Visiting Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2015

Piles and piles of books: literally covering the walls of the room. Shelves labelled children’s books, philosophy, modern novels, poetry, drama, politics – my eye catches a tottering stack of those old Ladybird books I used to love to read as a kid: evocative pictures of Stone Age man bringing down a mammoth, of happy passengers on modes of public transport, of prisoners from the American Civil War. Well OK – the back room of an Oxfam book store may not seem the most pre-possessing place to listen to poetry, but there are worse, such as scrubbed-sterile galleries, cramped cellar-spaces, overly reverent thee-ay-ters, noisy pub rooms. This place – it’s in Cheltenham town centre, at the Poetry Festival – has the live feel of untidy contingency, of work in progress, a vibrant culture that is literate, ideas and books readily swopped to and fro. That feels right. Piles and piles of books in transit from one hand to another.

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Olivia Byard and MC at Cheltenham Poetry Festival

I was there on Saturday afternoon reading with Olivia Byard, both presenting work from the great Worple Press. Following our own performances there was the launch of The Other Side of Sleep, an anthology devoted to longer narrative poems. Published by Arachne Press, it’s intended as a welcome antidote to all those competitions that stipulate the standardised ‘no more than 40 lines’. Cherry Potts, the editor, introduced several voices. Jeremy Dixon read an entertaining piece about serving customers in Boots which was funny and (appropriately) repetitive – “Would you like a bag with that? Please enter your PIN”. Apart from writing his own work Jeremy produces intriguing, limited edition books at Hazard Press. Kate Foley was disappointingly unable to read her long poem (a double disappointment to me as she had also been unable to attend the recent Torriano Poetry Competition award evening I hosted in London (read my blog about the evening here).

Other side

Angela France read a fascinating poem about a story teller’s life that she cast in the form of a crown of sonnets, or corona. Wikipedia: a sequence of 14 sonnets concerned with a single theme, each linked to the preceding and succeeding sonnets by repeating the final line of the preceding sonnet as its first line. The first line of the first sonnet is repeated as the final line of the final sonnet, thereby bringing the sequence to a close. She read beautifully and with great pacing and conviction. Math Jones (a self-declared pagan) read from ‘Grithspell’, full of declarative lines and much spitting in which gods (rather belligerently to my ear) declared an end to war. In contrast, Bernie Howley (a relative new-comer to poetry) read ‘I Have No Feet’, a poem about leaping off a cliff into an Italian pool, while just behind her stood a banner with Emily Dickinson’s declaration about feeling the top of your head coming off.

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After a coffee break mid-afternoon, an event called ‘The Minotaur is Not a Monster’ featured Myra Schneider (from whose recent Enitharmon book, The Door to Colour, the event title was taken) reading alongside Anna Saunders, poet, Executive Director and Founder of the Cheltenham Poetry Festival. Myra’s work (an earlier book reviewed here) is firmly based in the real world yet capable of addressing the yearnings and concerns of the spirit, as revealed in her reading of ‘Oranges’. In Crete, on one of those coach trips round the island, groups ushered in and out of suitable sites of interest – on this occasion a café and orange grove. As a leaving gift: “a giant orange with bumps, dents, niggles / and an off-beat attempt at rotundity, / a fruit unabashed by its rusticity”. Schneider’s work shares that same unabashed quality as the poem’s narrator later stuffs her mouth with huge orange segments, juice spurting all over the sheets. But this is no sensual liberation (or not that only). The taste is as much evocative of hard work, ritual, friendship, “those rare moments / when silence suspends the ordinary / and the unattainable seems within reach”.

Saunders

One of Saunders’ poems, ‘Silks’, is rather more steamy in its sensuality and shape-shifting. A female eye; the male as snail, belly down, as “if the earth were using him / for an accordion”. A little stroking makes him “rise”, morph into butterfly, pupa, silk-worm, perhaps back to snail, its trail leaving behind his “pearlescent signature scribbled / from wall to door”. Saunder’s poems are fast-moving, flash-edited, pronouns and main verbs often jettisoned as scurf. She was a bit awkwardly introduced as a poet who had greatly improved – rightly Bernard O’Donaghue has admired her original and fresh technique – and no-one listening on Saturday would gainsay that.

Byard

Earlier in the afternoon, Olivia Byard had read from her new and selected poems from Worple Press, The Wilding Eye: here. The title poem boldly trashes thousands of “years of husbandry” (the latter being the right word on several counts) in deciding to allow a manicured lawn to go wild. Within a couple of weeks it bears a “crown” of daisies, a “spurt of purple bloom”. One of the barriers being dismantled here is language as the very word “lawn” is forgotten, enthusiasm ramping up to addiction with each “new fix – of the rough / tough leggy fallow”. This is a ‘zoom’ poem, rapidly propelled without a backward glance towards a new world, ending breathlessly, jaggedly, venturing personal and ecological liberties, “gulping breaths, of sweet riot / and tangle”. Exciting stuff – and appropriate too as Saturday also saw the launch of Dear World, the Festival anthology with a preface by Andrew Motion. It’s sponsored by the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England (Motion is their current President) and he argues, nodding to Wordsworth and Clare, that “big pictures are made of small details”, the ecological health of our world is reliant on the kind of observational attentiveness reflected in the writing of a poem: “use this book to inspire [. . .] to redouble our efforts to say why the countryside matters, and why it needs defending”.

