Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Call of the Running Tide

I'll be heading off cross-country to the annual Aldeburgh Poetry Festival this weekend to listen to a number of talented poets reading their work, talking on panels or leading workshops. This will be my first ever trip into the wilds of Suffolk and I'm not quite sure what to expect. But I imagine it will be both useful and exciting. Particularly since I haven't yet managed to book a room anywhere (prices being a bit too steep for my limited budget) so I'm not sure either where I'll be sleeping! But that edge of uncertainty only lends charm to my little expedition and won't put me off going.

Most importantly perhaps, Aldeburgh is a small town nestled away on the Suffolk coastline, and it's been too long since I last saw the sea. Not quite the dramatic Greek cry of 'Thalassa!' as described by Xenophon ('θαλασσα, θαλασσα' - 'the sea! the sea!') but a rather more domestic longing for the briny waves, as John Masefield wrote here in 'Sea Fever':

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a clear call and a wild call that may not be denied

All those years cast-away on the Isle of Man does make living at the dead-centre of England a little disconcerting at times. Much as my heart is bound to this green and pleasant land, I do love her rough and salty edges best.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Two Thoughts Before Supper

Just briefly, as I am required to slice and fry a large pan of mushrooms in a few moments, here are two things I wanted to add to this blog.

Firstly, I've been researching Geoffrey Hill online today and found an excellent academic website - with comprehensive bibliography, events, archives, essays, links and much more - which features a triptych of poets: Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, and Charles Tomlinson, plus other delights. Find it here.

Also, I received in the post a copy of Linda Cash's brand-new poetry pamphlet, Test Paper, from Templar Poetry.

I was approached to endorse this work some months ago and was happy to do so. Linda Cash is a talented new poet with charm and some memorable phrases: 'you can't unbruise the peach', for instance. Like most new poets, there's still plenty of work to do, but what's been produced so far is promising.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wyatt, Geoffrey Hill, and other acts of coitus with the English language

I struggled out of bed this morning for the last day of the Warwick University conference on Poetry & Philosopy, but it was well worth the struggle. Not only did I meet some very interesting people from different places on the globe, I also listened to three papers on poetry and philosophy, two on Geoffrey Hill (see yesterday's blog entry) and one on a personal favourite of mine amongst English poets, darling Thomas Wyatt (1503 -1542).

I thoroughly enjoyed all these papers, but the most fascinating thing about the first two was probably that the poet under scrutiny, Geoffrey Hill, was himself not only present during their presentation but actually spoke at the end - not in rebuttal of their views, I should add, but as a brisk summation of his poetic aims and philosophies.

For instance, Hill told us how, at the tender age of nine, he had won as a school prize a copy of Palgrave's Golden Treasury, and had promptly fallen in love with poetry and the English language. In roughly that context, he said of his own poetry: 'All my poems are love poems ... either about particular women or about language ... All my poems are acts of coitus with the English language.'

He went on to deny the common view that his work is obscure whilst simultaneously championing the right - or perhaps even duty - of poets not to give in to demands for facile or clichéd writing, claiming that 'It's tyrants who require simple language.' His closing image - that of Thatcher and Blair being made to parade the streets in nothing but pink bathing-suits, presumably as a punishment for the continuing debasement of the English language under their regimes - was pure burlesque.

Then came the paper on Thomas Wyatt, entitled 'Wyatt's Wagers: The Quyete of Mynde & the Failures of Technique', which was a discussion of how Wyatt tried to adopt Plutarch's technique for achieving 'a quiet mind' or equanimity in the face of 'ill chance' - especially in love, perhaps - but failed. At least, that's how I interpreted the paper's basic premise.

The paper was given by Eirik Steinhoff, from the University of Chicago, who built his case around various translations of Plutarch's work by Wyatt, and probably the best-known bitter-sweet Wyatt original, 'They flee from me', which I can't resist reproducing below (with contemporary spelling) for those who don't know it.

I managed to catch Eirik afterwards and ask a few questions of my own - such as why he hadn't featured some of the Petrarchan sonnets translated by Wyatt which seem to me to exemplify that failure to achieve 'quyete of mynde' - for instance the sharp political tension behind his famous sonnet (possibly written for Anne Boleyn) which begins 'Whoso list to hunt'.

Also whether the rather negative-sounding Platonic personification of Love in the Symposium had informed poems such as 'They flee from me', and maybe even provided a prototype for Elizabethan love poetry and its descendants, including the contemporary short lyric poem we all know and attempt not to write.

