Wednesday, November 30, 2005

a white Christmas?

I took this last week in the Warwickshire village near my home. Beautiful, isn't it? I almost expected to see the odd duck frozen solid in the pond, maybe just its head sticking out. And then the snow came. For a while it seemed as though my dire warnings of a mini Ice Age were not so far-fetched after all. But the snow began to thaw quite rapidly and is now just a vague iciness clinging to the hedgerows. Well, this is Warwickshire. Not the Orkneys. Though I think the kids would have liked the snow to stick around a little longer.

Quite a few of my posts seem to be about the weather recently. Hmm. It's all very British of me, but perhaps I should try and make my next post about poetry instead. Just to keep up appearances.

Here are my twin sons, three years old, out in the recent snow.

Monday, November 28, 2005

THANATOS: the death-instinct

When I first started this blog, I thought it would be nice to post up some poems from time to time, but never really got around to managing that. But being deeply involved with a new novel at the moment, it seems a quick way of keeping the blog active without having to bare my soul online.

This isn't a new poem but it is one of my personal favourites. I wrote THANATOS in about 1998; it was published a year or so later in PN Review, an intelligent poetry magazine edited by Michael Schmidt of Carcanet Press (PN stands for Poetry Nation). Since my second collection is still forthcoming, it has not yet been published in book form.

It's never easy for a poet to 'explain' a poem they have written, but THANATOS, I suppose, is a poem which likens love to being caught in a cyclone. It's quite different from the poems in my first collection, most notably in terms of form; I'd been reading some of Ted Hughes' later work when I wrote this - his BIRTHDAY LETTERS, in particular - and I was rather taken with the prosiness (which I'm not convinced is a real word) and dramatic tone of that collection.

Thanatos comes from the Greek for death. I think it means something like 'death-instinct' - at least, that's what I took it to mean at the time I wrote this poem. Later, I agreed to medication and am no longer driven to write this sort of grim, self-involved poetry. I'm not sure if that's entirely a good thing. I prefer compulsive poetry to light anecdotal verse, and it's quite hard to write poetry of a compulsive nature when everything's sunny in your life and you're not struggling with some terrible inner demon. Though I imagine there are many poets out there who would - and probably will - disagree with that particular generalisation. Fortunately, I don't care.


Schoolgirl vulnerable, still smarting from
the fumbled mismatch of a love affair, I fell
straight out of space and into hell
that night. He was only a voice
on the edge of nothing, but I kept returning
to him, flickering like a stilled film
against the mindless black ferocity of wind.
The roof was trying to suck me out, vast mouth
clamped like a mad baby’s over the breast
of a house, whining for milk. I wanted
then to loose my hold, know how it feels
to spiral in the infinite, to Catherine-wheel
across the space that once was love.
Thanatos, pricking at my blood: the truth
that I came searching for, a weariness
that threatened to unclasp my hand, saying
it’s over, all over, why resist?
But at the other end of light, the funnelled dark
was a dead body I clung to out of
sheer stubbornness.

And the black wind
could not dislodge me from my welding-place,
though its eye bent in and saw me there,
plucked at my white knuckles, severed
the electric umbilical of light. I took
that place and hid it underneath the other times,
less brutal, more arranged. But it comes back,
obliterates that flash between dark and dawn,
and I pretend not to recognise it; call it
desire for solitude. Expurgate, disown the truth.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Fourcast: London reading next month

For those in the London area who have never heard me perform and can stomach the thought, I’ll be in the capital next month reading a selection of my new poems, alongside poet and novelist Martina Evans, Salmon Poet Kevin Higgins and Jacob Sam-La Rose, as part of the FourCast series at Covent Garden.

FourCast is a series of poetry readings held each month downstairs at the Poetry Society's headquarters in London, otherwise known as the Poetry Studio, hosted by the Scottish poet & writer Roddy Lumsden. Hope to see you there!

Venue: Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton St, Covent Garden, London
Date/Time: Thursday 15th December, 7.30pm
Tickets: £5/£4

Friday, November 18, 2005

Aren't men thoughtful?