Earlier, I had the pleasure of reading from my own Worple sequence, A Hatfield Mass, subtitled ‘voice and shape in an English landscape’: here.

Back to London later, exhausted . . .

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One of the Best Poets of the Present Moment in France

So here’s a poet well worth getting to know (if you don’t already). The new issue of Modern Poetry in Translation contains a new translation by Marilyn Hacker of the great contemporary French poet, Guy Goffette. Hacker has referred to Goffette as “one of the most unabashedly lyrical contemporary French poets, who claims Verlaine . . . as one of his literary godfathers”. He’s an admirer of Auden and his own work is not oppressively ‘literary’, not referential, not obscurely self-referential. He’s a poet somewhat to the ‘English’ taste (OK – you got me – to my taste), using quotidian words, everyday expressions, making them new, re-investing them with humour, connotation and emotion. Hacker has argued that “after a period in which much of French poetry eschewed the concrete, the narrative and the quotidian”, Goffette’s poems have recently found an enthusiastic readership. Yves Bonnefoy admires him as a writer who “has decided to remain faithful to his own personal life, in its humblest moments. He keeps things simple, he is marvellously able to capture the emotions and desires common to us all . . . without question one of the best poets of the present moment in France”.

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The new poems in MPT – a sequence of 6 sonnet-like pieces published in 2009 – make up an ‘Elegy for a Friend’, the poet Paul de Roux. The form used is a thirteen-liner, made up of three usually unrhymed quatrains and a last line which sometimes, though not always, reaches the classic 12 syllables. Since the early 1990s, this has become “Goffette’s ‘signature’ strophe” (Hacker again), whether used as part of a sequence or standing on its own. I reviewed Goffette’s last recent major appearance in English, Charlestown Blues (???), for Poetry London in 2007. I reproduce the review here and add comments on the new poems at the end.

The longer term coherence and success of a poet’s work is not – ought not – to be something willed. Like the oyster with its grain of sand, there is surely always something fortuitous about it. Marilyn Hacker’s fine translations from the French of Guy Goffette’s work suggest that, in this instance, Rimbaud’s declaration that “You never leave (“On ne part pas”) has proved a spectacularly productive starting point.  Rimbaud’s comment suggests restlessness and desire for the other, yet also the tragic recognition of human limits as well as the idea that imaginative travel is more real than any form of mere physical tourism. These are indeed the topics and tensions that weave through Charlestown Blues.

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Hacker’s introduction characterises Goffette in contrast to the Anglo-American preconception of contemporary French poets and not only due to his interest in form. She suggests we see modern French poetry as “abstract, more concerned with concepts than with human experience  . . . resolutely “difficult””. Goffette’s work, in contrast, is diffused with “humour, longing, tenderness, nostalgia and occasional cruelty” and, though Hacker over-states his likeness to James Wright and Seamus Heaney, the general thrust of her argument is right. Born in 1947, of the same generation as our Motion and Raine, Goffette grew up on the shifting French/Belgian border (travelling without moving?). He now lives in Paris but still tends to look to the provinces while the metropolis is more often “a place from which his speaker is perpetually ready to depart” (Hacker’s introduction).

The title sequence, using a decasyllabic dixain and written during a residence in Rimbaud’s Charleville, seems scatter-shot and observational but with a strong thread of erotic longing: “your drying / stockings and scanties of a nun at bay – / poisonous flowers for a lonely man” (‘Letter to the Unknown Woman across the Street, 1’). Sex is one form of ‘leaving’ and Goffette catches such longing vividly: “oh beautiful stranger, / that creature who’s so often on the move” ((‘Letter to the Unknown Woman across the Street, 2’). Goffette’s work certainly revels in such demotic pleasures and Rimbaud himself puts in an appearance shouting “Fuck off! to puttering poetry” (‘February ‘98’). Earlier he wrings “the neck of the azure, which always puts / too much honey on the tails of verse-worms” (‘Farewell, Chateaux’). In the context of French poetry, it is this combative stance that leads Goffette towards the more grounded – even sordid – presentations of life that Hacker argues make him attractive to readers of English and American poetry.

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Goffette’s natural reach approximates to the sonnet and these are frequently arranged in sequences, such as in ‘Waiting’. Largely from the point of view of a woman addressing her lover, these pieces suggest that it is the ultimate ‘leaving’ of death as well as desire that fuels his poetry. Here, eroticism is more explicitly a stay against death and time – “the judgment of this absence crushing me // like an insect on the pane” – though the final poem ventures a kind of romantic nostalgia, suggesting that even sex must fall short of human longing. The woman is made to envisage an island “where the surprise / of being lasts . . . the heart is still / in place, captain of the old ship”. This paradisal view is left to stand in stark contrast to the lovers’ reality, as they undress each other “amidst time’s peelings”.

