Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A Poem: Women's Prayer Group, Coventry

I'm posting this poem from my second poetry collection, Boudicca & Co. (Salt Publishing), in response to a conversation on Twitter today with a friend who has just visited Coventry Cathedral. 

The photo (left) was not taken at Coventry, but at Flecknoe Church, Warwickshire. I don't have any shots of my own of the glorious interior of Coventry Cathedral, so chose this to accompany my poem instead. 

This is one of those 'true' poems in that I did once belong to a prayer group that met in an upper room at the Deanery next to Coventry Cathedral. I no longer do such foolish things, but I still like the poem.

I wonder if anyone ever fixed that clock ...

Women’s Prayer Group, Coventry

The clock on the deanery mantelpiece
has stopped. Outside, a spire
is all that’s left
of our medieval cathedral, burnt out
by fire bombs in the war.
Our group (there are usually eight
or nine of us) meets
each Wednesday for prayer and supper
in an upper room. Here, we set 
such ordinary things as childcare, husbands –
our daily bread – 
against St. Paul’s teachings. How much
should we give to the church?
How much to the poor?
We struggle for words or bore each other
with pettiness. Yet each week
we pray and each week
the clock tells us the same thing: look up!
Bombs are still falling here,
their silent detonations
poised a finger’s-breadth above each head,
held off by prayer.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

No Poet Is A Sentimentalist

The poet W.B. Yeats, photographed by Alice Boughton, 1903.

Last night, reading Cleanth Brooks' book of critical essays, A Shaping Joy (1971), I became intrigued by this quotation from W.B. Yeats' 'Anima Hominis' (in Per Amica Silentia Lunae): 'no fine poet, no matter how disordered his life, has ever, even in his mere life, had pleasure for his end. Johnson and Dowson ... were dissipated men ... and yet they had the gravity of men who had found life out and were awakening from the dream ... Nor has any poet I have read of or heard of or met with been a sentimentalist. The other self, the anti-self ... comes but to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality.'

Every time I attempt to articulate why I enjoy this description and find it important, I fumble it. So I'll just put it out there, for others to read if they wish, and perhaps some clearer thoughts will arrive in time.

Though I have a suspicion Yeats might have found it relatively easy to meet poets today who are 'sentimentalists'. Unfortunately.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

UNCUT POETS: reading at the Phoenix, Exeter

I'll be reading some of my poetry tonight at the Phoenix, Exeter, for those in the area. The reading series is called UNCUT POETS.

Here are the details.

Starts at about 7.15- 7.30pm if you're thinking of coming along, and it's £5 on the door.

I'll be reading from several of my published books, along with new work.

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Publication Day for ROSE BRIDE, written as Elizabeth Moss

Can Margerie ever escape her wrongful reputation as a courtesan? ROSE BRIDE: out now

The final title in the Lust in the Tudor Court series: scorching Tudor erotica for fans of Sylvia Day, The Tudors and Philippa Gregory's White Queen.

She is a fallen woman, an object of men's lust...
Margerie Croft yielded up her virginity before her wedding, and then fled from her eager suitor - knowing that she could not marry a man she did not love. Now she is viewed as soiled goods, fit for only for the role of courtier's plaything.

He sees something in her that others don't...
Virgil Elton is King Henry VIII's physician, working on a tonic to restore his sovereign's flagging libido. But first it must be tested. Who better, then, than the wanton Margerie Croft? But as he gets to know her Virgil discovers someone as intelligent and passionate as she is beautiful - someone who has been gravely misunderstood.
For her part, Margerie finds Virgil irresistible - with or without the help of his special medicine. But she knows she could never make Virgil a respectable wife. And yet, despite herself, Margerie can't help but wonder... 

Will they find the formula for a lasting love? 

ROSE BRIDE: available TODAY as an ebook, paperback in July 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Song of the Hare

She sang the song of the hare
and the trees responded

She sang the song of the hare
and the wind trembled

She sang the song of the hare
and the stars oscillated

She sang the song of the hare
and the earth drummed

She sang the song of the hare
and the hanged man hung

as the god in the tree
put forth branches of sorrow

and the lark climbed high
in an ecstasy of cloud 

The Song of the Hare by Jane Holland was published in Boudicca & Co (Salt Publishing) 2006. 
A poem to celebrate the coming-in of summer!

Photos: Jane Holland, May 2014. Cornwall, near Bodmin Moor.
(Couldn't spot a hare, sorry.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Notes Towards Authenticity

RAW LIGHT: the magazine

poetic aphorisms from Jane Holland

Aphorisms, filled with the hot air of poetry ...

