poem no. 5 – Browning

Memorabilia by Robert Browning

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at–
My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
‘Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather–
Well, I forget the rest.

This poem manages to be about fame, and memory, and reactions to nature, and the way our preoccupations affect the way we receive the world; all in 16 lines and without feeling overstuffed.

I like its light touch – the way Browning pokes fun at himself, and the rather bathetic ending. But that lightness doesn’t come attached to any irony or insincerity. Browning recognises the hunour in his own reaction, but doesn’t try to disown it.

The poem is just a couple of insubstantial anecdotes – moments, really – yoked together to make a point. But it’s done brilliantly. I particularly like the way that the two halves of the poem are separate. The first two stanzas could stand alone, and so could the last two. The connection between the two halves is never made explicit, but it doesn’t need to be, because the parallel is so apt.

  • Post Category:Culture

those ten poems

Two things those poems aren’t, in any simple way: (1) The ten poems I’d take to a desert island. Or the ten poems I’d save if there was a fire at the British Library and they were the only works that would survive to represent English poetry for all time. (2) picked to indicate the kind of work I’d like to produce myself.

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poem no. 3 – Auden

The Fall of Rome by W. H. Auden

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

This poem doesn’t have the slippery, oblique intellectuality of Auden at his most Audenesque. September 1, 1939 seems like a typically Auden poem; faced with the second great war of his lifetime, he produced a poem that flickers between the grand sweep of history and the mundanities of everyday life, via psychology and ethics and politics – but without using ideas to hide from the ominous reality.

The Fall of Rome is much more direct, although the handling of form, the subject matter and the use of the anachronisms all feel typically Auden. I think what makes this poem stick in my mind is simply the image-making – the aptness and precision. I like the poem even though I have an uneasy feeling that it’s trying to persuade me of something I don’t believe; but I’m not quite sure what that is. The vigour of the simple-minded, perhaps.

Next up – The Seafarer. Hopefully I can find something a bit more insightful to say about that one.

  • Post Category:Culture

poem no. 2 – Marvell

The Mower to the Glo-Worms by Andrew Marvell.

Ye living Lamps, by whose dear light
The Nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the Summer-night,
Her matchless Songs does meditate;

Ye Country Comets, that portend
No War, nor Princes funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Then to presage the Grasses fall;

Ye Glo-worms, whose officious Flame
To wandring Mowers shows the way,
That in the Night have lost their aim,
And after foolish Fires do stray;

Your courteous Lights in vain you wast,
Since Juliana here is come,
For She my Mind hath so displac’d
That I shall never find my home.

Again, I guess the question is – why this one rather than any other Marvell poem? Especially since this is the only poem from a Metaphysical poet, so it was also chosen in preference to all of Donne and Herbert. Well, on another day, I might have picked a different poem. Like The Sun Rising, or Good Friday, Riding Westward. Or The Collar. Or, getting back to Marvell, The Unfortunate Lover.

I do like this one though. Part of the appeal of the Metaphysicals is the ingenuity of their poems, but when the poems are at their most spectacularly ingenious, it sometimes unbalances the poem. When I first read Donne, at school, I thought the compasses conceit in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning was just fabulous, but now I’m less sure. I think the reader’s attention is pulled too far away from the putative subject of the poem. What I like about The Mower to the Glo-Worms is that it has some of that ingenuity – in comparing the glowworms to comets, for example – but the conceits are always tied into the world of mowers, glowworms and nightingales, so I don’t have the feeling that the poet’s ingenuity is in competition with the poem.

