Prank’, ‘A Grin’, ‘Conjuring in Heaven’, ‘Dawn’s Rose’, ‘The Smile’ and ‘Crow on the Beach’, which made me wonder if it was Hughes’ response to Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’

Hearing shingle explode, seeing it skip,
Crow sucked his tongue.
Seeing sea-grey mash a mountain of itself
Crow tightened his goose-pimples.
Feeling spray from the sea’s root nothinged on his crest
Crow’s toes gripped the wet pebbles.
When the smell of the whale’s den, the gulfing of the crab’s last prayer,
Gimletted in his nostril
He grasped he was on earth.
He knew he grasped
Something fleeting
Of the sea’s ogreish outcry and convulsion.
He knew he was the wrong listener unwanted
To understand or help –

His utmost gaping of his brain in his tiny skull
Was just enough to wonder, about the sea,

What could be hurting so much?

Crow, Ted Hughes (Faber and Faber, 1970, 2001)

I forgot to mention this when I first wrote this, but I think it’s worth noting: pretty poor from Faber that there’s a typo on the inside front flap. Tut.

twenty-five: Nancy Mattson, Writing With Mercury

Back in June I went to a poetry reading (where I heard Mimi Khalvati and Alice Major) run by two poets, Nancy Mattson and Mike Bartholomew-Biggs. This week I read Nancy’s latest collection, Writing With Mercury, published in 2006 by Flambard Press.

Nancy comes from a background that intrigues me: she’s Canadian, third-generation (I think) Finnish, and there’s something about both countries that compels me: I think it’s a vague idea of ‘the north’, although I’ve only visited Canada, and only once. Although the collection is very much an evocation of life in modern London, it’s suffused with a sense of the width and the purity of both landscapes.

Nancy writes astutely and humorously about the differences and dislocations of being an expat in a new country, with roots in yet another, and Writing With Mercury feels very rooted to a sense of place – London – though always hinting at other places. Finnish words are threaded throughout the collection in intriguing, riddling ways. Birds feature, become punning ways of understanding, remembering: in ‘Bitternness’, memory ‘is bittern’; in ‘Grouseness’, it becomes ‘grouse wing’.

What I liked most about Writing With Mercury was the sense you got of the poet’s own history and voice. There are lots of poems that deal with family history, dialogues between fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters; and there are lots of fantastically celebratory poems, both of freedom and of people. This personal remembering takes place within a larger context of a wider history, with ‘Fourteen Women’ and ‘Song for Canadian Dads’.

Favourites were ‘Winters of Authenticity’, ‘Old Baby Tales’, ‘When in Finland’, ‘Stones of New Finland’, ‘Inheritance’, Northern Way’, ‘Sod Hut’, ‘Miracle on Upper Street’, ‘Blackberries, Lumb Bank’, ‘”Tosi” is a Word for Truth’, and ‘Maze’, which is just beautiful – London become page:

What I miss is gravel
crunching under foot or wheel,
wide sky above
the road straight into horizon.

I want to walk the crease
of a prairie book, lines of wheat
as even type, all one size
the word gold over and over.

London’s a fused maze
of alphabets: wherever you walk,
each road, wherever it turns,
is utterly paved or cobbled crookedly.

A crazed typesetter has been at work
every night for centuries, his head
swirling with shadows thrown
on crumbling walls by candle-flame.

He has set every line diabolical
in a different font and size,
hot lead in higgledy-piggledy frames
and gutters overflowing with errata.

Nancy Mattson, Writing With Mercury (Flambard Press, 2006)

twenty-four: Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings

I’ve always been slightly wary of Philip Larkin. He’s recently been voted the UK’s best-loved poet, and John Betjeman called him ‘tenderly observant’, but he’s always made me feel a bit squeamish: the poems I’ve read of his are either sneering in tone, or else unremittingly depressing.

