Sunday, March 30, 2008

Binsey Poplars: Gerard Manley Hopkins

I was leafing through some of Gerard Manley Hopkins' journal entries tonight and felt a little stab of nostalgia at one point, where he describes walking 'at S. Hinksey' on the outskirts of Oxford, when he was an undergraduate at Balliol. This is South Hinksey, a village not far from where I used to live in North Hinksey, on the far western outskirts of Oxford.

Hinksey is a flood-plain area, a fact which keeps it green and quietly wooded, in spite of its proximity to the A34 Ring Road; while a resident, I spent many happy hours walking the damp fields and scrubby hills there with my crazy dog. "The Name Hinksey is Anglo-Saxon, dating from the thirteenth century. It probably derives from Hengestesieg meaning Hengist’s Island or Stallion’s Island," the local website tells me.

My eye then fell on the following poem, Binsey Poplars, one of Hopkins' most famous ecological pieces and particularly relevant in this century as we struggle to undo past - and ongoing - damage to nature before it's too late.

Binsey is another village on the north-western boundary of Oxford, not far from where I lived back in 2000. The name, I discover, possibly derives from 'Byni's island', in the nearby Thames. The land there first belonged to St Frideswide's Priory and later Christ Church (whose meadow Hopkins also mentions in his diary).

I can't reproduce the beautiful left-hand margin insets without great difficulty, but hopefully the words will be enough on their own.

Binsey Poplars
(Felled 1879)

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled ,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
Áll félled, félled, are áll félled;
Of a fresh & following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack & rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To tóuch, her béing só slénder,
That, like this sleek & seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Strange Likeness

A short period of illness can be useful for a writer, forming a firebreak between stretches of intense mental activity; not so much scorched earth as a fertile space where new ideas can spring up, free from other influences.

So my brief spell in bed most of Easter and into this week has been useful for that reason, and also as physical downtime, good for recharging the batteries, or refilling the well, however you want to see it.

Filled with new energy, I took myself into Oxford today and renewed my Bodleian card in order to read this book, which I couldn't afford to buy and which is simply not available through the usual library channels.

It was a worthwhile trip. Not only did I manage some research into the impact of Old English on modern poetry - my pet project this spring - but a few phrases in Chris Jones' magnificent Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry struck hard, in particular when touching on Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns, and left me far more sure of my direction as I begin work on my own extended poem/poem sequence inspired by Warwick Castle:

The present book's title comes from the twenty-ninth of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns, a sequence of poems that dissolves historical linearity to superimpose glimpsed shards of the reign of Offa ... with fragmentary images of the twentieth-century Midlands, a mosaic of the familiar and the unfamiliar which prompts the speaker in the hymn to comment: 'Not strangeness, but strange likeness.'

Now playing: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark - Souvenir
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

McDonald's 'Death of the Critic'

Many thanks to Ms. Baroque over on the Baroque in Hackney blog for bringing a review to my attention that was published on March 12th on the TLS online. The review was of Rónán McDonald's 'The Death of the Critic' (160pp. Continuum. £14.99 ISBN: 978 0 82649 279 1) and makes fascinating reading. Or rather, the book under review looks as though it will make fascinating reading.

My particular fascination is that, discussing the history of literary criticism in the early-mid twentieth century, McDonald apparently gives us 'good reasons for the status of its leading figures, such as T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, Lionel Trilling and the New Critics, and he invites us to find insights rather than delusions. “These critics are still paraded before each generation of university students as ideologically befuddled, or reactionary bogeymen.” '

I have long been excited by twentieth century literary criticism - I apologise for any yawns induced by that statement - and can't wait to get hold of The Death of the Critic to learn more about the ones I haven't yet read widely, and hopefully to find suggestions for our own way ahead, as twenty-first century critics and readers of criticism. Perhaps this might be a good time for me to earmark some time to blog about the critics I've really enjoyed reading and learnt from - including some I've already mentioned on Raw Light, like TS Eliot - and discuss some of their ideas and theories in greater depth.

For instance, many people don't realise that Ted Hughes, in addition to his controversial book on Shakespeare and the Goddess, also has a small body of literary criticism - in the form of articles, reviews, lectures, letters etc. - some of which will knock your socks off. More anon.