The other thing that really appeals to me about the poem is its shape. We get three parallel stanzas offering ways of looking at the glowworms, and although they establish atmosphere and themes, we don’t actually get any of the core subject – the mower’s love for Juliana – until the last stanza. And when it does come, it’s understated; it’s hard to imagine a simpler line than ‘that I shall never find my home’ to end a poem. I once heard/read an explanation of one way music works. I don’t understand music, so this will be a bit garbled, but: because people have certain (unconscious) expectations about how a musical pattern will resolve itself, a composer can open the pattern and the audience will be held in a slight sense of tension waiting for the pattern to resolve. Then when the resolution, the ending, appears, the audience has a pleasurable sense of release, of things falling into place. In this poem, I feel we’re left with a slight rhetorical tension at the end of each of the first three stanzas. We’re left hanging by the semicolon; and only after repeating this pattern three times does the poem resolve itself.

  • Post Category:Culture

poem no. 1 – Hopkins

As promised, some thoughts on each of those ten poems, starting with As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dr

  • Post Category:Culture

Orchestra Super Mazembe

Currently playing – Orchestra Super Mazembe. Who I wholeheartedly recommend. ‘Mazembe’ means bulldozer, apparently, thus putting them in the narrow category of ‘bands named after industrial equipment’ along with Kraftwerk.

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ten poems to introduce oneself with

The idea’s being doing the rounds of poblogs – ten poems you might use to introduce yourself. I guess the ten you pick depends on whether you’re introducing yourself to a possible employer or a possible shag. I’ll leave it to the reader to deicde whether my selection is the equivalent of a resum

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meme from blogpulse

A list of ‘the top 110 banned books of all time’ – whatever that means. Bold the ones you

  • Post Category:Culture


Last night
the frogs were croaking.
Snow is falling.

I wonder whether a fixed ‘content word’ count would be a way of providing a clear formal model for haiku in English. i.e. count the nouns, verbs and adjectives. This would come in at six. So would “old pond – frog jumps – sound of water”, pretty much however you translate it. “little snail – inch by inch, climb – Mount Fuji!”, comes in as five in Japanese (katatsuburi soro-soro nobore fuji no yama), something like “snail slowly-slowly climb mount fuji” maybe. And many have even fewer. Hmm. Maybe not.

  • Post Category:Culture

what am I looking for?

It seems a natural question – what kind of thing am I looking for out of literary theory? What would it take to convince me that some body of theory was valuable?

Well, something that I thought was true and non-obvious would be a good start. Even if it didn’t provide any new insights, something that was coherent and provided an explanation for some of the commonplace observations about literature would still be valuable. A knowledge of physics doesn’t really help you to play snooker, or provide any insights into the game as a game, but it’s intellectually satisfying to know that the behaviour of the balls can be explained and predicted.

What you really want, though, is a way of understanding literature that provides new insights. Some aspects of the theoritication of criticism do that, I think. For me, the idea of different ways of reading work – feminist, historical, political – has obvious value. But I never felt it needed any special theoretical justification. It’s just a specialisation, a narrowing of focus to look at one aspect of the work at a time.

I do have an intriguing example from the visual arts. Some years ago I heard a neuroscientist (Semir Zeki) on the radio who was studying the different regions of the brain that processed vision. One particular area was processing something like colour contrasts (I can’t remember now), and the development of Mondrian’s paintings showed a increased tendency over his career to stimule that area precisely. Now that raises the possibility that he was aware of a particular kind of response and was trying to hone his paintings to create that response, even though he didn’t know why his paintings worked.

Where the story gets more interesting is that apparently Vermeer’s work is also very good at stimulating this area of the brain. Art critics have made the Mondrian/Vermeer comparison before, but this provides a precise neurological explanation for where the similarity lies. This little snippet of neuroscience doesn’t tell you everything there is to know about either Mondrian or Vermeer, of course, but it is interesting.

My choice of example no doubt suggests that I think neuroscience is also the way forward in understanding literature, and I certainly think it’s one important way forward. The structures of language as understood by contemporary linguists (i.e. not Saussure), and the way the brain processes language, seem obviously fertile ground for study. I found Pinker’s The Language Instinct fascinating, and I also spent a long time thinking about Dawkins’s idea of memetics at one stage. In the end, though, I wasn’t able to apply them in a way that offered any new insights. Memetics seems sound as a theory, but rarely seems to offer any interesting conclusions that couldn’t be equally well explained without it. And either I don’t know enough about linguistics, or I haven’t been thinking about it in the right way, or both. Or the insights aren’t there to be had.