My husband very kindly took me out to dinner for my birthday treat last night. We went in my car, with him behind the wheel for once so I could legally down a couple of glasses of Chardonnay. When I struggled into the car this morning after some vigorous de-icing - it looked like a wedding cake on wheels - I discovered that I was almost out of petrol. Picture this. It’s the nursery school run. You have three children under four years old in the car and a trip of over 9 miles to the nearest petrol station, with the needle well into the red and the warning light glaring at you the whole way. What joy. Luckily, I just made it, coasting most of the way on fumes. Harumph.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire

Took this photograph in my back garden at 7.30am this morning, here in frosty Warwickshire, where the surrounding fields were as white as the sheep in them until about 9am when the bright sunshine finally thawed them out.

And it’s my birthday today! Seventeen again. That’s how old I feel when I’m lying down. Standing up is another matter. I got Swiss chocolates, After Eight mints, bubble bath, an electric toothbrush (for use after the chocolates, I suspect) and a new DVD of the 1995 BBC production of Persuasion, which is my favourite among Jane Austen’s novels, superbly cast and directed, starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds with screenplay by Nick Dear. Thanks for that, dear husband and assorted children. And as for the cheque from my aged paternal relative, now residing on the continent, many astonished thanks too. At last I can afford Mark Haddon’s debut poetry collection, whose title is too long to remember and which costs about £12 - published in hardback, I think - which has put it just out of my financial reach until now.

Mmm. I feel a review coming on in the near future ...

This week, I was invited to do a live interview with Anita Miah on BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshire. I’ve been down to their studios before, they’ve got these amazing new premises in the centre of Coventry, down in Priory Place just below the Cathedral. The whole square there has been superbly revamped; it’s now a sort of Little London tucked away behind the shopping centres and pubs, with some rather expensive-looking wine bars and bistros, outside seating during the summer, a beautiful water feature complete with waterfall and atmospheric night lights, and the BBC building right there at the heart of it. So I left the sheep fields behind last night and drove into Coventry to read some of my poetry and chat about my writing career with Anita Miah. It was a good interview, very relaxed and fun. If you managed to catch any of it, do let me know by leaving a comment on this site.

Continuing with the poetry theme, for those in the London area, the Poetry Society would like to remind everyone about the reading tonight with Tomaz Salamon and Gregor Podlogar at 7.30pm in the Poetry Studio at 22 Betterton Street (Covent Garden tube is closest, I seem to recall). The event will be introduced by Fiona Sampson and Stephen Watts will be one of the English readers of their poems. This is a free event sponsored by the Slovenian government. So there you have it. Free poetry!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

se Googler = to self-Google?

Whilst looking myself up on Google tonight - an occasional ego-trip which always seems to leave me depressed - I stumbled across a link to Martin Blyth's website where anyone who wants a laugh will find an extremely unflattering photograph of me sporting what appears to be a double chin, plus a far more comprehensive account of the recent Torbay Poetry Festival than the one I posted below. I did manage to rub a few words together with Martin while I was in Torquay but somehow we never quite sat down together for a proper conversation about poets and poetry. Next time, perhaps. Meanwhile, I highly recommend his site for a poetry-related cyber jump. Just click Enter once there and follow the site guide to Torbay.

Friday, November 11, 2005

break out the champagne!

At long last, the book I have been writing for nearly a year is finished! Well, more or less finished. The last page has been written but there's still a little fine-tuning to be done before I can shoot it off in the post. Polishing. Editing. Revising. Perhaps the odd name change. That sort of thing. It's a fantasy novel for children, that's as much as I'm prepared to say about it at the moment. But I'm extremely pleased and relieved that it's almost ready to be seen.

Now I can get on with the other novel that's been bugging me for months now, desperate to interfere with the one I've just finished. Almost finished. Still, finished or almost finished, it's definitely time to unwind for a few hours. Glass in one hand, rough draft of a synopsis for my next novel in the other ...

