How to Answer the Poetic Influence Question #1

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With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?

It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).

Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .

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For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.

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Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.

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Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.

 

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Ken Smith

 

A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies  for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.

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A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”

 

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Yves Bonnefoy

 

Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.

In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?

Two-Headed Calf: Review of Jacob Polley’s ‘Jackself’

Of those people I spoke to, many poetry readers were surprised and delighted that Jacob Polley’s Jackself recently won the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize against competition from the likes of Capildeo, Duhig, Oswald and Riley among others. Caught between a desire that prizes go only to the very best work and a wish that poetry’s few rewards be more equitably distributed, I was also delighted as this is a book which is bold and inventive, against the grain and successfully ambitious. (Apologies for some loss of formatting of any quotes that follow).

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The book’s novelistic aspects have been noted in reviews – they are easier to discuss than its poetic achievements. Jackself is a boy growing up in the rural north of England, befriended by Jeremy Wren who, within a few years, commits suicide, leaving Jackself to deal with the grief. As ‘novel’ material, both the opening and close of the book refuse to provide what a reader might be looking for but as poetry it delivers what Heaney characterised as the “superfluity of language’s own resources. It’s a kind of overdoing it. Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry” (Giving Their Word, 2002). Polley’s language is charged, improvisatory and colloquial. It is fluid and rhythmic (more modern, less ballad-like than some reviews have suggested). It has a crusted, superfluous quality to it that reminds me of Shakespeare, or what Hughes has described of Shakespeare’s excess, and Jackself is not thinned out by constant ironising, rather it’s thickened by a weight of language, history and imaginative hard work. It’s very impressive – but needs a few reads before it gives itself up.

It’s best to begin with Jackself’s birth poem, ‘Every Creeping Thing’, the second in the collection (I’ll return to the first, ‘The House that Jack Built’ later). The natural world is important to the boy and this book and his arrival “at the door / of the door of the door” is also a journey “by water mite / by the snail on its slick of light”. There’s a Hughesian feel to some of the poems (Crow’s ‘Examination at the Womb-door’ here?) but Jackself enters a childhood freshly and vividly caught in its exploration by mouth and “curatorial spit”, cat-watching, one-piece suits and sleep that ends by “mak[ing] / the world over again” (‘Jack Sprat’). All seems good and safe though by the sixth birthday party with its “six / goody candles” there is a noting of absence: “no wishing it wouldn’t be / or wasn’t or would better be / no wondering how so hard it hurts” (‘The Goodies’). This seems proleptic of darker questions to come and is also a good example of Polley’s vigorously colloquial style, full of dynamic sound patterning.

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It’s never easy to determine Jackself’s age in the book (occasionally I felt he was older than his responses suggested). I think Rimbaud suggests the detachment of self-consciousness kicks in around 7 years old so it’s perhaps at that age that Jackself is “afraid like snow he’ll wane or drift / before he can hold /  the road out front” (‘Jackself’s Quality’). He also explores “the lovely lofts / of Lamanby” – his house – showing a reflective, curiosity which is notably not catered for at school. ‘Lessons’ is great poem about the failures of education (I write as a teacher) with Jackself taken away to a corner, impelled to worship, to eat shit school dinners, to be humiliated before his parents. The thumbnail sketch of the Headmaster, Mr Workbench is worthy of Dickens as he “solemnly inclines / his one-thought- / at-a-time head”. Polley captures Jackself’s alternative headspace beautifully:

 

his mind a corner

of beehives

his fingers a box of matches

his nose the afternoon rain

[. . . ]

his tongue an earwig

before it hatches

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Where Jackself is at home is in the natural world. ‘Applejack’ has strong echoes of Hughes’ ‘Wodwo’ with its instinctual, open-minded, pre-language, exploratory movement:

 

by hedgehog path

and badger path, Jackself

happens with the clouds

into sunlight

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The book lights up differently with the appearance of Jeremy Wren, a more wise-cracking, cynical, entrepreneurial and ultimately more troubled young man than Jackself. The pair strike up a double act – they both respond powerfully to the natural world and their dialogues are both funny and poignant. In ‘Les Symbolistes’, getting drunk on “white cider and Malibu”, Jackself let’s slip for the first time an interest in poetry: “A POEM! Wren roars / you’re creepy as a two-headed calf”. This is also one of the early moments when we see Wren’s troubled side – his father beats him. The jigsaw pieces of the boy’s troubles are carefully placed by Polley. He and Jackself meet in a goose shed, as if both on the run from something; ‘It’ asks “tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren”; in ‘Snow Dad’ Wren insists they make a replacement father snow-man but also recalls when he climbed into a chest freezer. He hangs himself in ‘Pact’. He “hangs thinking fuck I’ve left / no note until he’s fucking dead”. Maitreyabandhu has written of not dissimilar events in his sequence ‘Stephen’ in The Crumb Road (Bloodaxe, 2013).