I’ve just noticed that Zeki has a book about art and the brain, which I may as well add to my Amazon wishlist for the moment. If I ever buy and read it, I’ll let you know what I think.

  • Post Category:Culture

‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’

I went to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou today. Which I enjoyed.

Shall We Dance? is a low-key Japanese film about a married salaryman accountant who sees an attractive woman in a dance studio from his commuter train and decides to take ballroom dancing lessons.

Hollywood has just remade it with Richard Gere playing the part as a successful lawyer and J-Lo as the dance teacher. I find it hard to believe that any of the atmosphere could survive that bit of casting. So why do they remake these movies in a way which is guaranteed to kill exactly what was appealing about the original?

I haven’t actually seen the remake – perhaps it’s better than one would expect. I can certainly recommend the original, though.

  • Post Category:Culture

‘Africa Remix’ at the Hayward

I went to see Africa Remix (an exhibition of contemporary African art) at the Hayward Gallery today.

It was the predictable mix of a few good pieces, a sea of mediocrity and some absolute stinkers. I’m sure that’s been true of most broad surveys of contemporary art at any period in history.

I didn’t take any notes (or shell out twenty quid for the catalogue), so I’m afraid I can’t name names, but here are some comments.

The award for most heavy-handed work is shared between two pieces, both video work. One was called something like ‘crossing the line’ and was a video of someone’s feet, filmed from above and projected on the floor so you’re looking down from about where the camera would be. There was a little ditch carved out of the floor, like a gutter. The feet flirted with crossing the line, but didn’t, to the soundtrack of slightly cracked laughter. The information for the piece explained that it was exploring the idea of madness and ‘crossing a line’. In other words, it’s a clich

  • Post Category:Culture

my personal experience of theory

I’m a natural customer for critical theory. But I’m not a fan.

I’m generally reluctant to engage too much with arguments about literary/critical theorising because I haven’t read enough of the key primary texts. But I’m unwilling to bow out of the discussion altogether because there was a time, admittedly only a few months, when I devoted a great deal of time and intellectual energy to engaging with those theories.

In the third year of my undergraduate degree in English Literature, I chose to do a course in critical theory. I went into it with mixed feelings. I was sceptical, because the encounters I’d had with theory during my degree hadn’t impressed me. But I was also quite excited to see what I’d encounter, because I am, by inclination, a theoretical and analytical thinker. I was also already impatient with the woolly thinking implicit in the way that some traditional critics talk about literature.

I remember, for example, a lecture where the lecturer used the idea that the effectiveness of literature derives from its ‘truth’. The point I tried, incoherently, to make at the time, and which I still think is valid, is this: Most literature is not true, in the sense the word is normally used. The events in Bleak House didn’t actually happen. An appeal to ‘artistic truth’ or ‘essential truth’ or, God forbid, ‘poetic truth’ doesn’t help – it’s just verbal gesticulation. No doubt when pressed, the lecturer would have explained that by ‘truth’ he meant something slightly different (plausibility? sincerity?) – but that seems like a very good reason not to use the word ‘truth’ in the first place.

I also agree that appeals to ‘common sense’ are a cop-out. Even if there is some way of approaching literature which is obvious, universal and coherent, people should be willing and able to articulate the ideas behind it, and examine them.

So I went into this course with the hope that it would be my kind of thing. And although, as I said, I haven’t read as much of the key material as I should have to comment properly, I did read quite a lot of the reading material suggested – including three different introductions to theory, S/Z, Saussure, bits of Derrida and so on. Now I appreciate that introductory guides written for undergrads are not the real thing, but I don’t think my blood pressure would have stood it if I’d read too much more. For those few months, I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the subject, and the fact that people were teaching this stuff – that it was an influential movement within a subject that I cared about – made me frustrated and angry.

