Robert Selby’s debut collection is fronted by a wood cut engraving by Clare Leighton, titled ‘Planting Trees’. Two flat-capped workmen labour to bed in a sapling. A wind-bent tree stands nearby; on the gusty skyline, at the top of a hill, a dark copse. It’s like something out of a Thomas Hardy poem, or an Edward Thomas one, and it’s well-chosen as these are the forebears The Coming-Down Time often explicitly acknowledges. Launched into a poetry world dominated by so many books addressing environmental, gender, race and identity issues, this collection (depending on your viewpoint) is either timeless or behind the times. Selby’s careful organisation of the poems makes it clear he knows what he’s doing and he will do it his way.
His main subjects are historical time, England and romantic love. The first of three sections, ‘East of Ipswich’, is a tribute to his grandparents, George and Lea Gissing. George “came from a long line of men who worked / now-extinct equine trades”. These are true ‘salt of the earth’ Englishmen. Enquiries as to who they were (questions of identity, we might now say) are answered with confidence, if not belligerence: “We’re Orford men, and that’s enough”. But time passes even on the edges of Suffolk. The concluding lines of ‘The End of the Horse Age’ catch a glimpse of encroaching change in the shape of a tractor:
. . . he sees an unblinkered beast
braying smoke in the top field, light
from its side-lamps shining off makers’ plates
cast from melted down horse brasses.
If this is sounding like a man’s world, well, it was and Selby rolls with that. In marriage, Lea sheds her given, christian name for Doll and her maiden name also, “was gone”. There is no obvious meta-comment; Selby’s poem is more intent on celebrating the marriage of his grandparents than exploring Lea’s thoughts on these matters of gender and nomenclature. Perhaps they were not questioned at the time, but I’m uneasy at the silence surrounding such moments, given the poem is a contemporary one. Selby has perhaps inherited the “Suffolk reserve” of his grandfather, for whom “words are weeds that don’t fall to the hoe”. The wish not to (over-)dramatize seems very strong; the end of the Second World War is marked by the grandfather in terms of the cigarettes, chocolate and tea cakes at the NAAFI more than its global import.
Indeed, like Edward Thomas’ work, these are poems about small things. The evocation of the (seldom used) front room at his grandparents’ house is vivid and (for those of us of a certain vintage) very familiar. The sequence takes us to the funerals of the older generation via the understanding that their children (Selby’s father specifically) have already moved away from traditional lives. The father is “one of the suited men / who’ll step off the evening train”. The tone is mostly one of gentle regret at the passing of a way of life (part of which was a closeness to the environment). “How easily people forget things”, opens ‘The Winter Wood’. That same poem ends as a sort of “testament to the losing habit”. The sycamore at Brig o’Turk, in the Trossachs, which has grown around a bicycle once leant against it, is a good image for Selby’s concerns: the past remains but is inevitably absorbed and changed.
Selby’s use of language and form is likewise pretty traditional. It’s not just a result of the subject matter that the book is frequented by words such as smithy, shire, lambkin, deer-stalker, and lush-toned phrases such as “blossom-moted”. The flip side of this is that details of 2020 UK are often treated with a distaste, an alienated distance. Later in the book, a friend returns from the dust and pollen of the English countryside into London: “its tagged shutters and sick-flecked stops, / its scaffolding like the lies / propping up your peeling hopes”. The friend is female and (I think) Canadian. Another poem’s narrator tries to persuade her that “[t]his is the real England [. . .] It’s a place of trees; of apple, pear, cherry and plum”. There is more to be said here about the meaning of ‘real’ and it’s hard to tell if the narrator’s invitation is meant to have a deathly ring to it. He asks, “Do you want to reset your watch to the toll of here?”
The import of this question forms the emotional and dramatic context of the later poems in the collection which trace an on/off relationship. The narrator is left wondering: “I must wait for the needle / of your heart’s compass to unspin, / and see where it stops”. In reading that I’m reminded of Lea and – what seemed to be – her relative lack of choice in the earlier years of the twentieth century. There is a good deal of unalloyed nostalgia in The Coming-Down Time for an England of the mind, if it was ever part of any actual century. I find the female figures in the book suffer because of this: most of them do not achieve a specific, particular life in the poems. I’d like Selby to go on to explore the irony in two images: the masculine arms in “rolled up sleeves” that may or may not be “strong enough” and the closing lines just quoted, in which the desired woman bides her time, knowingly possessed of strength, of the agency of decision.
There is such ease and (apparent) directness of communication between the voices in Rachel Long’s poems and their readers/listeners that they could easily be misjudged. Darling from the Lions is filled with chatty, slangy storylines, some close to sentimental, others genuinely shocking, but the book’s title is instructive. In Psalm 35, David pleads with his God to protect him from those that strive against him, the mockers and false witnesses. He cries out: “rescue my soul from their destructions, my darling from the lions” (KJV). The preservation of the self intact, or at least relatively unharmed, against the multitudinous, multivarious threats of a modern adult female life is Long’s real concern.
Given this focus, the number of child’s eye view poems in the collection is not surprising. Readers will be reminded of Jeanette Winterson’s account of growing up in a Christian evangelical household in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and similarly here, religion proves more threatening than a source of safety. A young girl’s enthusiasm about staying up past midnight in ‘Night Vigil’ is clear: “How the minute and the hour stood to attention!” But the “smiling eyes” of the evangelist in the pulpit turn to “teeth” as he leads her, ominously, down and “incensed corridor, // and [she] followed”. The same threat seems more explicitly taken up in ‘8’ with its quotation from Psalm 51 as epigraph: “Purge me [. . . ] I shall be whiter than snow”. Long’s choices about form usually lead her to very free verse, controlled only by the colloquial voice and breath, but on this occasion the urgency and breathlessness of the 8 year-old child is reflected in unpunctuated, headlong, slippingly-enjambed, short-lined verse. What the child wishes to be cleansed of is an abusive sexual encounter, “that sunday / that school”, an incident in which she became “instantly older”.
Elsewhere, a child’s bicycle ride is likewise hedged around with vague threats of the “abbatoir” and startled invocations to “Run!” The inculcation of childhood religious belief again works as ironic backdrop:
Have you ever fled uphill –
hill of concrete,
acres of balconies identical
unanswerable doors –
reciting Psalm 23.
And in the extraordinary ‘Helena’ – the age of the speaker increasing still further here – we get a brilliant piece of ventriloquism as a young woman, who works in a seedy gentleman’s club, tells two women friends how she was all-but kidnapped by the bouncer, then raped, the man “acting out / some horror-porn shit” (Long’s unusual choice here of long, prosy lines of verse add to the almost unbearable intensity of the storytelling). These are some of the ‘lions’ by which the ‘darling’ is threatened. But ‘Hotel Art, Barcelona’, as the title suggests, indicates such threats come in all shapes and sizes and social/cultural guises. A young woman, in a relationship with a much older man, is staying in an expensive hotel. He’s concerned with their age gap; she with the fact she’s pregnant and he seems reluctant to acknowledge it. The power/wealth balance is unequal and, later, she allows him to fuck her on their balcony, her unconvincing/unconvinced question (“is love not this?”) left hanging in the air.