Enough about that, though. Here's darling Wyatt himself on the subject of love:

They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,
With naked foot stalking in my chamber:
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild, and do not remember,
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be Fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special
In thin array, after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this ?'

It was no dream, for I lay broad awaking:
But all is turned through my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking,
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use new fangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served:
I would fain know what she hath deserved?

Thomas Wyatt (1503 - 1542)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Geoffrey Hill at the Warwick Conference on Poetry & Philosophy

I went to a poetry reading last night at Warwick University, which is currently hosting a splendid Poetry & Philosophy Conference, to hear poets Jorie Graham (US), Robert Bringhurst (Canada) and Geoffrey Hill (GB).

I'm afraid I found it impossible to appreciate the first two poets, whose work passed me by. I am familiar with American poetry - even published some US poets in Blade during the nineties - but have never found much to admire in it, beyond some of Ashbery's wilder flights of fancy and Frank O'Hara's bitter lemons in imaginary trees. So you can imagine my boredom as I struggled to look interested and alert during their lengthy and often overly-complicated poems.

Bless 'em, but they do write long, these Americans and Canadians (the former rather more so than the latter). It's often one unrelenting note and it's held for some five or ten minutes, as though more must always be better. Which of course it isn't. Especially in poetry, home of the pithy and aphoristic, par excellence. Perhaps they didn't get the memo.

Yes, I know how terribly famous and important Graham and Bringhurst are. But there's no point in my pretending to understand or appreciate them, for all that. Luckily for me, no one's going to chop my head off for failing to 'see' the Emperor's New Clothes.

Robert Bringhurst reads in a comical dramatic monotone, growling his vowels into the floorboards until they're almost indecipherable. Though he was deliberately funny in places, which was a relief - that should be noted. I liked him as a person but found his work - well, most of it went over my head, and was probably intended to.

It particularly amused me that he disdains the need for titles, only using them because convention demands it. Poem 1 or 2 as a title is not unusual in transatlantic poetry, of course, following the example of Frank O'Hara & Co., but it's damned hard to refer accurately to an untitled poem. I also imagine that reading a collection of untitled poems must be like living in a house where all the doors are permanently left open.

Bringhurst's only redeeming feature, as regards my own interest in his work, is his taste for linguistics, and his interest in preserving the language and orally passed-down stories of the Navajo. But none of the poems he read seemed to communicate that to me with any effectiveness, sadly.

Jorie Graham, on the other hand, failed to interest me for other reasons. She intones her poems like a somnambulant reading from a shopping list. Her delivery seems utterly emotionless and without change of tone or register. Yet her high seriousness as a poet is beyond doubt.

She talked, both before and after her reading, at great length and with passion on the subject of how she writes poetry and what special techniques she uses in poems and why. One phrase, for instance, was like a 'cantilever' along the 'axis' of the poem. She thinks deeply about such things as politics and poetry as communication, she would like us to know.

As if to emphasise this point, the first poem she read was entitled 'Guantanamo Bay'. She described this poem beforehand as 'an exploded haiku'. It then seemed to go on for some four or five minutes. Clearly, she used too much semtex.

But then at last, ah joy. Some poetry I could sit up straight for and understand. The senior English poet Geoffrey Hill came to the podium - with the aid of a walking stick - and read with both a formidable energy and a political urgency that kept the room silent throughout.

Geoffrey Hill is now in his mid-seventies. He answered questions about his poetry after the reading with great mental acuity and an abrasiveness that sat well against Jorie Graham's homely anecdotes about reading poetry around the US after the tragedy of 9-11.

I found his poems hard, but never boring. I identified with them even when I didn't entirely understand them. I was left wanting to read them myself in private so that I could rectify that.

I particularly approved of how Geoffrey Hill anchors his apparently 'obscure' poetry in the stuff of everyday life - his family history, memories of home, landscapes, observed character, English history (poems about the English civil war, in particular, as well as his perhaps best-known sequence, 'Mercian Hymns'). The edges of his poems are hard and well-wrought, and they speak of his personality rather than any special technique which is too much on the surface.

I think perhaps that's where I found myself unable to listen to the other two poets with any attachment, not being able to fathom what I interpreted as a lack of personal engagement with their own poems. That is, they were engaged with them, but in a cerebral way, not a personal intimate way, and so I felt at a distance from them, and emotionally unengaged. I suppose that also explains why I felt politically unengaged.

Yet, during the Q&A session afterwards, Geoffrey Hill claimed not to write personal poems, or at least not to write poems that attempt to communicate anything. Frankly, I think that's a front of some kind. A defence. His poems do strive to communicate, even when written in code and hedged about with prickles - perhaps especially then. They communicate a vulnerability, I think, which is there to be understood if you are on the same wavelength. They also celebrate humanity, without that fact needing to be flagged up.