But, well, he’s Philip Larkin, and I enjoyed The Whitsun Weddings. I was surprised by the opening poem, ‘Here’, which presented a much broader and more beautiful picture than I was expecting from Larkin, who everyone remembers, of course, for ‘Toads’ and ‘This be the verse’ – diverting when you’re a disaffected teenager, no longer satisfying a few years later – to my mind, anyway.

Although much of The Whitsun Weddings I did find quite depressing, and Larkin still seems quite old-fashioned to me, I did catch a glimpse of the tenderness and the poignancy that people write about. My favourites were ‘Here’, ‘Love Songs in Age’, ‘Broadcast’, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘Days’. Here’s ‘Home is so Sad’:

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin (Faber and Faber, 1964, 2001)

twenty-three: Mimi Khalvati, The Meanest Flower

A couple of weeks ago I went to the first poetry reading I’ve been to in a while – Poetry ‘in’ the crypt at St Mary’s Church, Islington, where the two featured poets were Mimi Khalvati and Canadian poet Alice Major. It was a fantastic evening: both poets really engaged with the audience, I think, and made me want to read their latest collections (as well as write, too. I scribbled a few things down on the way home).

So: Mimi Khalvati’s latest collection, The Meanest Flower. It opens with a beautiful twelve-sonnet sequence called ‘The Meanest Flower’ that I really enjoyed – an extended meditation on childhood. I love these lines, from the first sonnet:

… Childhood,
swing your little bandy legs, take no notice

of worldliness. Courtiers mass around you –
old women all. This is your fat kingdom.

Khalvati is a master of very elegant – and zestful, too – form. As well as the many beautiful sonnets, she writes a lot in the Persian form of the ghazal (my favourite was ‘Ghazal: after Hafez’), which I hadn’t come across before, and the truly stunning sestina (I think? I’ll have to check) ‘On Lines from Paul Guaguin’.

It’s great to read poems when you’ve recently heard them read by the poet. My favourites were the opening sonnet sequence, ‘The Middle Tone’, ‘Scorpion-grass’, ‘Soapstone Creek’, ‘Motherhood’, ‘The Robin and the Eggcup’ and ‘Sundays’, which was heartbreakingly tender. Although it’s not very seasonal, here’s ‘Soapstone Retreat’:

Late summer sun is falling through the forest.
As if the forest knew it would soon turn yellow,
it shifts a little, stars in the creek below
signalling to the sunlight on its crest.

In the centre it is still. Still late August.
On the periphery, branches, leaves, follow
the scent of autumn. Like a woodfire slow
to get going after the stove’s long rest,

the forest stirs with ambivalent longings
for movement, stillness, as if its life were elsewhere
but its heart were here. And as cold nights near,

those last sweet sips at the cusp of the year
hang suspended in the balance as the flask swings,
hummingbird feeds and the sun sinks, stair by stair.

The Meanest Flower, Mimi Khalvati (Carcanet, 2007, Poetry Book Society choice)


Well, last month saw me finish all the collections of poetry I already had on my shelves (not including selections and anthologies) – which meant this month I could go out and stock up. Joy! I chose:

Mimi Khalvati, The Meanest Flower (Carcanet, 2007, Poetry Book Society choice)
Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber and Faber, 1964, 2001)
Nancy Mattson, Writing With Mercury (Flambard Press, 2006)
Ted Hughes, Crow (Faber and Faber, 1970, 2001)
Kathleen Jamie, The Tree House (Picador, 2004)

twenty-two: Alice Oswald, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile

As I mentioned briefly last week, it is Alice Oswald who I credit with really getting me into poetry as an adult – both reading contemporary poetry, and also writing myself. I remember reading a piece about her and her book-length poem, Dart, some time in the summer of 2002, in The Times (sadly I can’t find the article online). I was so captured by what I read that I went straight out and bought Dart (published that year) – the first time I’d bought contemporary poetry since I was at primary school, I think.