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Jackself now becomes a study in teenage grief. ‘The Hole’ has Jackself contemplating Wren’s grave (this is one of the poems where the language seems less comfortably matched with the likely age of the boy). One way he tries to deal with the loss is by writing. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ is a deconstructed – or as they say of websites, still in construction – ballad with Jackself trying, then rejecting, lines in a fashion that is both humorous and touching (“no           again . . .  no          again”).

Polley’s achievement is to find a form and voice which can encompass all this . . . stuff. Long and short lines are scattered across the pages, poems often start in media res, often lack an explicit subject, dialogue is unmarked and the reader must sort things out. But this all adds urgency to the telling and a fluidity to the narrative perspectives. Polley’s Jackself often reminded me of David Jones’ protagonist, Private John Ball, from In Parenthesis (1937). The two share a mythic quality, representative but individualised. In ‘The Misery’ Jackself becomes/sees himself as a heroic dragon-slayer and the dragon he wishes to kill is his grief at the death of Wren. The disturbed psychological perspective implied by this is a result of his depression over the suicide of his friend – but the poem manages a marvellous mock-heroic tone:

 

from his weapon chest,

the sheath knife, Eglantine                      from his wardrobe,

his denim jacket, torch, tool belt, tin camping cup,

rucksack, horned hat and Gore-Tex breastplate

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What he kills in the end is just a rabbit but the ritualistic/symbolic nature of his action has an effect. It takes a while, during which he continues his (often hilarious) dialogues with the dead Wren and finds solace in the natural world but ‘Tithe’ indicates through its page lay-out, its vast white spaces, that Wren vanishes eventually, Jackself moves on.

Hard to end such a book and I confess I didn’t find the ballad-like ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ very satisfying, but perhaps I’m falling foul of the novel reader’s desire for narrative closure (though I thought we’d all grown out of that). This is in contrast to the opening poem of the book, ‘The House that Jack Built’, which I found powerful in its own right as a historical survey of the region in which Jackself’s brief story takes place. Polley writes of the trees being felled and used, re-growing through history, interactions with burgeoning human society, the Industrial Revolution, canal building, eventually to the construction of Lamanby itself. Critics will want to debate its relevance to the sequence of personal biography that follows it and concludes with no explicit ‘picking up’ of the opening poem’s themes. It is a problem; but the depth of history this opening poem implies, its focus on the natural world, its foregrounding of (for want of a better word) folk culture surely gains Polley permission for the way in which he tells Jackself’s tale, for it as a poem. Like Jones’ use of mythic, folkloric and Shakespearean materials in In Parenthesis, Polley raises the small-scale biographical to a type without losing anything of the minute particulars which enable its readers to read Jack as themselves.

14 Ways to Write an Ekphrastic Poem

Ekphrastic poems (ie. poems stimulated by visual art) are on my mind a great deal as I have been planning the all-day workshop I have been asked to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath on the 25th February, 2017. This particular exhibition, ‘Breughel: Defining a Dynasty’, opens on the 11th February and was in the news recently as it will include, among many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. I’ve been reading a variety of poems derived in some fashion from the poet’s encounter with visual art and I wondered if there was a way of categorising the various approaches. There are probably many – but these 14 ways (in 5 subgroups) are what I have come up with and they might usefully serve as a way to kick-start ekphrastic poems of your own. Try one a day for the next fortnight!

Through Description

  1. Describe – and do no more. This is always the poet’s initial desire, to put into words what has caught our attention visually (and because attention has been visually caught there is something about this image or object that chimes with the writer’s subconscious). In terms of the poet’s intention, the wish to describe may be sufficient (the subconscious may do the rest). Examples might be Michael Longley’s ‘Man Lying on a Wall’ (from Lowry’s poem of the same name) or William Carlos William’s ‘The Dance’ (from Breughel the Elder’s ‘Peasant Dance’).

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  1. Describe but imagine beyond the frame – Derek Mahon’s ‘Girls on the Bridge’ (after Munch’s painting of the same name) does this, beginning with description of the scene but then wonders where the road leads away to in space, asks what the next day will bring (in time) and concludes with allusions to Munch’s more famous image ‘The Scream’: “bad dreams / You hardly know will scatter / The punctual increment of your lives”.

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  1. Describe but incorporate researched materials – an easy option in the world of Google where the artist’s life or love life, the political context etc are easily accessed. Edward Lucie-Smith does this in ‘On Looking at Stubbs’ ‘Anatomy of the Horse’’, working with the gossip of local people in the Lincolnshire village where Stubbs worked at preparing the horse’s carcass: ‘His calm knife peeling putrid flesh from bone”.

