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

What Love Is: Hilary Davies’ ‘Exile and the Kingdom’

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I met poet, translator and critic, Hilary Davies, back in the early 1980s and our paths have kept crossing since. She was one of the first intake of women undergraduates at Wadham College, Oxford, where she read French and German. She won an Eric Gregory award in 1983, has been a Hawthornden Fellow and chair of the Poetry Society (1992–3). With David Constantine, she co-founded and edited the poetry magazine Argo and has three previous collections of poetry (published by Enitharmon): The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop (1991); In a Valley of This Restless Mind (1997); Imperium (2005). She was head of languages at St Paul’s Girls’ School, London, for 19 years and was married to the poet, Sebastian Barker, who died in 2014.

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Davies’ new collection, Exile and the Kingdom (Enitharmon, 2016), is framed by two very powerful sequences. It opens with ‘Across Country’, a series of seven poems which add up to an autobiographical ‘growth of the poet’s mind’. The book concludes with ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ itself, a further eight poems which are nothing less than a meditation on the poet’s raw grief and re-discovery, or reassertion, of her religious faith. Both sequences contain weddings.

‘Across Country’ opens with an evocation of a child’s first moments, “what gets forgotten”, in a state of inarticulacy, no ability to exert our own will, with no will even, language-less and effectively silent, being “carried by gods”.  Passive in the hands of mother and father, the journey variously begins in “The reindeer saddle and the motor car, / the sighing desert and the plateau wind”. Davies seems to suggest these first human experiences fall onto a tabula rasa as they “Etch the first surfaces of particularity / And settle in our souls”. The particular development traced here is Davies’ own, of course, and crucially this involves a later period of travel in France. Happily alluding to Wordsworth’s own tracing of his youthful days and Revolutionary enthusiasm in France (“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive /But to be young was very heaven” – The Prelude, Book 11), Davies praises “the glory of the cornfield and belltower, / Granite, limestone, vineyard and cloister”. As with Wordsworth, France offers an experience of human love, but Davies is also drawn to intellectual pursuits, the thrilling confusion of “many minds passing”, arguments of “polity and governance” and to the “meretricious fruit / Of the ideology tree”. We are being told this in order for such concerns to be ultimately dismissed:

 

The lords of existence

Are neither economist nor philosopher

The Lord of existence

Shows himself not in systems

 

The fourth poem in ‘Across Country’ seems to record the young woman’s first realisation that religion was to be the answer to many of the questions she was asking: “I crossed into church after church that summer, / Thinking of erudition, but beside me trod Love”. The capitalisation and conventional personification makes it clear that Davies is deliberate and happy to place herself in a long tradition of poetry dealing with religious experience; there is no radical re-making of poetic form or language. Davies does not use masks. Discursive passages are in unrhymed, fairly irregular paragraphs which are punctuated every so often with more lyrical rhyming passages, song-like.

Poem five of ‘Across Country’ is just such a lyrical piece, portraying a wedding, but not one that lasts:

 

Hate has eaten my bridegroom’s heart

And remorse is become my fury

Now I must go the road of affliction

Searching for mercy.

 

That search, Davies argues, is more a matter of “Waiting, not willing”. It is the traditional negative road in the sense of the centrality of “self-surrender”, imaged in the seventh poem as the sensation of being on a boat on a threatening ocean: “No measure but the dark blue breathing of the opening deep, / Where personhood dissolves beyond mere terror”. I don’t share Davies’ faith but I share her belief that, in terms of our daily acts and choices, we are to be judged in the long run: “Only perdurance delivers”. And in terms of the nature of those acts and choices, whatever set-backs are faced, we need to be accompanied by that same figure who walked beside her into the churches in France: “what love is, and does”. Read as the record of the poet’s experiences, it’s likely that this opening sequence concludes with Davies meeting with Sebastian Barker, the beginning of new happiness (“I knew instantly I had to go the hard way with you / To learn how to love better”).

