Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lowell Studies (groan)

I've been reading Robert Lowell's Day by Day in advance of a seminar I'm going to on Thursday about the usual Lowelly things - agency, confession and so on. His Collected Poems (or is it Complete, or Comprehensive, or Whacko! Use This as the Basis of my Plinth?) is such a daunting and massive book - though graphically beautiful - that I have always been somewhat afraid of it. This fear is partly relieved and partly reinforced by the fact that, opening it at random, you are pretty much guaranteed to find a piece of good writing in Lowell's own distinctive style.

You may remember August Kleinzahler's attack on Lowell in the LRB; reading the poems, it's hard to suppose that Kleinzahler has done so himself (though I don't want to suggest that he hasn't). What I find, and he, presumably, doesn't, is a style which succeeds more often than not in dramatising its material. I don't mean by saying that to take a position on the whole confession vs craft debate which seems to tether thinking about Lowell's work to the most basic level. (Of course he draws material from his life; of course it is crafted literature and not mere confession.) Rather, I mean that his sentences are constructed in such a way that they create and maintain interest, embody tensions, provoke reactions. The reason Lowell is so much better than most so-called confessional poets is not because he led a more interesting life or confessed it the more or less nakedly but because the man knew how to write a sentence.

There is a sort of humour in Lowell's style which makes you not laugh but gurgle with delight, regardless of the tenor of the underlying material. It is like irony; maybe it is a kind of irony, but the distance between the thing said and the way it is expressed is sometimes very small, or exists in a dimension other than the distance we usually think of as being ironic. Which is probably an obscure way of saying that Lowell's speaker need not sound cynical to create such an effect. I suppose it must leave some people cold. I love it.

On a more mundane level, I note that Lowell has a Russian doll fetish for titles: Day by Day, like Life Studies, contains a sequence of poems with the same title as the collection it is part of. Probably this proves nothing, but I wonder if it is further evidence for the way his collections are startlingly coherent. Or, since I have been overwhelmingly positive up to now, I'll make the same point in a different way by saying that I wonder if it supports the suspicion that Lowell had a very limited range of subjects, and wrote them all to death.

Spider! O my Spider!

Triumphant this morning having won a prize at Wallace Stevens's birthday party. Also an enormous spider was prowling around the bed, but when I came back from the bathroom one of the dogs had slaughtered it and was rubbing it into the carpet with his paw. There is a strange symmetry here because he kills them and doesn't eat them, while my old dog Minty used to eat them without killing them.

After much chewing and theatrical swallowing, he'd lie there for twenty minutes before a gallant little leg lifted up his jowl and the doughty blighter scurried out.

I intend to post something actually about poetry later.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Um hum un hun an han

Grazing my copy of Mark Ford’s Carcanet New York Poets anthology in an idle moment yesterday, I was struck by two things.

The first is that Ford misses out several of the few NYP poems I already knew before buying the book – e.g. John Ashbery’s ‘What is Poetry’ and Kenneth Koch’s ‘Sleeping with Women’. Whether you think this is a good or bad thing depends on whether you think the anthology should be a best-of or a sampler. I’m mildly annoyed not to have those poems to hand, but that may spur me to buy books they are in, so I don’t mind.

The second thing is how good Koch is and in particular how he can make the de-trop repetition thing of ‘Sleeping with Women’ work again in other poems. Such as ‘One train May Hide Another’:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line--
Then it is safe to go on reading.
In a family one sister may conceal another,
So, when you are courting, it's best to have them all in view
Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.
One father or one brother may hide the man,
If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love.
So always standing in front of something the other
As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas.
One wish may hide another. And one person's reputation may hide
The reputation of another. One dog may conceal another
On a lawn, so if you escape the first one you're not necessarily safe [...]

It was necessary to quote at length to demonstrate the effect, so I hope Koch’s shade, and executors, will forgive me. The same sort of device – where ideas are repeated even if the words differ – underlies ‘Fate’, in which the speaker’s meditation gains force not through profundity but through Koch’s depiction of it as casual, flitting, frustrated and provisional: it feels real. My favourite part involves the contentless representations of others’ speech (‘And John said Um hum and hum and hum I/ Don’t remember the words Frank said Un hun/ Jane said An Han’), which the speaker’s own remembered speech in the end falls into. It’s a confident piece of self-effacement:

and I said
Aix-en-Provence me new sense of
These that London Firenze Florence
Now Greece and un hun um hum an
Han boop Soon I was at Larry’s [...]

Elsewhere in the book I read Frank’s (they all call each other by their first names, so why the hell shouldn’t I?) poem ‘To Gottfried Benn’, disliked it, so tried some others, more to my taste, and reread his famous ‘The Day Lady Died’, in order to feel again the moment when everyone and I stopped breathing

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Epic, eh?