As I hope I’ve made clear, it’s not that I mind theorising. It’s just that so much of the theorising seemed to be badly done. Books would make an argument, demonstrate a weak version of it, and then claim a strong version, or illustrate it with a very narrow, atypical case and claim to have made the general case. Or they’d make elementary errors of logic, like saying ‘history is just a kind of narrative’ and concluding that anything that is true about fiction is also true about history*. The theories were also built upon older theories which are themselves highly dubious. I can respect the importance of Saussure, Freud, and Marx in the history of their subjects, but none of them are exactly cutting edge. Linguists, psychoanalysts and economists have learnt a lot over the past century, but none of it seems to have filtered through to literary theory. And if, like me, you’re not convinced by either Saussure or Freud, Lacan is a non-starter. This narrowness of reference seemed to be a general problem. If for, example, you’re talking about how language and society develop and interact, why wouldn’t you mention the social and communication behaviours of other species?

In the end, I felt that many strands of critical theory have been positively harmful to the study of literature. Take the example of feminist theory. The intersection between gender and literature is obviously fertile ground for study. Any of these things, none of which seem controversial, would be enough to justify a gender-sensitive study of literature: if women and men tend to write differently, or read differently, or if women’s literature tends to be marginalised or approached differently, or if literature can offer insight into gender-roles in different cultures, or just if gender and sexuality is a major part of the human experience. But all those things can be analysed and written about without needing to buy into a radical model of language. The flakier end of feminist literary theory (like the argument that logic should be rejected as a phallogocentric embodiment of the patriarchal nature of society) can only weaken that field of study, both by reducing its credibility and diverting people’s intellectual energy into an unproductive direction.

And not just feminism – there were a lot of valid insights about limitations in traditional practice that were inflated into ludicrous theoretical contructions. You don’t need to make radical theoretical claims to challenge the centrality of the author in traditional criticism, or argue that literary study has not taken enough notice of historical and social conditions, or that critics have been too slow to engage with politics.

Also, theory-driven articles about particular works of literature seemed to me to be generally weakened by the theory, rather than strengthened by it. Often the author seemed more interested in ingenious ways of applying the theory than in coming up with new insights. The conclusions they did reach often seemed no different from those a traditional close reading might achieve – but less coherently expressed. Or radical and exciting sounding – but insupportable.

And I haven’t even mentioned the malign influence on people’s prose style.


*compare – ‘Bill Clinton is just a kind of mammal, and therefore, like mice, his teeth grow continuously and he needs to gnaw hard materials regularly to wear them down’.

  • Post Category:Culture

Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design

He designed us an appendix
‘cos he knew it would delight us
to have the opportunity
to get appendicitis.

  • Post Category:Culture

‘American Poetry’

I find it interesting that Americans constantly self-identify themselves as ‘American’.

I’ve been reading Roger Pao’s blog Asian-American Poetry with some interest, but while he explores all the nuances, the root question goes unasked and unanswered – why that category? Why the keenness to put your work into a non-literary category? By which I mean: “I am an Asian-American Poet” is a different kind of statement to “I am a Vorticist”. Or is it? Perhaps it is intended as a statement about the work, rather than, say, an assertion of identity or a marketing opportunity. But what kind of statement? If a customer bought an anthology of Asian-American poetry and found that, although all the poets were Asian-Americans, the work was indistinguishable from that of other Americans, would they be entitled to feel cheated?

Actually, though, the idea of ‘Asian-American Poetry’ doesn’t really surprise me. There are obvious reasons why people would want to identify themselves as Asian-American (it’s a historically marginalised minority with shared interests etc etc), and why an Asian-American Poetry anthology would seem like a good idea. It no more needs special justification than an anthology of woman poets, or Welsh poets, or young poets.

