Saturday, June 30, 2007

Books at Auction

As promised in an earlier post, when we were discussing the various merits of the hard copy book compared to the e-book or internet text, here is the full text of my poem Books at Auction. The poem is a nostalgic look back at my sadly short-lived career as a secondhand bookseller in Cornwall, as well as a celebration of all that is miraculous and emotionally significant about the book as a physical object.


Books at Auction
i.m. The Little Camel Bookshop


I used to arrive early, wander through the clutter:
tables, chairs, a walnut desk
from the nineteenth century, lampstands
and dolls’ houses, the usual array of paintings
by artists no one has ever heard of,
bric-a-brac, porcelain dolls with real hair,
a rocking-horse. There was always something odd
to see there, hold upside-down, poke around in
or sit on. I remember polysterene cups,
cheap coffee from the kiosk.
They called me ‘love’ or ‘pet’, those men
who humped furniture for a living (in
and out), their stained brown coats
that stank of linseed oil, their cheeky offers
of a cigarette. I grew muscles
like weeds that year, hefting boxes to the car,
bending my knees. Books, books,
the musty smell of them, like old perfume,
like history — ‘To H.B. from Lily, 1904’,
‘To Mother from your Beloved Son George’ —
their marbled end-papers foxed, spotted
like trout, the maps and diagrams
that folded out — the entire midship of a schooner
once, in immaculate condition —
the tiny wormholes and the worms themselves
(killed off by freezing overnight).

Though those paper-thin silences
before bidding began
were often like the silences
of our first nights together — eyes meeting briefly,
then lips — love
is not like bidding for books at an auction
(except for the tension
and never being quite sure what
you’ll end up with
or how much it might cost you).


Books can be like love though,
a high dark dream of love, a secret only you and I
can know this
So I’d bid more steeply than intended,
burnt up with lust
for some T.S. Eliot First,
then slip outside for a cigarette
and smoke there in the rain. Like Barbara in Brest,
epanouie ravie ruisselante . . .
Yet it was always worth it, at the auction,
buying books in competition. Even
the hours spent on my knees afterwards, bent
over those boxes, sorting out
and cataloguing, pricing up, my hands
book-black by the end of it,
dancing and singing over the covers:

Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, Alun Lewis;
Loch Derg from Patrick Kavanagh;
Nil Nil, by Don Paterson, faded blue cloth,
signed by the author, good condition;
Milton’s Paradise Lost, calf-bound and gilt
in three volumes, 1795;
the Complete Poems of Alice Meynell
on hand-made paper, limited numbered edition;
an early Crow, slightly foxed,
with marginalia; Vita Sackville-West,
her modest Selected from the Hogarth Press;
Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells, green cloth
minus jacket, a First Edition.


Why buy them, to preserve them? Better
to let cyber-space have them, let them be words
on screen, seen and unseen, corruptible.
That page will fade, data disappear, no safer there
than between hard covers,
yet never so beautiful nor dangerous, something real
to hand on, like a name or a sword.

Say that under our fingers, our eyes
or here on the tongue, a book of light is rising:
the word that we made to be heard — dignified
godhead, salt-washed,
bound bone and blood in it,
went to the stake for it, then lost or discarded —
has been hidden from fire, riddled
with worms, pressed and spotted
by browned wild flowers,
over-written by notes scribbled
in margins, recipes
laid down on blank versos and these ghosts
on the flyleaf, the names and dates
of the faithful — when bought, when handed on,
where kept, by whom (though rarely why,
the hidden purposes of readers
blown like dust from gilt-edged spines).

Or rather say, look, this is what we achieved
in our age. This is a book.
Open it to the first page and read.

'Books at Auction' first appeared in Poetry Review.
Published in Boudicca & Co. from Salt Publishing, 2006.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Nail Bomb in the Haymarket, Poetry at the SBC

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to slouching behind your newspapers on the tube ... a car bomb packed with nails and explosives, which miraculously failed to detonate, is parked up outside a crowded night-club in the Haymarket.

We are no longer quite so afraid of the power-crazed politician with his finger on the nuclear button. This is the age of the suicide bomber, of the ultimate weapon against mankind: the human mind, utterly convinced of its own rightness and prepared to destroy itself in order to annoint that belief in human blood.

Today is the first day of the London Literature Festival at the South Bank Centre. Over the next few weeks, thousands of people in London will be attending literary events, readings and performances, or engaging in creative and literary activities not merely at the SBC but everywhere around the capital, as our daily fascination with the arts continues.

A few questions come to mind here. What does art or literature achieve in the face of the suicide bomber? What is its role except as a form of therapy for the survivors or the loved ones of the dead? Should poetry address that merciless desire for violence and its shocking aftermath? And is there still a place in the creative arts for political comment, or is it now just a cosy retreat for the politically apathetic or for those who feel art is tainted by any exposure, however fleeting or apparently necessary, with 'the real world'?

We've been discussing something similar to this fraught topic on the Poets on Fire forums recently, finally agreeing to disagree on whether it's possible to depict violence and cruelty in the lyric poem without losing the poetic integrity of the form ... without appearing to be celebrating violence and cruelty, in other words.

But when threats like this become a part of our daily lives, what is the poem for if it cannot address the issues surrounding the use of violence, or deal with the reality of cruelty and human carnage?

This dilemma reminds me of the London debate I heard last year on Poetry and Climate Change - a very one-sided debate, where two of the panel were unable to attend at the last minute and were not replaced. At that debate, the only speaker left, John Burnside, dismissed the concept of the political poem as an aesthetic non-starter and insisted that any action against climate change would have to take place another way. Members of the audience were barely able to challenge that attitude before the debate was brought to a swift and premature close.

So no activism to be allowed in poetry. No climate change. No violence. No cruelty. No ... you supply the rest.

But if there is no longer any place for the political poem in today's literary climate, poetry has become a dog with no teeth and should be put down at once. Humanely, of course. And without elegies.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

London Literature Festival 2007

Those blog-browsers based in London should already know that the London Literature Festival kicks off tomorrow at the South Bank Centre.

If that's your sort of thing, you can read about the poetry highlights of the festival - including details of poets, performers, dates, times and venues - by following this link to one of my other blogs, the daily updated 'live poetry' site, Poets on Fire.

You can also view the other events and activities on offer by visiting the South Bank Centre.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Baroque in Hackney

Some readers of this blog may be aware that Ms. Baroque of the literary gossip-fest which is Baroque in Hackney is going into hospital tomorrow to have gallstones removed. At least, that's what she's been telling her adoring fans.

And I am one of five bloggers currently 'signed into' her blog as co-bloggers, so that Baroque in Hackney need not lose its substantial daily readership whilst Ms. Baroque is waiting for her bandages to be unpeeled and the new Baroque to emerge, trembling and graceful as a new butterfly.

So over the next fortnight, do try to check into Baroque in Hackney from time to time, to see what's happening and which blogger is posting that day. I will be contributing at least two posts to her blog, which I have already sketched out roughly in my head. But since I always try to stay fluid on such things until the very last nanosecond, I shall not queer my own pitch by giving away any details in advance...

Good luck with the op., Ms. B.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Hard and Unusual Words

This will be a brief blog entry, as I'm just off to my last Latin evening class of the summer term, and I do need to at least glance at the passage from Tacitus we were supposed to have prepared beforehand.

Some of you may have noticed a new blog listed at the bottom of the Blogger Profile page for Raw Light. It's entitled Hard and Unusual Words and is not yet ready to be shown to the public. I wanted to grab the blogspot address but haven't had much time recently for officially launching it, which is why it's just loitering there, untouched and unblogged on.

It's going to be based on an idea I had a few years ago, connected to Thomas Blount's Glossographia, a 17th century 'Dictionary of Hard and Unusual Words'. I'm not entirely sure how it will work yet, so more I can't tell you. But it will be a strange blog, that's for certain, and probably interesting to only one or two people. My apologies to the rest of you ...

Monday, June 25, 2007

Flight of the Forum

In recent months, problems logging-in and loading pages at the Poem Forum have been getting steadily worse.

Today, I managed to get onto the site briefly and saw a message from one of the other members, suggesting that we 'migrate' to another forum to avoid all the log-in frustrations. That had never occurred to me, as I had always assumed that the problems - whatever they are, and that's not clear - would be resolved and normal posting would resume eventually.

However, after a few moments' thought, it occurred to me to open up a space on my own message board, Poets On Fire, for any Poem members who wanted to keep talking. Which is what I've been doing today - creating a 'Temporary Poem Forum home' on the forum board associated with Poets On Fire.

My POF board is designed for people who want to discuss 'live' poetry. However, this specially-created 'Poem Forum' section will be for those of us who want to talk about English language poetry in print, mainly British poetry, but also from the US and beyond. If this idea catches on and members of the Poem forum do start to migrate to POF, I shall be doing my best to keep an eye on how the two types of member are integrating and will intervene if things go wrong.