He did back down on that point later, following Jorie Graham's 'helpful' interruption about poems used in the aftermath of 9-11. But I would have liked to hear more about Geoffrey Hill's ideas on poetry and communication, especially as he had been about to expand on a quotation from Walt Whitman on that subject.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fashionable Poems

In a spin-off from talks on the Poets on Fire forum recently, I wanted to write something briefly here about fashions in poetry. I mean mainstream poetry in general (since I have precious little experience of other sorts) where fashions often seem to dictate the entire tone of a collection or a magazine.

It's hard to pinpoint what I mean by a 'fashionable' poem. Reading an individual collection, you can feel you're in the presence of a real poem, but then maybe you spot another one close-by that's uncannily similar in style or even content, and you start feeling uncomfortable. I wish I could remember Joe Dunthorne's hilarious performance poem - using a whiteboard presentation - which details the various elements of 'fashionable' poems. Highly tongue-in-cheek, but too close to the truth to be dismissed as a joke.

We all know the particular tricks you can use to make sure your poem sounds like a poem: a sententious title, references to age-old 'poetic' themes or objects (I think Dunthorne suggests water or the sea, or maybe even the stars, as ideal for this purpose), and a neat aphoristic ending - usually two or possibly three lines - in which you explain the moral of the poem, and end on a memorable image. And all this in fewer than 40 lines, in order to qualify for entry to most poetry competitions.

If you can turn 'em out like that, time and again, you're practically guaranteed publication in most small poetry magazines. Higher up the career ladder, these techniques are still in place but have become more sophisticated, disguised as knowing eloquence.

These basic techniques stem, I suspect, from the late mediaeval short lyric as made famous in this country by the likes of Petrarch via Thomas Wyatt, those beautiful love songs of the Tudor poets, with the lyrical line stretching right into this new century. But what was once fresh and exciting is now in danger of sounding jaded in all but the most skilled and experienced hands.

Yet still we cling on to the old ways. There was a brief flurry of activity a few years back, with suggestions of a return to popularity for the epic form. The modern age favours the sound-bite, however, not the epic. I myself love epic narrative poetry, but even so I tend to prefer it broken up in some way into more easily digestible segments: the poem sequence, for instance.

Of course, I'm not immune to these problems of acceptable 'fashions' choking our poetry at birth. I too find pleasure in the short telling lyric. And have suffered for it, feeling lost at times, unsure whether a poem has really come from me or from some sort of vast poem-bank in the contemporary psyche.

The awareness of an accepted and fashionable way to write poetry may make things easier for beginning poets, but once you start looking for your own 'theme', those same methods act as an obstruction to your thought processes. And when that happens, you have to start 'unlearning' those traditional techniques and questioning every choice you make, none of which is conducive to writing freely and with passion.

To some poets, of course, such techniques are the life-blood of their work. And done well, they can be hugely effective. But I'm getting bored with them in my own poems. What next, though? Where do you go after you leave fashion behind? To the dole-queue or somewhere more interesting and - hopefully - worthwhile?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New Warwick Laureate Blog

This is just to let you know I've launched yet another blog onto the poetry blogosphere - this time to cover my activities and official duties as Poet Laureate for Warwick.

I'll put the link into my sidebar list soon, but for now, here's a link to that brand-new blog, along with this hilarious photo of myself looking all laurel-wreathed, beflowered and glowing at the recent launch of the Warwick Words Festival:

If you run a blog or any other site which might find this Poet Laureate business interesting, I'd very grateful if you could link to the new site from your own. See if we can't notch up a few hundred visitors!

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Act of Making

There's been some ping-ponging discussion online in recent days about 'the act of making', thanks to a post on poet George Szirtes' blog where he's been responding to a controversial essay serialised in Poetry Review. The essay in question is by poet and Picador editor Don Paterson and is called 'The Lyric Principle'. Basically, it discusses how poetry is written, not so much in practical terms as in terms of our initial inspiration and the deep well-springs of the craft.

One of George's main objections - and I hope I'm not misrepresenting him here - is that he feels Don's attitude towards the craft to be too 'mysterious' and more like that of a high priest at times than a practising poet. I know exactly what he means by that, but at the same time, I don't see that it's such a bad thing to import a little more spiritualism and mystery into poetry in an age where poetry is being constantly sold to workshoppers as little more than a hobby or some sort of do-it-yourself therapeutic aid.