The Barcelona woman later throws up her expensively-bought dinner in the bathroom and there are other examples of purgative vomiting in Darling from the Lions. I’m not sure whether ‘The Clean’ is caused by morning sickness (as it is in ‘The Garden’) or an eating disorder, but the woman leans over the toilet bowl, insisting to herself, “Girl, you can be new, / surrender it all / into one bowl”. Often, the isolation of these female figures is relieved by examples of companionship with other women. ‘Sandwiches’ winds the clock back to school days again, as the narrator and her friend Tiff begin to experiment with their sexual attractiveness by stuffing unbuttered bread down their bras, because “the boys have clocked the difference between / a tissue and a tit, a sock and a tit, but not quite yet / a tit and a slice of bread”. This is a great example of Long’s brilliant control of timing, register and colloquial rhythm.
Funny though ‘Sandwiches’ is (and the poem is destined for many anthologies, I’m sure, where it’ll be taken out of context), the poem needs to be read alongside ‘The Yearner’, in which the woman deliberately sleeps on her own arm so that she can later re-acquaint herself with it, touching her numbed fingers like “strangers”, because her yearning is a dissatisfaction with how life has turned out, a wishing to be “another”. The opening section of the book is punctuated with 5 short poems, all called ‘Open’. They are about the seen and unseen. Watching a woman sleep, several people suggest she seems carelessly abandoned, surprised, working things out. Read the poems again and you see what the woman herself feels: it’s like she’s screaming, in hiding, or bracing for impact. She is beset by lions but it’s not always obvious to others.
The Psalmist’s cry was for protection by God, but it is Mum who affords most help in Darling from the Lions. The poems in the middle of the book are a hymn to the maternal figure, though the extent of her powers has already been shown to be compromised. ‘Referring to the House as the Whole Street’ is more plainly descriptive than most of Long’s poems, the mother returning after her night shift as a midwife, consoling herself as day breaks with sugared almonds, “in various shades of dawn”. Her care for her daughter is immediate, simple, physical: a cut finger is taken up and sucked. The mother spends all day Saturday plaiting her daughter’s hair into cornrows so she looks as “beautiful as Winnie Mandela!” It’s through the mother figure and several aunties that the religious element enters the household, the Christian evangelical beliefs shading rapidly into something more like of shamanism (‘Mum’s Snake’ and ‘Divine Healing’). It may be superstition that prevents the mother wanting to be photographed but her absence from the family album is a good metaphor for her selfless devotion to her family’s wellbeing, perhaps to the unseen presence of black women in society more generally.
Though the recurring father figure is said to be not “of our land”, it’s hard to identify any explicitly white voice in this collection; the black or mixed-race voices are so by implication. Long sees no need to labour the point. The one explicitly white voice I can find is that of a Barbie doll. This poem (‘Interview with B. tape II’) and its companion piece ‘steve’, mark a shift in perspective to a voice that does read the world in black and white. Long puts her ventriloquism to disturbing effect as she makes white-skinned Barbie talk about her stereotypical love/submissiveness to Ken and the way the arrival of a black-skinned doll, Steve, upsets things:
Steve wore bright red swim shorts. Too bright.
Everything about those people is so . . .
The racism is casually thrown off; crime in the area goes up with Steve’s arrival. Ken takes on the vigilante role, beating Steve up in the back of his army jeep. This is a clever and skilful poem – the racist attitudes in the child’s doll’s mouth are very disturbing. ‘steve’ uses the child’s narrative voice we’ve become familiar with throughout the book but the racist, hatred of the steve doll is now internalised and comes from the child herself; “ken would beat steve up / for fun”. The violence of the earlier poem is now played out in toyland (but no less real for that) so that, one day, the father finds his lawnmower jammed: “on closer inspection / a tiny pair of shorts charred / torso”. In this year of the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, Rachel Long finds unexpectedly effective ways to address the issues of racial discrimination alongside her main concerns in this never less than accessible collection.
After her Gregory Award in 2014 and two chapbook publications since, Martha Sprackland has long been pondering those decisions about constructing a first full collection. (She talks briefly about that process here). Ought it to be a Rattle Bag of the best poems to date, or a more coherently shaped and organised ‘concept album’? Citadel is evidently being presented to readers as the latter – but with equivocal results. The first reference of the book’s blurb is to Juana of Castile, commonly referred to as Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad), a 16th century Queen of Spain. She was daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, instigators of the Spanish Inquisition, but was conspired against, declared mad, imprisoned and tortured by her father, husband and her son, leaving almost no written record of her own. Sprackland – having studied Spanish and spent time in Madrid – presents herself as becoming fixated on this earlier woman, engaged in conversations with her to such a degree that (according to the blurb again) the poems in Citadel are written by a “composite ‘I’ – part Reformation-era monarch, part twenty-first century poet”.
While happy to accept the desire of the poet to maintain a distance between the lyric/dramatic ‘I’ and her autobiographical self, I find the idea, the ‘as if’, of this composite authorship hard to take. There is even something disproportionate about the claim of identity between the two women, given the extremity of Juana’s life-long suffering. I’m reminded of Caroline Maldonado’s 2019 book, Isabella (Smokestack Books) in which she translates and writes poems to Isabella Morra, an Italian aristocrat of the 16th century who also suffered appalling hardship (and likely murder) at the hands of her male relations. But Maldonado’s interest in the historical figure is never claimed as an identity. (I reviewed this book here).
The awkwardness of the leap of faith in this alignment between Sprackland and Juana gives rise to several of the opening poems which seem to want to ‘explain’ empirically the (perfectly legitimately) imagined connection. ‘Beautiful Game’ is a family-holiday-in-Spain poem, in which the Martha figure (the collection does use its author’s name on several occasions) is hit on the head with a pool ball. The next but one poem takes this up. ‘A Blow to the Head’ takes the injury as a moment of profound psychological importance. The narrator is “cracked open” and in the same moment retreats into a psychological “citadel”. The protection this offers her becomes “habit-forming, I was fortified”. The latter pun is good and the poem suggests that it is in this state of defensive retreat, perhaps of ‘imprisonment’, that she passes through a portal, making first contact with “her”, Juana. One of the tortures that Juana faced, for her religious unorthodoxy, was la cuerda, being strung up with cord/rope, weights attached to her feet. In this poem, Martha loosens “the cord from her wrists”.
It’s the poem placed between these two that perhaps provides a further clue to the undoubtedly powerful link felt by Sprackland to Juana, the link between the personal and the historical. Much is left unsaid in ‘A Room in London’; the reluctance to reveal is part of the fortified ‘citadel’. In a vaguely defined medical environment there are several young women, one of them being given misoprostol (a drug used to induce abortion). Such a moment of profound emotional, physical and psychological experience must be the origins of the identification between two individuals so remote in time and Sprackland catches the paralleled shift of innocence to pained maturity in the brilliant final line: “Our little beds, bars of autumnal light falling through the curtains”.
The fact is that this identification of the two women does then give rise to several excellent (I’d describe them as uncanny) poems – though their existence does not need anything more by way of justification than a belief in language and the poetic imagination. In ‘They Admit Each Other to the Inquisitor’, the two women are bound together by the first-person plural pronouns: “We were eighteen and pregnant and mad”. The force and flow of the poem takes the reader quickly beyond questions of likelihood:
When we undid the cord that tied our wrists
it bound us; something in that blow
knocked through the city walls
and through it we are talking, still.
We can’t explain this.