So Goffette’s themes are the classical ones of love, time and death and though his diction is familiar enough with the contemporary, much of his imagery has a timelessness in its reference to journeys, rivers, trees, rooms, seashore, roads, stars. ‘Boarding the Streetcar: Variations’ responds to a photograph of New York in 1900 in which a woman climbs onto a streetcar watched intently by a male passenger and a (male) conductor. In a miracle of economy, the passenger’s viewpoint is sketched in and within six lines the moment of voyeuristic pleasure has come to represent “everything”:

the swift brightness of minnows

in a current, the taste of the first

fruit swiped from a market-stall, and how

the hazel switch whistled in the air

when it was about to strike a child’s

back

Yet when the passenger tries to articulate this moment he can manage “nothing” or the best he achieves are “words // like paper littering the grass after a fair / when shadows as they lengthen chill our hearts”. In contrast, the conductor’s view of the incident suggests its mix of beauty and danger, its very ordinariness, provides him with some memory which makes “the blood of things beat lengthily like a heart / in the shadow of dead rooms”.

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Hacker’s selection covers ten years from 1991 and concludes with a longer sequence published in 2001. ‘The Raising of Icarus’ is based on the same Breughel painting that inspired Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’. Constructed from sonnet-like pieces once more, Goffette does not dwell long on the painting itself and instead seems to be observing people in the Paris metro, “running // against each other, same face same / night, and each one was night for every other” (‘In the Depths of the Labyrinth’). Rimbaud’s phrase is again apposite; these commuters travel without arriving anywhere and yet “To embark and not return is what they wanted” (‘In the Depths of the Labyrinth’). Later, they turn on the Shepherd in the painting who – they enviously feel – leads an idyllic pastoral life, while they must be “winning gold . . . cheers . . . bread” (‘The Shepherd Reproached’). It may be that the Shepherd is an artist figure but his response is that his life is no different to the crowd, though the one thing he does know is that death and the final dissolution of things is what serves to “raise every object up from darkness” (‘The Shepherd Answers’).

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Guy Goffette

Death is, of course, the subject of the more recent sequence, ‘Elegy for a Friend’. It opens with memories of two friends in their youth, “When life was strong”, once again drawing on Rimbaud’s sense of restlessness, the youthful ease of travel, transformation, the passage of time unnoticed, yet (ominously) “it was already dancing there”, the shadow that “burns all shadows”. In the second section, temporal words become sand grains, become silence that eventually “takes up all the space and screams”. Yet, as the Shepherd figure in ‘The Raising of Icarus’ suggested, it is the presence of death that leads the poet to his creative “double question” about identity and time. If there is any regret, it is that this wisdom was not learned soon enough and, like stricken teenagers, the youthful poets sat too long in their “afflicted bedrooms”, or bickered unsympathetically, ignorant for too long of the real “desert of life”. Goffette’s elegy maintains a classical distance and relative impersonality with the sixth section using the first personal plural pronoun to sound more universal than intimate: “One day we must depart”. It’s a bleak ending full of thorns, scorched earth, what remains is “paltry”. There do remain the words on paper, “read and reread”, but their author is ambiguously described as a “blind man dancing in the fire”. Do we stress the blindness, our ultimate ignorance? Or the all-consuming fire? Or should it be the struggle to make art, the act of dancing?

This is challenging and wonderful contemporary poetry and – though the parallel text faces each page in Charlestown Blues – I seldom found myself checking the original which suggests that Hacker is doing a magnificent and valuable job of bringing Goffette’s work into English.

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Results Are In: How Do You Judge a Poem? (2)

One of my most visited blogs in recent months was the provocatively titled How Do You Judge a Poem?, sparked by my judging the Torriano Poetry Competition 2015. The results are now in the public sphere and on the evening of Sunday 12th April, at the Torriano Meeting House in Camden, north London, many of the winners in the Competition gathered to share their poems.

All proceeds go towards funding the future work of the Torriano Meeting House and this year as there were no plans for winning and highly placed poems to appear in print, I thought I might grace this blog with them. The authors whose poems are included below have kindly given permission for them to appear and I have also included my own brief comments – all this in continuing pursuit of the vexed question of what it is that makes a good poem.

At the beginning of the awards evening I alluded to the sad news of the recent death of Swedish poet and Nobel prize-winner, Tomas Transtromer. In reading his work again in the last week or so, I was struck by this passage from his 1970 poem ‘The Open Window’ (in Robin Fulton’s translation). I thought it relevant to the evening as it starts in a familiar world, undergoes a mysterious transformation, all the while never losing sight of the need to keep our eyes open, our senses open. This for me is what poetry can do, must do perhaps, if we insist on setting poems into a competitive environment.