What I find more interesting is the tendency for America to do the same thing. A trivial example – after the success of ‘Pop Idol’ in the UK, it crossed over to America where it became ‘American Idol’. Why? Why would an American program made by an American company and broadcast on an American network need to identify itself as American? What point were they trying to make? Normally, I’d expect a program (or anthology) that identified with a particular social group to be defining itself in relation to the majority, but surely the US isn’t defining itself (to itself) in opposition to the rest of the world.

Similarly, and getting back to poetry for a minute, I have a copy of the New Formalist anthology Rebel Angels (dreadful self-satisfied title, I know). The introduction is basically spent defending metrical poetry against the suggestion that it is ‘un-American’. The subject is set up as an argument between two sides: both seem to believe that American poets have some kind of responsibility to American Poetry, and the only difference is how that responsibility should be discharged.

I would have thought that American Poetry could look after itself. Whatever kinds of poems are written by poets who are from the US will be American Poetry, and the long-term trends will emerge whether anyone tries to influence them or not.

Perhaps it’s the UK (England?) which is unusual in being very reluctant to invoke ‘Britishness’. I suppose we had the YBAs (Young British Artists – Hirst, Emin etc) recently, but I never felt anyone was expecting them to strive to make their art British; and whatever responsibilities they may have had to Art never seemed to include a responsibility to Britishness.

Anyway, I don’t really want to make this into a Brit/American thing, I’m just intrigued by the labels people pick for themselves.

  • Post Category:Culture

Beowulf as a chiefdom-based society

I’m just reading Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright, a book which argues that there is in fact a good theoretical basis (from game-theory) for seeing the development of human societies as directional. I believe the book later goes onto biological systems as well, but I haven’t got to that bit. Anyway, it got me thinking about Beowulf again.

Beowulf, and other A-S poetry, always read as curiously foreign. Obviously, even the date of the manuscript – C11th – *is* a very distant and foreign culture, and if you accept the C8th date for the poem, that pushes it back further. The action of the poem is dateable to around 516 (the death of Hygelac), although assuming much continuity between the events and the writing of the poem, let alone in its surviving copy, seems unwise.

Still, even given the distance between the poem and ourselves, it always seems surprisingly foreign; much more so than Roman literature, and more so, or at least very differently so, than later medieval literature as well. The insight I may or may not have gained from the Wright book is that part of that difference is because of a major shift in the very structure of the society. He traces out a sequence of societal structures, apparently as used by archeologists (from memory): family groups -> Big Man societies (i.e. a village or two loosely organised around a charismatic leader) -> chiefdoms (groups of villages lead by a powerfully authoritarian leader who often claims divine authority) -> states (centralised bureaucracy, well-defined legal structures).

The relevance of all this is that the world of Beowulf seems to fit more into the chiefdoms stage, which was characterised by, for example, one central village growing in authority and size amongst others around it, and tellingly for the Beowulf comparison, the increasingly lavish burial ceremonies surrounding the deaths of chiefs. Wright mentions the megalithic cultures in pre-Roman Britain as an example; obviously, the ship burial and the barrow burial in Beowulf seem like the same thing. Another key feature – both the Big Man cultures and chiefdoms are often characterised by the throwing of great feasts by the leader as a way of both redistributing wealth and establishing their own status, and feasting is obviously a very A-S obsession. The directness of the relationship between the ‘king’ in A-S poetry and his duguth/geoguth, and the gift culture, also feel like part of a rather smaller social unit than what we normally think of as a ‘kingdom’ (although chiefdoms could be quite big – and is it so different from the emphasis on feasting in ME poetry? And the Tudor court?).

It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this. I was struck, some years ago, by something (in Guns, Germs and Steel, maybe?) which said that the first thing Papuan tribesmen do when they encounter someone they don’t know is have a long discussion about who their relatives are – because if they can find a relationship to each other, they probably won’t need to fight. That reminded me forcefully of sequence of rather cagey encounters B has – initially with the watchman, then a courtier, then the king (I think) – when he first arrives at Heorot as a stranger. And reading the Haida poetry recently, the image of the big houses with a central firepit and a poet/storyteller/scop telling stories that could last for hours, was also reminiscent of A-S poetry.