I wasn't able to log back onto the Poem Forum to let members know what was happening, but I believe someone else has posted my invitation up there. So hopefully new members will be registering at POF even as I type this.

:ironic expression:

If you're reading this and would like to join the POF forum, it's perfectly simple. Choose a nickname or use your real name, go to and register as a new member. A validation email should be sent to you within 24 hours, usually much sooner. Then you can post.

If you have any problems getting validated as a member, contact me via this blog or my website, with your email details. Many spammers try to join POF, and it can be a tough job, deciding who is a bona fide poetry-lover and who deserves to be bent over a barrel and thrashed with fresh nettles.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hey Presto!

Yet Another Colour Scheme Change:
Apologies to those who have come here expecting to be knocked back by a blaze of blood-red blog only to be greeted by this more sober black on cream.

I had a couple of complaints from people who were finding it hard to read the yellow print on red. So I changed it to black on red, but apparently that didn't find favour either.

So I've given up and crawled back on my belly to the more traditional colours for blogging, having wasted my desire for strong visual stimulation on a bunch of cookies-and-cream sissies ...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Women Poets, Non-Women Poets

Seeing today that I had a post label for women poets, but none for 'men poets', I went to create one for the Jacob Polley post only to realise that we don't tend to say 'men poets' in Britain. We say 'male poets', if we mention their gender at all. Dear little genderless things. Non-women poets.

Googling for some advice on this, I found an article by Clare Pollard, 'The Female Poet & the Male Muse', which appears on the Magma poetry website. It doesn't really address the issue of men/male poets but does at least make amusing reading on a grey Saturday morning.

I'm going to go with 'male poets', though I am sorely tempted to use 'non-women', if only to point up the ridiculousness of the fact that we have such a frequently used label for women who write poetry, but none for men. Because 'male poet' is the default, of course. Like male Prime Minister. Male passenger jet pilot. Male snooker player.

Okay, waiting for the fallout ...

Growing A Pearl: Jacob Polley's 'Little Gods' (Picador 2006)

Mother of tides, father of skies:
give me the grit to grow a pearl.
Fill me with fear,
that brain-food, or that dark matter, desire.

As the eminently quotable Don Paterson has told us*, ‘Poetry is the art of saying things once’, and Jacob Polley’s second collection, Little Gods, published last year, seems to provide that perfect balance between under and over-statement to which Paterson, his editor at Picador, was referring.

His poetry is clear-spoken, or rather - since this is poetry - clear-sung across the white space of the page, without straining for emphasis or becoming distracted by those odd peripheral activities that poems indulge in as they are written, as evidenced by the perfect poise and lyrical invocation of the four lines above (from Polley’s ‘Sand’).

It is possible to read Paterson’s little aphorism as an assertion that poetry is about saying things on one occasion and never needing to go down that route again. But then none of us would bother with all these versions or translations of poems that have influenced us, or poems inspired by other poets, ad infinitum.

But of course we do bother, because part of being a poet is positioning oneself within a certain poetic tradition - or, if you are daring and competent enough, outside that tradition - by choosing poets, past and present, with whom you can align yourself.

Jacob Polley understands this venerated practice and leaves us a number of these signposts in Little Gods: two poems directly ‘after Baudelaire’ (‘Spleen’ and ‘The Sun’), and many individual words, lines or tropes which speak to me clearly of the pastoral lyric tradition.

On top of that, there’s the blistering contemporary varnish of ‘burnt-out’ urban decay, reminding me in places of shorter poems by T.S. Eliot such as ‘The Love-Song of Alfred J. Prufrock’ or ‘Preludes’:

October, November: leaves and smoke.
The coalman pulls up in his flatbed truck.
Who would believe I stand where I am,

so long at the window, lost in a coat,
or under a streetlamp, my shadow unstuck?
Only she with her clock and her almanac can.

This is from Polley's 'Skin and Bone'. Here I’m waiting for Eliot's lonely cab-horse that steams and stamps ('Preludes'), ‘And then the lighting of the lamps.’ The last line too, its old-fashioned deferral of the verb giving us an unusual stress on the final word, feels almost ironic, self-mocking. Then, as though to confirm my pinpointing of his influences, we have the closing lines of Polley’s ‘Twilight’:

On the river, lanterns float. The city
lies with its throat cut and wrists open,
feeding streetlight into the water.

Ah, but the rain you prayed for. Do you hear?

Now I’m waiting for rain in the dry mountains, followed perhaps by a quick chorus of ‘Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.’** And who doesn’t remember ‘ When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table’ from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’?

Here we have a highly urban Eliotesque poetry, dark, intelligent and sophisticated, alongside versions of Baudelaire, a poet praised by Eliot for his ‘great genius’ and technical mastery. Some ambitious choices of mentor from Polley here.

But what does Charles Baudelaire represent to us now? A reckless and dissolute young man, his political edge tempered by addiction and the relentless pursuit of luxury in its older sense – that of lust or lasciviousness from the creamy Latin luxuria, meaning excess. ‘Spleen’ is his infamous expression of rage against the world, a dark and slimy place he envisages as an inescapable trap, full of horrors and leading only to death.

So how does all that translate to Jacob Polley’s take on Baudelaire? At first glance, it seems a glaring mismatch of styles. Jacob Polley is a ‘nice’ poet. He writes about owls in trees (yew trees though, associated with Plath, graveyards, longevity) and doesn’t write about unpleasant things lurking in the darkness or ladies with long tresses, the fleshpots and seductive lures of the city. Or does he?

Here are the final two stanzas of one of his more urban poems, the gothicky ‘Black Water’:

The knife’s not a fish,
though it’s cold from the drawer;
and the birch leaves aren’t cymbals, though they’re blown
silver-side-up in the wind, which won’t show you
death in a cistern’s slab of black water:
only your own untroubled face.

And there’s no testing the blade of her shoulder,
there’s no catch hidden in her throat,
and your heart’s no more than meat.

The ‘her’ of these last lines is the first mention of a woman in this poem. She is not named, nor designated as lover, wife or muse, but is described almost as a faceless predator, a suggestion of dangerous nudity in ‘the blade of her shoulder’, and a trap being set for the unwary male where ‘your heart’s no more than meat.’

But Polley is cleverer than that. The narrator’s face is ‘untroubled’ in the ‘cistern’s slab of black water’ and he is not involved with the woman, so cannot be trapped or hurt by that seductive shoulder and throat: ‘your heart’s no more than meat’.

Some critics have seen Ted Hughes in this poetry; I don't, except in individual poems where specific echoes occur, and as a general influence which I consider all-pervasive for younger poets, something you can't help imbibing directly or indirectly via other poets as you learn your trade.

For me, poems like ‘The Turn’, the Plath-like ‘Caldecotes’ - 'Roll over, you dead, for the little ones' - and ‘Twilight’, quoted earlier, simply reinforce that other face to Polley’s work, the darker and less socially integrated side: ‘Here comes the evening, the criminal’s friend'.

The powerful emphasis on metaphor and simile in Polley’s work can seem old-fashioned in this age of unsophisticated, confessional writing. Yet perhaps this is precisely what we need to bring that elusive general readership back to poetry. As twenty-first century poets, we work within a paradox where poetry is everywhere, yet everywhere ignored. A poet whose work is quotable, accessible and nostalgic in tone - whilst also being complex enough to provide any number of hot meals for academics - may be the answer to our prayers.

There are problems associated with that sort of writing, though. For instance, we tend to associate the English lyric with over-simplicity, perhaps a certain lightweight feel to theme or subject. Poetry for more innocent times, for the children we used to be. What we need now - it’s generally assumed - is a spare, muscular, uncompromising poetry. Poetry for the modern age, poetry for grown-ups.

But the truth is, we are still looking to poetry to fill the gaps left by the demise of religion and the old-fashioned intergenerational family unit, mothers who used to sing and teach us nursery rhymes, fathers who told us stories at bedtime, grandparents still available to explain the way it used to be when they were children. The television, video game and computer have largely taken the place of those creative sources. Even the novel is barely in evidence anymore: if statistics are to be believed, we are a nation of non-readers.

So, as adults, we may come to poetry looking for truth and spiritual sustenance - ‘I remember hearing a poem about the sea when I was a child, or was it a dark forest, anyway it made me feel sad/frightened/exhilarated’ - only to wander away empty-handed, bemused by the incredible variety and the sheer vacuousness of most contemporary poetry.