I stood shaving one morning

before the open window

one storey up.

I switched the shaver on.

It began to purr.

It buzzed louder and louder.

It grew to an uproar.

It grew to a helicopter

and a voice – the pilot’s – penetrated

through the din, shrieked:

‘Keep your eyes open!

You’re seeing all this for the last time.’

We rose.

Flew over the summer.

So many things [. . . ]

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The urgency of (as if) seeing things for the last time is something we want from poems, the need to be spoken. We want the ability of a poem to open itself to the world around it, not to shutter it out with preconceptions, indeed with language itself. We want poems to contain ‘so many things’. Scanning the top 25 poems in this competition, their topics are love, relationships, war, the self, the body, ageing, politics (broadly defined), nature, language itself. So many things . . .

With apologies to the poets for some loss of some stanza break formatting (I still can’t make WordPress obey me on that), here are the texts of those poems for which I have permission, followed by my comments:

Winning Poem:

One Small Act of Survival – Claire Dyer (NB. this poem should appear in couplets)

In my hand a shiny new hammer

bought to forge a carapace from commonplace things:

door handles, empty soup cans, the almost-over

hyacinth blooms in my mother’s blue vase.

The shape I’ll fashion will not be symmetrical

but I’ll spend a while writing charms on its underside

then flip it, polish its surface until I can see my face in it.

It’ll be shallow and, roughly the size of silence.

Next up, a Stanley knife to incise my chest, peel back the skin.

My blood will blossom like chrysanthemums as I slide my creation in.

So much done in 10 lines! The poet as maker, as technician, rather than inspired Romantic genius – I have always loved poems that deal with the processes of things; how to, rather than look at me doing it. I like the modesty of the title, though that is promptly undermined by the importance of the word ‘survival’. The poem starts so well with its hammer and precise verb ‘forge’, though this is also immediately, clearly metaphorical, a gathering of raw materials, adding a little magic, till the object (as in all poems) is also a reflection of the self that made it. The brutality of the final lines has – by what has preceded them – come to be balanced between self-harm and self-repair. Blood as flowers is Sylvia Plath to some degree but this re-birth has more, is more, and is more convincingly, of the future tense than Plath’s ‘difficult borning[s]’ ever were.

 

*

Second Place Poem:

The Ghost Orchid* – Dilys Wood 

I hear him claim, “A flower for all seasons –

only she needs no sun, no seasons . . . “, as if

this grey-haired plant hunter is thrusting

into the woven thickness of the forest

like a man into a woman. I ask

how rare this orchid is, has he seen it,

what kind of plant is it? “A plant

for the heart”, he says, “Of old woodland like this.

She’s very rare, in fact – has no green parts,

doesn’t photosynthesise, doesn’t exist

but the hundredth time you look in the same place

she’s there”. He’s fixated but quite normal,

stopping for a break in my patch of shade.

Common plants are there, low-growing Wood Sorrel,

Wind Flowers he calls ‘Wood Anemone’

with petals that blush like adolescence.

Her ashes (that’s my thin girl’s ashes)

are indistinct among small white flowers,

ferns, wood-ash from log-burnings on this spot;

but he sees how, with the box still in my hand,

I stare into the thicker trees for glimpses

of my strange one and how I’ve not spread out

but spilled her heap of absence on the ground.

We exchange photos for a minute. “It’s weird

enough?”, giving me his colour snap

of the ‘Ghost’ lit by a camera-flash,

and so albino, transparent, spectral,

I catch my breath. It’s so like my daughter,

or what we saw inside, her ‘lit-up’ self.

Running his fingers under Wood Sorrel leaves

to show delicate, bent flowers, he says,

“Life-cycles are so utterly diverse –

see a miracle in all lives, if you like”.

*The Ghost Orchid, Epipogium Aphyllum, is Britain’s rarest flower with findings reported in 1986 and 2010. It has been described, ‘In a torch beam . . . they appear translucent white . . . almost like a photographic negative’.

Dialogue is difficult to use convincingly in a poem but this poet dives straight in without context or scene setting, though as we are baffled we are also intrigued. The “grey-haired plant hunter” is a near relation of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner initially, though on this occasion he seems to need a little prompt or two to get going. Instead of a victim of experience though, he turns out to be a seeker – for the rare, the beautiful, the elusive, valuable precisely because so seldom of this world. The compassionate heart of the poem is only introduced (bravely) half way through with the more than strange coincidence of what the narrator is up to. The exchange they pursue is very moving, a quiet (can I say) English version of those often more hysterical scenes of mothers holding out photographs of the disappeared. The throw away ending is a stroke of genius, throwing this extraordinarily intimate moment back to the reader.

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*

Third Place Poem:

The Haircut – Catherine Edmunds 

She stands in front of the bathroom mirror, ties her hair back, presses

the fringe down flat on her forehead. It reaches over her eyes. She

picks up the scissors for the last time. First she thins the fringe, just a little.