I'm still thinking about the topic of the basically unshiftable imbalance between what you've read and what you want to read. A friend of mine is worried that he might die before reading all the books on his list. Since he adds books to the list faster than he reads them, this is very likely.

A poem I've never properly got to grips with is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh. I've always half-hoped it wouldn't be any good, thus justifying my ignorance of it. No such luck. Having a good go at the bit in book 5 about poets and the present age, I was struck by the tension between the realist and epic elements to the imperative, and the implication that a modern epic would both look very different from a classical or even Renaissance one, and, presumably, celebrate some very different things. One can't really imagine a pro-Bush epic, for example - our own present age just doesn't see military matters and the State as its defining concerns. (I am excluding satire and the mock-epic, which quite clearly could address politics in such a way, without being a contemporary epic in the way I am thinking of - its relation to convention, for example, would have to be ironic and self-conscious.)

So what would be the thematic preoccupation of a modern epic? Well, presumably that question would itself form part of the content: what does it mean to celebrate nation in the absence of a nationalism with which one is comfortable? What, in that case, precisely constitutes the nation? On the other hand, in what ways might a contemporary epic participate in epic conventions of style? I can't see that it can be as long as the classics, for a variety of reasons, including that: it wouldn't come out of an oral tradition; long poems aren't terribly fashionable or even necessarily read at the moment; in the absence of grand, often military, narratives, it would be difficult to sustain interest over a long period; given still-current notions about the fragmentary nature of experience, a long single narrative may not suit one's thematic purposes.

That isn't to say that an epic would be impossible. The conventions are there to be subverted. But I wonder whether the basic challenge of a contemporary epic - to celebrate a nationalism which is in doubt - doesn't push the form towards pastoral, which Andrew Ettin calls its 'diametric opposite, in much the same way as the heroic life is a challenge to private leisure'. The epic as small, local event as opposed to grand, national event: the challenge then would be to construct, through a poem, a nationalism - or, since that term may be too loaded to think straight - an Englishness, a regionalism, a comfortable and historically literate identity which did not only turn away from major events towards the local, but insisted that it is the local event which should be considered major.

Such an insistence, though, if it were to be more than sticking one's fingers in one's ears, would have to provide a sense that the local can also be politically effective. Thus - and I mean this quite seriously, although these are not positions I'd necessarily like to claim for my own - you might write an epic in praise of local government, or in praise of non-govermental institutions. It's true that devolution of political power, whether towards constituent nation states or towards charities, special-interest societies and clubs, is often an ideal used cynically by conventional political powers operating and thinking at a national level, and also that devolved power may reconstitute itself at the local level in no less a repugnant way. So maybe the best that today's writer of epic can do is to espouse the indefinite refusal of power (pastoral disguised as epic), or to celebrate those institutions which, through their oblique relation to power are hardly likely to acquire it, for good or ill. The epic as life-going-on-anyway, though that too risks slipping into pastoral via I'm-alright-Jack. But then such institutions are often surprisingly capable of robust encounters with the political sphere. The W.I.-ad, anyone?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Muhammad al-Maghut

A recent article in PN Review on the Arabic poet Muhammad al-Maghut caught my attention, and I went to Amazon and bought a selection of his poems in translation, Joy is Not My Profession, published by Signal Editions of Canada.

From what I read so far, the translators, John Asfour and Alison Burch, are right when they talk in the introduction about him 'juxtapos[ing] modern colloquial speech with the occasional traditional poetic idiom... In his poetry the satire is pervasive at every level'. The most striking poem I have read is one quoted both in the PNR and in Asfour and Burch's introduction, 'When the Words Burn'. Its opening would not shame any poet I can think of:

Poetry, this immortal carcass, bores me.
Lebanon is burning - it leaps, like a wounded horse, at the edge of the desert
and I am looking for a fat girl
to rub myself against on the tram,
for a Bedouin-looking man to knock down somewhere.
My country is on the verge of collapse,
shivering like a naked lioness
and I am looking for two green eyes
and a quaint cafe by the sea,
looking for a desperate village girl to deceive.

There's something both familiar and alien about the poem to this English reader. The tension between public and private concerns, apparently a habitual theme of al-Maghut's, must resonate across all cultures. But the high-flown Arab nationalism of 'Lebanon is burning' (which the poem expands upon as it continues) is strange to my ears and mind, even though I can see it is ironised. The structure and effect of the poem is fairly clear. The particular public concerns, and the attitudes towards those concerns which the poems assume and play with, are unfamiliar, so that in reading the poem I feel simultaneously impressed, amused, doubtful and irritated. It hardly helps that the picture of Arab nationalism that the rhetoric suggests - 'Scream, voiceless country!' - accords in its simplicity, passion and nakedness with my own, no doubt orientalising, prejudices, with regard both to the nationalism itself and to the poetry that reflects it. While al-Maghut's poetry undermines that prejudice by showing me an Arabic poet taking up an ironic attitude to all that, it confirms it by implying that he is working against a tradition which is really like that.

