Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Barbary Lions

Here's the draft poem about Barbary lions - very much a first draft, and one that needs completely taking down and rebuilding. It's a start.



Cross with acrostics

One feature of the graphomaniac sequence I've been writing is that the graphomaniac is characteristically fascinated by form for its own sake - formal ornament as an end in itself, not as an element in the overall aesthetic effect.

As a result I've been indulging various formal tricks - well, showboating - including the acrostic. The acrostic is a particularly pertinent example because, unlike features like rhyme which contribute something to the poem as experienced by the reader (who hears the rhyme), the acrostic even if perfectly achieved remains 'outside' the poem - it makes no real contribution to sound; and its contribution to meaning is only articulated in a separate act of reading, not in the 'primary' reading that proceeds in the normal way. It's an afterthought, comment or other intrusion on the text on the writer's part; and the whiff of secrecy and collusion that it involves makes it useful in my sequence, where the texts are artefact, and moreover artefacts of an embattled mind.

But poetic technique is habit-forming, and I've found myself being temted to use the acrostic as an organising formal principle in other poems, despite the fact that as an organising principle it is basically spurious - arbitrary, like rhyme, without bringing any of the benefits. Consider the following draft of a poem in which I was interested in writing about a late- or post-imperial civilisation. Note how the acrostic which names the theme - Das Narrenschyff, the Ship of Fools - ends up bullying the poem's content into what it always risked becoming, a flat pastiche of Auden's 'The Fall of Rome':

Mosaic for All the Emperors

Dead Jonah’s curled inside the whale, a small
Addition to the sums of homicide,
Salted and shrivelled by our livid dreams—

Nervous, narcotic, fevered things that float
Across the bows of recently enamelled yachts.
Romantic decency and funds
Recede towards ancestral lands, where foreign
Exiles entertain such as they can.
Names mean for a while longer; strangers
Sue for spoliation of their arts.
Candles on such a vessel swing their blades,
Heraldic palace guards grown
Yeasty and villainous. A showering salesman
Feels the Hotel Euxine heave, the old earth swell.
Fountains run brown, then dry; as do the parables.

Yet I am very much interested in writing about the late Roman world as an implicit analogue of contemporary England. That's why my to-write list a few posts back included 'a poem about an ailing Byzantine emperor'. Later I wondered if the focus of the poem should be not the emperor but some symbol of imperial power - maybe some ragged old Barbary lions in the court of the late Western Empire. I've been working on a draft, which I may post later; the idea is that it will be a loose blank verse, cataloguing the variously glamorous and decrepit elements of the scene. It isn't working, yet.


Sunday, January 27, 2008


Note for an epitaph

The train was longer than the platform and
I got off somewhere else

Title for statue of the unknown student

The stoniness of the stoned

Epigrammatic fragments/the poet's I Ching

The best clothes are suitable for all occasions.

The weather is changeable

The future keeps concubines; the present is monogamous

I am waiting for the next funeral

My butcher is bald


Friday, January 25, 2008

A second draft of the underground poem

Here's a second draft of the poem I posted earlier in the week. I've addressed the clutter that Jim identified and added the paraphernalia associated with the sequence. Again, it won't stay up for long.



Writing my walking poem

I've been planning a poem about walking, specifically a Horatian ode. I've been playing around with odes for a while, and thought the form might suit the subject - a leisurely wander through the topic, as it were. This was my first stanza, composed at the bus stop on Wednesday:

Bathed in a dust-cloud of travellers,
The string-dog crusty crew who share
---One half of taste and creed,
------I owe the road

All I have not got on my back.

And so on. But there are two problems here, one specific to this sentence and one general to the form. First, the sentence doesn't really make sense. It isn't ungrammatical, but it hardly presents a convincing concatenation of images and ideas. There is a suspicion that the debt to the road is only tenuously connected with the image of the dust-cloud; to put it another way, the first image isn't developed properly and doesn't lead into the second. And whilst I think that one of the charms of the Horatian ode is the way it can slide slightly obliquely from one crystallisation of its topic to another, here I think that effect is not charming but merely bad writing - form-led writing.