Authenticity, the poet’s most plausible con trick.
The spirit, rather than the letter, of authenticity is what marks out good poetry. Those who achieve both, or appear to achieve both, are gods.
Don’t waste time on compromise. Even a botched job is better than a failure of nerve.
The act of writing poetry is, by its very nature, ironic.
‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ (John Keats) What could be more authentic? Or more calculated?
Belief in authenticity is the gateway to Blake’s road of excess (and we all know where that leads).
The Fool opens the Major Arcana: innocence and an openness to failure breed creativity.
Good poetry can be written by an idiot. All things considered, it’s probably better to be an idiot.
Federico García Lorca: ‘The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought.’
Lorca and the duende. Arsenic lobsters. The raw and the cooked. What flies in one language may fall flat in another.
Trust yourself. You don’t have to believe in angels to hear a bell ring. And vice versa.
Poetry is hard: it demands energy. There must be an energy to the poem that propels each line toward and beyond the waterfall of the line-break: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ (Dylan Thomas).
Home is where the stress falls.
The more authentic the idea, the more natural the line.
A line that calls attention to its own idiosyncrasy can be as authentic as a line that speaks of elegance and tradition: intention is everything.
Rhythm that springs direct from the personality – however contrary and antipoetic - is authentic. Everything else is based on the way we think we ought to be writing.
Ergo Mina Loy: ‘Poetic rhythm, of which we have all spoken so much, is the chart of a temperament.'
An adopted persona is still true to the self if chosen by the self.
The truly authentic is never the other, only the self: even when disguised, lying, psychotic.
You cannot steal or borrow or learn authenticity. It’s either there in the work or it isn’t. Sometimes the only way to find it is to stop looking.
The poem made up of undigested influences is to poetry what a plastic flower is to fresh blossom.
The poet must believe authenticity to be possible, even when faking it like crazy.
The poet’s first voice is an amalgam of second-hand fictions.
If poetry is a fiction, can it ever be true?

Jane Holland

First published at VERSE PALACE, poet Francis Leviston's essay blog, December 2009, which no longer appears to exist. Francis does have a website though which is still online.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Alison Lock gives us Three Hares

Alison Lock performs from THREE HARES

 Raw Light: the magazine

In this article I will describe a little about the process of writing the poem 'Three Hares'. The poem is part of a music/poetry collaboration and the result is something that attempts to cross the boundaries of word and song and musical note and rhythm.

The idea was to produce a piece that would last for 15 to 20 minutes and take the audience on a journey through our forests and woods, using a variety of techniques used in both arts: changes in rhythm, metre, tempo, rhyme, repetition, syllabic consistency, prose and poetry styles. The sonic patterns of the woods: birdsong, wind, falling trees, running water etc., informed the writing.

Three Hares
Green Man, White Goddess.

Three Hares is a symbol of rotational symmetry
where the ears of the hares are shared and
like a treskelion they appear to be in constant motion.
It has symbolic and mystical associations. As with
the Green Man, it is a meme, a carrier of ideas,
an optical illusion, representing the cycle of growth,
invoking the fertility of the White Goddess.

Why Three Hares? This is a question I asked myself. I wanted to write about trees -

how they sustain us,
how they nourish our culture,
our folklore, our myths,
our deepest dreams.

- but the symbol of the Three Hares and its universal connections with fertility, the cycle of life, death and rebirth seemed a perfect illustration for the life of a forest. I had been reading a lot about the ecological importance of trees; the role of trees in the eco-system, how they are essential to the survival of many creatures, plants and micro-organisms, how they are interconnected with all of life on this planet.

But when I thought about trees, woods and forests, I thought about fairy tales, battles, hiding places and I realised that I wanted to take

... a look at a liminal world, a place where transformation occurs.

Many of the stories we read, or are read to as children, describe forests as dark places patrolled by witches, trolls, goblins and wolves. Folktales from all over the world tell of trees that are personified; protective of the innocent, or dangerous to those who wish them harm. But I was not only interested in fairy tale trees, I wanted to explore the trees that surround us today.

The poem begins with the ancient; the pagan worship of trees and the enigma of the Green Man, another symbol of fertility, carved in stone and wood and found in many places in Europe and Britain. This symbol takes the human-like attributes of the tree: trunk, branches, the gnarled features for a face, the sap as blood. Some say that the Green Woman is the Earth, Mother Earth:

..whose carved face,
frond hair, ivy brow,
skin peeled or smooth
as beech bark, trace-veined,
age wefted, tatted webs,
tattooed, blood-crossed
with the oak,
the birch, the rowan.

By walking through the woods of the South Pennines I explored the footpaths, the margins, the scars, to find out about their recent history.

The areas of woodland are usually marked by a perimeter; sometimes a physical signpost or a fence:

A gilded post is a sign
for the wayfarer, a snicket
leads to a stile, a stepping stone,
a cross-bar, a kissing gate
and the path becomes a bridleway
where a rustic fence marks
the perimeter of a world
where turned earth meets cloud.