There’s not much hair. Alopecia – stress related.

That’s what the nurse said. Here, have some pills.

Next she cuts along in a gentle curve, level

with the underside of her eyebrows.

He’s never known the colour of her eyes. They’d played that game once:

what would you sooner lose, a leg or an arm? Your hearing or your sight?

Okay, she’d said, go on – tell me the colour of my eyes. She’d shut them

tight, laughing, expecting the right answer, expecting a kiss.

The hairs drop into the sink. It will be blocked

by the time she’s finished.

She looks at her face in the mirror. There they are; her eyes,

her beautiful hazel eyes.

The fringe isn’t straight. She levels it, brushes it out.

Still isn’t straight. Snip-snip-snip.

Still. Not. Straight. snip-snip-snip-snip-snip-snip-snip-snip-snip

He’s suggested she dye it. Cover up the grey. Maybe bleach it,

go blonde, but get it done properly, he’ll pay. She’d sooner be a redhead.

She sticks the point of the scissors into her scalp, watches the blob of blood.

Stands and watches. Watches. The red blob settles, works its way

along a few hairs, glues them together. Darkens. She preferred the brighter red.

She slips the scissors under the skin. Snip. Snip-snip.

Raw and pink underneath.  Snip. Snip.

And then she slashes at the hair, all the hair, and cuts and cuts until

it’s reduced to tufts across her head, and then she hacks at her scalp

to get rid of the tufts, hacks and hacks.

Pink. Oozy.

Her eyes are crying. She doesn’t want to see

her eyes crying. She holds the scissors firmly with both hands.

 

I agonised over this one because I doubted, at times, the intentionality of the effects. Yet even if the monstrously powerful impact was fortuitous – does that matter? The words do their work. I was agnostic because of the looseness, the long lines, the repetitions, the plainness, the directness. But aren’t these elements precisely what makes the poem so gut-wrenchingly unforgettable? Well – I stopped agonising and I went with the opening – so familiar as a moment of self-reflection, though not the condition briefly, dismissively alluded to. The relationship information is quick, convincing, just a facet of this person, not the whole story. How brave to be so repetitively onomatopoeic in the middle of the poem. Then it turns – sickeningly – on the word “redhead”, making it ambiguous, and so begins its horrible descent into drama. Perhaps into melodrama – but I teach teenagers and melodrama is a currency they trade in, knowing that it’s real.

 

*

5 Highly Commended Poems: Highly Commended of course means, that on another day, certainly perhaps with another judge, these poems might have been in the top three.

The Disappeared – Norbert Hirschhorn 

What makes us human is soil.

Landfill of bones, shredded tees, jeans;

mass graves paved over for parking.

What makes us human are portraits

– graduation, weddings –

mounted in house shrines and on fliers, Have You Seen?

 

Names inscribed around memorial pools

or incised on granite. Names waiting,

waiting for that slide of DNA, any piece of flesh –

for the haunted to be put to rest.

What makes us human is soil.

To stare into a hole in the ground,

fill with the deceased, throw earth down,

place a stone. Bread. Salt.

For Fouad Mohammed Fouad

 

A triumph of tone this one – from the intriguing, imperturbable, magisterial judgement of the opening, end-stopped line through to the stalling, breathlessly punctuated, fragmenting, grief-stricken ending. Between those lines the poem plays with the tension between its hard, objective tone, concerned with evidence, details, the empirical gathering of science and its efforts to articulate what it is that makes us what we are.

 

*

When I Heard Your Chemo Hadn’t Worked – Carole Bromley 

I had the urge to pick blackcurrants,

why it had to be blackcurrants and not blueberries,

raspberries or strawberries I don’t know. We never eat

blackcurrants, I guess because they must be cooked

with added sugar and if you boil the pan dry they stick

like crazy and even if the compote works it stains

and the stains never come out however many times

you put the clothes through the hot wash.

It rained on me so hard I had to park my bike

under a tree and try to shelter though the rain

meant business and hit my back over and over

like my mother that time I flicked water

down the stairs at my brother and didn’t know

she’d spent all day painting the landing and hall.

When I got there the notice said Far Field

and I walked miles and there were only blackberries

and I’d set my heart on blackcurrants.

Then I spotted the bushes and there was no-one

else and even though it started to rain again and my shoes

were getting stained purple, I didn’t care, just crouched

down and milked the fat black drops into the bowl.

A poem that triumphantly recovers from its own title – because the poem itself avoids any reference to the situation about which the title has to inform the reader. What we are left with is a direct, if self-mystifying, narrative. This is a search, a little quest, haunted by the indelible, the irrevocable, by stains. It’s a trial narrative, a coming through, a survival, but the grail here is extraordinarily equivocal; listen to the verb applied in the final line to the gathering of this ominous crop.

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*

My Humble Body – Kate Foley 

Just as a cloud becomes more

or less as it frays,

my humble body

is slowly learning to speak.

Not hint, not whinge

but say direct to my face

‘I am your face.’