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Through Ventriloquism

  1. Make Main Figure Speak – the most common approach as famously done in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’ (from Georges Braque’s ‘Bather’). Thomas Hardy makes the Elgin Marbles speak in ‘Christmas in the Elgin Room’.

 

  1. Make Minor Figure/s Speak – UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Not my Best Side (Uccello’s ‘St George and the Dragon’) might be considered a hat-trick of the category above but her decision to make all 3 characters in the painting speak, casting side-lights to and fro, means I put it here. Delmore Schwartz’s ‘Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine’ – while more free indirect speech than ventriloquism – has a similar effect, visiting each of the characters in Seurat’s picture and allowing their perspective to be aired.

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  1. Make Objects Speak – this is an obvious category though I’m a bit short on illustrations of it. BC Leale’s ‘Sketch by Constable’ almost does it by concentrating attention on a tiny dog sketched in the corner of an image of Flatford Mill. Ann Ridler also comes close by largely ignoring the foreground figures and focusing on the landscape only in ‘Backgrounds to Italian Paintings’.

 

  1. Make the Artist Speak – writing about Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’, Robert Fagles makes the artist speak, denouncing photography and preferring the expressive qualities of paint: “Of the life hereafter I know nothing, mother, / but when I paint you what I feel is yellow, / lemon yellow, the halo of rose”.

 

Through Interrogation

  1. Of the Artist – Vicki Feaver’s ‘Oi yoi yoi’ (on Roger Hilton’s image of the same name) starts with description but quickly begins talking directly to Hilton (“You were more interested / in her swinging baroque tits”). Interestingly, ekphrastic poems need not always stand in awe of the work; looking at Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Portrait on Folding Bed’, Thomas Blackburn has a long one-sided conversation with the artist, charting a growing disenchantment with Bacon’s work, accusing him of “uttering, with superb, pretentious / Platitudes of rut, that you have said and said”.

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  1. Of the Figure/s – I have always admired Gerda Mayer’s poem, ‘Sir Brooke Boothby’ (after Joseph Wright’s image), in which she addresses with Sir Brooke about his languid pose, his copy of Rousseau, his intense scrutiny of the observer. Peter Porter’s many poems about art objects are hard to categorise but ‘Looking at a Melozzo da Forli’ (an image of the Annunciation) interrogates both image and the figure of Mary herself.

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  1. Of Yourself – probably all ekphrasis is a sort of self-interrogation but some poems make this more clear. The address often takes the form of admissions of ignorance or obtuseness in the face of the image or the asking of rhetorical questions. Robert Wallace on ‘Giacometti’s Dog’ once again begins in description but asks questions about the fascination of the image, eventually concluding “We’ll stand in line all day / to see one man / love anything enough”.

 

Through Giving an Account

  1. Of Your Encounter – Wallace’s poem spills across these artificial categories and might be placed here, among poems where the poet explicitly records details of his/her encounter with the work of art. Yeats famously does this in ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, looking at images of Augusta Gregory and John Synge. David Wright (who lost his hearing at the age of seven) movingly describes his visit to Rome to see Maderno’s sculpture of St Cecilia (patron saint of music) in his poem ‘By the Effigy of St Cecilia’.

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  1. Of Gallery Visitors – poets often comment on the behaviour or experiences (imagined) of gallery visitors (and even the gallery attendants!). Gillian Clarke does this in ‘The Rothko Room’: “In this, / the last room after hours in the gallery, / a mesh diffuses London’s light and sound. / The Indian keeper nods to sleep, marooned / in a trapezium of black on red”.

 

  1. Of Others – admittedly a catch-all category this one, but sometimes (especially when the works of art appear in churches) the poet can be interested in speculating about the responses of more ‘ordinary’ people. Thom Gunn does this toward the end of ‘In Santa Maria del Popolo’ where Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion of St Paul’ is displayed. Having recorded his own response to the image he ends by staring at the old Roman women who come to kneel before it: “each head closeted // In tiny fists holds comfort as it can. / Their poor arms are too tired for more than this / – For the large gesture of solitary man, / Resisting, by embracing, nothingness”.

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Come At a Tangent

  1. Finally, the ekphrastic moment can be presented as if an after-thought, or illustration of a poem already half composed. There are famous examples of this, especially Auden’s ‘ Musee des Beaux Arts’ which spends most of its length contemplating in very general terms the way old paintings present suffering. Only towards the end does Auden refer to Breughel’s ‘Fall of Icarus’ which he describes in some detail to suggest how “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”. RS Thomas’ ‘Threshold’ does something similar, only concluding with allusions to Michaelangelo’s painting of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. And Seamus Heaney’s ‘Summer 1969’ records a visit to Madrid as the Troubles boiled in Northern Ireland, and only latterly does the poem focus on Goya’s ‘Panic’: “Saturn / Jewelled in the blood of his own children, / Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips / Over the world.imgres

Inner Emigres – Heaney and Huchel

Googling the term ‘inner émigré’ I come up mostly with links to Seamus Heaney’s use of it in the poem ‘Exposure’, the poem with which he ended North (1975):

I am neither internee nor informer;

An inner émigré, grown long-haired

And thoughtful . . .