The same device is used in ‘Juana and Martha in Therapy’; this time it’s the third person plural. They are as one and yet at the same time they are communicating down a cup-and-string telephone, made from a cord and two tins of cocido (chick-pea and meat stew). There is great humour here besides the serious experiment in imaginative identification: “Time is complicated, especially at these distances”. But also, Time can be collapsed into magically anachronistic moments of intimacy: “They are in the bland room / above the Pret in Bishopsgate, trying to understand. / The walls of the mind are deep and moated”. The final poem in Citadel is ‘Transcript’ which is a verbatim record of a conversation between the two women:
i’ll sing you something, and you’ll sleep, tomorrow I will go falconing –
and I will go to work and try to hold the yolk of myself together, try not to spill –
I wish there were more poems in the book in which this sort of unashamed, ludicrous, heartfelt and imaginatively suggestive communication was portrayed. There are a few other occasions where poems approach it, but the leap of faith required seems even too much for the poet and the results feel more willed than wholly convinced. Juana alone (though in the third person) appears to good effect in ‘Falconry’, an excellent poem that hovers, alongside the hunting bird, over the landscape of the Alhambra. The bird’s searching out of its prey represents the young Queen’s curiosity, her challenge to authority (that will soon get her into so much trouble), and its tearing up of a lark seems to foreshadow Juana’s own suffering.
Otherwise, Citadel contains plenty of poems more directly connected to what we might tactfully designate the author’s biography, poems which might have constituted a Rattle-Bag-style first collection. The five sections of ‘Melr’ read very autobiographically, a childhood in a village north of Liverpool: “I grew up coastal with the land to my back”. It’s portrayed as a place of shifting sands and, as teenage years advance, that sense of novelty-seeking (like Juana and deploying similar bird imagery) grows: “villagers heard / the clatter of the entire migratory flock / lifting off under cover of darkness”. Youthful experimentation, unpredictability and the allure of travel are all expressed in the excellent ‘Pimientos de Padron’. One imagines language students in Madrid, “lovesick, shamed or fleeing / or brisant and in shock”, then heading to the airport for “the first flight anywhere but home”.
There is a motif in the book of those brought up on sand finding it hard to settle. ‘Anti-metre’ suggest this even reaches the menstrual cycle which shifts, “mutable as a dune” and one recalls the clinical environment of ‘A Room in London’ when ‘Hunterian Triptych’ concludes with the narrator and her boyfriend running out in alarm at the sight of preserved foetuses in a museum, “ranged by month and weight”. I sense the Catholicism of Spain in general (and Juana’s wrestling with it, in particular) haunting Citadel. So a visit to an orthognathic surgeon is portrayed in terms of the confessional and a poem like ‘Charca’ is underscored by a baptismal or redemptive sense. A charka is a pool, here a natural bathing pool in a valley. The narrator and her friends go there and, beyond the hedonism and holiday pleasures, she finds something more profound shifting, beginning to lift and heal into freedom:
and distant starts to thaw in me
and to carve these deeper channels
into which we jump, again and again,
looked over by nothing but the mountains,
the overhanging leaves,
the lifted winter lived through and unbound.
This might suggest ‘Martha’ already outgrowing the need to speak to Juana. Another poem like ‘Still Life Moving’ – for me one of the best in the book – suggests the poet’s concern for Time as a theme, that “complicated” thing, here matched with Art (a still life, perhaps in the Prado) and, as time the destroyer creeps into the frame, rotting the lilies and spilling the apples, she utters a cry for some form of redemptive salvation, whether from God or Juana or elsewhere:
Nina Mingya Powles’ collection, Magnolia 木蘭, is an uneven book of great energy, of striking originality, but also of a great deal of borrowing. This is what good debut collections used to be like! I’m reminded of Glyn Maxwell’s disarming observation in On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012) that he “had absolutely nothing to say till [he] was about thirty-four”. The originality of Magnolia 木蘭 is largely derived from Powles’ background and brief biographical journey. She is of mixed Malaysian-Chinese heritage, born and raised in New Zealand, spending a couple of years as a student in Shanghai and now living in the UK. Her subjects are language/s, exile and displacement, cultural loss/assimilation and identity. Shanghai is the setting for most of the poems here and behind them all loiter the shadows and models of Ocean Vuong, Sarah Howe and, especially, Anne Carson. Powles refers to the impact of reading Carson’s Sappho versions but a much earlier book like Plainwater (1995) with its extraordinary inventiveness of form, gives an idea of what Magnolia 木蘭 contains. (See also Carson’s lecture, ‘Stammering, Stops, Silence: on the Methods and Uses of Untranslation’ (2008), revised for Poetry Review (2013)).
Powles has said that the opening poem is the oldest. Called ‘Girl Warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles’, it is written sections of prose (though divided by / every so often as if to suggest line breaks). The Disney animation – about a young Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to fight and prove herself – turns out to be an important reference point for the whole collection. The Mulan figure is recognised as idealised (disneyfied) compared to the narrator who laments her “thick legs / and too much hair that doesn’t stay”. Mulan cuts her hair short; the narrator’s mother trims hers. The issue of the subtitles raises the language question (“I understand only some of the words” of the spoken Chinese). There are suggestions of early encounters with boys, her mother dressing her up as Mulan and (later, presumably) what sounds like a writing workshop comment: “Why don’t you ever write about yourself”. All this works well as a cryptic, cut up sort of a bildungsroman, though the ending fades away less effectively and the earlier hair-cutting episode ends with a disproportionately hyperbolic image of the trimmed hair falling out of place, “ungracefully caught / in the wind of some perpetual / hurricane”.
I don’t think the intriguing glimpses of an individual young woman in this first poem are much developed in later ones. The Mulan figure makes a couple of other appearances in the book and is reprised in the concluding poem, ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’. This consists of even shorter prose observations. In Chinese, ‘mulan’ means magnolia so the fragments here cover the plant family Magnoliaceae, the film again, the Chinese characters for mulan, Shanghai moments, school days back in New Zealand and Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella. It’s hard not to think you are reading much the same poem, using similar techniques, though this one ends more strongly: “My mouth a river in full bloom”.
Unlike Carson’s use of fragmentary texts, Powles is less convincing and often gives the impression of casting around for links. This is intended to reflect a sense of rootlessness (cultural, racial, personal) but there is a willed quality to the composition. One of the things Powles does have to say (thinking again of Maxwell’s observation) is the doubting of what is dream and what is real. The prose piece, ‘Miyazaki bloom’, opens with this idea and the narrator’s sense of belonging “nowhere” is repeated. This is undoubtedly heartfelt – though students living in strange cities have often felt the same way. Powles also casts around for role models (beyond Mulan) and writes about the New Zealand poet, Robin Hyde and the great Chinese author Eileen Chang, both of whom resided in Shanghai for a time. ‘Falling City’ is a rather exhausting 32 section prose exploration of Chang’s residence, mixing academic observations, personal reminiscence and moments of fantasy to end (bathetically) with inspiration for Powles: “I sit down at one of the café tables and begin to write. It is the first day of spring”.
But there’s no doubting the range of reference in Magnolia 木蘭 is refreshing and bringing something new to UK poetry. Poems allude to writers like Hyde and Chang, filmmakers like Miyazaki, the actor Maggie Cheung, Princess Mononoke (a Japanese spirit figure) as well as images from her New Zealand home. Powles’ enthusiasm is also infectious when it comes to formal experimentation. There is little conventional ‘verse’ to be found here. Prose in various guises is frequent, lists and fragments predominate. There are instructional texts, quiz and QandA forms, text and footnote, quoting and re-purposing of other texts, two-column poems (read two ways) and (very frequently) a jotting or journalistic form. This latter gives rise to the best sequence in the collection, ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’. Its 8 short sections return to the question of what is real, expressing a fear of things/words slipping away: “There are so many things I am trying to hold together”. Powles’ time studying Mandarin is contributory here as each section explores the homophonic/polysemic nature of Chinese characters. The first character of her mother’s name, for example, also suggests rain, language, warm, lips and lines/veins. Such moments are fascinating and often poetically suggestive. Another character, ‘zong’, encompasses assemble, trace and the uneven flight of a bird; all aspects of Powles’ technique as a writer. The sequence ends with a sense of language having been lost, though the image of a dropped jar of honey perhaps suggests something holds, something remains: “The glass broke but the honey held its shards together, collapsing softly”.