‘Oh?’ I answer from somewhere

up here.

Yes! Not the memory

of your face, its trace

in old mirrors

but the now of it.’

And my body, no longer so humble,

like an old donkey with a spring

in its heels says ‘Listen!

Rough bits, wrinkles, furrows

where half-buried truths lie,

twinges, and you up there, we

can’t wait forever. It’s

now or never

to get together!’

‘Cliche!’ I smile,

scoring a point

but my body raises

its suddenly wise

hand and places

a gentle finger on my lips.

 

I’ve always disliked those poems which record a dialogue between the soul and the body, but this one convinced me (though I don’t know if ‘soul’ is the right word). The directness with which the humble body begins to speak is reflected throughout the poem in its clean, economical, lean lines. The progressive ironising – indeed, mickey-taking – of the soul/self’s arrogance is an object lesson in gradualist narrative development

 

*

At the War Museum – Tony Lucas 

Here is the shadow that was always at

our backs, though we were shielded. We knew

the stories – or the ones they chose to tell

to us, to tell themselves. Also the silences,

events that no one dared to mention.

These faces look familiar – recall the ones

who brought us up, who filled our world, but here

in uniform, removed to strange locations,

and performing tasks we never saw

them do. This is the world made strange, furnished

with obsolete contraptions that delivered

death, the well-known places mostly wrecked –

a quiet church you visited last year,

calm as Wren left it, is shown broken, open

to the sky, with shattered monuments;

a library’s hush, all raucous debris, plaster dust –

and if that happened to the books, what of

the people shelved in tidy residential

streets, gap-toothed with rubble, bathrooms

bared, paper hung ripped from private walls?

They had their modes of coping with it all –

swagger and slang, ‘business as usual’, wink

of an eye – that got them through. Styles

at first quaint to us, and now a foreign language.

Pictures, writings that seemed so peripheral

at the embattled time, now offer

our most intimate approach to this

alternate world. While, always, looming

back behind, what they themselves half knew,

an elder dark – of shells and mud, of gas

and blasted stumps, torn flesh and broken minds,

that forged, and warped, the world in which we grew.

 

This struck me as the most ‘well made’ poem in the top rankings. Though not using end rhyme, the quatrains are carefully controlled, making good use of the de-stabilising of enjambement. There is a formality in tone too, from the title onwards. A distance perhaps but that enables the narrative voice to reflect, to judge and in the end to compassionate with the elder generation who suffered the horrors of war.

 

*

Theft – Josh Ekroy 

Awaiting permission for this text

 

The opening lines of this poem have an epigrammatic quality to them which the subsequent lines proceed to follow to their logical conclusion (though perhaps with a bit of black magic thrown in). This is like Blake in the mood of ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ and this poem gives us more modern Proverbs of Hell, reversing our preconceptions to both comic and politically serious effects.

 

*

10 Commended Poems:

Body Evidence – Alexandra Davis

Kentucky Fried Chicken in Georgia – Valerie Darville

The Man Whose Car was Stolen… – Christopher North

Ordinary Love – Noel Williams

Vulcano – Julie Mellor

Dear Revisionist – Martin Malone

A Sedge of Herons – Noel Williams

Teign – Roland Malony

As the days play on – Maria Stasiak

Quickly – Sue MacIntyre

What Shape is your Poetry Workshop?

With its proximity to some of the processes of politics, what has come to be the traditional form of the poetry workshop is perhaps easily derided. Billy Collins does this  (in his book, The Art of Drowning, 1995) and we all recognise both the speaker and the likely recipient of the speech:

I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.   

It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now   

so immediately the poem has my attention,

like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.

 

And I like the first couple of stanzas,

the way they establish this mode of self-pointing

that runs through the whole poem

As both leader and participant, I’ve suffered and witnessed suffering at the hands of egomaniacs, bullies and tyrants – those who come to workshops with no intention of listening to the proffered advice. What they are after is some exertion of personal power over a captive audience and, up to a point, workshop members are exactly that since the basic democratic premise is that we sit and listen with an open mind – a very open mind.

But what I’m not sure about is the voice,

which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,   

but other times seems standoffish,

professorial in the worst sense of the word

like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.   

But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.

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Others will know the history better than I do but the poetry workshop seems to have been organised first by Philip Hobsbaum in the 1950s. Hobsbaum was born in London to orthodox Jewish parents who moved north in 1937, sensing the threat of war and fearing the anti-semitic currents of the time. In Bradford, Hobsbaum attended Belle Vue grammar school, then Cambridge, where he studied under F R Leavis at Downing College (“the greatest man I ever met – an amazing teacher”).

F R Leavis

He also encountered Thom Gunn, just graduated, who introduced him to the early work of Larkin, and, as editor of the student literary magazine Delta, he printed work by Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove. Most significantly, with these budding poets, he organised regular meetings. Hobsbaum possessed some training as an actor and the original idea (of what was to become ‘The Group’) was to encourage verse-speaking. But these meetings soon turned into exercises of Leavisite close analysis, or Practical Criticism in the style of I A Richards, plus a good deal of mutual support for the growing network of poets.