Is Jacob Polley’s poetry too lyrical to be truly contemporary, too simple to carry the weight of what we know now? I don’t believe so. I believe it to be one of the best new collections that I’ve seen coming out of Picador for a few years. It lacks the intensity and laser-like accuracy of Robin Robertson, and the sardonic theatrical flair of Don Paterson, and has almost nothing of the nature of Annie Freud's more recent discursive, anecdotal style. Yet it rolls confidently off the tongue, more Anglo-Saxon than Latinate, and is not afraid to speak in simile and metaphor, or to shift verbs about the line where necessary, regardless of the shades of Georgian poets conjured up by such methods.

Sounds like critical hyperbole? Just take a look at this from his poem ‘April’ (the cruellest month, let’s not forget, for old Tom Eliot and, before him, Geoffrey Chaucer):

Whatever the leaves were saying must wait:
rain has filled the trees with its own brisk word.
There’s thunder in the darkened slates.
The pond’s green eye rolls heavenward.

You can’t charge a page with the hiss, with this
cooling of the city like a new horseshoe.
Rain in the hair, at the neck and the wrists:
for rich and poor, there’s rain to hurry through.

The boil and spit of pavements: mirrored brick.
Every patch of grass is fiercely lit.

Here Polley claims ‘you can’t charge a page with the hiss’, whilst making a creditable job of it, nevertheless. And he’s not alone in this very British concern with the weather. ‘April’, and the poem which immediately follows it in the book, ‘Rain’, both remind me of one of the best pieces of required writing produced by Ted Hughes in his capacity as Poet Laureate, the epic ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’, where ‘Thunder gripped and picked up the city./ Rain didn’t so much fall as collapse./ The pavements danced, like cinders in a riddle’, and then the magnificent ‘A girl in high heels, her handbag above her head, // Risked it across the square’s lit metals.’ I could also point to Seamus Heaney’s opening poem in Spirit Level, the exuberant ‘Rain Stick’, with its torrential euphony of descriptors. Here at least I find Hughes - and Heaney as a sturdier alternative - but if he is elsewhere in this collection, the influence has been well-integrated enough not to shriek Hughes, even to someone steeped in him, someone for whom Hughes is, quite frankly, a god.

So Polley’s poetry stretches to meet its predecessors, needing to rival them, to leave his footprint in the pastoral tradition. He succeeds in some places, the stronger poems in his second collection overshadowing the weaker ones to such an extent that we barely notice the flaws. Best of all, his poems are articulate; they connect with the reader, want to give back to them. From such auspicious beginnings, a pearl may be grown, the career of a poet forged:

Darling, d’you think you can’t see as you did?
Then find inside this battered tin,
this tin that smells of cold metal and rust,
these steel-rimmed spectacles. Hook them on,
for I want you to see as you did again.
Others have. Those who’ve aged, or lost,
have worn them a while, and regained
lovers or sons, memories or minds,
then returned to their lives, less vague, less blind.

(‘The Prescription’)

* From ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ by Don Paterson (T.S. Eliot Lecture November 2004).
** The closing lines of ‘The Waste Land’. T.S. Eliot’s note on the text reads: “The peace which passeth understanding is our equivalent to this word (shantih)."

Buy Jacob Polley's Little Gods from

Friday, June 22, 2007

Floods at Boscastle Again

You may know by now that Boscastle has flooded again. Not as dreadfully as before, but enough to scare the residents, I'm sure, and put the emergency services back on alert. You can find some on-the-spot photographs taken by residents here.

The devastation of August 16th 2004 was something I remember well, though I was on the other side of the country at the time, holidaying in Norfolk. Steve and I had checked into a small old-fashioned coaching inn in Swaffham, a few miles from the recreated 'Iceni Village' at Cockley Cley which we were planning to visit the next day, and had rung home to make sure the kids were okay before heading out for dinner. To our horror we heard from one of my daughters that our beloved Boscastle had been struck by an enormous wall of water, with many of the riverside buildings gutted by the flood, one washed away entirely. Dinner forgotten, we immediately switched on the small television set in our hotel room and spent the next few hours following the intensive news coverage instead.

We had only recently moved away from Boscastle, where we had lived for nearly a year, up near the ancient church on Forrabury Hill, and in nearby Camelford for three years before that. So we were not casual viewers, but were watching familiar streets and buildings engulfed in a torrent of mud, branches, cars and other debris being swept down the river - now occupying the main street - towards the tiny bottleneck harbour. Not only that, but we knew most of the people who were interviewed in the immediate aftermath, many of them utterly shocked and no more able to believe what had happened than we could, hundreds of miles away.

With thousands of others, we saw the television footage of that free-floating camper van as it struck the white-washed wall of the Harbour Lights shop; an instant later, the historic building had vanished into the water. And the world-famous Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft - a fascinating place we had often visited - had not managed to escape either, even though it was set back from the river bank. The whole thing was surreal, because we simply couldn't link what we were seeing with the village where we had lived and which we knew to be such a quiet, uneventful little place.

Friends, too, had been severely affected. The distraught owner of the Spinning Wheel Café, one of the businesses worst hit by the flood, had employed both my teenage daughters as waitresses for several years. If we had not moved away, they would undoubtedly have been working there that afternoon.

As we sat watching the television, I remember feeling sick as it was revealed how the large front window of the Spinning Wheel Café had been blown out by the sheer force of the water, sweeping through the building from the river which ran just behind and below the premises. The staff managed to climb onto the roof and had to be winched to safety by helicopters. As the water receded, we could see the building itself in ruins, awash with mud, unrecognisable. Just one of many livelihoods destroyed in a few hours that day. And the only consolation was that no lives had been lost.

Last year, recalling the devastation at Boscastle, I began work on what I hoped would be a long poem or perhaps a short sequence of poems about the flood. It's still 'in progress' but one of the pieces that emerged from that attempt has just been published in the summer issue of 'Poetry Review', which came out this Wednesday. It features real places in the village, including the famous old Cobweb Inn, just high enough above the river to escape the worst of the flood, and one of the many occult shops in the area, a tiny but beautiful place tucked away down a flight of steps just shy of the main bridge into the village, named after one of the cornerstones of Druidic belief, the realm of the 'Otherworld'.

I dithered over the title for ages, but in the end decided on something very obvious and prosaic: 'Flood at Boscastle'. I'm hoping that at some point in the future I'll feel able to publish the rest of the work I've done on the same subject. Whether the title of that particular poem will then have to change, I'm not sure.

So within forty-eight hours of that poem being published, Boscastle is under water yet again. Let's hope it remains a minor incident this time. Otherwise people may begin to suspect that I had something to do with it ...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Paraphernalia by Joanne Limburg (Bloodaxe, 2007): a first sharp look

I still haven't finished that Polley review. It's not some gleaming epic. I just can't seem to get my thoughts about Little Gods into any sort of coherent shape at the moment. It's probably the house move looming, all the tedious arrangements I have to tackle, such as actually finding us somewhere to live. Right now, anything that takes me too far away from my desk is a complete pain in the fundament. And moving house certainly comes into that category.

However, I received a copy of Joanne Limburg's second collection with Bloodaxe today. It's entitled Paraphernalia and is a handsome book with a cheery-looking cover painting by Liz Knox, a domestic scene featuring a kitchen table, but one suggestive of clutter and disarray. I'll probably look at it again in some depth next month, when perhaps hidden virtues may be revealed, but on a first read-through the book has proved disappointing enough to merit comment straightaway.

If this was a first book, I might be inclined to say, well, these poems are rough around the edges and a little dull, but she's not untalented and will no doubt improve. But Joanne Limburg started writing poetry at roughly the same time as I did, about ten years ago. And, to complicate matters, 'Paraphernalia' is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Which leaves me utterly astonished, when I can find lines of the following standard throughout this collection:

Every two hours,
20 by cup,
a little of me,
a note on a chart.

This is from a poem called Milk, about expressing milk to breast-feed a baby. It is by no means an unusual example of Joanne Limburg's work, nor is that topic unusual in a collection dominated by highly personal and domestic poems written so flatly and repetitively that I wonder whether the PBS were looking at the same book.

Perhaps it's intended to be light or comic verse. That might be possible, though I didn't personally find any of these poems funny. But I find it hard to believe that this is meant to be comic verse, as Limburg's poems - especially as you move further into the book - seem pervaded by an ever-deepening sense of malaise and disconnection from reality.

I take no pleasure in not being able to praise this book. Normally I would sidestep the review rather than write something very superficial, feeling unable to say anything positive about the book. Some of you may even be surprised to learn that I no longer possess the same taste for the jugular that got me into so much trouble back in the nineties.

But not wishing to be unkind doesn't mean I can't question the bestowing of a PBS Recommendation on a collection as weak as this. I am a member of the PBS and I don't expect to pay them a tidy sum of money every year only to be sent 'recommended' books through the post which I would put back on the shelf in a bookshop. And, after all, their website declares that 'The PBS offers the best new contemporary poetry to its members.'