Monday, November 07, 2005

milk comes frozen home in pail

I took this picture some weeks ago in my back garden, here in rural Warwickshire, Shakespeare country, but there are still apples on this tree even now, too high to be picked without a ladder. The squirrels are enjoying them, and a few late wasps. Apples on the trees? Wasps still active in November? It's lovely that the autumn has been so mild here. But I find the unpredictable weather in recent years both mystifying and worrying.

In fact, I've been doing quite a bit of reading on climate change over the past few weeks, mainly because I'm researching a story I want to set in the mid-seventeenth century and have discovered (I had never been aware of this before, to my shame) that we experienced a Little Ice Age for about 150 years, dating from roughly the time of Shakespeare's birth through to the early 1700s. Then I remembered Shakespeare' s 'milk comes frozen home in pail' from Love's Labour's Lost, Act 5. As a child, I always thought this description of winter a little exaggerated; now I realise that the icy winters of the late 16th and 17th centuries would have been a great deal harsher than our own mild frosts, with snow remaining on the ground some years for as long as a hundred days and Ice Fairs held on the Thames throughout the winter:

When icicles hang by the wall                     
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl: Tu-whit,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow                     
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl: Tu-whit,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

The problem is, research has shown that if the deep ocean currents that keep our climate stable are eventually overwhelmed and changed by the rapid and ongoing melting of polar ice, another Ice Age could occur within the space of a few short years - not gradually, over a hundred years, as was previously thought. And there's nothing to suggest that it would be as short a cold snap as Shakespeare's Little Ice Age. Some experts believe it could last for hundreds of thousands of years.

Time, perhaps, for us to take global warming and anti-pollution measures seriously. The links I've used here are only the tip of the iceberg; try googling Ice Age and see what you come up with.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Moira's debate speech at the Torbay Festival 2005

Below is the transcript of Moira Clark's opposing speech in the Torbay Poetry Festival debate 'Is poetry just another form of therapy?' I'm afraid I don't have the transcript of Geoffrey's speech to set against this, but I hope anyone who feels strongly either way will read this post and make their comments below! Moira won the debate -- scroll back a few posts to read my account of the Torbay Poetry Festival itself for further details and photographs. Delivered at the Belgrave Hotel, Torquay, on Saturday October 22nd. The proposer was Geoffrey Godbert IS POETRY JUST ANOTHER FORM OF THERAPY? with opposing speech here below by Moira Clark.

'Poetry is just another form of therapy? I think we have to look at the words in this sentence in order to understand how to address it. Poetry. What is poetry? We could debate this for ever but that’s not the issue here. Let’s look at what poets say about poetry since I’m sure therapists are not the best people to ask. As poets, we all know this quote by Coleridge: 'Poetry; the best words in the best order.' And TS Eliot: 'Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.' Emily Dickinson: 'If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.' And Christopher Logue (the chap who is trying to translate Homer’s Illiad): 'Poetry cannot be defined, only experienced.' 'Poetry is. A poem should not mean. But be.' Archibald MacLeish.

So poetry is not a way of healing ourselves. It is about the best words in the best order, communication, a physical decapitation and an experience. I have been amazed by the number of poets who say they didn’t find their way to poetry; poetry chose them: Dannie Abse, Maura Dooley. So if it isn’t a matter of choice, what is it? Just another form of therapy?

Just in this context means: at most, merely, no more than, nothing but, only, simply, solely. So it might read: poetry is only another form of therapy. There are no arguments that poetry has been used to help people through crises of mental and physical distress but surely poets are not all depressed, psychotic, or suicidal. But is poetry simply, solely, merely and nothing more than another form of therapy? If that has become a truism, then I am in the wrong business; along with Jo Shapcott who says: 'Poems are for exploration, discovery, transformation. They would be very dull otherwise. The idea of poetry primarily for therapy is pretty pointless.' And Neil Astley, that champion of getting poetry to everyone, says: 'Good poetry doesn’t offer a simple solace or poetic medication; it opens up the senses, it disturbs, questions, challenges.'