Other times the trees are edged by a canal where:

the Himalayan Balsam ushers
like a nodding crew,
leggy, white in the half light
winking at a passing boat.

Not only are they places of contemplation, of dreamy walks where the only sounds are the birds in the trees, but they are places of leisure and activity:

A mountain biker skids, sped-
tacking his prints on the yarrow bend
spraying the nettles Pollock-style.

The woodlands of the Pennines have a particular connection to the mills in the valleys built during the Victorian era – these woods are etched with the footpaths used by the millworkers:

as beech nuts crack under foot,
a loom's shuttle is thrown
back and forth, back and forth,

Finally, as I watch the hares leap across the open moors, new trees are being planted in the open fields. Those with a consideration for the future, our future, are intent on replenishing the woodlands:

Fields of ragwort are released
to the gilder rose, the oak,
the beech, the sycamore too.

First planting is the birch,
the bringer
of light into darkness,
the pioneer preparing the soil
like a good besom

for the return of the White Goddess.

Here, I have talked about the poem itself, but this is only a part of the whole process. I wanted to create something that was an experience, an atmosphere, rather than piece to read only. We have produced a booklet of the poem to accompany the performances. It was produced by the graphic artist, David Kaye; his response to the poem was both sensitive and creative and the result is a work of beauty.

'Three Hares' was written with a musical interpretation in mind and I collaborated with a musician I had worked with before. Robin Bowles had accompanied me at a reading of 'Eye of the Heron', a piece written as a result of my work as Poet in Residence at Holmfirth Arts Festival. He played both mandolin and bouzouki (notably instruments made of wood). He perfectly captured the rhythms, the sounds, the essence of that piece and I wanted to continue this work in 'Three Hares', only this time creating a closer collaborative process from the beginning. But that's another post.

We hope to record 'Three Hares' soon but perhaps for now you might like to listen to 'Eye of the Heron' on Soundcloud.

Alison Lock

Monday, April 28, 2014

Angela Topping: A Poetic Manifesto

RAW LIGHT: the magazine

A Poetic Manifesto

Angela Topping

When Jane Holland invited me to contribute to her excellent poetry blog, I thought it might be useful to do something on how I came to write this poem, which was included in Salt’s anthology Troubles Swapped forSomething Fresh, which is now a set text on a number of Creative Writing degree courses

How to Capture a Poem

Look for one at midnight
on the dark side of a backlit angel
or in the space between a sigh
and a word. Winter trees, those
elegant ladies dressed in diamonds
and white fur, may hide another.

Look for the rhythm in the feet
of a waltzing couple one, two, three-ing
in an empty hall, or in the sound
of any heartbeat, the breath of a sleeper,
the bossy rattle of keyboards in offices,
the skittering of paper blown along.

You could find a whole line
incised into stone or scrawled on sky.
Words float on air in buses, are bandied
on street corners, overheard in pubs,
caught in the pages of books, sealed
behind tight lips, marshalled as weapons.

Supposing you can catch a poem,
it won’t tell you all it knows. Its voice
is a whisper through a wall, a streak of silk
going by, the scratch of a ghost, the creaks
of a house at night, the sound of the earth
vibrating in spring, with all its secret life.

You have to listen: the poem chooses itself,
takes shape and begins to declare what it is.
Honour the given, else it will become petulant.

When you have done your best,
you have to let it go. Season it with salt
from your body, grease it with oil from your skin.

Release it. It has nothing more to do
with you. You’re no more its owner
than you hold the wind. Never expect gratitude.

Angela writes: 

Rupert Loydell, who had published my first two collections under the Stride imprint, was editing the anthology Troubles Swapped For Something Fresh, and asked me to submit something. I’d never been much of a one for writing about my own practice but I thought it was about time I had a bash. I struggled to complete the commission, then Rupert sent me a reminder. I tried again. Nothing. 

I gave up and went for a bath. The first phrases came through suds and bubbles, shampoo. Once I was wrapped in my bathrobe, I started to write them down.

The title 'How To Capture A Poem' is because poems are wild animals and it’s hard to tame them. Midnight is the witching hour and poems are a kind of alchemy to me. The dark side of anything, the one not illuminated, is where poems hide. Angels are special to me because of my name. The winter tree image came into my mind when I was driving home from school in the snow. I was trying to think of a new image for snow-covered trees and I took the opportunity to place it in this piece.

Stanza 2 is about rhythm, which is important to me. It’s the tick tock of the poem’s clock, it’s how you know it’s alive.

Stanza 3 brings in some of my subject matter, the quotidian, the words all around us, giving us the sound-track of our thoughts.

Stanza 4 is about my practice, how a poem will gradually reveal itself to me, sometimes just giving me one phrase for free, sometimes much more. And more of my themes come into this stanza as well.
"It’s eccentric of me I know, but I do believe in listening to the poem."