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In a 1998 interview, Heaney discussed his use of the term: As far as possible, you try to remain a mystery to yourself. Living in Ireland, not being an exile, living in Ireland as a social creature, as a familiar citizen, I think there is a great danger that one’s social persona might overwhelm one’s daimon — if you’ll permit me such a grand term . . . And so what one is always trying to do is displace oneself to another place or space . . .Wicklow is where I first thought of myself as being an inner émigré. Since 1988 . . . I’ve been able to own the cottage and to think of it as my “place of writing.” When I said “inner émigré,” I meant to suggest a state of poetic stand-off, as it were, a state where you have slipped out of your usual social persona and have entered more creatively and fluently into your inner being. I think it is necessary to shed, at least to some extent, the social profile that you maintain elsewhere.

Heaney’s explanation of the term here is almost wholly personal and uncontroversial. Most of us would agree that we need to slip the moorings of our more socially tied selves in order to find the place of poetry. This is in part simply the required liberation from the way we use language to operate in (utilitarian) society though it’s also a shaking loose from the (again utilitarian) intentions and feelings of the quotidian. Having said that, Heaney does not mean a retreat into some up-dated Celtic Twilight world, soft-focused and fey, an abandonment of MacNeice’s requirement that modern poets are readers of newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.

This is more clear when Heaney acknowledges the term ‘inner émigré’ once had a specific meaning in the 1920s and 30s in Soviet Russia. It referred to someone “who had not actually gone into exile but who lived at home disaffected from the system. Well, to some extent that was true of myself. Certainly, in relation to Northern Ireland.”

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George Seferis

Heaney goes on to talk of finding in George Seferis’ work a connected idea, developed in The Redress of Poetry (1995): Seferis is reading Greek poetry during the war in the nineteen forties and he’s trying to write an article. There is distress, uncertainty, destruction all round him, with civil war looming. And he’s reading poetry and he’s really testing it. Does this thing have any value? And at one point he says: “Reading X this morning, I found that poetry is a help.” I think that what he means is that poetry secures some final place in your being, some little redoubt in your consciousness that will not be taken over by history or the world or disaster . . . Poetry’s value is established and promulgated by people who have known that feeling or something like it.

The term ‘inner émigré’ is also often used to describe Peter Huchel’s work though he was in the unusual situation of having to develop the strategy twice over.  His very early poems were linked to the sort of art fostered around 1920 by the League of Proletarian Revolutionary Writers. There’s no doubt he was on the side of the proletariat, the servants and exploited farmhands. He once said: “What did I care about in those days? I wanted to make visible in the poem a deliberately ignored, suppressed class, the class of the people, the maidservants and coachmen”. Even at this early stage his work did not include any proposals for a political solution and his concerns over social deprivation (witnessed from childhood days in the Brandenberg countryside) led him not to public proclamation but more inward to articulate a vision of a more fundamental relationship between productive human activity and the natural environment. It’s no surprise that Huchel felt close ties to the work of Robert Frost, though Huchel’s early verse (more than the American poet) is concerned with a representation of harmony and continuity, more fulfilment than frustration of fulfilment.

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Peter Huchel

But with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, Huchel began to develop the strategy of the ‘inner émigré’, publishing very little, even deciding to withhold an entire collection of poems, fearing it might be associated with the kind of blood-and-soil nature verse approved by National Socialism. His response to political changes was silence and non-cooperation.

It’s best to understand Huchel’s short-lived flash of faith in East German land reform in the immediate Soviet-Occupied post-war years in terms of his earlier social concerns. As John Flores argues, Huchel’s praise of the “law” of land reform is “not to be viewed as a sudden sacrifice in answer to official decrees, an unwilling turn to a theme totally incongruous with all his earlier poetic concerns, but as a logical continuation, in a way the culmination of his sympathy for the unprivileged classes inhabiting the countryside of his origins.” Within a few years, as the poet grew increasingly discouraged by developments in DDR society, his emphasis shifts from the praise of productive human activity in nature and the social order, to a concern for the enduring misery of men, regardless of the structure of society.