Now, I'm perfectly open to hearing opposing points of view about 'Paraphernalia': indeed, I would welcome a debate on the book's merits. And I understand that all these PBS choices must be personal - that's a given in a highly subjective field like poetry - but I'd still be interested to know which selecting poets approved so highly of the poems from which the following extracts are taken, and precisely why:

One trip to the bin is all he needs
to put the lid on a season of chaos.
Now tell me that isn't better! It's better.

(final stanza of 'The Man Who Tidied His Wife's Handbag')


I have no mind for anything
but you and the gunge in the sink.

(from 'Nimbostratus')


Of course I could still change things - get off this sofa
and, you know, really do something about it.

(from 'Bubble')


O Night and Silence
why should I complain?

For though I am empty, and pale as veal,
surely your servants are good.

(from 'Psalm')


Despite our attempts
to resolve this matter
you fail to give us
the right response.

We are forced
to take action.

Now we are coming
to cut off your phone
to cut off your power
to cut off your water
to sever your every connection.

(from ATTENTION!, the title underlined and in capitals, a poem 'generated' by unpleasant letters the poet received by mistake from a mobile phone company, which were then apparently 'blend[ed] with a Cherokee "Spell to Destroy Life"' to produce this poem: I apologise for not being able to slightly indent the final lines as they appear in the book)


We shall not win security
by offering vermin security.

Sit back. Relax. Our marshals are trained
to handle cabin security.

Through the hissing fast flow teat
he's drinking in security.

(from "Security!", which repeats this end rhyme pattern for 9 couplets, possibly a 'ghazal', possibly not. If anyone knows the correct name for this poetic form, please leave a comment below.)


There was a husband - I suppose he left.
Now I'm poor, and sad, and home with mother.
I trudge between my bedroom, and the toilet,
don't even go downstairs until it's late.
I can't be bothered working for my 'A' Levels,
but if I fail again they'll keep the baby.

(from 'Late', a poem of 7 stanzas in the same voice, which is so consistently flat and prose-like that it makes me wonder why Limburg would choose to include it in her collection and why her editor didn't intervene. Perhaps they thought the drearily PC subject matter was enough to warrant its inclusion.)


Yes: I use this service.
No: no contact at all.
Always the minimum payment.
My signal is faint to poor.

Often: I think it's important.
My skin is slightly dry.
Whichever is the softer.
Citrus is better than pine.

(from 'Respondent': the conceit is explained by the title. It's an old trick, not particularly amusing, and although I hear and cheerily applaud many similar poems every month from open mic poets, it's hardly the standard of work I expect from a PBS Recommended Bloodaxe collection. Or is it?)


I'll stop there. I've had personal contact with Joanne Limburg, who is a perfectly delightful person, and I genuinely wish her all the very best with her writing. I am also convinced that many people will be fans of her work, otherwise she would not have got this far.

But when I read new poetry - particularly, perhaps, when I read other women poets, who have so much lost time to make up - I look for the hard, the ambitious, the unusual, the challenging, the witty, the powerful, the undaunted. So I am naturally disappointed when I find a collection by a woman poet of reasonable prominence which has been singled out for praise as Limburg's Paraphernalia has, yet which appears to possess little to recommend itself beyond a certain wacky modern sensibility and a taste for quirky, repetitively rhymed poems - I counted six poems in total which use the same couplet and end rhyme pattern throughout, a trick which soon palls. Where is the challenge in all this, where is the ambition?

Let me be clear. I am not looking to be needlessly unpleasant here, to trash Joanne Limburg's latest collection for my own purposes. When I get a new book like this, I turn to it eagerly, hoping to be excited and inspired. I desperately want to find strong mainstream women poets with whom I can identify and from whom I can learn. The fact that I'm still struggling to do so after ten years in poetry is one of the quiet everyday despairs of my life. So when I implore women poets like Joanne Limburg to be more inventive, more ambitious and more creatively independent in their poetry, I am also reminding myself of the gap between my own aspirations and the reality of my work.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Simon Turner on 'Boudicca & Co'

More packing has been underway this weekend, and is still ongoing, for our eviction next month. So I do apologise for the lack of blog activity yesterday.

Please accept instead this link to another blog, 'Gists & Piths', written by the estimable Simon Turner, where he has been reviewing my recent poetry collection with Salt: Boudicca & Co.

I've been working on a slow-moving review of Jacob Polley's delicious Little Gods, so hopefully that'll be posted up here sometime tomorrow. First I have to negotiate a lengthy phone call from the Open University, who want to interview me about my Ancient Greek blog as part of some research they're undertaking into how blogging affects or encourages studying long-distance - as I understand it. The life of a blogger, ho!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reading in Reading

Tonight I shall be reading in Reading, a brand-new experience for me. I've often been through Reading on the train - who hasn't? - but I've never stopped to admire the townscape. Now's my chance though. No doubt it will rain as soon as I arrive in the place. Luckily I love the rain. Especially on these stifling summer nights.

Here are the details:

Poets’ Café
South Street Arts Centre, South Street, Reading.
Friday June 15th
8pm doors, 8.30pm poetry.

Popular monthly open mic in Reading, with a full set from special guest Jane Holland, reading from her latest collection Boudicca & Co (Salt Publishing). The evening is hosted by poet, compere and self-styled English eccentric A.F. Harrold.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Packing Dust

Some of you may know that I'm being evicted next month. Those of you who didn't, learn it now. In a few bare weeks, we must leave our isolated little house on the prairie after three years of strange smells, damp stains and bliss. No neighbours, no traffic, no noise except the endless guttural moaning of sheep all around us. A large sprawling garden. We've adored living here - it's a dream house for a writer, especially one with noisy children - but the landlord wishes to sell, so that's the end of that.

I've been skirting round the dreaded act of packing for the past few weeks, buying boxes and packaging tape, chucking away non-essentials and drawing up To Do lists, but not actually rolling my sleeves up and starting to pack.

But today, all that changed.

I have now emptied two five shelf bookcases of their books - no mean feat, we're talking double rows on each shelf - and their spiders, spider corpses or skins, acres and acres of sticky cobwebs, and little scurrying creatures moving too fast to be identified.

Clearly, 'normal' people keep their bookcases dusted and in pristine condition, not to mention alphabetical order. But we're not normal. Most of our bigger bookcases lurk in dark corners and tend to be used by the kids - and the occasional adult - as a useful place for hiding toys, sweet wrappers, odd bits of paper, coils of wire, old telephone books, coins, Anglo-Saxon rune cards, empty crisp packets, plastic necklaces, spent batteries, rolls of cellotape, discarded teeth ... all of which are crammed between, behind, or on top of the books.

Then there are the 'forgotten' books on the top of the bookcase, the ones too bulky, heavy or tall to fit onto the shelves. The ones that spiders and their pale spindly-legged progeny really adore.

Ugh. Theatrical shiver.

Even now, hours later, I'm still itching. By methodically cleaning each book as I took it down and packed it away, I managed to get covered in a thin layer of dust and cobwebs myself. I was wearing a sleeveless top, so you can imagine the state my arms were in after two bookcases' worth. I had dust in my hair and mouth, and crooked spidery things clinging to my cleavage. I could even taste dust on the rim of my tea mug.

And though I started off promising to throw out or donate to charity shops at least 40% of these books, because we simply can't take all of them with us, I've ended up barely able to part with 10%.

It's all utterly ridiculous, of course. What on earth do I want with an ancient tome of recipes inspired by and illustrated with Toulouse-Lautrec paintings? Yet I can't bear to part with it. Endless tedious books on Kipling; I have no interest in Kipling, but they belonged to my mother, so what can I do? Ditto foreign editions of her novels, or half a dozen copies of each of her most popular paperback romances, all needing to be housed safely for future generations to ogle and admire. And until tonight I had no idea that we owned five different editions of Keats' poetry, in varying conditions of decrepitude.

But you never know. Books are fragile things. Fire, flood, divorce, will do for most of them. Better hold onto these different editions, just in case the worst occurs. Similar duplications of Donne, Milton, Pound, Yeats, Coleridge, Byron ... though no sign of Shelley or Wordsworth anywhere. Good taste prevails, thankfully.

Tomorrow I will tackle the least-used books in my study. No need for dusting here. But still the hideous dilemma of which books must go into storage - we'll be moving somewhere smaller - and which will make it to the new house. And to put my misery into grim perspective, this will be my seventh house move in seven years.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Lowdham Book Festival 2007

I received yet another Festival brochure through the post the other day. When I first started taking poetry seriously, back in the mid-nineties, there were only a small number of large-scale literary or poetry festivals a year. Cheltenham, of course. Hay-on-Wye. Ledbury. Brighton. Swindon had just started.