Indeed, another of the pleasures of Powles’ poems is her vivid writing about food. She has said the book is a love poem to Shanghai and it certainly does justice to its culinary offerings. There are four options for ‘Breakfast in Shanghai’, egg noodles crisping in a wok, dumplings, white cabbage and pork and a whole dishful of pink-hearted pomelo fruit. She also has a heightened sense of colour (reflected in Nine Arches’ cover perhaps) and there are ekphrastic responses to Agnes Martin, Lisa Reihana and Werner’s ‘Nomenclature of Colours’ (1814).
Mark Rothko’s ‘Saffron’ (1957) makes an appearance in ‘Colour fragments’ and, after a vivid evocation of the original image, Powles’ response is too unremarkable in that she imagines climbing into the painting, “and you are floating or drowning or both at the same time”. This is not original (or originally expressed) and has something of an undergraduate feel to it. That’s harsh – but what Powles has to say at the moment does not live up to the impressive technical and referential aspects of her writing. I don’t think listing ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’ (none of them very striking, all dealt with in other poems) or ‘Faraway Love’, a re-purposing of Tate gallery notes on a piece by Agnes Martin, should have made the cut to this first book. The book Nine Arches Press presents here is quite a feast – unselfconsciously delighting in colour, taste and a strong sense of place – but it’s also too self-conscious about its nature as poetry and hence I’m left with the less pleasing taste of a poet in hiding or at least one often arrayed in other writers’ clothes.
At the heart of Will Harris’ first collection is the near pun between ‘rendang’ and ‘rending’. The first term is a spicy meat dish, originating from West Sumatra, the country of Harris’ paternal grandmother, a dish traditionally served at ceremonial occasions to honour guests. In one of many self-reflexive moments, Harris imagines talking to the pages of his own book, saying “RENDANG”, but their response is, “No, no”. The dish perhaps represents a cultural and familial connectiveness that has long since been severed, subject to a process of rending, and the best poems here take this deracinated state as a given. They are voiced by a young, Anglo-Indonesian man, living in London and though there is a strong undertow of loss and distance, through techniques such as counterpoint, cataloguing and compilation, the impact of the book, if not exactly of sweetness, is of human contact and discourse, of warmth, of “something new” being made.
This last phrase comes from ‘State-Building’, one of the more interesting, earlier poems in Rendang (a book which feels curiously hesitant and experimental in its first 42 pages, then bursts into full voice from its third section onwards). This poem characteristically draws very diverse topics together, starting from Derek Walcott’s observations on love (his image is of a broken vase which is all the stronger for having been reassembled). This thought leads to seeing a black figure vase in the British Museum which takes the poem (in a Keatsian moment, imagining what’s not represented there) to thoughts of “freeborn” men debating philosophy and propolis, or bee glue, metaphorically something that has to come “before – is crucial for – the building of a state”. The bees lead the narrator’s fluent thoughts to a humming bin bag, then a passing stranger who reminds the narrator of his grandmother and the familial connection takes him to his own father, at work repairing a vase, a process (like the poem we have just read) of assemblage using literal and metaphorical “putty, spit, glue” to bring forth, not sweetness, but in a slightly cloying rhyme, that “something new”.
This is how the best of Harris’ poems are put together. If up-rootedness is the state from which they struggle into existence, the wish to ‘only connect’ is only to be expected and these poems pleasure the reader with their galloping range of reference. Harris is perfectly at ease with the scholarly, with allusions or direct quotes from Coleridge, T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Theophile Gautier, Heaney and Sharon Olds. But these are easily matched by unselfconscious nods to Otis Redding, Morrissey, Dr Dre, John Coltrane, Gandalf, The One Show, Sonic the Hedgehog and Wars, both Robot and Star. Such items simply come into the consciousness of the narrative voice as he goes about his daily business and they are assembled by its centripetal force to yield the sense of an individual both open to influences and striving to make sense of them. In ‘From the other side of Shooter’s Hill’, Harris declares his artistic position: “I reject the possibility of narrating any life other than my own / and need a voice capacious enough to be both me and not-me, / while always clearly being me”.
His readers don’t have to accept such limitations of the imagination to appreciate that Harris’s best poems really do possess an enviable “capaciousness” and the skill to piece disparate parts together to evoke the flow of a modern consciousness. ‘Another Life’ makes disparaging remarks about a “short white man” reciting poems which yearn for “a vision of Old England / untouched by foreign hands” and Harris ends with allusions to Isaiah: “Enlarge the place of thy tent”. With a lightness of touch, such points are made about history, culture and ethnicity, but Harris’ voice is less often embattled and bristling, more often open to a variety of individual encounters. Interestingly, in ‘Half Got Out’, Harris seems to be sharing an enthusiasm for W.S. Merwin’s work (via a friend, Leo, who enthuses about it). In one of the many urban meetings in Rendang (“near Leicester Square”), Leo is excited about reading Merwin’s 1983 poem, ‘Yesterday’, in which a narrator is only half listening to a friend talking of his deliberate distancing from his father, the narrator meanwhile recalling his own distance from his father, and thereby creating a distance in the relationship between the two friends (“I look out the window”). This is a very good example of interpersonal ‘rending’, but also (if you look up Merwin’s poem) the fluently unpunctuated lines, the blurring of individuals’ thoughts and speech (but perhaps not the overall tragic note of the poem) can be traced forwards into Harris’ own work.
Formally, Harris likes very long lines of 15 syllables or more, arranged in what are paragraphs more than stanzas. This facilitates the capaciousness of the voice and, in a fine poem like ‘Break’, Harris seems to be effortlessly improvising on the title word (another version of fragmentation and rending). The narrator is emptying coffee grounds (“runny / as the stool of a sick dog” – there is a baggy, chatty quality to Harris’ writing mostly which doesn’t lend itself to the epigrammatic or the vivid apercu, but that’s a good one) just outside the backdoor. The voice is operating on this occasion as if in conversation with a “you” who might object to him dumping the grounds outside but who is currently absent because the pair of them are “on a break”. The nature of the ‘rent’ in the relationship is unclear – brief absence or trial separation? – but the thought of the “break” suggests it as a topic for the narrator poetry writing class. He looks up ‘break’ in the Bible and finds plenty of allusions to it in The Book of Job. From the God of the Bible, the poem, slides to a Sharon Olds poem about God and sex, and perhaps from the latter, we loop back to the broken relationship: “still I frame / my thoughts as if they were to you”. He listens to music in which he hears various types of ‘breaks’ including an improvised one by Coltrane, the band’s resumption after which takes the poem to thoughts on time and change, after the pause or disjuncture, “Everything and nothing is / the same”. The poem ends with imagining a dying dog (the same one who shat earlier in the poem?) and concludes equivocally on death itself (the ultimate of breaks), asking whether it is a withering away or like “daylight breaking through an open door”.