It’s eccentric of me I know, but I do believe in listening to the poem. I was trying to get a poem about my mother’s death right, years ago. What I couldn’t at first see was that it wanted to be a sonnet. As soon as I noticed that two of the lines my right brain had given me were iambic pentameter, the rest of the poem sorted itself out as quick as you like!

Poems have to be let out into the world, they have to fly free. So the title comes full circle. Once you have captured it, it has to go forth on its own. I edit as best I can, and give up when I have made the poem strong enough to survive. Of course it will bear my fingerprints, something of me will reside in it, but it also belongs to the reader. Poems are nothing without readers.

The ending is a nod and a blown kiss towards W.S Graham’s poem ‘Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons’, a poem in five sections about teaching someone the flute, as a metaphor for writing. Graham ends his poem ‘Do not expect applause.’ My ending is ambiguous. Never expect the poem to be grateful to you – in fact I am always grateful to the poem for choosing me to write it. Also, never expect gratitude from anyone else. Or praise, or blame, or even a reaction.

I write poetry because I have no choice in the matter. I do have a choice to go out and do readings, which I love doing, and people have told me they enjoy hearing me read my poems. I have a choice, in a way, to publish. I mostly do that so that those poems leave me alone, I can think of them as completed and move on to the next collection.

This poem is my manifesto. 

Angela Topping

Angela Topping's latest books are Letting Go (Mother's Milk Books) and Paper Patterns (Lapwing).
You can find Angela Topping on wordpress http://angelatopping.wordpress.com/

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Simon Armitage: Poetry Beyond the Printed Page

 'Poetry goes back to the campfire, the temple, the theatre.'

On Thursday 24th April I took myself off to Falmouth University in the evening, to hear Simon Armitage talk about "Poetry Beyond the Printed Page" in one of a series of lectures he's giving there as part of his tenure as Visiting Professor for the School of Journalism and Writing. Falmouth University is a classy campus with a range of unusual and interesting buildings. This was my first visit and I was very favourably impressed.

I was also impressed that Simon remembered me, even though it's almost twenty years now since we met: he co-tutored an Arvon poetry course I attended in the mid-nineties. Sadly, I suspect he recalled me for my pool-playing and my hardcore driving rather than my nascent poetry skills; we all went out to a local pub one night, and he was one of rather-too-many passengers who squeezed into my car on the way back. Those are narrow country lanes round Totleigh Barton, and I imagine the return journey at speed in the dark was memorable.

'Radio and poetry are natural bedfellows.'

'Poetry,' Armitage told us, 'goes back to the campfire, the temple, the theatre.' In its ancient past, poetry was an oral art, so is perfect for the medium of radio. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood (1954) was written specifically for voices, for a radio audience - here is the opening, read by Richard Burton.

The iconic poem 'The Night Mail' by WH Auden is often cited as the first film-poem. Armitage praised its 'great charm,' suggesting the rhythm of the poem matches both the train's movement and the swift-moving medium of film.

In the same way, Tony Harrison made documentaries using poetry instead a standard prose narrative, keeping to simple classical forms for clarity. Here's Tony Harrison's 'V' (1987), part documentary, part poem (scroll forward to about 4 minutes in for the poem):

'Leeds. Where the M1 does its emergency stop'
                                 Xanadu, Simon Armitage

Armitage also discussed Xanadu (1992), a poem film he made about a council estate in Rochdale with twenty-six blocks of flats originally named A-Z. Later the council tried to improve these names by adding a place name for each letter of the alphabet. When they reached X, they could only think of Exford. Simon says he was horrified by their lack of imagination, and so called his film-poem about the estate, Xanadu.

In Documentary in the Digital Age (Focal Press, Oxford, 2006) by Maxine Baker, Simon Armitage is quoted as having been reluctant at first to make the documentary Saturday Night, shot in Leeds, commenting of film poems in general: ‘Sometimes the poetry is used like subtitles for the film. Sometimes the film just illustrates the poems. I like it best when there is a friction between the two.’ But Armitage showed no such aversion during his talk at Falmouth, describing with great enthusiasm how he had been sent the footage shot in Leeds, then written his poetry to accompany it, using a stopwatch to time it perfectly.

Simon's books were on sale after the event.
Simon Armitage explained that he never meets the subjects of documentaries but writes poems for them - about their own lives - to be spoken on film or even sung. He prefers to keep a creative distance, reading about the people in each documentary, then writing a poem or song for the subject to perform to camera.

 If you'd like to explore some of those documentary films, here is 'Drinking For England' (alcoholism) and 'Songbirds' (Downview, a women's prison in Surrey). You can also read more about that last project here, in Simon's own words, at the Telegraph (2005): 'Songbirds behind prison walls'.

After his talk, Simon signed books while the audience enjoyed a glass of wine and a chat in one of the university rooms. I was delighted to meet Rupert Loydell at last, a poet and editor with whom I have exchanged emails in the past, and in whose magazine Stride I have had work published.