George Szirtes' excellent and discursive writing blog can be found here, along with links to other fascinating responses by bloggers and forumers to both his comments and the original essay by Don Paterson.

Thanks to Angela France for bringing this to my attention, by the way, via the Poets On Fire forum where she has been inviting others to comment on this too. You can view that topic as a non-member, but you do have to be a member of the forum to comment on it. (However, it only takes a few minutes to apply to join. Theoretically!)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Salt Blog, with a link to one of my new poems

My publishers, Salt, now have their own special blog for all matters saline. My recent appointment to the Warwick Laureateship made the Salt Confidential blog the other day, so if you're interested in the latest updates on independent poetry publishing, why not leap over there and check out some of their blog entries?

The link to that particular Salt Confidential entry is here and is especially interesting because it features one of the poems which won me the Laureateship, 'Troika', which also happens to be the opening poem in my 'Camper Van Blues' sequence.

My third collection is due out from Salt next summer.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Environmental Action Blog Day: Flood at Boscastle

Last week I signed up to the Blog Action Day campaign, where registered bloggers post something about the environment today, October 15th. Being busy as usual, I didn't feel able to work up some lengthy discussion about how I feel about the environment. But I am able to post up this poem, which came out of an environmental disaster that took place a few years ago, the devastating and wholly unexpected floods at Boscastle, Cornwall.

As a former resident of Boscastle - we moved the summer before the flood - whose teenage daughters both worked in the Spinning Wheel Restaurant, which was absolutely gutted and destroyed by the flood-waters, I was naturally keen to put something down on paper about the disaster. The poem below, 'Flood at Boscastle', is what emerged, and was published last year in the Poetry Society magazine, Poetry Review.

The small town of Boscastle is awash - if you'll pardon the expression - with shops connected to New Age spirituality, divination and witchcraft, possibly because of a long-standing connection between the village and the occult, and not least because of the presence of the world-famous Museum of Witchcraft, situated in the town along the river bank itself. So it seems a little ironic, in the light of these factors, that nobody saw this disaster coming!

My poem does not knock New Age spirituality per se, but it does, I feel, point out that some matters can still be adequately dealt with by using what some might refer to as 'natural magic', also known as common or folk lore, rather than all the expensive and overly-sophisticated paraphernalia associated with the modern craft.


Ten steps down, through Sargasso weeds
green as the felt walls
of a fish tank, is a door
through which only haruspices may pass, bearded
and with credit cards,
to buy sacred books
and strange instruments for scrying
so they might peer inside
the living heart
and say which house survives,
which doesn’t.

Portal invulnerable, they cry,
to the left-hand of the rising river,
thy charmed walls shall not be blowholes
for the unclenched well of the waters,
no spiraculum mirabile
breathing mud into the underworld.

Later, stripped to the waist, men dig
blackened books
from the whale ribs of a cottage,
then stamp up through mud
to the Cobweb
for a finger or two of whisky,
predicting more rain
on the print of a wetted thumb.

First published in Poetry Review

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Writing Poetry: Addiction or Affliction?

I just came across this recent article in the Independent on Sunday, where Sean O'Brien, winner of this year's Forward Prize for Best New Collection, apparently warns new writers that poetry is an 'affliction' and 'no way to make a living'.

Whilst not entirely disagreeing with Sean O'Brien, I have to admit that this attitude reminds me of my mother - herself a best-selling novelist worldwide - who used to warn me away from a career in writing, helpfully pointing out waitressing or shelf-stacking jobs in the local paper instead. 'Less precarious an existence,' she would say, and she was absolutely right, of course.

Writing, for the vast majority of practitioners, is an extremely precarious existence. You have no money to speak of, no friends because you're always banging away at a keyboard, no spouse because you aren't much of a marriage prospect or else they've left you for someone more attentive, no kids (or kids who view your work with loathing because it seems more important to you than they are), and - which is perhaps worst of all - the constant soul-grinding awareness that none of it is going to matter, that the work you leave behind will be forgotten sooner than you are. Sadly though, none of this makes any difference when some people choose whether or not to be - or continue to be - a poet.

For some writers, the prospect or reality of poverty, divorce, loneliness, the contempt of others, children who claim you were 'never there for them', all of the terrible accompanying conditions of the average poet's life, pale into insignifance when faced with a blank sheet of paper. For those, writing poetry will always be more of an addiction than an affliction. Those who are dilettantes can always escape, change their minds, get out while they still can. For the rest, escape has never been an option.