I don’t suppose any of this would come as news to an anthropologist, but then such is academic territoriality, everything I read about Beowulf at uni was written by literary critics – or sometimes historians. And what does it matter anyway? Well, it changes the way I visualise the poem, at least. The vocabulary, of kings and earls and thanes, never quite matched to the action, but it’s so seductive that somehow it’s hard to get away from it. To think of Hrothgar as a tribal chief, and Heorot as something closer to a longhouse than a palace, carries a severe risk of going too far in the other direction – they may have had simpler political units, but they weren’t exactly hunter-gatherers. Still, it’s a useful imaginative antidote to all the baggage carried by the word ‘king’.

All of which assumes that the poem is somehow a true reflection of society in Northern Europe in the 6th? 8th? century. And since it was written down in the C11th by a Christian scribe, probably from a copy of a copy, that may be a mistake. How much of what’s in the poem is more modern stuff that’s been imposed? And it’s quite likely that the late Anglo-Saxons had a romanticised view of their forebears anyway. The Morte D’Arthur tells you more about the C15th century, when it was written, than the pre-Roman society where it was nominally set; or perhaps the C15th’s romantic view of an earlier medieval period.

Anyway. Enough.

  • Post Category:Culture

Orrm’s metre

I’ve just read The Stories of English by David Crystal. Which I’d recommend as an interesting read. He quotes some of a C12th poem called the Ormulum, after its auther, a monk called Orrm. It’s written in alternating unrhymed lines of 8 and 7 syllables – iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter with a feminine ending. Or alternatively in long 15 syllable lines with a caesura, depending how you prefer to print it. Which didn’t catch on. Might be worth experimenting with, though. Sort of nearly ballad metre.

  • Post Category:Culture


Provoked by Mike Snider’s post on the subject.

I’d always been of the ‘pause slightly on the linebreaks’ school of reading, because if you don’t pause on the linebreaks, what are they there for? But I’d never done any public reading of poetry to speak of. When I came to practice for a reading at my brother’s wedding, of a (rhyming, metrical) poem I wrote for the occasion, I was interested to discover that if I *didn’t* read straight over the linebreaks, it was almost impossible to preserve the proper intonation that the sentences would have in normal speech; so I printed a copy of the poem without the enjambed linebreaks to make it easier to ignore them.

BUT I did feel that the fact it was rhyming made a lot of difference; hopefully the rhyme will come through and indicate the line-ends. In unrhymed free verse (or even blank verse), perhaps the linebreak is doing something different. I actually wonder if the dropping of rhyme from English poetry was a more drastic step than the dropping of metre.

In The Sounds of Poetry, Pinsky uses this poem by Ben Jonson to discuss linebreaks:

My Picture Left in Scotland

I now think love is rather deaf, than blind,
For else it could not be,
That she,
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
And cast my love behind:
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence of as subtle feet
As hath the youngest he,
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.
Oh, but my conscious fears,
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs,
Told seven and forty years,
Read so much waist, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face,
And all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.

Pinsky says: “[…] For Ben Jonson, writing this brilliant poem early in the 17th century, the opposite is true: the ear is the avenue of the spirit, while the eye is duped by mere seeming. What he means about the ear he demonstrates in sentences that skim and dance across the lines and rhymes, flamenco-style, or like Michael Jordan creating space where there was none.” One thing that’s interesting about the poem, for me, is the fact that you can (nearly) relineate from its peculiar mix of line-lengths into IP:

I now think love is rather deaf, than blind,
For else it could not be, that she, whom I
adore so much, should so slight me, and cast
my love behind: I’m sure my language to
her was as sweet, and every close did meet
In sentence of as subtle feet as hath
the youngest he,
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.
Oh, but my conscious fears, that fly my thoughts
Between, tell me that she hath seen my hundreds
Of gray hairs, told seven and forty years,
Read so much waist, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face,
And all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.