Dart, which went on to win the 2002 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, totally took me aback. It’s one long book-length poem that follows the river Dart from its source to the sea; in the poet’s own words, it’s a ‘rivermap of voices’, a ‘songline’ of all the people who work on and play around the river. It’s pastoral and muscular, elusive and absolutely poetic… and totally captivating. I would recommend it to anyone, especially people who don’t think they like poetry. It’s quite extraordinary. I remember copying bits of it out in letters to friends.

one step-width water

of linked stones

trills in the stones

glides in the trills

eels in the glides

in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

Having not been all that interested in poetry since I was a teenager, it suddenly seemed essential, and I slowly began to find my way towards enjoying it again. The following spring/summer I began trying to write my own poems (something I’d not done since I was nineteen), and the summer after that, feeling uncreative and frustrated, I signed up for an evening poetry course/class, which was a workshop for both reading and writing (I’d hugely recommend the course and the tutor). And it was this course that really woke something up in me. But I trace it all – my interest in both writing and reading poetry – back to Alice Oswald, and that chance encounter through the pages of a newspaper, with Dart. I hope I get the chance to thank her in person one day.

Apologies for being long and rambly, but I thought in a post about Alice Oswald it would be good to explain how she started everything off for me. Last week I read her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, which I’d been trying to get hold of for a while a few years ago before eventually giving up; I think it was elusive for a while because it was initially published by OUP in 1996, which axed its poetry list in 1998. Happily, it’s since been republished by Faber. The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile won a Forward Poetry Prize (for best first collection) and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1997.

One of the things that fascinated me about Oswald, and which is reflected in this collection, is the poet’s love of gardening and the natural world. The interview I read in The Timesall those years ago mentioned that she was a gardener on the Dartington estate in Devon (her entry on says she still is, but I think I’ve read elsewhere that she’s no longer a full-time gardener, and no longer lives in Devon). I remember thinking what an idyllic existence this sounded. Not that I’m a gardener myself; but I love writers who can write about the natural world, about the power and pull of outside, in a non-sentimental, non-Romantic way.

There are lots of gardening/outdoors poems in The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, and they were some of my favourites: ‘Pruning in Frost’, ‘The Glass House’, ‘A Wood Coming into Leaf’, ‘April’, ‘The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile’, ‘Gardeners at the Resurrection’ (which reminded me of Stanley Spencer’s wonderful painting ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’)… And then lots of poems about love and the difficult beauty of relationships, my favourites being ‘Sleep’, ‘Wedding’ and ‘The Melon Grower’. There’s also one long poem called ‘The Three Wise Men of gotham who Set out to Catch the Moon in a Net’, which is funny and beautiful and altogether fantastic (as well as hinting towards Dart, I wonder?)

It’s very, very hard to choose a favourite: there are so many. But if favourite = the one that I would most like to memorise, then it’s probably this, ‘Prayer’ –

Here I work in the hollow of God’s hand
with Time bent round into my reach. I touch
the circle of the earth, I throw and catch
the sun and moon by turns into my mind.
I sense the length of it from end to end,
I sway me gently in my flesh and each
point of the process changes as I watch:

the flowers come, the rain follows the wind.

And all I ask is this – and you can see

how far the soul, when it goes under flesh,

is not a soul, is small and creaturish –

that every day the sun comes silently

to set my hands to work and that the moon

turns and returns to meet me when it’s done.

There’s a fascinating interview with the poet here. Jeanette Winterson says of her that ‘Alice Oswald is the real thing – a true poet of great power and capacity. She writes about the natural world and our relationship to it, reminding us that there is such a thing as a world we didn’t make, and one that we badly need, for sanity’s sake.’ And then there’s this brilliant piece on poetry by Alice Oswald herself, which has lots of fascinating detail about the way she sees poetry (‘danced language’) and how she writes it.

The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, Alice Oswald (Faber and Faber, 2007)