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Sebastian Barker

 

The central sections of this collection are made up of poems more directly engaged with the contemporary world of north London, Stamford Hill, Walthamstow, the valley of the River Lee, Abney Park in Stoke Newington (I blogged one of these poem’s a few weeks ago). There are also poems more explicitly concerned with the relationship with Barker with titles like ‘Night’s Cloak’, ‘Aubade’, ‘Love Song’. I’ve always thought it a premature admission of defeat to declare ‘happiness writes white’ but some of these poems slip too easily into a mode in which this reader feels more like eavesdropping than sharing the experience of years of happy marriage; technically there is a flowering of lyricism and some softening of the vocabulary. On the other hand nobody is going to read these poems and not be thinking of Hardy’s tributes to Emma Gifford – it seems whether the marriage was mutually loving or not, the sense of loss remains overwhelming.

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River Lee and Valley Park

This is where the concluding sequence picks up though there is no need to narrow Davies’ focus wholly to the autobiographical. As I’ve said, these poems are in the tradition of religious verse and there are passages here that stand comparison with the Eliot of the Four Quartets. The opening poem – a little sequence in itself – paints a state of despair, initially social and political, latterly more personal:

 

Then there’s the heartache

At the core of things: attachment, the blank certainty

Of letting go, the arbitrary wing of accident,

Wrong gene or partner, a lifetime bled into the dusty ground

Of non-fulfilment, the waste [. . . ]”

 

The temptation is to try to counter this by accepting “ourselves as measure”, to focus simply on career, material gain, simply being busy, keeping warm. That this is never enough in itself is suggested when Davies recalls a favourite uncle who, having apparently a comfortable and successful life kills himself. For the young Davies what this taught was clear: “the impossibility of loving begets despair, / And despair kills”. The third poem of ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ seems to mark the beginning of the end of exile and returns to one of the many French churches mentioned in the earlier sequence.

 

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Church of St-Gervais-et-St-Protais, Paris

 

Out of the bustling Parisian streets, the narrator turns aside and understands, “Even if I have all gifts without love I am nothing”. As in Four Quartets, Davies mixes philosophical discursiveness with personal reminiscence and poem four recalls a Christmas morning in a country church. The priest, apparently ill, still takes the service, his gasping for breath making his faith even more memorable, a Wordsworthian spot of time worthy of recall in darker moments in the struggle to “retain that sudden downrush / Of the numinous that was supposed to change us”.  Poem seven expresses the sense of hard-won joy through another lyrical presentation of a second wedding. On this occasion, no clouds foreshadow failure but as the bride stands at the door, a wind blows her veil up like a candle flame or flower:

 

The guests are gathered in the church at Salle

The light falls on the floor;

For all eternity the rose

Stands at heaven’s door.

 

But the sequence and whole book ends in the altogether wilder landscape of St David’s, Wales. The final poem suggests such rose and flame moments are but parts of the coherence of a life where experience must inevitably consist of “Innocence and loss, hope, wisdom, regret and thanksgiving”. Exile and the Kingdom intends to convey this in full. Although propelled most often by loss of a loved one, the burden of the book remains love not grief. It matters little whether we share Davies’ particular form of faith, since what comes strongly from these pages is her concern for the way we treat each other, our overloaded preoccupation with ourselves, how our acts and choices are affected. Poems like these themselves form spots of time for the reader and I’m not going to forget their human concern for what love is and does.

Everything Burning: Review of Maitreyabandhu’s ‘Yarn’

I love to follow the development of a poet’s work. This is often imaged as the finding of a voice but is really a process in which the poet brings into focus what centrally concerns them and sheds what is extraneous. A recognisable voice may be a secondary consequence of this but it is achieved through technical advances and deep thought about poetic predecessors and possible role models. Maitreyabandhu’s second collection, Yarn (Bloodaxe, 2015) is fascinating from this perspective.

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Born Ian Johnson in Warwickshire, Maitreyabandhu was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1990. I once started a review of James Harpur’s  Angels and Harvesters (Anvil, 2012) by saying that I wanted contemporary poetry to address spiritual matters, so I was obviously excited to get hold of Maitreyabandhu’s first book, The Crumb Road, when it appeared in 2013. Given my rather narrow line of expectation, I suppose was a bit disappointed. But the book is full of vivid colloquial detail, many poems about childhood and a moving account of a homoerotic relationship between two young boys which ends with the death of one of them. The crumb road of the title is the Hansel and Gretel trail back to the past rather than a trail of stations towards spiritual enlightenment, though ‘Visitation’ is an awed encounter with something like that: “I saw you, in the mess of things, / [. . .] as a slant of grey”. The book was a PBS Recommendation, rightly praised for its melancholy modesty, quiet expression, its alert and attentive qualities, its models evidently Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy.