Not his fault, of course, and the solution is for me to read more modern Arabic poetry in translation. But I've got the rest of Joy is Not My Profession to tackle yet, not to mention twenty German poets and a hundred writing in English, and the rest. The more you read, the less you feel you've read...

Wrongs of Desire

Yesterday, recovering from a 20 mile walk and 8-hour drink the previous day, the wife and I slumped in front of Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, which we'd never seen before.

I thought it was extremely good - mesmerising in parts - and don't agree with Michael Hofmann's claim that 'in the end, intentions, messages and techniques crush the life out of the film... Wenders has kept one eye on craft and another on significance, and lost sight of the film'. But it is, as he says, 'cosmic, static and romantic', and for quite a specific reason. Like all films which are romantic in a perjorative sense, the problem's in the ending.

Damiel becomes mortal in order to taste mortal life. When he pursues the woman and they meet, she returns his desire, recognising that he is the presence she had felt when he, as angel, was near. That is, they achieve love and happiness because he is an angel and not human. So having wanted to experience life, instead he achieves a fantasy, and this completely undermines what Hofmann refers to, at arm's length, as the film's 'message'.

I wouldn't want to demand that the film attempt naturalistic realism. But since the film celebrates mundane reality in all its variations (the angel just wants to feel, not necessarily feel good), Damiel's advances ought really to fail. A woman is approached by a man she's never met. Yes, she might fall for him. But it's more likely, and neater, if she rejects him. Damiel feels the pain of frustrated desire, and his mortal life goes on. His fantasy is revealed as a fantasy.

Such an ending doesn't even undermine the film's celebratory tone. He doesn't get the girl. (For all that 'To Be Continued' flashes up, the satisfaction of angelic desire in a rarefied love is as close to closure as any film, except Dr Strangelove, can get.) But feeling his failure is a success for his desire of being and feeling mortal - he gets to feel what it's like to be alive.

Well, I'm no Wim Wenders, and it's pointless wishing the film were otherwise. And criticising it in such terms is really meant to be a compliment - it's so good, so far ahead of most films, that it can bear a few abstract quibbles. And by the end I was even starting to feel a little better.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Just reeling off their names is ever so comfy

I spent last Saturday in Nottingham at a conference on place names organised by the Poetry Society and the English Place Names Society. I shan’t discuss the papers in detail — the day as a whole was interesting and informative, although inevitably perhaps none of the speakers managed to break through and make their discipline fully available to the other. Still, the glimpse (which is all you could really ask) of someone else’s territory was fascinating and reminded me how even a ‘poetry person’ reading a poem can miss a large amount of suggestion and detail. You can’t specialise in everything.

One point which came up but was not pursued was the problem for a poet of naming places that are numinous for her but not for others. It’s a paradigm of the problem of private feeling that afflicts all poets – places, things, and words may have particular associations for the writer which others don’t share. Of course the poet’s task in that case is to make other words reproduce the response, or, more realistically perhaps, to conjoin words and ideas to produce some worthwhile effect in her readers. In that case the naming of places in a poem must play a role other than the conjuring of particular associations – although it shouldn’t be beyond a reader to see where a place-name is being used to refer to a particular sort of place and imagine accordingly. Even a poet has to come from, and live, somewhere.

I’m reminded obliquely of Auden’s comment that a poet should be like a valley cheese: 'local, but prized everywhere'. And also of his ‘Lakes’ Bucolic, where he recites the names of sorts of lake: ‘Moraine, pot, oxbow, glint, sink, crater, piedmont, dimple...?/ Just reeling off their names is ever so comfy.’ I rather like Auden’s fey, or coy, late manner. While it shows off its dilettantism, it’s pleasingly discreet about its learning and enthusiasms — here Auden’s liking for geography is made both un-nerdy and infectious. These lines command my assent before I’ve stopped to consider the incongruity of being comforted by scientific terminology. This points to one way to make place-names work in poems, and like all recipes for success in poetry it rests on something more complicated and elusive than analysing the associations of particular words: having Auden’s beguiling touch.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Past Glories of a Kind

Previous magazine credits include the Times Literary Supplement, Matter, The Printer's Devil and Anon.


Ten Hallam Poets

My work was featured in Ten Hallam Poets, an anthology published by Mews Press in 2005. Also featured, among others, are James Sheard and Tim Turnbull, both of whose first full collections were shortlisted for the Forward Prize, and Frances Leviston, soon to be published by Picador. Click on the title to go and buy it.



In 2000 Mews Press published a pamphlet of my poems, called Rhetoric. You can see a sample poem (and buy the pamphlet) by clicking on the link.