It was a very informative and engaging talk. This is the new Armitage book I bought - not out officially until next week - The Last Days of Troy.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Epicentre Magazine has moved to Raw Light

A few weeks back, I got all excited on social media, and decided to reanimate Raw Light as a poetry and writing-related blog.

My first thought, as a vastly busy person, was to solicit a few poems from other people, which would keep the blog going but not take up too much time writing endless new material for it myself. Canny, huh?

Random picture of me.

But then I remembered Epicentre Magazine.

I launched Epicentre Magazine two years ago almost exactly. I wanted an online magazine which would not be too taxing for me to run, and for a while it worked fine. But then I lost track of submissions, and frankly submissions were not brilliant anyway, so I just stopped posting work there.

But now, in a flash of inspiration, I have decided to move that idea of an occasional online magazine - updated at my whim, really - to Raw Light. This blog is a veteran of online poetry, after all, having been started back in the misty depths of 2005 and still ticking over today in 2014. It gets many thousands of hits every month, regardless of whether or not I post updates, and it seems like a great platform from which to 'relaunch' my idea of an online poetry magazine.

Unfortunately for those now rubbing their hands with glee and sorting out their best poems, I do not intend to load myself down with extra work by accepting unsolicited submissions for Raw Light. Instead I shall be inviting people on the (mainly British) poetry scene to submit poems, reviews or articles, and hope they are generous enough to say yes.

Relaunching Raw Light as a quasi-magazine ...
I shall also continue to post my own updates on Raw Light. So things will not change particularly, except that you may receive more frequent emails from me if you have subscribed to the blog. You can change this by clicking Unsubscribe at the bottom of any emails that arrive from Raw Light.

Meanwhile, I am not very good at asking people for things, having the memory of a flea, and there's every chance that if you're reading this blog AND writing the kind of things I enjoy reading, I may be happy to see your work here too.

So see Submissions for details anyway. Just be aware that I have a madly busy life these days and don't expect an instant response.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Penelope Shuttle and Caroline Carver reading Zeeba Ansari's poetry at Waterstones Truro

Caroline Carver and Penelope Shuttle about to read from Zeeba Ansari's work

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a poetry reading at Waterstones Truro, Cornwall, where well-known Cornwall-based poets Penelope Shuttle (on the right, above) and Caroline Carver (on left) were reading from Zeeba Ansari's debut poetry collection, Love's Labours, published by Pindrop Press.

The event was part of the Truro Festival.

Sadly Zeeba herself could not be present. But here is her book ...

And here are some other photos I took of the event ...

It was a packed audience, despite being an evening event.
Penny and Caroline choosing what to read.
Poet Graham Burchell

Some of my kids - probably wondering how much longer they would be required to look well-behaved!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Vote for the Saboteur Awards

The SABOTEUR AWARDS are here again: VOTE NOW for your favourite poets, publishers, reviewers, spoken word events etc. 

Key Dates:
Nominations are open 1st-30th April 2014
Shortlist announced 1st May 2014
Voting open 1st-25th May 2014
Winners announced and Awards presented on May 31st 2014, Oxford.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Poetry Wars I & II

Archive Post from March 2008: Poetry Wars I and II: reblogging for fun in April 2014.

I'm reading Peter Barry's Poetry Wars: 'British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court' this week, published by Salt. It's an absolutely excellent read and I highly recommend it for anyone even remotely interested in the politics of poetry, each page containing fresh hilarities and salacious gossip from the world of 1970s British poetry.

I'm still only partway through it so will probably blog about this again, once finished, but I couldn't resist a few juicy comments now.

Poetry Wars is not a linear read but a satisfying dip in and out read, as recommended by the author, who has constructed the book in several parts. First, you have the linear narrative of how, in the 1970s, the 'radicals' (i.e. those avant-gardists who consider themselves to have descended in a direct line from the gods of early modernism like Eliot and Pound) beat off the 'conservatives' (i.e. the poetic backlash against modernism, advocating a return to normalcy, traditional forms and cucumber sandwiches) to take over the Poetry Society London HQ, then situated in fading gentility in Earls Court. Then you have chapters devoted to various 'themes' connected to that - almost decade-long - battle, with further chapters at the back consisting of dated lists, relevant documents, explanations of terms etc.

Reading this book has clarified for me, in a matter of hours, the terrible enmity that still exists between these two main strands within British poetry. Taking the bulk of its material from Poetry Society and Arts Council archives, memoirs, personal statements, plus a full account of the Witt Panel investigation of the Poetry Society's operations in 1976 - think full-blown McCarthyism in Piccadilly! - this book details, often meticulously, who said what to whom and when. There's rather less discussion of 'why' than I would like, but I suppose these memories must still be raw enough in some people's minds for that question to be approached with delicate circumspection.