These days, it seems there’s a literary festival on somewhere in the UK every fortnight. Not a hole in the corner of the field affair, with mud-covered backpackers and dusty church-based events featuring local poets. These are mostly all singing, all dancing festivals with 9 - 8pm book tents, major authors on tap, Friends of the Festival specials, children’s events with quirky themes like ‘jungle balloonists’ or ‘pirate ballerinas’, plus, of course, the essential accessory for any self-respecting Lit Fest, substantial public and private funding.

This latest brochure - neat, attractive and very professional-looking - is for the Lowdham Book Festival, 22 - 30 June 2007.

Who? Where?

It turns out that Lowdham is a village, no less, in sunny Nottinghamshire, and that this is their eighth literary festival. Clearly I’ve been sleeping for the past decade, because I had no idea that this festival existed until their brochure arrived. But they do exist and some of these events look rather tasty.

For a start, they have a festival bar and cafe - always a major pulling point for punters, who are invariably more interested in beer or cream teas than in the latest literary idol. Then there are various sporting activities which seem to have no connection with books at all (erm, tennis? three-legged world cup egg & spoon race? T’ai Chi?) followed by readings from a book of cricketing anecdotes and an anthology in which I myself have a poem, a book of sporting poetry entitled Not Just A Game.

But as far as individual poets are concerned, the Lowdham Book Festival is only featuring two this year, from what I could see. The first is Faber’s most recent acquisition Daljit Nagra, whose debut collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! is reviewed by me in the forth-coming summer issue of Poetry Review (due to be launched next month at - yes, you’ve guessed it - Ledbury Poetry Festival). The other poet on offer is Pauline Prior-Pitt, who will apparently be reading from her latest collection ‘Ironing with Sue Lawley’. Cue smiley face.

Other events which caught my eye include this:

Blog-Talk with Mike Atkinson
WI Hall, Main Street
Saturday 30th June
12.50 - 1.35pm

What do you write about? What is it safe to say? Why is blog writing different to other writing? Bloggers with book deals - how come they get them but I don’t?

-- I love this finishing time of 1.35pm. It reminds me of Maggie Smith’s cool contempt in the film version of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: ‘She thinks to intimidate me by the use of quarter hours.’ Okay, this isn’t a quarter hour, but you know what I mean. 1.35pm. Oddly precise for a public event. --

Then there’s this charming delicacy, which I would dearly love to attend:

Folklore in the age of stag nights & blogs, with Bob Trubshaw
Rhyme/Reason Tent
Saturday 30th June
12.40 - 1.35pm (again!)

Bob Trubshaw, author of Explore Folklore and folklore publisher at Heart of Albion Press, argues that folklore is a continuous creation, not something frozen forever in the days of unicorns and morris-dancers. What are our current folk traditions? What will be saved for later generations?

There’s also a magazine launch clashing with this event, a bumper spring and summer edition of long-established lit mag Staple, featuring editor Wayne Burrows and guest poet Douglas Houston, plus local contributors.

So it seems as though the literary festival is bigger business than ever this year, collectively pulling in millions of book-browsers and poetry-lovers across the land, and its meteoric rise looks set to continue into the tail-end of this decade. Unless, of course, the advent of the London Olympics starts having a slow-down effect on the funding of literary events like this, as many writers and event organisers fear it might ...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Beautiful Scary Darkness: Tamar Yoseloff's 'Fetch' (Salt Publishing, 2007)

Some poetry collections seem to meander in several directions at once, a loose hotchpotch of styles. Others stick to a party line, eyes fixed on a particular prize, accolade or literary coterie. Then there are those rare poetry collections, like Tamar Yoseloff’s Fetch, which seem both artful and true to life’s variety; bundled tightly together in this handsome book from Salt, the poems feel as real and atmospheric as your own memories, as here when she describes foraging for 'Fungi':

The smell -
wet anorak, fusty books, disturbed dust
of long unopened doors -
like the basement of your childhood,
beautful scary darkness.

Fetch is Tamar Yoseloff’s third collection. Her first collection Sweetheart (Slow Dancer Press 1998) was a PBS Special Commendation and won the Aldeburgh Festival Prize. American-born, she lives in London and is a tutor for the Poetry School. No stranger to the technical side of poetry, then. Nor to the idea of leitmotifs, which she uses to great effect in this latest collection.

The odd-sounding title, Fetch, is variously defined by Yoseloff as a stratagem; a trick; an artifice; the double of a living person; a wraith. Correspondingly, there are five sequenced poems here entitled ‘Fetch’, which, along with a series of woodcuts by Linda Karshan, mark off five divisions in the book. All five poems are quite similar in form and tone, with an other worldly quality, a film noir sensibility that stops just short of the reveal.

This film noir shiver is compounded by the narrative voice, which acts like a voice-over at times, an inclination towards metanarrative that makes me think of a screenwriter at work on a manuscript; sitting alone, maybe slumped over a desk in the early hours of the morning, she sends her character out into this darker world of the imagination, masterminding her every move, following the action as though with a hidden camera.

So the 'Fetch' sequence becomes a sort of poetic Chinatown, a world reeking of fear, suspense and erotic tension, yet highly aware of itself as it operates within that genre. Eventually, in a sinister fashion, the female ‘fetch’ of these poems begins to subtly take on the narrator’s appearance, to disobey orders, do her own thing, threatening to leave her creator behind.

My overriding impression when reading Fetch was a contradictory one of delicate craft combined with an over-saturation of the senses. Not an easy book to read in one sitting, but certainly one to return to, enjoying the smooth poetry of the middle sections, discovering dark corners and previously unseen footage.

Yoseloff’s lyrical gift comes to the fore primarily in strong, sensuous poems like ’Tiger‘, ’Vaporetto in Winter’, and the painterly ‘Interior with a Woman Playing the Virginals’. One short poem, 'Spring', is written ‘after Barbara Hepworth’, the talented British sculptor and artist who made her home at St. Ives in Cornwall. In 'Spring', the poet points to the complications of modern life, where ‘We pull strings/taut, construct ourselves, little puzzles’ - which sounds very like her poetry, with its intricately built walls and pyramids of sound and image. They are not forbidding places, though. Tamar Yoseloff is always inviting the reader beyond her artifical constructs into an interior where life continues just out of sight, real and intimate, yet still suggestive of some cinematic mise-en-scene, as here in the final lines of 'St. Ives':

From this window: curtains
partly drawn, the coffee in the mugs
stone cold, the tiny union jack
the only colours in the world.*

This restless connection with the visual - both filmic and from the world of art - is echoed throughout the collection. First, there is Tamar Yoseloff’s ability to pick out all this delicate imagery in painstakingly selected and placed words. Then there’s the matter of her framing references - the titles of these poems - which often reveal her inspirations. In ‘Portrait of a Couple Looking at a Turner Landscape’, she plays with structural echoes as she describes the damp-haired couple who ‘stand, not quite touching’, shifting the left-hand margin to accommodate ‘vast plains of emerald and gold’ in the painting, employing the theatrical aside of parenthesis, her lines held in exquisite tension until the final climactic ‘the sky opens and it pours’.

Elsewhere, a poem called ‘Marks’ gets full ones from me. Reminiscent of Pauline Stainer’s best work, this long sequence glows with medieval-like fragments of spiritual poetry - ‘angel of dust’, ‘the ice breaks/a song in the trees’, ‘Blade of grass through snow’, ‘hieroglyphs/in a field’, ‘a little morse of blood’, ‘delicate crevice of ice’. The entire poem feels modernist in its experimental form, yet almost romantic in tone, her voice ‘just audible/between broken frequencies’.

Tamar Yoseloff manages to yoke both these traditions here, keeping her hands light on the reins. She also writes well of the hard-edged realities of modern life - bus journeys in the dark, the news ‘full of war again’, and impersonal foreign trips, where

He stalks the wilds of the duvet
in this nil-star hotel room,
just a double bed and a bidet.

Then, without losing credibility, she speaks in a more Hughesian tongue of ‘the fox crying to no one,’ ‘the invisible sun within us’, and turns a fairy tale eye on the cautionary poem about ‘Fungi’ with which I began this review:

They poke
their tiny heads through dirt,
explorers from another age, and find
a world glassy with rain, a forest
thick with leaf mulch.

This combination of sharp urban ennui with sensuous lyricism, deployed in a language steeped in rich imagery, makes Tamar Yoseloff a poetic force to be reckoned with. Worth buying if you don't already own it.


Remember, you can invest in poetry by buying Fetch direct from Salt Publishing here.

*Still unable to manage the HTML for inset lines, I'm afraid. This line should start above the last 'f' in coffee.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Inarticulate? Try A Raid on the Thesaurus

It's a difficult thing to say, "Pass the thesaurus." Especially after a few glasses of wine or in the early hours of the morning, hunched over some poem or other which won't come right. But it's not cheating, I'm told, to beat through its thousand-strong pages, looking for le mot juste. Nor am I alone in reaching for it when the dull or pedestrian is all my brain seems able to turn up on its own. Even one of the most word-rich poets of the last century, Sylvia Plath, is said to have regularly relied on her thesaurus for inspiration, needing to access its wide-ranging and eclectic vocabulary when her own was stumbling about in the dark.