Such a poem is; it does not say. It is not driven by, or filled with, self-regard. Though there is a self about whom a reader may feel concern and sympathy, the portrait of the self remains porous, so radically open, that readers can easily enter into it, Harris thereby creates the magical impression that these might well be our own thoughts. Before this book’s publication Harris was best known for the poem ‘SAY’, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2018 (listen to Harris reading the poem here). Here too, fragmentation – brokenness – is the initial starting point in block of stone found by the Thames at low tide. On it, the word ‘SAY’. Another is found. On this one the word ‘LES’ (less?). It turns out the two are actually halves of a whole, spelling ‘SAYLES, the name of a now defunct London-based company that once refined sugar from the Caribbean. The sequence of counterpoints and compilations in this case takes the poem from these (light touch) allusions to the slave trade, to an acid attack on Muslims, Rilke’s imperative to “flow” , the narrator’s hospitalised father, Seamus Heaney’s North, the narrator’s mother’s pronunciation of English words, back to the father trying to send a text. As a reviewer, one falls into such ‘accounts’ of these poems because to venture further towards interpretation means to engage in a kind of imposition on the material that Harris himself seems carefully to avoid. Perhaps they demand a new way of talking about poems.
The collection concludes with ‘Rendang’ itself, a longer sequence of poems which is assembled in just the same way, primarily from conversations with a friend called Yathu and the recall of a visit to Chicago. Perhaps it is because of the different choices made about form here (Harris includes a few passages as play script – and you wonder if that is one of the ways this writer will go), but the materials seem to meld less well with each other. Raymond Antrobus’ blurb comment on this book, the first for the new poetry publisher, Granta, praises Harris’ approach to his materials as working “without reduction or sensationalism”. It’s true, there is an accuracy to Harris’ rendering of the self and the ways in which we encounter the other and what is especially enjoyable about these poems is the way in which such concerns are not hot-housed or cordoned off but take place in the complex blaze and banality of our contemporary cultures.
Ella Frears’ Shine, Darling is brimming with youthful exuberance and despair, yet not a jot lacking in thoughtful sophistication. Her subjects are boredom, sex, a woman’s body and the harassment that rushes to fill the void left by uncertain selfhood. A key poem is ‘The (Little) Death of the Author’, about a 13-year-old girl texting/sexting boys in her class, though the title is, of course, one Roland Barthes would have enjoyed. The narrator – looking back to her teen self – remembers pretending to be texting in the bath. The “triumph” is to make the boys think of herself naked (when she’s really eating dinner or doing homework). Hence “Text / and context are different things”. Her texts are careful constructions, evocative, alluring, full of tempting ellipses. On both sides, there is a filmic fictionalising going on (in the absence of any real sexual experience). The poem (which is a cleverly achieved irregularly lined sestina) ends with the authorial voice breaking cover: the poem itself is “a text I continue to send: Reader, I’m in the bath . . . / Nothing more to say than that. And if you like / you can join me”. The flirtation is a bit overdone (but other poems show Frears is wholly conscious of that) and the poem indicates one of this book’s chief concerns is with the difference between the truth of what happens and the truth of a poem.
But Frears’ balance between biographical revelation and fiction-making artistry is a subtle one. The book’s frankness is to be praised. Apart from on-line flirtation, poems allude to masturbation, oral sex, teen sex/petting, periods, prostitution, a pregnancy scare, urination (thank you Andrew McMillan!), a couple of disembodied penises, but also domestic violence and suicide. Many of the poems seem to reflect Frears’ own upbringing in Cornwall. ‘The Overwhelming Urge’ evokes a restless teenage boredom suffered in St Ives. The lines jitter across the page, starting and restarting little narrative moments, opening with images of (either) bullying or self-harm. The narrative voice mocks herself as “Saint Sebastian” as well as her attempts at the role of seductress, of a Marilyn Monroe. The reality is more sordid: a man exposing himself. Her remoteness from the moment is neatly caught in the choice of language, the mocking art-speak: “She [. . . ] files it under: / penis, moonlit”. But erotic experimentation remains an available distraction as ‘Fucking in Cornwall’ makes knowingly, hilariously clear: “The rain is thick and there’s half a rainbow / over the damp beach; just put your hand up my top”. There’s an uncharacteristic confidence to this narrator who knows what she wants, but there are many more female narrators in this collection who are troubled and confused about what they want, indeed who they are.
The obvious risk of such sexual adventuring is the subject of ‘Hayle Services (grease impregnated)’. The parenthetical allusion here is to Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Filling Station’ where everything is “oil-soaked, oil-permeated [. . .] grease / impregnated”, a poem which concludes, against the odds of its grimy context, that “Somebody loves us all”. In contrast, Frears’ crappy, retail-dominated English motorway service station is (ironically) the stage for a pregnancy scare, a desperate search for a test kit in Boots and an anxious, “[p]issy” fumbling in the M&S toilet cubicle, then waiting for the “pink voila”. The headlong, impossible-to-focus, sordid anxiety here is brilliantly captured in the short, run-on lines. Frears also catches the young woman’s multiplicity of streams of consciousness, the scattershot: the potential father is present but soon forgotten, his reassurances dismissed, the pushy sales staff avoided in anger and embarrassment, the difficulty of urinating, the cringingly inappropriate joke-against-self in “et tu uterus”, the conventional moral judgement (“soiled / ruined spoiled”) and the final phone call to “Mamma, can you come pick me up?”
Frears shows her female narrators bringing about many of their own difficulties, but the pressures of their social, sexual, cultural contexts are sketched in too. This is especially so in the 16-page long poem, ‘Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity’, in which Frears represents, diagnoses, resents and warns in equal measure. The material here might have made a novel, but it is assembled from fragmentary texts (verse and prose), not particularly chronologically arranged, the latter decision bringing out more clearly the recurrent traits – both the weaknesses and the harassment – of the central female figure. At the age of 10, she experienced a near-abduction by a predatory man in a hotel. She seems to have run off just in time but then failed to identify the man later (this isn’t wholly clear) and the man went on to abduct another girl (again not wholly clear). So the near-abduction of the girl is a moment of danger (heavily gendered), of guilt at her passivity and fear, but also a moment when she sensed “something new in me”, an adult self, perhaps as a sexual being.
The concern for male aggression also surfaces in later relationships with two pushy boys and (later still) with a manipulative man she meets in a pub. All three male figures impose on her (on her uncertainty and lack of confidence) their own interpretative narratives. They persuade her to believe things she suspects are not true and thence they also impose on her sexually. The man in the pub is especially, pathetically dangerous: “He apologises, tells me he has just separated / from his wife. She moved out today”. Frears also adds into the mix two relationships with young women. Lucy is one of six in a shared house with the narrator. But Lucy makes up stories about a gay relationship between them and later attempts suicide. Even so, the narrator finds it hard to hold on to the truth: “When I think back on Lucy, / I see myself doing the things she said I did”. A similar pattern emerges in her (not much developed) relationship with Millie who does suddenly kill herself. The narrator is then cast, almost cajoled, into the role of best friend by Millie’s father and twin sister and, again, she seems to shrug and accept another person’s truth: “Who am I to say no to this?”. This uncertainty about herself (“Who am I”) is once more compounded with a guilty passivity (she does not defend Millie against their driving instructor’s criticisms).
The poem ends with the narrator adopting the role given her by Millie’s sister – it’s shocking but Frears would surely argue not so uncommon and more so for women in our society. This overriding and underlying mystery about “[w]ho am I” perhaps accounts for the book’s frequent engagement with the image of the moon. Juliet warns Romeo, “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, / That monthly changes in her circled orb”. ‘Moon Myth’ seems to want to reject the sun = male (strong, constant) and moon = female (changeable, uncertain) tropes. “[W]e have been assigned the moon” it complains and we know the patriarchy has done the assigning. Yet – in a good example of another Frears’ trait, switching the language register – we hear “58% of women say ‘take what you’re given, lest they assign us an even smaller celestial body”.