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Yarn develops similar materials. Maitreyabandhu’s poetic technique is even more evident in the range of forms – free verse, rhyme, prose poem, blank verse – employed to great effect. The Warwickshire childhood features again in a section called ‘The yard’ with the father’s wine-making – damson, raison and berry – and his war service, the mother’s involvement in the coach driving business, school, various distant relations. The first book’s portrayal of young love cut tragically short is echoed here in an elegiac sequence to a Buddhist friend, Mahananda. This man’s longer life (his mother’s flight from the Gestapo, his conversion to Buddhism, living in Primrose Hill, his friendships) is touchingly evoked and it is a thoroughly grief-stricken sequence: “what can I conclude on your departure? / that nothing came of it, with everything, / everything undone” (‘Souls’).

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Ryokan

There is a curious echo of this latter phrase in a poem about the Zen Buddhist monk/poet Ryokan for whom the temple bell and old books seem to say “how everything is burning”. Such a sense of the ultimate insignificance of earthly things arises elsewhere in this book and Maitreyabandhu explores such spiritual issues more explicitly here than in The Crumb Road. Though there is often a strong response and pleasure in the natural world, ‘These Days’ suggests “our human calculus precedes / the given world” to negative effect. There is a fearful recognition that what we contribute amounts to no more than “error bred in the bone, the daily rancour / of the mind, / our clever ways to be unkind”. But the erasure of those things that we cling too can be almost as frightening. Nietzsche’s ‘The Parable of the Madman’ (1882) is alluded to, a sponge wiping away the “entire horizon”, yet the consolation (as in the death of a valued friend) can be hard to access: “I strained to see Vajra Guru’s face”. Perhaps the character in ‘The Postulant’ has “closed his eyes on this world” more successfully:

 

When night fell, the space between two worlds

Was all the shape he made, an empty dark [. . . ]

What he thought to be himself he didn’t know:

His pain was all that stopped the worlds unite.

 

Bit inevitably, what is ultimately not graspable in words is hard to write about and Maitreyabandhu’s often chosen model (the rhyming, song-like lyric voice) can lead to a mellifluousness that over-sweetens a poem, especially when trying to evoke more successful intuitions of “the Lotus Born” and the “illumined image” (‘The World of Senses’).

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But Yarn contains three long yarns or stories in which the voice of the teller plays at least as much part as the narrative of events. This is what is new and particularly exciting in this book and reveals the influence of Robert Frost (not Edward Thomas who tried this early on with ‘Up in the Wind’ (1914) and then dropped it as not fit for his own purposes). Frost’s eclogues (especially in North of Boston (1914)) manage to convey a bleak, anti-pastoral, godless, modern world of death and often inexplicable suffering. One similarity is that ‘The Cattle Farmer’s Tale’ is spoken by a proprietorial, rather self-satisfied farmer (read Maitreyabandhu on the influence of Frost here). Like Frost, Maitreyabandhu immediately catches character and voice brilliantly. He encounters a mysterious figure: “his not pretending / to be meek or grateful to set me at my ease / and, funny thing, it stopped me in my tracks / so for a moment I stumbled on my words”. This is so like Frost’s ‘Death of the Hired Man’ – the enigmatic visitor, the farmer and his wife, the carefully sketched context, the skilful handling of dialogue in blank verse. Maitreyabandhu adds a few songs too but this is in no way a pastiche but a development of a neglected form for different purposes. The visitor is in fact Buddha and though he talks in cryptic terms, the farmer’s rootedness in the land, his evident pride in his worldly achievements, his bossiness followed by regret in dealing with his wife serve to make the Buddha’s pronouncements palatable in the poem’s world:

 

There are two thoughts, Dhaniya [. . .]

one leads to suffering, the other to joy.

The first is yoked to yearning like a calf,

a suckling calf that’s yoked unto it’s mother,

the other’s like a shadow that never parts.