Maybe it’s just me,

but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.   

I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?   

And what’s an obbligato of snow?

Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.

At that point I’m lost. I need help.

The Group style of workshop spread as Hobsbaum himself moved to a variety of jobs from Cambridge, to London, Belfast and Glasgow in turn. Although there was some overlap in personnel with The Movement, the various incarnations of the Group had a more practical focus as there was no imposed programme or style. In Belfast (1962–1966), Hobsbaum organised what became known as The Belfast Group, including emerging authors Seamus Heaney, Edna and Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker and Bernard MacLaverty. Heaney described the process in 1963: “members of the Group listen to a fellow member read a number of his poems which have been previously circulated on cyclostyled sheets. They then discuss the verse very thoroughly, frankly, informally – and the poet is there to counteract, resent, and/or benefit from the criticism”.

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Philip Hobsbaum in later years (photo: Gerry Cambridge)

Personally, I first experienced the process at Lancaster University in the late 1970s, taking a ‘free ninth’ optional course in Creative Writing as part of a more traditional English degree. The meetings were led in Lonsdale College by David Craig and Heaney’s “previously circulated . . . cyclostyled sheets” have a very familiar ring to them. The format was somewhat different in the 4 years or so I spent attending two workshops in Oxford – copies of individual poems were handed round only on the day and discussion was spontaneous indeed (see my earlier blog ).

The other thing that throws me off,

and maybe this is just me,

is the way the scene keeps shifting around.   

First, we’re in this big aerodrome

and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,   

which makes me think this could be a dream.   

Then he takes us into his garden,

the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,   

though that’s nice, the coiling hose,

but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.   

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Billy Collins

I currently attend 3 workshop groups. In none of these is work circulated beforehand. In one, the poet reads once only, the other members have photocopies and discussion ensues with the writer sworn to silence (this prevents self-defensive manoeuvres and conflict). In the second group, the same process is followed except that after the reading of the poem aloud by the poet, the members have about 10 minutes to WRITE their thoughts on the poem itself. Discussion then follows (the up-side of this is that all poets go home with annotated copies of their own work; the down side is it’s very hard work and discussion often follows the annotations, a little less fluidly).

There’s something about death going on here.

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here   

is really two poems, or three, or four,   

or possibly none.

 

But then there’s that last stanza, my favourite.

The third group plays the game of anonymity. Sufficient copies are put into an envelope, no identifying marks. Each member then picks out a poem (not their own) to read aloud. On first reading the members cannot see the text. Only on second reading can they follow the text on the page. There then follows the discussion. This produces the fascinating experience for the poet of hearing another person read the poem – and the reader’s later comments about how easy or otherwise the poem was to read are always interesting to those of us who think poetry is primarily an oral art.

This is where the poem wins me back,

especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse [. . . ]

I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work   

night after night collecting all these things

while the people in the house were fast asleep,   

and that gives me a very strong feeling,

a very powerful sense of something.

But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.   

Maybe that was just me.

Maybe that’s just the way I read it.

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Easy to mock; easy to de-rail from their true purpose, but in creating his workshops (once more following Leavis) Hobsbaum believed a vital part of a student’s course was the rigorous discussion of text. To him, criticism was a fiercely rational, evaluative process, and any other use of language – “political propaganda, newspapers, advertisements, film, conceptual prose of all kinds” – had to be liable to the same level of scrutiny. In Essentials of Literary Criticism (1983), he maintained that “the training of a critic is also the training of a citizen”. This is surely right as the skills and sensitivities of the workshop, the class, the informal discussion of poetry anywhere, anytime, are exercises, in part, to develop the insight, the healthy scepticism, the ability to read and interpret whatever those vying for power, those possessed of power, want to say to us. Alan Brownjohn wrote in Hobsbaum’s obituary: “In a postmodernist, relativist age of education for entrepreneurship, Hobsbaum’s analytical and discriminatory approach might appear to be losing out, though reports of its death are an exaggeration.”

I’m sure Brownjohn is right and – as the UK General Election machine winds itself up ever higher – I’ll quote David Constantine’s important conclusion to his third Newcastle / Bloodaxe lecture in 2003: “We are, when we read poetry, during the reading of the poem and lingeringly for some while after, more wakeful, alert and various in our humanity than in our practical lives we are mostly allowed to be. Achieving that, in vital cooperation with the reader, a poet has done the most he or she is qualified to do. Any further stage, any conversion of this alerted present state into action, into behaviour, is the responsibility of the citizen. And the poet, like the reader, is always a citizen”.

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Nostalgia, Spots of Time and Ourselves

My Dad is getting more forgetful. True, he has just made his 95th birthday but like that stain that slowly spreads into “a gigantic ace of hearts” at the murderous climax of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, there is a growing realisation among family members that this is a bit more than a run-of-the-mill absentmindedness.