And yet, poems in Shine, Darling do regularly turn to the moon for possible explanations of actions (‘Phases of the Moon / Things I Have Done’), for a witness if not for protection (‘Walking Home One Night’) and for directions (‘I Knew Which Direction’). The latter poem is a beautiful lyric opener to the book but is rather misleading. The repetition of the word “moonlight” seems to give an almost visionary access: “no longer a word but a colour and then a feeling / and then the thing itself”. It is curious that a poet asserts the transparency of language in this way (Frears is not much concerned with the nature, limits and impositions of language, unlike Nina Mingya Powles’ shortlisted Magnolia 木蘭), but also the idea of such an untrammelled access to “the thing itself” is countered by every poem that follows. Frears’ world view may not be too much troubled by words but the very idea of a unitary truth to be beheld with clarity is profoundly doubted.
The moon’s final appearance and the collection’s title appears in the concluding poem. Men have been feared, ignored, desired, condemned and occasionally manipulated in some of these poems. Here a mischievous female narrator decides to maroon her boyfriend on the roof of their house while a dinner party goes on below. It’s at once a funny, tender, awkward image of emasculation and this ambiguity of tone is captured in the book title’s appearance – a little sarcastic, a little affectionate, rather camp and performative:
As the guests left I looked up and realised that there
was no moon. Shine, darling. I whispered.
And from behind the chimney rose his little head.
Such a finely judged ambiguity of impact is all of a part with this intriguing, shape-shifting, uneasy and often very funny first collection.
I am half way through the process of judging this year’s Segora Poetry Competition.I’ve been lucky enough to judge several such competitions in recent years and in 2015 I published a version of what follows on my blog as a compilation of my thoughts on the judging process. I’m tweaking and re-blogging it here in response to my experience of judging this new competition in 2020. As I have always found, the initial sifting of so many poems can be a slog, but the latter stages are unfailingly fascinating as the best poems – those that set little hooks in you from first reading – gradually rise to the top, their internal coherence emerging, alongside their skills with language, tone and form. So what follows is inevitably a personal take on the business – becoming more so, perhaps, as the process unfolds – but I hope it may cast some light on it for those (of us) tempted to spend hard-earned cash on entering the numerous competitions now running. Follow this link to see more upcoming competitions.
Some films stick in the mind for reasons beyond the cinematic, don’t they? In the 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty, Jim Carey plays the character of God and, along with more obviously useful powers, he has to respond to the prayers of the world. But people are always praying! He rapidly approaches a kind of madness as voices swim around him, clamouring for attention. He takes to reading the prayers in the form of e-mails. He tries to answer them individually but is receiving them faster than he can possibly respond. He decides to set his e-mail account to automatically answer “yes” to all, assuming that this will make everybody happy. Of course, it does not.
Now – a poetry competition judge comparing himself to a character playing God lays him/herself open to some obvious criticism – but I have indeed found the initial phases of judging poetry competitions rather like Jim Carey’s experience. There are so many and such a variety of voices clamouring to be heard and every one of them is heart-felt, recording significant moments in people’s lives. There is a similar sense of responsibility too – the raw nature of much of the writing submitted is impossible to deny. There are moments when I’d like to set my response mechanism to say ‘yes’ to everybody, but the judge’s task has to be how to distinguish submissions aspoetry.
What does that mean? The numbers involved are always a bit daunting. Many hundreds of poems have been submitted. Perhaps only 10% of these will demand a further reading after the brutal first sifting. Poems face an early, red stoplight from most judges because the basic poetic elements are not competently done. Here are some of the obvious failings:
Competitions are full of pieces where a particular verse form or rhyme pattern tyrannises the sentiment and/or sense. The writer’s submission to this tyranny becomes clear quickly through the contortions imposed on the language to achieve a rhyme.
The writer’s choice of language can be devastating to the life of the poem. It just isn’t right to opt for forms of language or abbreviations that died out early in the nineteenth century. Thankfully, this problem seems to be fading as more and more people actually read contemporary poetry books.
Choice of diction can also derail an entry if it is doggedly abstract. Sure, there remains much debate about whether it is the narrow English tradition that insists on things rather than ideas – but poems about Fear, Ignorance, Poverty, Eternity and Love which refuse to dip a toe into anything resembling a real life situation are going to find progress hard.
A fourth error is using language without being fully conscious of its likely resonance with a reader. A poem using the verb ‘gaslight’ without knowing its current slang meaning or another called ‘Mother’s Pride’ which seems unaware of the loaf of bread, well, they are going to have unanticipated clutter to climb over in any reader’s mind. Louis MacNeice wanted the poet not to be an ivory tower type, but rather “able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics . . . actively interested in politics”. All a bit Boys Own perhaps, but if this means the poet stays bang up to date with the way words live then he’s right.
If you are still thinking of submitting to a competition, it’s worth recalling Wordsworth’s formulation – familiar though it will feel to most – that poetry is built from “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Poems forged in the heat of the moment (and not revised or reviewed) are seldom without their flaws. And this is the kind of distinction Rainer Maria Rilke makes when he denies poetry is composed of feelings. Its constituents (he says) are rather “experiences” which he clarifies as “memories” though even with these, we “must be able to forget them when they are many and one must have the immense patience to wait until they come again . . . Only when they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them”. On the other hand, such recollection can sometimes create an intellectualised distance that may do harm to a good poem. Who said writing a poem was easy?
Stephen Spender argued that a poet should try to acquire skill and virtuosity through the study and interpretation of other poetic works in the way Mozart and Beethoven did in playing the music of their predecessors. Spender suggests translating poetry is the best possible exercise in interpretation. But the really important lessons (Spender says) are those of the eye, the ear, the athletic/poetic muscles. A poet can go a long way without a developed heart, but, he says, can get nowhere at all without these skills. The poet must ask continually of his lines: ‘Do they make the reader see, or hear, or feel, this experience which I am trying to re-create?’
Reaching the final stages, the judge will be focusing more on positives and hence more precisely on the sense, the story, the thought and feeling of a poem. Personally, I like poems that focus on small things and, in effect, make arguments for the ways in which they communicate the bigger issues that concern us all. I’m with Thomas Hardy in believing that “he used to notice such things” is one of the greatest of compliments. Edward Thomas’ poem about Spring, ‘But these things also’, likewise echoes this focus on what most people tend to overlook:
The shell of a little snail bleached
In the grass; chip of flint, and mite
Of chalk; and the small birds’ dung
In splashes of purest white . . .
Perhaps one explanation of why the question ‘what is poetry?’ is so difficult to answer is because it is, to a large extent, an art of the negative, of avoidance. The Daodejing says what is rigid and inflexible is a companion of death; what is flexible is a companion of life. I’d guess there would be general agreement that poetry is an art on the side of life. So poetry must eschew the inflexible; we must avoid the posture. And that’s very hard. In judging a competition, one comes across the Wordsworth-posture, the Ginsberg-posture, alongside those of Hughes, Plath, Duffy, Oswald . . . But we also posture like mad in ‘real life’. We may take up the pose of grief, melancholy, love, liberalism, environmentalism . . . For me, the mark of the absence of posturing is an instability, an openness, an awareness of time (which posture tries to deny) and this is something I look for in a good poem. If a poem strikes an attitude my attention diminishes (even if the attitude is one that wants to show a rejection of attitudinising through the hall of mirrors of ironic distancing). When the poem unearths a pulsing, shifting, live relationship between the self and the other, then I am captivated, recognising something that is both commonly human and uniquely personal.