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Huchel again had to adopt the role of ‘inner émigré’ being now at odds with East German politics yet still writing (and editing Sinn und Forme). His work becomes characterised “less by sympathy with those denied the privileges and rights due to them, more by meditations on the pain and uncertainty which permeates all human existence” (Flores again). Huchel’s tone becomes sombre and melancholy, poetic diction cryptic, his palette narrows, full of recurrent symbols. Poems from the 1950s are implicit statements of his ‘counterposition’ to the ‘construction of socialism’. Franz Schonauer suggests Huchel’s poems are not the expression of a direct opposition or political protest and express a loss of confidence. These poems are winter psalms. What is at stake is the human intellect and its power of resistance when reason and culture seem brutally damaged, in a frozen motionless state. This is from ‘Exile’, published in 1972:

 

With evening, friends close in,

the shadows of hills.

Slowly they press across the threshold,

darkening the salt,

darkening the bread

and strike up conversation with my silence.

 

Outside in the maple

the wind stirs:

my sister, the rainwater

in the chalky trough,

imprisoned,

gazes up at the clouds.

 

Huchel could still write: “The creative, even eruptive, element in lyric poetry only rarely exists without rules; it needs a container, a form, so as not to disperse. Spring water spilled on the floor has only a dim glow – but when poured into a glass it is full of light”. This is the same little redoubt that Seamus Heaney found in Seferis; each hard-won poem as a receptacle of something that will not be taken over by history or the world or by disaster.

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2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1 – Ron Carey

This is the first in a series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press)
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press)
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Revival Press for providing a copy of Ron Carey’s book for review purposes.

On the cover of Distance a male figure has already travelled well down a track through flat, open countryside. He’s heading determinedly away from us, hands thrust in his coat pockets. I think this is Ron Carey and though the image pretty literally evokes one aspect of the book’s title, it contradicts the stated direction of the poems within which hope to “bring us a little closer”. An epigraph from Elizabeth Burns suggests a more philosophical “sense / of time and place dissolving” so that (in an image that would have pleased Antonio Machado) “we are all / drops of water in this enormous breaking wave”. Ron Carey’s first collection sticks more firmly to the former, more commonplace, more personal of these formulations but is at its most interesting when it ventures an almost magic realist evocation of the latter.

The dissolution of strict linear time provides occasions for many of the most appealing poems here. They are acts of recall of a twentieth century childhood in Ireland (in this Carey invites comparisons with Heaney and, before him, Kavanagh). The boy who is the focus of these recollections is both highly observant and very imaginative. His conviction that there is a leopard in the coal-shed as he is tucked up in bed is grounded in vivid details of it tiptoeing “through the tin-pot Dulux jungle, on / Quick, painted feet”. ‘Breakfast’ is also troubled by imaginary big cats (lions this time) who chase his father from the house, their “claws pinging the spokes of [his] bicycle”. The idea of a ‘water-table’, as discussed by Driller Flanagan and the boy’s father, unleashes images of a real “table of Marian blue; its top shimmering” but when the geological reference is clarified for him, the boy swears never to ask “questions that have / The possibility of such dull answers”. We see the birth of a certain type of poet here, though Carey’s long wait for a first book reassures us that such unbridled (if vivid) fantasy will not be the whole story. So watching Aunt Babbie wring the necks of chickens, while blithely questioning him about his day at school, gives rise to more troubling childhood experiences as the birds’ “squawking souls” pursue him home and (the writing of the poem confirms) continue to haunt him forever.

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Everyday remembrance seldom loses sight of the gulf between then and now, but Carey’s poems occasionally record more profound moments of the collapse of the temporal. ‘Moving’ records the day a family move to a newly built housing estate. All their belongings piled in a horse-drawn cart (old world), as they approach the house the boy’s mother runs ahead with a “100-watt Solus” light bulb in her hand (new world). The electricity that runs metaphorically through the boy’s hands as he is given the horse’s reins and literally through the bulb filament so that the “black eyes of the front-room suddenly blazed” form an instantaneous circuit in which the whole family experiences renewal, the mother now “a young girl” calling from an open window ahead. It is the intensity of the emotions which supercharges such changes in perception. ‘Kilkee’ sees the six-year-old boy partaking of the grief of another Aunt’s broken heart, lying like lovers themselves on sand dunes: “He put his finger into the ring of the sun / And pulled it down the sky till it entered the water”. This drawing down of blinds is a fantasy of sorts but far more profoundly linked to the truth of the moment than the boy’s water-table imaginings. It’s in ‘Upstairs’ that Carey brings this technique to its apogee where the boy (now grown but of an uncertain age) agrees to wear his father’s old coat and lie beside his ageing mother. It’s her desire to re-live earlier days and intimacies that dominates, but the poem cleverly reveals the boy’s own uncertainty of identity: “We pretend to sleep, Danny and me”. He feels he can’t get up, though she’s now asleep, “Because she will not let go of his hand” (my italics).