 

So this really is the cattle farmer’s tale – his response to his encounter with a wholly different set of values (he and his wife are in fact deeply impressed by the visitor who stays for a month). The form of the poem allows the reader room to be sceptical in our modern fashion but also to be moved by the insights and wisdom (old fashioned word) being offered.

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The second yarn, ‘The Travellers from Orissa’, is even more ambitious. Bhallika (the narrator) and Tapussa are again farmers, cattle men, who encounter Buddha in their younger days. Bhallika is again a sceptical voice (“I’m not a fool”) but is nevertheless impressed by the Master, who “spoke in a funny way with gaps / between the words as if he’d just been woken [. . .] his smile, / I shan’t forget, was like gazing at the sea”. But this is not an experience he can easily share with others and he resolves to “keep it to myself”. Tapussa’s response is quite different. The poem makes it clear Tapussa’s character inclines him to “yarns” and in the telling they grow “more fantastical each time”. His response to the meeting with Buddha is to cast himself as the rather attention-seeking disciple, who succeeds in becoming something of a cult figure: “his nodding head, how he held his finger up / each time he spoke to emphasise each word”.

But Tapussa dies, as does Bhallika’s wife and the widower lives on quietly, distantly aware of the Master’s growing fame and influence. At last he meets him again: “I said ‘Master’ before I knew I spoke”. Only now does Bhallika share the details of the original meeting with his son. In fact Tapussa had failed to understand, turning “the whole thing upside-down” to make it all “about himself”. What is moving in this yarn is the fact that Bhallika evidently understood the Buddha’s message (“There is a thorn buried / in the heart of man”) but with his commitment to wife and family and land he “walked back into [his] own life and tried to take it up”. Even years later, he understands “I’d betrayed my life” on that day and with that decision.

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Coleridge’s Mariner and Wedding Guest

Such false and true followers feature in the third yarn too though the human situation is even more finely drawn and prevents any simplistic response to the questions it raises. In a still sketchy but more Westernised context (Sunday morning church) it is ‘Aaron’s Brother’ who narrates. Like Tapussa, it is Aaron who is the more overtly spiritual figure, famously suffering visitations and visions. But there is again a self-regarding quality in the way he readies himself for church before the mirror, “combing his hair”. The story is told to an unnamed guest – there’s much of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner here – who is eager to speak to Aaron and not much interested in his brother. But the brother is in fact adopted and has further secrets to disclose of a homoerotic love between himself and Aaron and (he implies) this partly fuels Aaron’s interest in his young male acolytes.

The treatment of these ingredients of a far grander and dramatic tale than Maitreyabandhu wants to develop suggests a powerfully imaginative act by the poet, the kind of thing Keats admired in Shakespeare. In this third yarn in particular, there is no irritable reaching after facts and clarity; it is a poem which explores the perhaps irresolvable tensions  between the spiritual and the sensual life, the spiritual and materialism and fame, the spiritual and our mundane earthly loves and commitments. I’m interested that Maitreyabandhu has not yet attempted such renovations of the Frostian form in a more overtly contemporary setting. His skills with form and his brilliant capture of colloquial speech, his obviously profound engagement with Buddhist thought and his commitment to poetry as a form of expression make him a unique figure in the UK literary landscape and I really look forward to discovering the direction and innovations of his next collection.

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Maitreyabanhu

How Do You Judge a Poem?

I am half way through the process of judging this year’s Torriano Poetry Competition (https://torrianomeetinghouse.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/torriano-poetry-competition-2015/). I’ve been lucky enough to judge a few such competitions in the last few years and what follows is a compilation of thoughts on the judging process. Though the initial sifting can be a slog, the latter stages are fascinating as poems that set little hooks in you at first reading, gradually become more clear, their internal coherence emerging alongside their skills with language and form. What follows is inevitably a personal take on the business – more so 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 (here are a few . . . http://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/competitions/).

In the 2003 comedy film Bruce Almighty, Jim Carey plays God and, alongside 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 respond. He sets his e-mail account to automatically answer “yes” to all, assuming this will make everybody happy. Of course, it does not.

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A poetry competition judge comparing himself to a character playing God lays himself open to criticism – but I have indeed found the initial phases of judging 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 is impossible to deny. 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 as poetry.