But having said all this, I’d assure potential competition entrants that anything resembling a rule is there to be broken. Philip Pullman has said, “We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.” So any poem in any form can work its magic. It will haunt its reader for days; it will make me change the way I think and feel; make me see the world differently. Ultimately, a poem contributes to who the reader is becoming. That is an exciting prospect for the writer. It is an even more exciting one for the judge who settles down to read.
This is how reviews are supposed to work. I recently read James Harpur’s comments on Bonjour Mr Inshaw, published by Two Rivers Press (poems by Peter Robinson, paintings by David Inshaw) in the Spring 2020 issue of Agenda, ‘Pound Reconsidered’. I went out and bought the book.
I’ve long thought of writing poems about David Inshaw’s paintings, drawn to what Harpur calls his ability to “invest landscapes with spiritual light and energy, balancing realism with a sense of the mythic, of penetrating a noumenal sphere”. The other personal draw to his work has been that Inshaw’s home (and home ground as an artist) is that part of Wiltshire to the west of where I grew up. Inshaw’s home is in Devizes and many of his paintings are of the landscape just a bit further west, of Silbury Hill, Avebury, the barrows and downs of that area. The drive from the M4 turn-off at Hungerford, on the Bath Road, through Marlborough and the A361 to Devizes has long figured in my personal list of favourite drives (not wholly because it was for years the route to my childhood home in Hilperton, Wiltshire). And now Peter Robinson has beaten me to it with this beautiful book of full colour images and 19 poems, though his approach is not simply ekphrastic (merely descriptive of the images) but often launches out from the pictures into concerns shared by the two artists.
Robinson and Inshaw in fact met at Cambridge in the 1970s. That moment is uncertainly recalled in the poem ‘In the Seventies’ (a title borrowed from Thomas Hardy’s poem in Moments of Vision – a sub-theme of this whole book is how both poet and artist respond to Hardy’s work). Various chance meetings over 50 years then occurred including a visit to Devizes in January 2019 during which the project of this book was agreed upon.
The word ‘haunted’ seems to have been designed to be applied to Inshaw’s landscapes. There is a hyper-real quality to the painting which makes the viewer re-see our own surroundings but also takes us through the surface. Harpur’s Agenda review suggested a “Platonic vision” but I’d object to losing the surface of the real so readily. Inshaw was a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists (here is an old BBC documentary on them – a brilliant example of ‘slow’ TV before it had been thought of) and his landscapes are usually peopled and the trees and downs and ancient memorials are therefore always ‘seen’. Inshaw’s work is about time and memory (Hardy again) and the way moments of vision or perception can feel heightened. The poem ‘Haunting Landscapes’ alludes to Inshaw’s ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’ (another quote from Hardy, his poem ‘After a Journey’). A woman in black stands in a graveyard but has turned as if being called to from beyond the frame (by a memory, a ghost).
As in so many memories, there is a heightened particularity to Inshaw’s paintings. There is a Rilkean focus on what ‘The Kennet’ calls “being here”. Look at Inshaw’s ‘Tree and Moon’, for example, and Robinson’s accompanying poem, ‘At Slader’s Yard’, associates the two artists (and their art forms) in the quality of their ‘noticing’: “I’m a counter of clouds / come over the hills like this one / ‘salmoning’ in a ‘deepening blue’”. Hardy’s poem ‘Afterwards’ describes himself as a “man who . . . noticed things”. Robinson’s concluding poem, ‘After a Visit’, suggests how Inshaw’s precision of observation (“the starkness of those winter branches’ / black against a glowing skyline”) manages to inculcate a sense of something other than mere perception of colour and shape: “it brings back the sense of some design, / and a meaning to this scene”. The root and pattern of design is unclear. The value of such a comprehending vision is heightened by the precise historical context in which many of these poems were written. The divisions and confusions of Brexit and the world of Covid infection and lockdowns keeps breaking through the surface of this book. The parliamentary “palaver”, hypocritically urging us to “come together as a nation” and a certain politician, “pre-disgraced”, indicate that neither poet nor painter look upon the landscape of southern England with their heads in the clouds, nor with any narrowly nostalgic gaze.
Last week I was invited to take part in an on-line discussion about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, written to a young would-be poet in the early 1900s.This event was organised by the Kings Place group, Chamberstudio, and the panel included two other poets, Martha Kapos and Denise Riley, musicians Mark Padmore, Amarins Weirdsma and Sini Simonen and composer Sally Beamish. We had such a fascinating discussion on Rilke’s advice to young artists (though perhaps we hardly scratched the surface) that I wanted to re-visit it and re-organise my own thoughts about the letters; hence this blog post. Though warm in tone and supportive, the letters are a way of Rilke talking to himself, developing coherent ideas that can be traced through the New Poems (1907/8), Requiem to a Friend (1909), even to the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheusof 1922. I am quoting throughout from Stephen Cohn’s translation of the letters, included in his translation of Sonnets to Orpheus (Carcanet, 2000).
Rilke’s advice to Franz Kappus was evidently received with gratitude as the correspondence between them continued (if sporadically) from early 1903 to December 1908. We don’t have Kappus’ side of things, but from Rilke’s comments it’s clear the younger, aspiring poet’s letters were remarkably open, even confessional in substance, as suggested by the published letters’ recurring observations about sexual relations. But as for practical advice to a young poet, Rilke offers little, opening with, “I am really not able to discuss the nature of your poems” to “You ask if your poems are good poems . . . You doubtless send your poems out to magazines and you are distressed each time the editors reject your efforts . . . my advice is that you should give all that up”. Probably not what Kappus hoped to hear, though he will have quickly understood that Rilke has more profound points to make. But it means these letters ought to be read less as advice to aspiring writers and more as advice on the best ways to ripen (Rilke’s metaphor) the inner self, a consequence of which might be the conviction that creative work was a necessity for the individual. Peter Porter once suggested a better title for the sequence would have been, ‘Letters to a Young Idealist’ (Introduction to Cohn’s Carcanet translation).
The advice given is carefully positive – what to seek – and fulsomely negative – what ought to be avoided. Friendly and remarkably sympathetic as his tone is through the series of letters, what Rilke asks, in truth, is extraordinarily demanding for mere ordinary mortals. Rilke urges a priest-like devotion to his High Romantic, Godless programme. In brief, what is to be sought is a clear, honest and open relationship with one’s own inner life and that demands a corresponding avoidance of everything that might distance us from it, especially the pernicious influence of social and cultural conventions, what has been thought, said, written or done before. Rilke makes no bones about how difficult the former is and how frightening the latter is going to feel.
The only way, Letter 1 insists, is to “goinside yourself”. And in Letter 3, we need to “allow each thing its own evolution, each impression and each grain of feeling buried in the self, in the darkness, unsayable, unknowable, and with infinite humility and patience to await the birth of a new illumination”. For reasons discussed later, there has to be a degree of passivity about this process: we must “await with deep humility and patience the moment of birth”. In his reply, Kappus must have enumerated the pain and suffering he was experiencing as a young man because Letter 8 spins this positively: “did not these sorrows go right through you – and not merely past you? Has there not been a great deal in you that has changed? Were you not somewhere . . . transformed while you were so sorrowful?” These often rough inner weathers of our emotional lives are precisely what is required. Only then, “something unfamiliar enters into us, something unknown; our senses, inhibited, and shy, fall silent; everything within us shrinks back, there is silence, and at its centre this new thing, strange to us all, stands mutely there”. In one of several memorable images, Rilke explains, through such emotional experience (the pains as much as, or even more than, the pleasures) “we have been changed as a house changes when a guest enters it”.