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The figure of the father is a powerful one and recurs throughout the book. We see him relishing “pig’s toes with a pint”; elsewhere he comes home from work: “Your cold, great hands shocking / Our new skins; your goat’s kiss rough as love”. Even more memorably, in ‘My Father Built England’, he works as an immigrant labourer, a “solid Paddy full of gristle”, learning how to harden his hands with urine, then with the onset of World War Two, returning to Ireland to work for Hogan and Son. He is one of many characters who populate this enjoyable book – Miss O’Mahoney, a pub quiz-master, an irregular Postman, several Aunts, Grandmother and Grandfather – most of them firmly enough grounded in close observation to avoid caricature. And it’s the quietness with which Carey achieves his aims which is notable. New technologies are alluded to in the context of the past. ‘Churchfields’ makes familiar use of a photographic image but in ‘Background’ an image of a Grandfather is set as background on a computer screen, allowing Carey to “click a short-cut icon on his broad shoulders” in another striking image of the collapse of time differences. Elsewhere, the sweep of a dry stone wall is compared to the curve of a “Large Particle Collider” (unlikely, but successful). And a visit to Patrick Kavanagh’s grave yields an encounter with his ghost, in fact on film, “rasping and jumping on a screen”.

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Unfortunately, there is a rather soft middle to this book in the sections titled ‘The Beloved’ and ‘New Oceans’. The first seems a rather brief, miscellaneous collection of poems only vaguely linked to the theme of love and includes an up-dating of the Icarus myth and an incongruously Yeatsian lyric, ‘Diarmuid and Grainne’. ‘New Oceans’ appears to be an ill-judged venture into exotic climes and idioms (I think Central America). But there are more interesting poems in the final section of the book, ‘The World Will Break Your Heart’. Here Carey is less intent on conventional narrative and (in contrast to the youthful recall of earlier poems) focuses on the moment as it passes and on last things. ‘Lineage’ is a confident celebration of the Irish landscape – confident enough to admit ignorance of names as well as to leave the poem more open-ended, with no evident pay-off. ‘Catching My Death’ is short-lined, elegant, unpushy. Sounding more like Michael Longley here, the boy has grown up, encountered much:

 

I find life now – much the same

As the robin does – wriggling

In my mouth

 

Mortality is now envisaged as a return to the earth, though some sort of reawakening into the future is imagined:

 

Until

The earth warms

And the soil opens

To the resurrection of the worms

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Philip Gross, Carey’s supervisor on the South Glamorgan Creative Writing MA course, has written of the tenderness and detail of his work and this is true. He has a long list of competition wins and placings behind him and individual poems are touching and colourful and well-done. Distance covers a great deal of ground between childhood and old age and Carey is above all honest. But as a first book there are trails here which come to nothing and others which promise poems of a more adventurous kind. I hope that’s where the man in the coat is really heading.

An interview with Ron Carey about his work can be read here. 

Reading Archive: April – June 2016

Up-dated June 2016

This is turning out to be the place where I often admit my lacks and ignorance. Elizabeth Bishop – apart from 3 or 4 of the obvious poems – has always been something of a blank spot with me. I have been re-reading her Complete Poems and understanding maybe my problem lies in getting to like her earlier work before A Cold Spring (1955). What I do begin to appreciate more clearly is her modesty, accuracy of observation and own-furrow-ploughing determination as a poet.

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Anne Stevenson’s Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop has been helpful with thoughts such as “Bishop’s instinct was to look hard enough at nature to lose herself in it – and thus, as in the Biblical paradox, find herself”.

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As has Seamus Heaney’s ‘Counting to a Hundred: on Elizabeth Bishop’ (from The Redress of Poetry). He argues, at her best, she reveals how “obsessive attention to detail can come through into visionary understanding  [. . .] intense focus can amplify rather than narrow our sense of scope” (something I have written about in recent thoughts on McGilchrist’s ideas about right/left brain work).

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I’ve also been reading two collections by friends . . .

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Lynne Hjelmgaard’s A Boat Called Annalise (Seren) is a sequence of love poems to a husband and a sailing boat and vies with Bishop in some of its evocations of tropical harbours: “We fell asleep with the roosters, / the waves, rumblings in the bay”. For a land-lubber like me, there are powerful portraits of life at sea such as ‘That Feeling of Boat’: “We confide and trust in twenty tons, / talk to it, nurture it”. ‘White Clover’ is a delicately symbolic poem dedicated to the late, much-missed Dannie Abse.

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Danielle Hope’s Mrs Uomo’s Yearbook (Rockingham), which I mentioned in an earlier blog, again shows how effective the Mrs Uomo character is (a near relation of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito) as a vehicle for social commentary which is quirky, engagingly funny and incisive, particularly about the NHS for which Hope works as a doctor.