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The numbers are always frightening. Many hundreds of poems will be submitted. Perhaps only 10% of these will demand a further reading after the brutal first sifting. Poems face an early red light from most judges because basic elements are not competently done:

  • Competitions are full of pieces where a particular verse form or rhyme pattern tyrannises the sentiment. 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.
  • Choice of diction also derails 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.

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  • A fourth error is using language without being fully aware of its likely resonance with a possible reader. A poem called ‘Mother’s Pride’ which turns out not to be aware of the loaf of bread is going to have unanticipated clutter to climb over in the 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 up to date with the way words live then he’s right.

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If you are thinking of submitting to a competition, it’s worth recalling Wordsworth’s formulation – familiar though it will feel – that poetry is built from “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Poems made in the heat of the moment (and not revised and reviewed in the name of not tainting spontaneity) are seldom without their flaws. This is the kind of distinction Rilke also makes when he denies poetry is composed of feelings. Its constituents 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?

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Stephen Spender argues 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?’

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Reaching the final stages, the judge will be focusing more positively and more clearly on the sense, the story, the thought 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 difficult to answer is because it is 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 Betjeman, Hughes, Plath, Duffy . . . But we also posture like mad in ‘real life’. We may take up the pose of grief, melancholy, love, liberalism, environmentalism . . . 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 the attitude 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.”

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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.

Teaching Dannie Abse’s ‘Two For Joy’ (2010)

I first became aware of Dannie Abse’s work in 1986 when he and his wife, Joan, were editing Voices in the Gallery,  a sumptuous anthology of poems about paintings for the Tate Gallery. To my astonished delight, they accepted ‘At The National Gallery’, an early poem of mine about Gerrit van Honthorst’s ‘Christ Before the High Priest’ which later appeared in Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). Our paths continued to cross around the London poetry scene, especially at (usually fraught) Poetry Society Council meetings in the 1990s. A couple of years ago he visited the College where I work and happily discussed his poems with students. His death in September 2014 was such a sad loss.

With the New Year we are again teaching Dannie Abse’s collection Two for Joy (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0091931177/karelsoftw-21). But with the changes to A Levels being hurried in from September 2015, this will be the last time we work on this book (for AS Level Coursework) though it has proved a joy to teach. This is perhaps a surprise given its subject matter.

The book is a compilation of work from several years focused on Abse’s relationship with Joan, his wife (herself a writer, editor and acclaimed art historian). It was published a couple of years after The Presence (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0099531860/karelsoftw-21), a memoir completed in response to Joan’s tragic death in a car accident in 2005. ‘Two for Joy’, of course, alludes to the old country saying, cited on seeing magpies: one for sorrow, two for joy. The poems in the collection evoke both sides of this cryptic saw, from the early joys of young love to the sorrowing widower more than 50 years later.

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In terms of teaching and coursework the book’s focus is so intense, powerful and yet varied that the material always goes down very well with students and enables them to write confidently about ‘the collection’ (one of the Assessment Objectives). We might start with the simplicity of ‘Condensation on a Windowpane’ where the aging narrator inscribes his and his lover’s names on the wet windowpane because he wants to write “something simple as pure water”. Yet even water, further considered, is complicated, “like steam, like ice, like clouds”. This plainness of address and nakedness of emotion is immediately engaging but Abse is really flagging up the collection’s main themes of love and time as, eventually, the words fade, dribbling down the glass: “They weep as they vanish”.

Or what better way (I mean appalling way) to gain students’ attention than this opening quatrain of ‘Lachrymae’:

I crawled from the noise of the upturned car

And the silence in the dark began to grow.

I called out her name again and again

To where neither words nor love could go.

This little sequence of poems like tear drops is set after Joan’s death and delicately re-visits a few scenes from married life, only to end with the narrator walking in solitude beside the Hampstead ponds, “where a lone swan sings / without a sound”.