That creates some odd line breaks, but if you read it aloud, the sense of the play between the syntax of the poem and the lineation would, I hope still communicate itself to the listener, because the rhyme acts as a marker. Would it be possible to create the effect so well in an unrhymed poem? One thinks of Shakespearean blank verse. If one was performing Hamlet, and trying to use the natural rhythms of speech, would the linebreaks come across in a passage like this (and would the audience lose much if they don’t)?

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!

On the one hand, I think that when actors read poems, they often turn them into dramatic monologues and obliterate the poemness of them – including the lineation. But, as I said earlier, it’s very difficult to read a poem out loud and communicate both the lineation and the syntax – unless it rhymes.

Either way, I think that these discussions tend to talk too much about linebreaks and not enough about lines. They also tend to concentrate too much on local effects – one break at a time – rather than the broader interaction between syntax and line.

  • Post Category:Culture

difficulty in poetry

These are some thoughts in response to the current discussions in blogspace about ‘difficulty’ in poetry.

If you’re interested in creating a larger readership for poetry, difficulty is relative. In Don Paterson’s recent TS Eliot lecture, he fulminates about ‘postmoderns’ and various quotes from the lecture have been used to champion more accessible poetry. But if the missing consituency for poetry is represented by my mother (who doesn’t read poetry but does read novels and biographies) – well, she didn’t find the Paterson poems I showed her immediately accessible, any more than Josh Corey’s mother felt she understood his poetry. I think my mother’s hesitation was mainly because she doesn’t read poetry, so she didn’t feel confident in piecing together the meaning. But my point is, even a poem like The Thread, a rhyming, metrical poem on a conventional subject, requires a different kind of reading to a novel. A regular reader of poetry may fill in the gaps and see what the poem is saying relatively easily – but it’s not as straightforward as it might appear. So if your ambition is to seduce that constituency – readers who don’t read poetry – into buying contemporary poetry, perhaps Billy Collins (or someone equivalent) is what you need. At least he is identifiably writing literary poetry, unlike some high-profile ‘poets’, like Stepanek, Bukowski and Felix Dennis.

Another thought: one reason that people on either side of this debate talk across each other is a difference in the way they mean ‘difficulty’. If Mike Snider uses the term ‘difficult’, he perhaps means ‘wilfully unrewarding’ or even ‘unlikeable’. When Josh Corey uses it, he perhaps means ‘intellectually challenging’. To say you write poetry which is intellectually challenging is a boast; to say you write poetry which is wilfully unrewarding is not. There must be a better term to argue around than ‘difficulty’. I don’t have a suggestion.

I do have sympathy with Chris Lott’s point – basically, that he doesn’t find the so-called ‘difficult’ and ‘complex’ poems are actually complex or difficult – they just look like a mess. That reaction might mean you’re just missing something, but not always. In Matthew Caley’s recent Magma article on the ‘avant garde’ (their scare quotes), he describes an event he organised:

“During a recent stint as Poet-in-Residence at The Poetry Society Cafe I curated an exhibition

  • Post Category:Culture

Haida oral poetry – talk at RFH

I went today to a talk with Margaret Atwood and Robert Bringhurst about his translations of Haida oral literature.

‘Oral literature’ is technically an oxymoron, I guess.

The Haida, btw, were a Native American people living on islands in the Pacific Northwest – off the coast of what’s now British Columbia. The subject matter itself was interesting – insights into the Haida culture and all that. I think I’ll probably order the man’s book, although annoyingly it looks like I’ll have to order it second hand from the States. But I got thinking about more technical aspects of oral ‘writing’.