Up-dated May 2016

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Last month it was heavy-Hughes (as you’ll see from my April up-date below) so half following that lead and half influenced by the 400th anniversary celebrations across the media, I have been swimming my way through Hughes’ A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse. First published in 1971 and up-dated in 1991, Hughes is right in suggesting it’s been hard to “place” the bard amongst the “poets in English”. It’s not just because he wrote mostly drama (if mostly in verse) but also that critics retreat before his work feebly flapping and gesturing towards a special case. So Hughes’ “looting [of] portable chunks” from the plays serves largely to confirm two things: his plays consist often of the most astounding poetry and that – yes – special case status is hard to withhold.  But Hughes is onto something suggesting that Shakespare’s Catholicism in a world of Puritan jihad (Hughes’ word) has much to do with it. An astonishing read – whatever the rights and wrongs of the case.

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Gill McEvoy’s HappenStance chapbook, The First Telling, is terrific. Told with exquisite poise, it recounts the after-shocks of a rape, the adjustments, the progressive self-forgiveness, the therapy sessions. You need to know the sequence is punctuated by poems about birds – this is not a plain sort of confessionalism, but rather work of great artistry, to be recommended for its use of the blank spaces on the page as much as for its exploration of traumatic experiences.

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McEvoy’s book was noticed (winning the 2014 Michael Marks award); Simon Richey published Naming the Tree (Oversteps Books) in the same year and I’d not heard of it till I heard him read at Poetry in Palmers Green. Richey writes about abstract matters – language, time, consciousness – and material events with a wonderful precision and approaching a philosophical elegance. Something of the impersonality of TS Eliot is matched with personal attentiveness to detail – highly recommended.

Up-dated April 2016

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It’s been a heavy-weight Ted Hughes month since I’ve been reading Jonathan Bates’ biography over several weeks and then supplementing it with the poems themselves. The Bate is far more comprehensive than Elaine Feinstein’s earlier biography and if nothing else shows how much material Hughes left behind (100,000 pages of unpublished drafts) so the academic exploration of it will clearly take many years. On the poetry itself Bate gets a bit irritating in relating  just everything back to Plath –  even the late work apparently shows unmistakable evidence of his continuing obsession with her!

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Crow remains extraordinary though it makes more sense to see it as Bate suggests as the unfinished epic that Hughes had hoped to complete. There was to be a phase of restoration but Hughes never managed that – perhaps because this was too close to the two suicides of Plath and Assia Weevil.

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I’d missed Remains of Elmet when it was originally published. With Bate’s help and Hughes’ own Note from 1993, it’s clear now that this is a very coherent and powerful portrait of the region of his childhood.

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I loved Gaudete when it first appeared in 1977 as I was in the first flush of my Hughes period! Most commentators (including Hughes it seems) now consider the ‘filmic’ loosely-constructed narrative poems as not quite the real thing. It’s the strange, tough little songs of Nicholas Lumb that conclude the book that pay more dividends.

Here There Now Then – A Touch on the Remote

There are occasions when events from the past seem to become so fully present in the moment as we live it that it’s as if a gulf has been bridged between them. It’s a sort of redemption – though the events themselves may need no redeeming. What is salved is the permanent vanishing of the earlier through the intensity of attention accorded it by the later, perhaps especially so if our attention is manifested in language, a poem. There is an aspect here of Seamus Heaney’s idea of the redress of poetry which I ought to figure out more clearly.

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But I was left with thoughts such as these last week, having read for Dawn Gorman’s Words and Ears series of poetry readings in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. We’d set it up many months ago and I had been looking forward to it especially as this is close to my home town, Trowbridge, and my mother’s childhood and adolescence were spent in Bradford. I was also delighted to be reading with Linda Saunders who has just published a new collection with Worple Press, A Touch on the Remote. I’d had a few meetings with Linda many years ago (in the 1980s) when she would go up to Oxford to visit my old friend and mentor, Tom Rawling. There were several workshops at his house, I think, in that peculiarly intense summer sunshine of the past, full of hope and literary expectation. Like much of Rawling’s work, the opening sequence of Saunder’s new collection is composed of poems concerned with acutely observed landscape – in several cases observed with an almost visionary sense of history . . .

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Linda Saunders

My mother was christened Bernice, first child of Graham and Elsie Hale in 1922. Her sister, Gwen, quickly followed. There was no immediate prospect of their leaving the White Hill house which was a one-up, one-down with attic. The two girls had to share the middle room with ‘Gran’ (as they called Elsie’s mother, Rhoda). They walked up White Hill to school at Christ Church. They skipped down to the sweet shop, to the ‘bake house’, to the centre of town. On Sundays they climbed Coppice Hill to the Methodist church and Sunday School.  In good weather, the two girls hooked their arms over the iron railings outside the house with Elsie in the doorway warning them not to stray far. They jumped up and down the high kerb stones, played whips and tops on the steep, quiet street. On wet days, they stared through the front window, across the roofs of the town below to the spire of Holy Trinity. Bernice was badly ill with scarlet fever when she was eight years old and for a long while afterwards was so weakened that she had to be helped everywhere in an old pushchair.