An earlier poem ‘A Night Out’ records a visit the couple made to the Academy cinema in Oxford Street in the 1950s. As a Welsh Jew in London, courting and marrying a gentile, there are plenty of moments in these poems where the unconventional couple have to confront the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the 1950s and early 1960s: anti-Semitism in ‘A Marriage’; general moral strictures in ‘Two for Joy’. On the occasion of the cinema visit, Abse’s cultural background is significant as they watch a fictionalised account of the Holocaust: “images of Auschwitz, almost authentic, the human obscenity in close-up” so much that “we forgot the barbed wire / was but a prop [. . . ] those striped victims merely actors”. Afterwards, the couple are stunned by what they have seen, sitting in a “bored espresso bar”. Gathering themselves at last, they return home to a German au pair girl, their own children safely asleep upstairs:

Reassured, together we climbed the stairs,

undressed together, and naked together,

in the dark, in the marital bed, made love.

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Abse’s technical skill with plain language is on full show in such lines and the class might have debates about how far individual love is shown to counter, compensate, or merely distract from world horrors. In a 1980 essay called ‘Rhyme’ (collected in Dannie Abse: a Sourcebook, ed. Cary Archard: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1854115073/karelsoftw-21) Abse has commented on this poem and presenting students with his observations has often proved to be a moment when sceptics about the deliberateness of a writer’s choices can be converted. He compares ‘A Night Out’ with ‘In Llandough Hospital’ arguing that the charge of emotion from the film was so powerful that he “did not want to make any pretty artifice out of it. I did not want to be lyrical about such a theme. I wanted to be as truthful as possible, to avoid all kinds of artificiality, to say what I felt and to say it plainly. I wanted the verisimilitude of prose”.

The period of the Cold War is briefly evoked at the end of ‘A Scene from Married Life’ in contrast to the “few and brief” cold wars of the couple’s marital rows. Set in Abse’s beloved Ogmore-by-the-Sea in South Glamorgan, after a petty squabble, the narrator metamorphoses into a monster of self-pity and suicidal thoughts. The poem cleverly balances the two perspectives of the over-dramatising, younger self with a more ironic, mature judgment. It’s only at the end with the appearance of Joan on the cliff top (surely an echo Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Voice, with Emma in her ‘sky blue gown’) that the faux-suicide relents:

On the high cliff my wife dressed in blue and all

The best of the world true and desirable.

With surrendering waves I crawled back to the shore.

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Such humour, often in self-mockery is never far from Abse’s work. The darker side of grief is evoked in the image of blood-stained petals falling in ‘Magnolia’ (“bridal branches slowly violated”) but most powerfully in ‘The Revisit’ which again works the rich seam of two periods of life knotted together. A beautiful lake scene enjoyed together is re-vised by the lonely widower into an apocalyptic vision, with the sun-set now evocative of “Angel wars. Such April bloodshed!” Though there are more consolatory poems in the book, where time the healer is seen to begin its work, ‘The Revisit’ shocks in its blunt confrontation with grief and on this occasion Abse’s use of poetical devices, the abundant skill of the artist, only serves to emphasise the helplessness of the man:

The gradual distance between two stars is night.

Ago, love, we made love till dark was bright.

Now without you dark is darker still and infinite

It would be a shame indeed if, in the mean-spirited, ever-narrowing criteria of the new A Level specifications, a collection such as this one could not continue to find a place. Dannie Abse’s website is at: http://www.dannieabse.com/.

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Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’ and new poems

I sometimes think poets are of two kinds: those drawn to dramatic subjects which explicitly dramatise the writer’s concerns and those drawn to more everyday topics which come to reflect the writer’s concerns in the course of the poem. I think of Hardy and Edward Thomas in the latter camp, alongside Heaney’s reference to Katherine Mansfield in North (1975): “I will tell / How the laundry basket squeaked”. In the former camp, for sure, stands the American writer, Dan O’Brien, who is everywhere at the moment.