Those familiar with Keats’ ideas (expressed in his 1819 Letters) about the world as a ‘vale of soul-making’ will find something very familiar here. But Rilke’s take on the process of ‘spirit creation’ lays far heavier emphasis on the need for solitude to achieve it. Letter 5 tells Kappus, “win yourself back from the insistence of the talk and the chatter of the multitude (and how it chatters!)”. The chattering world is a distraction from what ought to be the subject of our study (our inner selves): “What is required is this: solitariness, great inner solitariness. The going-into oneself and the hours on end spent without encountering anyone else: it is this we must be able to achieve” (Letter 6). Such solitude enables greater concentration but also more true (uninfluenced) perception of our inner life. Yet to turn away from so much that is familiar will be frightening. In Letter 8, Rilke compares this to someone “plucked from the safety of his own small room and, unprepared and almost instantaneously, set down upon the heights of some great mountain-range”. What must then be experienced is “a never-to-be-equalled sense of insecurity, of having fallen into the power of something nameless [and this] would virtually destroy him”.
The negative influences of those (us, the timid majority) who have pulled back from such a state of perception is explained. Rilke’s basic tenet is that we are all “solitary”. But the uncertainty of a ‘true’ perception of this is too much for most people: “mankind has been pusillanimous in this respect [and] has done endless harm to life itself: all phenomena we call ‘apparitions’, all the so-called ‘spirit-world’, death, all these things so closely akin to us have been fended off . . . and so thoroughly purged from our lives that the senses by which we might have grasped them have atrophied. To say nothing at all of God”. What Rilke describes here are a number of the conventional ideas – pure figments about the truth of spirituality, death and a deity – that people have populated their world with in seeking greater security. Kappus is told, “a perilous uncertainty is so very much more human” and the truly human, let alone the ambitious poet, must accept the principle that “we arrange our lives in accordance with the precept that teaches us always to hold to what is difficult – then everything that still appears most alien will become all that is best-trusted, most dependable”. Rilke’s chosen metaphor here is the folkloric/mythic image of the terrifying dragon that turns into a rewarding princess at the last moment.
Herein lies also the wisdom of passivity. As Keats argued in parallel, with his idea of negative capability (the knack of remaining “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”), so Rilke’s fourth Letter advises Kappus not to seek out answers now but to “love the very questions, just as if they were locked-up rooms or books in an utterly unknown language”. The key is to “live them” by which Rilke (like Keats) means to examine and attend to them as fully as possible. He goes so far as to advise a child-like incomprehension (which is at least based on an openness to the questions asked) over a cowardly defensiveness or contempt (which falls back on a distancing from those questions). This is why, in Letter 2, he sharply advises Kappus to avoid irony. There are, says Rilke, “great and serious subjects before which irony stands helpless and diminished” because irony is, by definition, a standing outside of a question or topic. For the same reason, Rilke distrusts engagement with literary or aesthetic criticism (precisely what Kappus has asked of him in relation to his own poems). Letter 3 argues such critical discussions are “received opinions, opinions grown petrified and meaningless, insensitive . . . clever word games”, hence far distant from life itself. The same Letter suggests the artist needs to retain an innocence, even a lack of awareness of his/her creative powers, lest self-consciousness diminish freedom and “purity”. Indeed language itself – the common method of exchange between people – is suspect in representing, in its unexamined use, conventional thought and feeling: “it is so often on the name of a transgression that a life is shipwrecked, and not on the individual, nameless act-in-itself”.
Even these letters, Rilke says in Letter 9, need to be treated with caution and patience: “receive them quietly and with not too many thanks, and let us, please, wait and see what may come of them”. This is a warning not enough heeded by subsequent generations of readers, but Rilke’s real humility is re-emphasised at the end of the preceding Letter. Perhaps feeling he has been delivering advice from ‘on high’, Rilke warns Kappus, “do not believe that he who seeks to console you dwells effortlessly among the quiet and simple words which sometimes content you. His own life holds much trouble and sorrow, and it falls far short of them”. Surely Rilke is not merely alluding here to the life of the creative artist. Prompted, as I have said, by Kappus’ own openness about what we might call ‘romantic’ aspects of his own life, Rilke devotes a lot of space to interpersonal relationships in these letters. His point in Letter 7 is that this area of human life too is poisoned (“well-furnished” – this topic brings out Rilke’s satirical side) with conventional thinking and language: “here are life belts of the most varied invention, boats and buoyancy packs . . . safety aids of all conceivable kinds”. Such ‘safety’ features are more fictions designed to forestall a true encounter with the kinds of questions that human relationships inevitably throw up. Letter 3 particularly criticises male sexual attitudes (lustful, drunken, restless, arrogant, prejudiced) and Letter 7 anticipates a “new and individual flowering” of female sexuality which will lead to relationships not defined as male/female but as “one person and another person”.
Such a renovation of individuals, from the inside out, is the urgent call of this series of letters. As to advice to Kappus the wannabe writer, Rilke offers very little, but what he does suggest is wholly in keeping with his other ideas. Letter 1 urges close observation as the only viable method. As I have made clear, this is especially close observation of our inner lives. But one’s whole life needs to be built around this principle, so “you must approach the world of Nature… try to tell of what you see and experience”. Rilke says don’t try to write love poems or on other common subjects of poetry. This is because they will be infected with those conventions of thought and expression I have discussed above. Rather, “favour the subjects which your own day-to-day experience can offer you”. The poet’s approach to such everyday subjects needs to be “quiet, humble, [with] passionate sincerity” to avoid clichés of thought and feeling, hand-me-down solutions or worn out, petrified language. These are the methods Rilke learned from watching Rodin sketching in Paris. Pre-empting likely objections that such an approach would produce work of little importance, Rilke goes on: “If your daily life seems mean to you – do not find fault with it; rather chide yourself that you are not poet enough to evoke its riches” (Letter 1).
The everyday is rich and complex enough for Rilke without any irritable searching after more conventionally dramatic, sensational, controversial subjects to address. The images that Letter 3 associates with this humble creative process is of gestation (“to carry, come to term, give birth”) and the slow growth of trees (“letting the sap flow at its own pace”). In Letter 6 he compares it to bees gathering honey (“drawing what is sweetest from all that there is”). Whether focusing within or without, the artist must begin from what is “unremarkable” and we become better acquainted “with things” and if this is too frightening a prospect – with no off-the-shelf solutions to human fears and insecurities, no God above all – Rilke has few comforts to offer the young poet. As regards God (or, as letter 6 refers to him, the “one who never was”), Rilke allows the idea of God only as the ideal or terminus towards which we travel, a state of full comprehension – through knowing humble things: “Does he not have to be the last, if everything is to be comprehended in him? And what meaning would there be in us, if the one we crave had already been there?”. God, for Rilke, does not pre-date us as an origin. He is the goal towards which we travel, aspire, build, create – ‘he’ is no more nor less than our fullest comprehension of life and death, hence our fullest sense of being in the world.
That the young Franz Kappus, after all this, decided to pursue a military career rather than a creative one is perhaps hardly surprising. It may be that the former presented the least frightening option! Rilke asks such a lot. His poem Requiem to a Friend of 1909 (the year after his correspondence with Kappus came to an end), dwells on the “old enmity / between life lived and great work to be done” (tr. Crucefix). The tragic lament of that particular poem arises from his conviction that the subject of its in memoriam, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, had proved herself strong enough to carry forward the huge burden of being an artist and that, therefore, her untimely death (just after the birth of her first child) was an irreparable loss to a world that needs all the true artists it can nurture.