First thing: each rendition of these stories would be different, of course. We tend to talk about that, though, almost as a by-product or an inconvenience resulting from the medium. But probably it was regarded as a good thing, and a storyteller who could retell a story in a fresh way would be valued, just as we value stand-up comedians like Eddie Izzard or Billy Connolly. Taking that thought further, it would be great if you could pick up a favourite novel – Pride and Prejudice or whatever – and it was slightly different from last time you read it. The characters would be the same, and the plot would be the same, but some scenes would be expanded or contracted; the enmphasis could be different, the dialogue could be different. The possibilities would be endless; yet it would still be the same novel. Perhaps sometimes you’d feel disappointed that a particular aspect was lost from last time you read it; but perhaps there’d be some brilliant vignette that was new.

Second thought: An oral culture would be one circumstance where the idea of memetics might be somewhat rewarding. I’m persuaded that the gene/meme parallel is an accurate one, on a very reductive level. But most practical examples seem uninformative, because they tend to be reduced to such a simplified model – the spread of a meme in the blogosphere or whatever. Part of the reason that our culture is not very usefully compared to biological evolution is perhaps the ability to store and share information exactly, so ideas and texts rapidly reach a stasis in the way they’re presented and spread extremely rapidly, so cultural evolution tends to move in jumps and continuity is lost. An oral storytelling culture – assuming that one still existed and the ability to record and exmine the output was there – would act in a way rather closer to genetic evolution. Continual semi-random incremental changes when a storyteller retells a story, other types of changes when someone tells a story they learnt from another – the possibility of tracking change would be stronger. Would it actually tell you anything profound about people or poetry (or biological evolution) that common sense doesn’t? Probably not.

It’s a pity that storytelling has lost its audience. Yes, we can read now, but there must be virtues in an unscripted (if not unplanned) oral performance that we could learn from. And theatres are suitable venues. Hell, we could buy performances on DVD, although that would tend to reinforce the idea of a definitive performance and drain the spontaneity out of the exercise.

An interesting thing he said. He’d already said that these stories – some of which are epic in length; he mentioned an eight-hour performance – were not metrical, and someone asked why he called them poetry. I was expecting him to come up with some kind of answer about compression or sonic qualities – one of the things we grasp at when trying to justify free verse as poetry. In fact, though, he said that they were structured more like European classical music; that the structuring wasn’t clear on a line-by-line basis, or even from reading a whole poem, but that when you’d read enough examples, the common structure became apparent. So if you just listened to one Beethoven symphony, it might not be clear what made it a symphony; but if you listen to a lot of Beethoven symphonies and compare them to Haydn and Mozart, you can start to understand the similarities. He described the structure as ‘fractal’ – typically five broad divisions (movements? acts? fitts?), each divided into five shorter episodes, further divided into five sub-episodes, and so on. He also mentioned the use of repeated themes and motifs in a way similar to music. I’m always a bit sceptical about poetry/music comparisons (or poetry/painting, music/painting, whatever), because such different media don’t seem to offer much scope for genuine comparison. And because the examples people come up with are so often flaky. He sounded pretty convincing, though.


  • Post Category:Culture

the Turner Prize and Gwen/Augustus John

I went to the Tate to see the Turner Prize exhibition and the Gwen John and Augustus John.

I thought the Turner Prize was a distinct step up from last year; but then last year I thought two of the four artists on display were complete duds.

I always think it’s a pity that most of the TP press coverage is of the Daily Mail outraged-of-Tumbridge-Wells kind, always asking ‘is it really art?’. Because that’s a stupid philistine question, and one that naturally provokes an outraged defence of the TP from right-thinking people like me who believe that to write off the Turnmer Prize entries is to write off most of modernism in art – and that would be a pity. Whereas the TP is crying out for a more subtle and interesting public debate; including the point that many of the entries are just crap.

The one that most annoyed me last year was the video of a man running over a bridge in Belfast, cut together so that he ran and ran and ran and never reached the end. The particular bridge used is one that joins Catholic and Protestant areas. But the image of someone running and running and never getting anywhere is a huge filmic clich

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Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at

  • Post Category:Culture