The second problem is to do with the stanza shape. It's very pert, the two lines of tetrameter followed by the trimeter and dimeter which advertise the formality as ornament. It's dainty, and could work well for lots of subjects, but the effect is likely to come across as cleverness, a kind of feverish polish a la Empson, and here I was thinking rather of a good-natured rambling in the manner of later Auden. So I think the solution might be to take apart this stanza and mine it for images and ideas, and put it into a looser form which hints at rhyme and metre without taking them on as strict constraints.

I'm also aware that a poem about walking risks turning into a Wordsworthian sermon, so I don't want just to go on about how it feels and what might happen - some of that ranging cleverness is a necessary element. For my second draft I went back to a draft I wrote a few months ago about nomads, to see if I can combine the two and write a poem about movement as a proper human activity. That draft opens:

Nomads carry their warm cone rolled
Across the tundra, a bundle
Of paraffin, glasnost, salt and cribbage,
The lit faces of Sergei and Aleksandr
Whose wraiths sit at the prow and set
Their death-masks to the lunar drift.

So now I need a means of proceeding from the imagined specific to the general case. And I'm aware of the bathos of a man hiking about northern England seeing himself as a Siberian reindeer herder. So I'm thinking the next strophe has to begin with the nomads themselves rolled inside my mind as dreamed equivalents. Similarly, it's clear that I never actually meet the travellers, or reach my destination. Now all I have to do is write.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yes my name is Iggle-Piggle

...which shibboleth those of you with young children (and many without) will recognise, nod, and let me through. The others, learning it refers to In the Night Garden, the bonkers toddler drug-pastoral narrated by Derek Jacobi, will no doubt scorn it as a newer version of the Teletubbies. How wrong you are.

Which has nothing whatever to do with the following, a draft I wrote on the train this morning to go in my sequence about a 1920s Central European graphomaniac. In this episode, his escape fantasy turns to the anti-sky. It won't stay online long, reducing the chances of anyone actually reading it still further. Who's more deluded, poet or narrator?



Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Jarrell and Jude

Being a bit poorly yesterday, I spent half the day snoozing on the sofa. It was a reduced version of that strange experience of being (trivially) ill in childhood which Randall Jarrell writes about in his poem 'A Sick Child'. It's partly to do with enforced idleness, in which all you can do is daydream; partly to do with needing to sleep but not necessarily being tired, so that you drift in and out of a sleep in which your dreams are unusually pliable; and partly perhaps to do with the illness itself and the way it alters your state of mind. Here's the first stanza:

The postman comes when I am still in bed.
"Postman, what do you have for me today?"
I say to him. (But really I'm in bed.)
Then he says - what shall I have him say?

The poem is a cute picture of a certain sort of nostalgia - nostalgia for what is not the case. It's impressive how Jarrell can charge a quite straightforward poem about a specific situation with such depths of both joy and sadness:

If I can think of it, it isn't what I want.
I want . . . I want a ship from some near star
To land in the yard, and beings to come out
And think to me: "So this is where you are!

Come." Except that they won't do,
I thought of them. . . .

The other half of the day was spent reading Hardy, a thing I haven't done for years. In the meantime I had come rather under the spell of the Hardy-naysayers (who, by the law of double negatives, are presumably actually yeasayers). So I'm pleasantly rebuked by the wit and - yes - modernity of the writing. Everyone goes on about how bleak and pessimistic Hardy's plots are; but they forget to mention how much pleasure he gets out of them.

Monday, January 21, 2008

My To-Write List


A Liturgy

Lives - probably in unrhymed 5-stress lines, drawing on sense-impressions/external objects. No personal pronouns. Agricultural/fatalistic/sober.

An Unsweetened Zodiac

An Horatian Ode on Walking

A poem about talking to a hedge, drunk

A poem about a Byzantine emperor

Mellors without the Chatterleys

A poem about moles

A poem drawing on a couple of MR James stories - The Mezzotint and one other - haunted country house fare