I have long been an admirer of the strange and highly involved delights of the thesaurus, my own 1982 paperback copy of Roget's Thesaurus looking a little worn around the edges now, pages browned and fading, curling up in places. It belonged to my mother before me - another thesaurus-beater and a prolific novelist - who has written in a neat hand on the flyleaf:

This book belongs to Sheila Holland and anyone who borrows or steals it will be CURSED. Signed S. Holland

Opposite, underlined in blue pen, is this sinister addition: DO NOT REMOVE FROM MY STUDY!

She knew her children well. Sorry, mother, but my need was greater. And since you are now dead, I have felt able to write my own name on the flyleaf above yours, as the new and probably not so careful owner.

Of course, it's important not to get sucked down into the bewildering nexus of the thesaurus when you're supposed to be writing. You turn to the book briefly to look something up and become horribly sidetracked. All you wanted was a strong Anglo-Saxon or Latinate word for patterned fabric, and suddenly you have a dozen or more, some needing to be looked up, some marvellously antique, not to mention a few which, if used, might lead your poem off into an entirely new and unanticipated direction. And if you're really lucky, one will be perfect and you can close the book and get on with your writing.

It doesn't always work like that, unfortunately. Sometimes I feel impelled to stop and write some of the word sequences down, perhaps to be used later in the same poem, perhaps to jolt my imagination at some point in the future or remind me of avenues not taken, or perhaps because I'm a little odd in my habits: tracery, filigree, gridiron, lattice, fishnet, seine, trawl, plexus, mesh, reticle, bolt, jute, hessian; or simply for the love of these words, the ridiculous sprawling nonsense of language divorced from context, nothing but sounds in the mind and the images they conjure up: gunny, hopsack, sailcloth, candlewick, shalloon, brocatelle, serge, nankeen, fustian, seersucker, and the currently miraculous moleskin (see earlier post on moleskin notebooks and the proliferation of poems).

If, like me, you need to update your thesaurus and access all those juicy new coinages alongside the more traditional words in our ever-expanding language, there's a new 150th Anniversary edition of Roget's Thesaurus available, pictured above.

And if you are currently without thesaurus - and if so, why? - try this instead: Word of the Day.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Writer's Voice by Al Alvarez

I've always believed in the existence of a writer's 'voice', and was frankly amazed when I discovered that many writers don't. It seems a touch perverse to claim there's no such thing, when we all have our little foibles as writers and when it's often possible to spot a writer simply by examining an extract from their work. Some defend their opinion by calling it style instead. The writer's personal style, they insist. Yet what is that if not a 'voice'?

So it was good to find The Writer's Voice by Al Alvarez (Bloomsbury, 2005 edition) on the bookshelf in my local library this week, a book which practically begged me to take it home. 'For a writer, voice is a problem that never lets you go,' it declares succinctly on the inside cover, 'and I have thought about it for as long as I can remember - if for no other reason than that a writer doesn't properly begin until he has a voice of his own.'

Now that's more like it.

The poet, writer and critic Al Alvarez has been around the British literary scene for decades. He was - perhaps most famously - a friend of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath around the time of her tragic suicide, whilst working as poetry editor and critic for the Observer. He wrote an in-depth study of suicide called The Savage God which I have often re-read and taken inspiration from (sounds odd, I know, but just go with it). He also, very kindly, sent me a note when my first collection was published, praising one of my poems, a short piece called 'Sleep', one of those odd poems that arrive fully-formed in your head without you really understanding what it's about. So I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Alvarez.

After a quick flick-through, The Writer's Voice was tucked under my arm and taken home. I read it cover to cover the first night, dropping into bed at 4am with new aphorisms and kernels of literary wisdom detonating in my brain.

This is Alvarez:

On the authentic voice:
'[It] reveals itself in details the eye doesn't easily take in - in some unexpected hesitation or cunning adverb or barely audible inflection that makes you sit up and take notice.'
(Chapter Two, 'Listening', p. 75)

On the legacy of the Beat poets, which is:
'the belief that any old confession or self-revelation is intrinsically artistic because an artist ... is a public personality, a performer whose primary work of art is himself and whose ambition is to make himself known.'
(Chapter Three, 'The Cult of Personality and the Myth of the Artist', p. 107)

On criticism:
'True criticism ... comes without much theoretical baggage and with little to prove. In order to find out what's going on in a work of art, the critic must let go of his own sensibility and immerse himself in that of another writer, without theories and without preconceptions.'
(Chapter One, 'Finding a Voice', p. 10)

Naturally, the three quotations I've chosen highlight literary issues and theories which I already believed in prior to reading The Writer's Voice. So, as far as this particular reader is concerned, Alvarez is preaching to the converted. But I defy anyone, even those opposed to his rather stern views on current poetic practice, to find this book anything but a riveting read. Alvarez has a studied dryness of tone which, coupled with his fascinating anecdotes about the great and good of twentieth century literature, makes this book an absolute delight.

I shall have to return to The Writer's Voice in future blog posts. In particular, perhaps, with reference to that authentic voice which Alvarez describes, knowing it to be difficult at times to adopt, even frightening, but wholly unavoidable if a writer wishes to write genuinely. As he says, 'The authentic voice may not be the one you want to hear', reminding us that 'feelings ... are expressed less in imagery than in movement, in the inner rhythm of the language', which sounds very near to Mina Loy's famous dictum: 'Poetic rhythm, of which we have all heard so much, is the chart of a temperament.'

Having been thoroughly seduced by its easy intelligence and vividly illustrated insights into the 'why' rather than the usual 'how' of poetry, I need to take The Writer's Voice back to the library for others to enjoy, and buy my own copy. That way I can re-read it at leisure, and maybe even pull from it a few of those clever magical objects we all need occasionally in order to keep writing.

And now for something completely pointless

Before we leave the fraught topic of Annie Freud, here's a dainty morsel from You Tube which I found when googling her name in an attempt to discover something beyond the fact that she "works as a teacher and embroiderer" ...

now I know that she too likes Moleskin notebooks.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Writing in Pencil, Writing in Code

I blogged a few weeks back about buying a superb ink pen which I was using for poetry. But all that has changed in the past fortnight, for I have discovered the Moleskin notebook. I'm told many writers have used the moleskin notebook, with its twangy elastic cord for holding in loose pieces of paper or photographs and a discreet little pocket at the back of the book for hiding away love letters, documents or tickets. But I'd never been a convert to the moleskin book until roughly two weeks ago when I was caught short in Costa Coffee at a Birmingham branch of Waterstones - not needing the toilet, but having forgotten my usual notebook! - and was forced to buy a notebook there.

I didn't care for any of the over-priced spiral-bound notebooks they had on display there, with their twirling patterns and bright colours, and decided to spend a few pounds extra on one of the 'famous' moleskin notebooks - as used, apparently, by people like Hemingway and Picasso. That annoying little promotional fact was enough to put me off, but I was surprised by how quickly I fell in love with the brownish-white paper and the feel of the thing in my hand, its simplicity, its sleek black cover.

Now I've found it's actually helping me to write. Since buying the moleskin notebook I've written a poem a day, pencilled out in draft in the notebook, usually out at some noisy cafe or other, then edited and rewritten as I transfer it to the computer at home. Pencil seems so much softer and forgiving than pen when drafting a poem; there's a sense that nothing is final, that the poem is more of a rough artistic sketch than a piece of writing. And after not writing more than one or two poems a month for several years, and before that no poems at all for more than three years, being able to write poetry every single day is miraculous. At least, it feels miraculous, but are the poems I'm writing at such speed now any good?

I've been reading Jacob Polley's new collection of poetry over the past few days, as well as writing these new poems of my own. The book is from Picador. It's called Little Gods and is a truly lovely collection of poems. It never really steps beyond the traditional short lyric, but what it does within those limitations is tremendous.

Re-reading Little Gods in bed this morning, it struck me what a gulf there is between different 'types' of poetry being written today. Yesterday on Raw Light I blogged about Annie Freud's debut collection, The Best Man That Ever Was, also from Picador, and what I'd taken away from it as a reader, in particular the title poem itself. Naturally enough, I made certain assumptions about that poem based on what I had read and was able to understand. I then received an email from Roddy Lumsden late last night, a friend of the poet's, pointing out that the title poem is in fact about Hitler.