And it's not all one-sided. Although Peter Barry is firmly on the 'side' of the radicals, by his own admission, he has tried to present evidence and anecdote in as unbiased a manner as is possible with such difficult material, not trying to hide mistakes by his own party even as he highlights occasionally underhand actions by the more conservative element as they attempted to get back into power.

So here's a quick taster of life at the Poetry Society in the mid-70s, in a marvellous anecdote apparently related by Peter Finch:

'We're sitting in the White House, the hotel bar next to the Poetry Society in Earls Court Square. Criton Tomazos is standing on the mantel piece ripping bits out of a book and chanting. Bob [Cobbing] has drunk almost half a bottle of whiskey and is still standing, or leaning. Jennifer [Jennifer Pike, Cobbing's wife] arrives in her small car to take us home. The vehicle is full of boxes, papers and bits of equipment. We push Bob into the front seat but there's no room for me in the back. I climb onto the roof rack. We drive. Somehow we get back.'

More of this later.

You can buy 'Poetry Wars' online at Salt Publishing.


Poetry Wars PART II

Tucked out of sight of the snipers, safe for now under my duvet, I continue my reading of Peter Barry's highly dangerous Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court. See previous post for full briefing.

March 13th 2008. Late evening. Skim-reading through Chapter Nine: Taking a Long View. Bombing less heavy tonight. Discussing possible reasons for the marginalisation of experimental poetry both then and now, Peter Barry writes from the quieter trenches of retrospection (pp.183-4):

'Part of the explanation, then, must lie in the specific social formation of avant-garde poets, and to some extent (to return to a point raised earlier) it concerns their attitude to publication, which is often very complex and contradictory, as frequently with avant-garde groups. Some variety of self-publication, in fact, has long been the norm for innovatory writing - it isn't an accident that T.S. Eliot first published The Waste Land in a magazine he was editing himself, or that Virginia and Leonard Woolf ran the Hogarth Press. By definition, almost, the quality of something new will not easily be recognised by major publishers, who must cater for an existing set of public tastes. But these existing public tastes are precisely what an avant-garde despises or distrusts ...

... In Liquid City (Reaktion, 1999), Iain Sinclair, en route to visit Eric Mottram [experimental poet and 1970s editor of Poetry Review during the running battles between what Peter Barry terms 'radicals' and 'conservatives' - JH] with photographer Marc Atkins, explains to Atkins who Mottram is and what he represents:

The names don't mean anything to Atkins. This is deleted history - Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Barry MacSweeney, the heroes of the 'British Poetry Revival' - have been expunged from the record. Poetry is back where it belongs: in exile. In the provinces, the bunkers of academe. In madhouses, clinics and fragile sinecures.'


For more on avant poetry versus the mainstream, here's a discussion of some antithetically opposed contemporary anthologies.

ARCHIVE POST: These two posts were first published on Raw Light in March 2008.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Poem Titles

A good title gets right to the root of a poem

This is a quirky essay I wrote about poetry titles, and which first appeared in James Midgley's excellent journal Mimesis in either late 2008 or 2009. I republished it here in 2011, and thought it might be nice to spin it out again.

My grateful thanks go to James for publishing it in Mimesis, a magazine which sadly doesn't appear to be active anymore.

What's In A Title?
A title is a title is a title. Right? It’s a simple framing device, a doorway into the world of the poem. The title of a poem is the ‘in’ just as the last line is the ‘out’. It’s about yin and yang. What else is there to say on the subject?
Perhaps you’ve read the occasional theory on this, thought about it in passing, frowned over an inapposite choice, made the right one unerringly yourself - or made the wrong one and been unable to do a thing about it. All of which suggests that it’s not so simple. That maybe a title is rather more than a doorway and a framing device, that maybe there’s something compulsive and instinctual about the selection of a title, something deeply linked to the poem’s psyche.

In exploring this question further, I don’t intend to look at the titles of collections in this context, because those serve a different overall purpose than the simple poem title. Instead, to kick off the discussion, here are some of the words, phrases and images that occurred to me when playing around with the basic question, ‘How to define the title of a poem?’

Amongst other things, the title of a poem is a handle; a moniker; an entrance; an epiphany; an overview; a hinge; a first glimpse of the narrator; an illustration; a cover blurb; a foreword; a container; a puzzle; a mnemonic; a dreamscape; a proto-metaphor; a clue; a red herring; an impression; a surname; a signpost; a subtext; a précis; a brochure; a ritual; a contract; an escape clause; a souvenir; a programme; a translation; a polyglot; a market stall; an all-you-can-eat buffet; a description; a label; a magician’s hat; the secret name of the muse; an asylum; a safe house: a double entendre; an invocation; a spell; a charm; a warning; a skeleton key; a portmanteau; a joke; a mystery; a gesture; a flashlight; a tablecloth; a plot; a deception; a cast list; a question; an answer; a command; a suggestion; a conundrum; a kiss; a sword; a formula; a surprise.