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Do we vanish with our memories? I’ve been repeatedly reminded, in judging a poetry competition recently, how much poetry depends on remembering, how much any of us depend on memory for a sense of who we are. So perhaps memory is a candidate for what makes us distinctly human – better even than language, the uniqueness of which has been challenged the more we understand of the animal kingdom (See Christine Kenneally’s book, The First Word)? Recalling moments from our own lives – Wordsworth’s “spots of time” that retain, he believes,  a “renovating virtue“ – seems to have something to do with identity, mental health, even our own ethical behaviour: they shall not be forgotten, we have been saying a lot recently.

A few months ago, I read a Guardian piece about nostalgia and have kept a copy of it with me since. Nostalgia as a term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss army physician who traced the fragile mental and physical health of his troops to their longing for home – nostos in Greek means home and algos is the pain they found in such thoughts. So its roots are in mental disorder or depressive illness and for centuries it has been considered unhealthy to dwell in this way on the past, a yearning for something lost, a debilitating rosy-tinted malady.

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But psychologists have started to think of nostalgia as a more profoundly rooting experience, even a stimulant to optimism, to psychic health. At Southampton University, Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut have shown the universality of nostalgia and, among its measurable effects, it is now seen as a driver of empathy and social connectedness, an antidote to loneliness and alienation. Nostalgia, by connecting our past and present, by proving the temporal oneness of being, points optimistically to the future, acts to protect against negative thoughts and situations.

The article quotes Wildschut: “Nostalgia compensates for . . . feelings of meaninglessness or discontinuity between past and present . . . it elevates meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity.” Anecdotal evidence comes from women in concentration camps who “responded to starvation by waxing nostalgic about shared meals with their families and arguing about recipes”. This is a sort of imaginative “as if” loop that writers will readily recognise and evidence suggests it can temporarily affect our body states.  Concentration camp survivors recount: “We used our memories to temporarily alter our perception of the state we were in. It was not a solution, but the temporary change in perception allowed you to persevere.”

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Remembering our past serves to remind us of who we are, what we have been, what intimacy we have achieved, what we are capable of, then and now, in the future. It builds resilience because, though often concerned with trauma and sadness, it is posed in a redemptive sequence: ‘look we have come through’ cries D H Lawrence and even Larkin’s depressed-sounding “first boredom then fear” might be read in this light. As to ethical consequences, apparently, in strongly nostalgic states individuals are more liable to act altruistically; the value of money is weakened; couples and families bond more closely; gratitude and connectedness increase; children grow less selfish.

Meagre comfort when it’s you, or your father, losing the ability to recall; really this makes the loss of memory associated with old age that much more devastating. But at Southampton they are investigating nostalgia-based therapies for illnesses, including clinical depression and perhaps Alzheimer’s. Robert Lowell somewhere talks of the Christian trinity of God, Son and Holy Ghost, being replaced in the 20th century by Dad, Mum and memories of my family. Perhaps now we are gathering scientific evidence (if it was ever needed) that such a shift in focus was as much gain as loss. My poem ‘Four trees fallen’ (from The Time We Turned (Shearsman, 2014)) recollects the observation of trees fallen, the roots up-turned an image intended to evoke the unearthing of past experience:

this tree up-turned

with its metres-wide plate

of spreading roots tipped fully

ninety degrees from the horizontal

so what lay underground

is now exposed to the air [. . .]

I imagine it must have been

this same wind though perhaps

in the tempestuous pitch

of night that blew with such power

to topple a tree like this

to lever its roots up-turned

from almost immemorial dark

into the temporary dark

of one night’s storm—if it was

at night—left exposed at dawn

to new sunlight to noon and sunset

The final section remembers a pair of those fallen trees you sometimes come across where people have hammered coins into the rotting bark – a form of payment perhaps, but what for? A journey we hope always to be able to make.

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Walking on—and with each step

I remember a third fallen tree

this morning this one skirted

some miles back beside a stream

yet this other trunk bristled

weirdly with half-moons of coins

in its papery folds each hammered

by walkers till the coins were bent

and stressed from blows

of rocks needed to sink them deep

and this tree I also remember

was not the first of its kind—what

year was it what walk beside

what stream of whisky-brown waters

did I stand by a fourth fallen trunk

in that same way gleamingly

scaled with hundreds of coins—

some had planted light-hearted

coppers while others had

invested more heavily with silver

or the thick edges of pounds

and even two-pound coins—

I suppose just taking a breather

or something to amuse the kids

while others thought playfully

to placate the spirits of the place

with its damps and shades

and slippery rocks—perhaps to give

a gift that could never be spent

digging deep in their pockets

as I too hammered and thought

I might pay the fare for a journey

yet to be made to find my way

back to dispense with the need

for daylight tempests or storms

in the pitch of night to retrace

my steps to the original place

whether it might be noon or dusk

or rain or shine a decisive taking

back a preternatural reprise

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