So… to therapy. By definition: Therapy is the remedial treatment of illness or disability. So is poetry a cure-all? I don’t think so. How many of you have expected poetry to cure you when you’ve been ill, had a broken leg? When your leg is broken you don’t go to a physiotherapist and ask them how to express your pain and anger at having to sit around the house waiting for your bones to heal. We wouldn’t go for radiation therapy and ask if the writing of a poem would put our cancer into remission. Poets of the First W.W. had to find strategies for dealing with that experience and were the first to articulate the fact that war was not what people at home imagined. Was Wilfred Owen using poetry as a means of therapy – to get him through the war - or was he trying to get across the awfulness of war to those who weren’t experiencing it first hand? In Dulce et Decorum, he writes:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

This is not written with therapeutic intent.

If poetry is just another form of therapy does it mean that all poets are continuously trying to heal themselves? That would mean that we poets are a sorry bunch indeed. We are all troubled with deep depression, in constant pain and so we need to write poems to heal ourselves. What bloody nonsense! Undeniably there are poets who have written out of a place of depression, of mental illness but their intention was not primarily one of self therapy but rather to express their experiences – to translate them into poetry. I’m thinking particularly of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and John Berryman.

Kate Foley says: 'Poetry is not a therapeutic process. It isn’t about the healing that can take place in therapy. It’s about selecting, reflecting, ordering, and, if you’re lucky, making art and making sense.' So poetry is about selecting the best words, using them in the best order. It’s about making art: 'Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech,' says Simonides – one of the most prolific poets of ancient Greece. And 'Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the colour of wind': Maxwell Bodenheim.

Surely this is the next step we must take. Poetry isn’t just an outpouring of emotion – it’s a craft, an art. It’s the attempt to ‘paint the colour of wind’. I’d have given up long ago if I could only read confessional poems from depressed, psychotic suicides. I would guess that everyone in this room would have lost interest if all the poetry in the world was about depression, sorrow and woe, woe is me! Maura Dooley says: '…the ‘I’ in a poem is imagined or borrowed not simply me. Like looking at the over-familiar and making it new again, making it strange. Isn’t that always one of poetry’s greatest strengths? It would be boring of me to write about my personal sorrows.'

Yes. Yes. Yes. It would be boring to read about people’s personal sorrows especially if they were using poetry – an art, a craft which opens up the senses, questions, challenges, puts the best words in the best order – as some kind of therapy without addressing the reader or the listener. An outpouring of pain is not poetry. And poetry is not just another form of therapy. It’s so much more. UA Fanthorpe says: 'It’s important to admit your fears. But the most important thing is to survive and you can’t survive if you’re eaten up by terror.' She also says: 'A poem is the conversation between the poet and the reader.' A therapeutic poem would be a one-way thing – not a conversation.

So how can anyone argue that 'poetry is just another form of therapy' when there is so much evidence to suggest it’s far from that? The point of poetry, Paul Muldoon says, is 'to be acutely discomforting, to prod and provoke, to poke us in the eye, to punch us on the nose, to knock us off our feet, to take our breath away.' If Paul Muldoon is right then it’s far from being therapeutic.

Poetry is. Poetry is communication, language, conversation. It disturbs, challenges, questions, explores. It is about making art, making sense. Poetry can attempt to paint the colour of the wind. Poetry can console, uplift, encourage, provide new insights. But, poetry cannot cure. It cannot stop us committing suicide. It cannot put our cancers in remission. It cannot mend a broken leg. Poetry cannot be the remedial treatment of illness or disability. Poetry is not just another form of therapy.'

Moira Clark, October 2005

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

T.S. Eliot Lecture

George Szirtes gives this year's T. S. Eliot Lecture on Tuesday 22 November 2005 at 7.45pm in the Purcell Room at the South Bank Centre. Tickets £8.50. To book call 08703 800 400 or visit rfh.