When in doubt, go for the big gesture ...
 Let’s unpack some of those, and bring in examples to help with that process. I’m going to choose most of these examples at random, by scanning down the contents lists of collections near my desk in search of titles which might illustrate some of the phrases above, but a few of these titles were already in my mind when I sat down to write this short essay.

1.         Ted Hughes: Examination at the Womb-door
2.         Tobias Hill: A Bowl of Green Fruit
3.         Jacob Polley: Votive
4.         Joanne Limburg: The Fall
5.         Alice Oswald: Dunt
6.         Ezra Pound: In a Station of the Metro
7.         Don Paterson: The Forest of the Suicides
8.         Jane Griffiths: Travelling Light
9.         Catherine Smith: The World is Ending Pass the Vodka
10.       Sylvia Plath: Lady Lazarus
11.       David Morley: To Feed the Dead Who Would Come Disguised as Birds
12.       U.A. Fanthorpe: Not My Best Side
13.       Moniza Alvi: I Would Like To Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro
14.       Geoffrey Hill: Ovid in the Third Reich
15.       Stevie Smith: Not Waving but Drowning
16.       Katy Evans-Bush: The Life Mask
17.       Vicki Feaver: The Gun
18.       Elizabeth Bishop: At the Fishhouses

This first title, Ted Hughes’ ‘Examination at the Womb-door’, may be comic (who gets quizzed whilst being born, after all?) but in the context of the poem is actually quite a straightforward title. It comes early on in his macabre 1970 sequence Crow and does more or less what it says on the tin, though with the usual Hughes twist: ‘Who owns these scrawny little feet? Death./Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.’ So this title comes under the following headings: first glimpse of the narrator; a joke; a gesture; a ritual; a (literal, here) entrance; a cast list; a conundrum. Entertaining, yes, and ironic too, but not particularly layered with mystery and potential. Indeed, Hughes rarely does the heavily-laden poem title. He tends to present a bare-looking stall; you only see the rich and strange when you stop to ‘examine’ it.

Joanne Limburg’s ‘The Fall’ looks far more promising. So little is given for us to work on, yet paradoxically so much; immediately we need to ask questions, begin to whittle down the possibilities. Is this poem about the past or future? Is it about one person? (An incompetent mountaineer, for instance.) Or is it a biblical reference, encompassing all of humankind? Or perhaps it’s the American term for autumn and we should expect something Keatsian here from Limburg. With ‘The Fall’, we can’t choose between options until we start reading, so this title must be, variously, a subtext; a magician’s hat; a double entendre; a mystery; a tablecloth; a question.

‘Not Waving but Drowning’ is an all-you-can-eat buffet; a précis; a portmanteau; a label; a mnemonic; a joke; an illustration.
So now categories of poem are beginning to emerge from the earlier list of possibilities. Some titles are straightforward; they describe the contents of the poem in an - apparently - unmetaphorical manner. Others provide a more oblique approach; they suggest rather than describe, leaving interpretation up to the reader.

In the first category, we could at first glance put Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’, Catherine Smith’s ‘The World is Ending Pass the Vodka’ and Tobias Hill’s ‘A Bowl of Green Fruit’.
But no, you start reading, and even Hill’s innocent-sounding title, so reminiscent of a still life painting, proves deceptive: new love turns out to be like unripe fruit, and lovers must wait patiently for it to mature, for ‘kisses//sweetening in our mouths,/ the hearts softening,/the riddles undoing themselves.’ By golly, it was a metaphor!

How about Oswald’s ‘Dunt’, then? The name of a river - like her long poem ‘Dart’ - this one has got to be straightforward description. And so it could be. Except that it’s such a short, hard name, Dunt. Reminds me of ‘dunce’ or ‘don’t’ or ‘shunt’ or ... other similar words. And somehow the poem itself can’t get started, anymore than the river can get flowing. It stutters. It repeats itself. It bangs up against the intractable, like a ram obstinately headbutting a fence pole. ‘Try again,’ it orders us (or the river, or the poet). Like a poor page upload or an engaged telephone line. ‘Try again.’ 

So even what seems like a straightforward name-as-title - here, ‘Dunt’ - may actually be working hand-in-hand with the poem that follows it as a proto-metaphor, its impact based on sound and repetition; a subtext; a charm; a ritual; the secret name of the muse; a cast list; a command.

The best titles resist a second, third, fourth glance ...
The second category, that of the slippery or suggestive oblique, is easier to fill. Poetry abounds with such titles, being a medium perfectly adapted to the metaphorical. Here we might put Jacob Polley’s ‘Votive’, Jane Griffiths’ potentially straightforward ‘Travelling Light’ (reminiscent perhaps of Don Paterson’s pun-based ‘Landing Light’) and ‘Not My Best Side’ by U.A. Fanthorpe. We could hazard a guess at what’s going on here, judging by these titles, but even our best guesses would lack substance. Because of their slippery nature, it’s impossible to get a proper grasp on the poem from such titles; first the poem has to be read, and understood, and then the title can be returned to, for re-evaluation, to add an extra dimension to the reading experience.