(Latest update: I had assumed this meant it must therefore be written in the voice of Eva Braun, as you might expect from a poem about Hitler and a woman, but I now realise that the woman in the poem clearly finishes the relationship with the man in the last stanza, which means she can't be Eva Braun, who dies by his hand. So I'm even more confused now, as I can't imagine how anyone can be expected to know who this poem is about, under these circumstances. Maybe someone with some inside information could explain, since it's been made clear that the background history to this poem is common knowledge, but I'll be damned if I've got a clue what it's about now.)

Reading the poem again with Hitler in mind, I soon saw the hints that I had missed. Too subtle for me, I'm afraid, as someone who has never felt the need to study that topic in depth and whose knowledge of Hitler's love life is strictly limited to what I've seen in the occasional film. But I also saw that my comments on the voice in the poem had been, by and large, accurate and in keeping with the tone of this woman's secret relationship with Hitler. However, I did feel that the subject of the poem was not made at all obvious, either in the title or in the poem itself. No names are mentioned, and although there is a single line in German - not a language I speak - and some mention of 'Party rings', that last reference meant nothing to me and I did not pick up on the significance of other hints dropped along the way.

It seems to me that poetry which deals with a subject taken from public life, rather than the poet's life, especially a subject as fraught with emotionally and politically sensitive baggage as this, but which does not specifically position itself as such for readers who may not know the topic as intimately as the poet, must become a poetry of code. Coded poetry is essentially elitist and thrives on making the clued-up reader feel like they've cracked it, they're 'in the know', and that others out there are still struggling with an impossible riddle - impossible because, unless you have those particular social, cultural or political references hot-wired into your brain, you will never understand the deeper implications of that poem without support or guidance from someone who does.

Reading Jacob Polley's Little Gods this morning, a book I'd like to discuss in greater depth at some point, I realised that I was not having to struggle at any point with obscure or unfamiliar 'popular' references, classical whatnot or political clever-clever, that none of his poems seem to rely on the reader being 'clued up' on any particular topic except the universal one of being alive and knowing how it feels to be alive, fighting against the constant threat of a failure of nerve, waist-deep in the human condition.

It's clear to me that a book of poems - especially from a 'mainstream' press like Picador - needs to work for everyone, or at least for a pretty broad cross-section of readers, not just a small group of people able to decipher the very specific field of coded references within which the poems operate. If it doesn't do this, then it runs the risk of failing as poetry, i.e. something beyond ourselves which we can nevertheless all relate to and identify with. I'm talking in general here, of course, rather than pointing a finger at Annie Freud's debut collection as an obscure book, which it isn't.

But this is a new face, if you like, to the age-old problem of poetry that's too personal to be universal. Aunty May's rambling homage in verse to her dead cat. The poem about the marriage break-up which speaks to no one but the two unfortunate individuals involved. Something I've always loved about more abstract poets like Yves Bonnefoy, for instance, is that their work is purified down to that point of simplicity where the language is transparent, not opaque, and the reference points are those which are universal: water, stone, light, dark, love, death, desire.

So perhaps I missed the point in The Best Man That Ever Was. But I'm not convinced that it's my fault that I missed the point. I was not aware of the details of their relationship mentioned in the poem. I was not aware that Hitler beat his women with birch twigs. I tried googling Hitler - Eva Braun - sadism and turned up nothing but a few thousand porno sites. I tried googling Hitler - Best Man That Ever Was, in case that was a nickname which I should have known, but got nothing of any relevance back.

Perhaps being less deliberately evasive in the text of the poem would have helped me decipher those clues, as someone whose knowledge of Hitler's private life is probably on a level with that of the average British poetry reader. Perhaps a judicious subtitle would have been in order. Or some elucidatory notes at the back of the book.

These things matter. Poetry should not be a code based on a key which is not given, a series of impossible ciphers hidden beneath an apparently innocent text. I accept that some poetry will always be difficult, and that the 'hard' in poetry can sometimes be breathtaking. But it would be even better if the code was universal and needed no key except the general life experience that any reader brings to the poem in question, if the poetry could work on both a 'hard' and 'simple' level at the same time, as it tends to do in those classics that we learnt as children, the poems that last.

It would be interesting to know how many people, picking up that book in Waterstones and reading the title poem, would know instantly what it was about. I certainly didn't, and still didn't even after having read it with some attention. There was failure on my part there, agreed. But it was a failure which was 'set-up' for me in advance by the text itself, a trap of sorts, a test designed to reward the code-breakers and expose the outsider.

I shall be going out later tonight to do a reading at Birmingham University. They have asked me to read some poems and discuss any women who may have influenced me in my writing career, though not necessarily writers. Amongst others, I have chosen my late mother, who was the romantic novelist Charlotte Lamb. Her novels were universal in that they spoke to women in a way that all women could understand, even if some were sceptical of her methods as a writer. She was always at pains to make sure that the average reader would not be put off by her writing, that her prose was as transparent and simple as she could make it, whilst simultaneously describing a highly complicated and painful emotional hinterland, the internal landscape of a woman in love ...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Best Man That Ever Was, a debut poetry collection from Annie Freud

I recently bought The Best Man That Ever Was, Annie Freud's debut poetry collection from Picador, and have been reading it. Reading poetry collections takes time, and I don't imagine that one - or even two - fairly rapid read-throughs is enough for anyone to comment wisely on a poet or their work. But I'm going to attempt to comment to some extent on what I've read, in particular the title poem, and you'll have to forgive any fuzziness now or subsequent shifts in opinion as I come back to the book in the future.

First off, The Best Man That Ever Was is an intelligent collection, darkly humorous, loaded with grand ideas and impressive metaphors, written by a poet with oodles of raw talent and a sure ear.

But there are flaws here, and most of them are connected, in my opinion, to Annie Freud’s decision to sidestep the sticky issue of gender in poetry by writing so frequently over the shoulder of a man (i.e. ‘He’ does this or that, rather than ‘She’) or actually in the first person voice of a man. Which is problematic in itself, because it raises another sticky issue for poets, which is authenticity.

You could argue that it’s in the nature of things for a poet to be a ventriloquist, speaking in the voice of an object or another person, regardless of gender. But you could also argue that when it becomes noticeable it’s no longer in the nature of things, but is a stylistic nervous tic.

Which brings me to the question of style.

‘One of the most startlingly original poets to have emerged in recent years’ declares the Picador-generated blurb on the back cover of this handsome book.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself struck by these - often very witty - poems’ similarity to work by, say, John Stammers, Roddy Lumsden, and other London-based poets tonally influenced by - among others, agreed - the same Frank O'Hara/New York School tradition. There's also more than a touch of well-known American poet Sharon Olds here, with the long, loose-limbed rhythms of some poems and their peculiarly detailed note of intimacy, the psychological touch [though often veering away into a blokeish humour, as though Freud flirts with but doesn't want to get too close to any kind of female love poem tradition, even one as densely textured and metaphysical as Olds'].

This is a poetry with two distinct moods, neither of them unusual in contemporary poetry. It either undulates, like the I Claudius-style snake on the cover, in syllabic-heavy American-influenced lines dripping with semi-colons and subordinate clauses, or trots in sharp urban stanzas like this:

Fucking great to have done my bird
and get the heat of the sun on my neck,
no longer to hear the hooter’s howl
and live in fear of the cunting screws.

Which is where you may spot the problem I mentioned earlier: Annie Freud’s liking for poems written from a man’s point of view.

I can see that writing poetry in the voice of a man can be liberating for a woman, allowing her to say all sorts of things she might feel uncomfortable with as a woman and to use a few techniques native to male poets, like the snide or brutal closing one-liner, blowing right down the British line from Simon Armitage, which makes a frequent appearance in this collection.

It’s a fabulous trick if you’re trying to achieve humour – and these poems can be very funny – but it’s a trick that’s right there on the surface of the work, not concealed by the magician, as here in the final statement of The Maskmaker of Wanstead, its deliberately empty 'You ain't seen nothing yet.'

Authenticity. It’s not so much that we have to consider biography whenever we read, relating each poem back to the poet’s life. It’s more that the poem must seem authentic in the reading, that it must strike the reader as being ‘true’.

Indications for me that a poem is ‘true’ in this sense may include a raised heart beat, a sharp intake of breath, the urge to re-read those particular lines, and a strong desire to instantly rush off and write something myself, because the spark of authenticity ignites something in me as a writer, a sort of internal wick that’s always there, dry tinder, waiting to catch light.

Ambition is another word on the list of things I tend to look for first in a poem, including my own work. I constantly find myself writing unambitious poems, perhaps having been influenced by others in the same tradition to the extent where I don't always notice how a poem is going, the way it's shaping up, until it's too late to do anything about it.

There can be a randomness about this, but I see no other reason for wanting to write poetry than to leave behind work that will last. Anything less and we might as well give up the attempt and work a supermarket check-out. Or write fiction.