O’Brien sees himself as “a playwright who moonlights as a poet” and he has just won the Troubadour International Poetry prize and been shortlisted for the Evening Standard theatre awards (for his play The Body of an American). He also has poems included in the recent Magma issue discussed in my last blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/12/01/the-launch-of-magma-60-at-lrb-bookshop/). O’Brien’s first book of poems, War Reporter, was published by Charles Boyle’s excellent CB Editions just a year ago and I reviewed it for Poetry London. The book went on to be shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize and to win the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection prize (http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/news/fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2013-winner-announced/)

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In discussion at Aldeburgh, O’Brien said War Reporter had been described as “docu-poetry” and that “sounds fair.” The war reporter in the book’s title is Canadian journalist, Paul Watson, and for seven years O’Brien has been in communication with him, “obsessively” recording and working on email conversations, as well as Watson’s recordings from conflict zones around the world. The two poems in Magma are part of new work in progress. ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Has the Time’ is a good example of the complex webs of guilt and complicity that O’Brien poems weave at their best. The narrator has helped an “interpreter” escape from Kandahar and vengeance is taken against the interpreter’s extended family through an IED: “A bump in the road and / the usual denouement”. The poems never flinch from explicitness about physical harm (“his father, leg like broken / bricks in a bag”) or psychological damage (“a pistol for protection, against all / sense and provocation, only to suck it in his mouth and – blackout”). ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Knows’ returns in part to the moral quandaries surrounding Watson’s 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk and through the streets of Mogadishu. It also alludes to Watson’s more recent eyewitness accounts from the conflict in Syria: “The West engaged / in self-soothing debates while mercenaries / penetrate the borders, tilting the board / in Assad’s favour”.

The Troubadour winning poem likewise derives from the Syrian conflict. Co-judging with Seren’s Amy Wack, Neil Astley said O’Brien submitted three poems, any one of which could have won first prize: “All three were so compelling that I found myself measuring all the other poems I read against them . . . I had no hesitation in putting forward one of them for first prize.” The eventual winner was ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs’: “basically pieces-of-shit / IEDs of TNT, nitrogen / -rich fertilizer, diesel, anything / likely to kindle after exploding”. This is a more brutal, less multi-dimensional poem than some of O’Brien’s but it possesses an undeniable power to shock: “A foot in a sock / sticks out of the mountain. They tickle her / to see if they should dig”.

O’Brien has just published a second collection of more personal poems with CB Editions: http://www.cbeditions.com/obrien2.html

And here is my review of War Reporter from last year:

Dan O’Brien’s book is big, brave, important and challenging even in its imperfections. It is an act of ventriloquism, hitching a desperate and often horrifying ride on the work and experiences of Canadian war reporter, Paul Watson. Watson took the 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk through the streets of Mogadishu. Without doubt, his work tapped something important for America; as well as Watson’s original book, Where War Lives, and these poems, there is also a play and an opera in preparation.

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The poems abound in speaking voices, dominated by Watson himself, but including the “Poet”. Each piece comes at the reader as a slab of blank, largely decasyllabic verse. Voices bleed into one another, partly under the pressure of war zone experiences but also because of an explicit similitude between author and reporter: “You’re like the writer / I’ve always wished I were [. . . ] your constant / returning to an underworld we can’t / look at” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Describes the Ghost’). Both men admit to the allure of war and death. Watson’s voice, telling of his Mogadishu photo, confesses “When / you take a picture the camera covers / your face, you shut the rest of the world out” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice’). The quieter, more reflective stretches of the sequence explore this idea and allude to Camus’ claim to have solved the mystery of where war lives; the answer is in each of us, in our loneliness and humiliation. Watson’s book pursues this and O’Brien does the same here, taking the idea to justify excursions into both men’s personal and family backgrounds. I’m not sure how effective this is (OK, both are drawn to war’s horror, but neither are warriors) and these episodes do sap the quite astonishing power of the more direct reportage.

The book has Watson recalling scenes from Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and it is art’s ability to contemplate such horrors that makes the book an important one. Tony Harrison (who always refers to himself as the man who reads the metre) insists that his formal artistry is vital to bring the poet through the fire he is intent on penetrating. O’Brien chooses to speak of man’s brutality by telling it slant, through another’s voice. Watson witnesses the stoning of a married rapist, but the initial possessive modifier ensures we cannot push the scene into the distance: “our audience cheers an elderly man / lifting a perfect cinder block above / his head, then smashing it down where a gash / jack knifes the rapist’s neck” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Attends a Stoning’). War lives in all of us and the collection is a hard read partly because of our reluctance to face this. The rigid consistency of form perhaps also adds some monotony, but I’d agree with Jay Parini, that O’Brien’s success is in finding words “sufficient” for our time, a form of speech adequate to the evil that persists.