Some extremely oblique titles, however, are rather good at conjuring up the world of the poem without presenting the poem itself. Try Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving but Drowning’. The poem is hilarious and poignant and hugely memorable. Yet you could actually imagine all of it simply by concentrating on the title alone; the title is so brilliantly comprehensive, the poem itself is almost superfluous to requirements. So ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ is an all-you-can-eat buffet; a précis; a portmanteau; a label; a mnemonic; a joke; an illustration.

There is a third category though, which seems to straddle the other two: the semi-metaphor or false-friend. This is the deceptive title, the one which appears to be leading you in one direction, and indeed may do so to a certain extent, but then suddenly you find yourself in an unexpected place, without the guidebook or companions you were expecting. Titles from the list above which might fall into this category include Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ and Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’. You could even slip Vicki Feaver’s ‘The Gun’ in there too.
 In Plath’s poem, her shining energies and serial poetic violences wipe away the comfortable Biblical reference to Lazarus redivivus, leaving the reader disturbed and off-balance. Ezra Pound’s apparently straightforward ‘In a Station of the Metro’ would seem to promise a realistic, peopled, urban poem - and indeed gives us one, but packed into very few words; an impressionistic snapshot of modern life, taken with a soft focus lens.

And Feaver’s simple ‘The Gun’ might suggest something politically correct, or perhaps tragic, the accident or act of violence that ruined someone’s life; instead, the poem seems almost to revere the power of the gun itself, and its ability to change our lives with the mere fact of its presence. Is Feaver playing devil’s advocate here? The title gives us no clues; only reading the poem line-by-line may bring us to a deeper understanding of its purpose. Such a title, highlighting some elements whilst missing vital others, apparently friendly but designed to trip us up or lead us astray, is a magician’s hat; an asylum; a red herring; a warning; a gesture; a flashlight; a deception; an escape clause; a sword; a surprise.

What difference does the category of a title make to us as readers? The ‘in’ of a title can be a critical aid when the poem itself is fairly opaque - a clue, thank god! - or a delightful provocation when the poem seems at first glance suspiciously simple. It is also a way for the poet to make first contact with the reader.
For instance, on reading a playful or ironic, tongue-in-cheek title like Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ or Moniza Alvi’s ‘I Would Like To Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro’, you know instantly that you are to be entertained as well as sung to. That this is not merely a joke, but the title as first glimpse of the narrator; a signpost; a brochure; a market stall; a safe house; an answer; a kiss.
Katy Evans-Bush gives us ‘The Life Mask’ and we think, yes! before even turning to it, the metaphor is so powerful.
The title, then, is a pact with the reader (though some pacts - as we have seen above - are based on a relationship of deception, often by prior arrangement if the poet is well-known for such trickery). But the metaphorical is more satisfying, on the whole, than the straightforward and the downright deceptive. After all, if we wanted to read something simple and self-explanatory, we would hardly be turning to poetry for that experience.
And as poets, of course, a substantial number of us like to butter our own egos with the more slippery title, with references that demonstrate our wide reading and metaphors that challenge the reader to play catch-up.
For where there’s no mystery, there’s no allure. Right?

So we might see ‘The Forest of the Suicides’ on a contents list and wonder, is Don Paterson about to entertain us, depress us, frighten us, or leave us none the wiser? Here, the title tantalises and suggests. It paints half a picture: the poem completes it. Katy Evans-Bush gives us ‘The Life Mask’ and we think, yes! before even turning to it, the metaphor is so powerful.
And what of David Morley’s eloquent but mysterious ‘To Feed the Dead Who Would Come Disguised as Birds’? Here we find the poem as epiphany; a puzzle; a dreamscape; a polyglot; a spell; a cast list; a conundrum.
The best titles are linked symbiotically to the poem which they open ...
But the title remains a viable entrance to the poem throughout its various, deceptive changes of appearance and purpose. The best titles are linked symbiotically to the poem which they open; with these, poem and handle exist side-by-side with complete naturalness and no amount of imagining could bring a reader, once familiar with that poem, to think of it with an alternate title.
When everything is working in harmony, the title as doorway to the poem is greater than itself; in other words, like Doctor Who’s T.A.R.D.I.S., the good title is bigger on the inside than the outside. (It may even travel in time.) So always stop and examine it. To neglect the potential significance of a title, to read it in haste or forget to glance at it on your way in, is to enter the poem not only without knocking, but without any idea of what you may find there.
And with good poetry, that might just prove dangerous.