Annie Freud's The Best Man That Ever Was announces its ambition up-front with its title. Or does it?

Two things here: ‘best’ and ‘man’, the first being obvious in its claim, the second striking at first glance, gender-wise. But is Freud the ‘best man that ever was’, you may wonder, picking up the book in Waterstones? Or is this the inverse of female poetic ambition, tugging a forelock to the male tradition in the hope that it treats you kindly?

As though to completely throw out of kilter this initial impression, the title poem turns out to be one of the most complex and interesting pieces in the book. Like the collection itself, it plays with the reader, suggesting one interpretation, then unexpectedly revealing another, and yet another. It's also unusual for its content: 'The Best Man That Ever Was' tells the story of a woman who is beaten - or enjoys being beaten - in a ritualistic and theatrical manner by a man in a hotel room. **

Five stanzas of twelve lines, alternate lines slightly indented as though to create a see-sawing, swaying or dancing motion for the eye, each stanza recognisably different in tone. The first two stanzas left me confused, forced to retrace the earlier lines to find the thread I suspected I’d missed.

Having regained some sort of stability in the middle section, I then found the poem pulling me on compulsively to the end, by which time I felt a prurient interest in the interior world of the poem, its hinterland, its past, its truth or otherwise, not to mention intrigued and a little flustered by the content of the poem.

Here's the middle section, the rhythmic core of the poem, with no hesitations and the narrative voice superbly poised:

And having washed and dried his hands with care
and filled our flutes like any ordinary man,
the night's first task would come into his mind.
He'd bark his hoarse articulate command
and down I'd bend across the ornamented desk,
my mouth level with the inkstand's claws,
my cheek flat against the blotter; I'd lift my skirts,
slip down my panties and sob for him
with every blow.

[I can't do the inset for alternate lines here: anyone with the correct HTML please email me!]

I loved this particular stanza, could feel the authenticity zinging off it. Yet after the poem had finished I still felt confused, questioning the logistics of the poem's voice and set-up, like someone who walks out of the cinema after watching a film and feels unable to stop going over and over the plot and its closing moments in her mind. Re-writing, perhaps, or just trying to come to a better understanding.

In this title poem, Freud’s tone - and this applies to many of the longer poems in the book - is beautifully managed and maintained. Like a formal garden. Indeed, there’s something Edwardian about 'The Best Man That Ever Was', its narrative voice old-fashioned in an ironic and highly self-conscious way. We have the stilted self-importance of the wealthy man who beats his mistress (or wife, or prostitute, I’m not quite sure which) with birch twigs in a grand hotel, referring to the birch twigs as -

A Thing of Nature, so he said, so fine, so pure.
He’d turn away and smooth his thinning hair,
lost as he was in some vision of grandeur

- at that moment complementing the tone of the woman being beaten, in other places contrasting with it.

The narrator's voice sounds slightly deranged at the beginning of the poem, off-balance, with truncated clauses cluttering the first stanza. The narrative develops quite suddenly into eloquence after that, imbued with a sense of calm resignation about the woman’s ritual beating and its effect on both of them, Freud’s sentences lengthier and more urbane as the poem reaches its middle section.

Then her manner changes abruptly at the end, becoming Plath-like in its declamatory rhetoric, short clauses falling over themselves to reach the finishing tape, the tone unexpectedly triumphant as she celebrates rather than decries her oppressor/lover:

It’s over. But it is still good to arrive at a fine hotel
and reward the major-domo’s gruff punctilio
with a smile and a tip and let the bellboys slap my arse
and remember him, the man who thrashed me,
fed me, adored me. He was the best man that ever was.
He was my assassin of the world.

I can hear the true voice of the woman here. The throwaway finality of ‘It’s over’, the bite in these shortened syllables, the hint of barely controlled hysteria behind ‘assassin’.

Submission. Domination. The cruel, complicated, often unfathomable mental and sexual games that men and women play together. The see-sawing motion of the alternately indented lines: first one, then another. The dual face of desire. These are the things which inform the title poem.

And perhaps the deliberate textual confusions sprinkled throughout 'The Best Man That Ever Was' - who’s speaking? who is the best man? who’s doing what to whom, and why? - reflect the playful and duplicitous nature of Annie Freud’s first book. Another word to describe this might be artful. Which is to say - authentic, good. Which is to say there may be hope yet for my inadequate reading of this complex, multi-layered, tongue-in-cheek collection, and plenty more for Annie Freud herself.

But I still wish she hadn’t written quite so many poems from the point of view of a man ...

*I had to look up ‘velleity’. It means 1. a low degree of volition not conducive to action, and 2. a slight wish or inclination (Shorter Oxford English). I’m not sure how that fits into its context here.

**I'm grateful to Roddy Lumsden here for letting me know that the man mentioned in this title poem is Hitler. This was not at all clear to me from the title or content, but may be apparent to others. I think, in instances like these where vital contextual material is not immediately obvious in the poem itself, notes should be supplied at the back of the book, or a subtitle given to elucidate the poem. Either that or the poem should be written in such a way that it can stand alone, without notes or subtitles, otherwise alternative readings to the one intended by the poet are inevitable and must be accepted as such.

The Best Man That Ever Was (Picador, 2007), Annie Freud

Monday, June 04, 2007

Too Much Wine & Too Little Money

Too Much Wine, M'Lud

I went to a London party thrown by a poet last night, something I don't think I've ever done before. I anticipated meeting other poets there, as well as 'normal folk' and I was not disappointed. We had the usual smoky delicious offerings from the barbecue, fabulous warm dry weather, and far too much wine - I think everyone who came brought a bottle, including myself, and we did not stint ourselves in the drinking of it. (At least, I certainly didn't, and my fragile head this morning is testimony to that sad lack of forebearance. But I almost never go to parties, so I guess I'm allowed.) And the bulk of the conversations that I rolled into and over were about poetry, poetry publishing and other poets. In reverse order.

It was great fun, though I said some things I shouldn't have said - nothing new there, then! - and ought to have been led gently away by my husband after the first bottle had been consumed. But alas, that didn't happen, and I was only lured away in the end by the promise of chocolate on the long drive home ...

Poetry Book Society & the Rising Cost of Poetry

In a rush of extravagance, I recently re-joined the Poetry Book Society after not having been a member for nearly ten years. Today I received my first posting from them: a Selected by Geoffrey Hill, absolutely free, which was the tempting offer that had encouraged me to re-join, a £10 book voucher to be used when buying more poetry from them in the future, and this quarter's Choice, which is Sarah Maguire's new collection The Pomegranates of Kandahar (Chatto, £9.00), officially published on Thursday June 7th.

The new Maguire book looks intriguing, so I shall be trawling through that later this week (along with a whole deskload of new poetry that I've been buying recently, most of it as cheaply as possible, as poetry is steadily becoming more expensive) and will report back at some point on that acquisition. I shall also enjoy sitting down to admire Hill's Mercian Hymns at leisure, which I've only read in passing before. His Selected is from Penguin and costs £8.99.

But talking of the cost of poetry, at nearly 300 pages, I have to question why Geoffrey Hill's hefty and rather beautifully designed Selected is a penny cheaper than Sarah Maguire's new collection from Chatto, which may also have a beautiful cover but only weighs in at 72 pages.

No doubt it's distasteful of me to question the rising cost of poetry, or to make these potentially odious comparisons between book prices, but as I said to someone at that party last night - on the topic of whether or not it's in bad taste to accept reviewing work if you aren't able to praise the book in question to the skies - I don't have the luxury of being able to ignore such delicate matters and just stump up for the poetry or turn down an offer of paid work, on principle.

I do worry though that poetry is beginning to be priced out of the range of the average reader's pocket (if there is such a thing as an average poetry reader). Popular novels can be found at knockdown prices in supermarkets everywhere, following the demise of the Net Book Agreement, and most new non-fiction can be found online at reasonable prices via Amazon et al. But supermarkets don't stock poetry and if you buy it online at a discount, it usually means either the publisher or the poet is going to suffer for your gain.

As an example of this, the Sarah Maguire 'Choice' from the Poetry Book Society is available currently on Amazon at only £7.20, a saving of 20% on the retail price. And the collection's not even officially out yet! That price will, I'm sure, drop even further once it's been released, and after a few years, like most collections of poetry that have been kicking around the scene for a while, it will be available for only a few pounds at the most. Some poetry collections from earlier than 2000 are now available online for as little as a few pence, plus p&p.

I want to 'do the right thing' in this context and make sure money gets circulated round the poetry scene, which basically means back to the people who wrote the damned stuff in the first place. But with recommended retail prices reaching up to and beyond the £10 mark for most new collections - and often a great deal more for the larger Selected and Collected editions - that desire to do the right thing by poets has to compete with the very real fear of not being able to pay my own household bills if I buy too much undiscounted poetry in any given month.