Of course, there must be poets out there who keep their spouses and children, earn a reasonable wage or are supported by someone else, and stay happy. Smile if that sounds like your life.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

My Year Ahead

I can still remember, back in the mid-late nineties, when I first started to write poetry 'seriously', how surreal and yet wonderful it was to open a newspaper and find a picture of myself staring back. First they were interested because of my snooker career, then it was about my early successes as a poet. But after a few years in the public eye, as my writing steadied and my life became less exciting and turbulent, media interest began to flag.

Now I've been appointed Warwick Poet Laureate and the local newspapers are back again in force, calling round to take my picture - alas, sporting a rather thicker waistline than in the nineties! - and asking the usual flurry of questions: what sort of poems do I write? what am I planning to do with my Laureate year? how does an ex-snooker player break into the poetry business?

It's hard to answer the first question. I write the poems that come into my head. They tend, I suppose, to deal with the mythic in some way. Rural poems, yes. But urban ones too (after all, though I've spent most of my life living in the wilds, I'm now settled in a town). And when it comes to writing about family and personal relationships, those things appear in my poems when necessary and not otherwise. I do love my husband and five children, but I'm a little too headstrong and eccentric to be truly domesticated. Which always makes for a good excuse when the dinner is burnt ...

What am I planning to do with 2007-08, the year of my Warwick Laureateship? This is a far more interesting question and one I've already been mulling over. There are some official meetings to be attended and arts people to consult before I can be more specific about the future, but basically, there are plans afoot to make this year a truly memorable one for poetry in and around Warwick.

To give you a little more detail on that, I'll be starting a special Laureate Blog at some point in the near future, to keep the online poetry presence strong in Warwick. Then there are some special readings and workshops to be arranged, perhaps some trips into schools at some point, the odd radio interview, and maybe a poetry 'drop' of the kind instigated by Helen Yendall, the previous Laureate. I'd also like to draw the poetry world's attention to the excellent Warwick Words Festival - more on that later.

And on a personal note, since my own interests and obsessions as a poet do gravitate towards English folklore and heritage, and Warwickshire is a rich and splendid county as far as such things are concerned, local folklore and history will undoubtedly inform my own writing. So there may even be a sequence of Laureate-related poems emerging from this year's work, perhaps to be published in a special collection, if that seems like the right thing to do at the end of the year.

And that last question, about my disreputable past as a snooker player and how it translates into being a poet? Well, as in so many things in life, you just have to keep your eye on the ball and follow through ...

Monday, October 08, 2007

Ancient Greek Examination this week

Yes, the time has come to put away my Ancient Greek books and face the dreaded examination. It's on Wednesday morning and will be three hours long. It's my second Greek exam, being the finale of my second year of Greek with the Open University, and this year consists of prepared passages from Plato's Symposium (for comprehension and essays), an unseen translation, and the most appalling thing anyone doing this subject could ever imagine: a dastardly Ancient Greek grammar section, which should take about 45 minutes to complete.

You'll forgive me, then, if this post is a little short, but I have only a day and a half left for revision, and still haven't covered the Middle and Passive, nor have I even so much as glanced at noun declensions.

Silent scream!

N.B. For those interested in such things, here's a link to my rather irregular blog on studying Ancient Greek.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Warwick Poet Laureate!

Tonight I was crowned - literally, with a laurel wreath! - Poet Laureate for Warwick, at the launch ceremony for the 2007 Warwick Words Festival. Much wine was consumed and a few poems were recited to a crowd of Warwick Festival Friends and local dignitaries. The two runners-up were Catherine Whittaker from Claverdon and Lucy Aphramor from Kenilworth, both of whom were there at the launch to read their poems.

To celebrate such a momentous evening, I had this 'official' photograph taken, and may even, at some point in the future, swop it for the rather sardonic one currently presiding over this blog. Though since I strongly prefer sardonic to matronly, that may never happen.

One of my duties as Warwick Poet Laureate - it's an annual post - will be to 'blog' about my activities as the year progresses. I've yet to decide whether that would happen here on Raw Light or whether a separate Laureate blog is in order. Knowing my love of 'new' blogs, I imagine it will be the latter, but I'll have to consult on that - and a suitable title for the blog! - with my new colleagues at Warwick Words before anything is finalised.

Warwick Words Festival 2007 has now started in earnest and will be running over this weekend, with places still available at a few readings and workshops etc. There are also some open mic sessions and a Slam!

For full details and to book, visit

Happy National Poetry Day 2007, and congratulations to Sean O'Brien, Daljit Nagra and Alice Oswald for their well-deserved wins in the Forward Prizes - just announced!