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Saunders’ own strong sense of history can be seen in ‘Washing the Horses’ where the narrator watches people who “sleek soap-lather” on their horses’ wet hides. A bit later, the horses dry off on the bankside, “bays, pintos, strawberry roans, a shetland / with a foal no taller than an Eohippus. // This has been happening forever”. In ‘The Bridge at Iford’, a couple kneel as if in a ritual act, “like pilgrims” to watch the water flow under the bridge, themselves being watched by statues of “Greco-Roman deities”. Then the arrival of a newly-betrothed couple for photographs at the picturesque scene leads to thoughts of the future too – “Live happily. I think to them in passing, / ever after – the wish as ultrasonic as / the pipistrelle’s twitter”.

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The Bridge at Iford Manor

The narrator’s image of the pipistrelle bat’s piercing signal could serve as one of the key images in Saunders’ work. Elsewhere she jokes about the onset of deafness: “Something I say, something she said / flies past us into the wood” (‘Hidden Valley’). It’s these forms of strained/successful communications across time and across distance (with a son living in the USA) that also provide material for a later sequence of poems: “I see him stepping over the door sill / across a crack of time” (‘Into the Blue’).

We would squeeze into the Standard 10 to visit my grandparents on Winsley Road, Bradford. It was a dark, terraced house which had an immense front garden with a pleasingly straight path from the front gate to the door in the centre of the facade. This path was lined with planted borders, the earth heaping up from the lower level of the path and there were roses and vegetables elsewhere and I am sure an allotment somewhere. At the back of the house was a tiny yard containing the outdoor toilet, a fascinatingly musty dark cramped garden shed, a sweltering little green house which seemed always full of tomato plants. There was also a raised piece of grass – you could not call it a lawn – where we tried to play football or cricket but the risk of the low walls was really too great. Instead, we often played on that long front path; Corgi cars pushed to and fro as we breathed in the acrid-sweet smell of lush cushions of blooming white alyssum.

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Saunders’ background is in History of Art as well as literature. You can see this in ‘Reserve’ where she describes the processes of a painter preparing the ground for an object on the canvas, in this case an apple. The poet is interested in the absence, the vast potentiality before the object appears: “There are moments I sense // the inter-touch of me with everything – / this unselving reach”. During the Words and Ears evening, I read a number of poems from my Daodejing versions which also suggest that such an “unselving” might prove a happier and more fulfilling line to take in life. With our own “unselving”, the more aware we become of our surroundings, our context in both space and time.

It is Saturday tea – laid out on the living room table. There is a second front room hardly ever used which, if you open the door and peer in, feels chilled, dark, a little musty and formal and a baffling waste of space. We sit round the table and eat sandwiches, perhaps crumpets, malt loaf, Victoria sponge or the pink and yellow check of Battenberg cake which I loathe because of the marzipan covering. Nan or Mum often slice the rounded ribbed milk loaf that I have never seen anywhere else, turning it on its end and slicing horizontally, perilously.

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In ‘Love Portrait’, Saunders describes a window on another canvas as yet “unpainted”. She wonders “could this be the light that slips / past time”. Because the artist has yet to define it, perhaps this is also the light that communicates between times.

We wore short trousers, of course, and I still can feel the way the thick dark tablecloth with its tasselled edges brushed my thighs making me want to scratch them. Elsie’s husband, Graham, was a quiet mild man, always limping because of a shrapnel wound in the leg from the battle of the Somme. He sang in a local choir, had worked all his life at Nestle in Staverton, gardened keenly and seemed a loving husband and father though to us he was a rather remote, taciturn grandfather. Just once he exploded at us for something I have now forgotten – perhaps just making too much noise or not clearing the table of toys or drawing books quickly enough when he wanted to swing the heavy cloth across it in readiness for the meal. Given his generally gentle demeanour, his blazing, brutal anger astonished and appalled us.

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The final poem of Saunders collection is ‘Stepping Stones’. Another artist, a sculptor this time, makes “foot-shapes of stone”: “The child found them one at a time, / spotting the next from where she stood on the last / up to her thighs in seedheads and buttercups. / Where will they go? she asked the sculptor”. They lead onwards inevitably into the next moment, then the next – but to live wholly in the present, only in a language composed of present participles, is a form of dementia, a quite different and destructive form of “unselving”. Our making sense of things requires our awareness and exploration of the temporal.