You can get hold of McDonald's 'The Death of the Critic' in hardback on A paperback edition is due out in October 2008.

Monday, March 17, 2008

David Caddy on "Tom Raworth & Comedy"

David Caddy's latest podcast "So Here We Are, 11" is an exploration of comedy in the life and work of experimental poet Tom Raworth:

"in essence the poetic equivalent of Spike Milligan"

"at the centre of the Renaissance in English poetry in the 1960s"

"[Tom Raworth] belongs to that tradition of English poets that are essentially and necessarily internationalist"

"My experience of listening to Ace and Writing and other poems read at Birkbeck College, London in May 2003, was not unlike listening to The Goons."

Listen to it here. The full text is available at David Caddy's blog, under Letter 11.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Lazy weekend here. Not yet ready to start on the Warwick Castle poems - it's all still brewing internally - and only engaged in research on some other projects, plus a little translation work.

So instead of wittering on about nothing much, or posting up yet another ancient poem from the Holland archives, I thought I'd treat you to a BLAST.

"Blast was the quintessential modernist little magazine. Founded by Wyndham Lewis, with the assistance of Ezra Pound, it ran for just two issues, published in 1914 and 1915. The First World War killed it, along with some of its key contributors. Its purpose was to promote a new movement in literature and visual art, christened Vorticism by Pound and Lewis."

Watch out for the copyright laws disclaimer.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

More Dispatches from the Poetry Wars

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Poetry Wars I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More of this later.

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

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Unlocking the Bodleian

"The largest single cash donation ever made to a university library in the UK has been given to the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Julian Blackwell has donated £5m towards the redevelopment of the New Bodleian Library in Oxford City centre. The renovation will transform the housing of the Bodleian’s priceless collections and will open up its treasures to the public. The 10,000 square feet main hall of the redeveloped New Bodleian Library will be named Blackwell Hall in honour of Julian Blackwell."

-- March 7th, OULS announcement

A fascinating story, this. Julian Blackwell's five million pound donation will provide public access to what is probably the single most important treasure house of academic learning in the world. So is this unprecedented move really what it seems, or will access to the majority of those books still be reserved for those in possession of an official Reader's card?

Visit the Oxford University Library Services website for the full story, or the BBC news site.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Left to mature for a decade


The Language of Desire

When their faces took her
into that swimming heat,
it was all iron and alcohol.

The first step crushed her.

The second step woke her.

The third step came over

like a wave on the shore,
beating its silvery tongue
against her lungs, filling her
with the ache of recognition.

She was a catamaran,
arching her delicate blues
into the hull of an ocean.

The sea stumbled
and parted, floating her fine net
like a windsail before it.


This short poem, with one minor revision, comes directly from my lost poem sequence Umbra.

It was first published in Steven Waling's now defunct poetry magazine Brando's Hat in the spring of 1998 - i.e. ten years ago! - under the title 'When their faces took her'.

The only reason this poem survived the loss of the physical manuscript is because 'Brando's Hat' is now fully accessible online, so I was able to retrieve five poems from that source. The rest - some 30-odd poems - appear to be lost forever.

It will appear under this new title, 'The Language of Desire', in my third collection, Camper Van Blues, due out from Salt Publishing later this year.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Light & Shade

Tonight I attended a lively poetry night in Coventry at the Liquid Cafe Bar. Colin Dick, local artist and poet, was one of the readers, even though he's now experiencing serious problems with mobility. Jane Commane read too, graduate of the Warwick Creative Writing Programme and heavily involved in Heaventree Press in Coventry; she was also MCing the event in Jon Morley's absence. Various other local writers came to the mic. Myself included.

It was a good evening. The next one is being held on April 3rd, when Mario Petrucci will be the guest reader.

Then, on my way home, luckily only a mile or so from my house, my car abruptly and spectacularly died.

The exhaust started smoking as I left Coventry; twenty minutes later, there was a strong smell of burning, steam billowing about the car. Then the engine died as I slowed for a corner and wouldn't restart for a few minutes.

I had driven maybe another hundred yards when the needle spiked dramatically into the red. The stench of burning was incredible, steam pouring from under the bonnet and out of the exhaust. It was after midnight by then. I pulled onto a rough track and rang my husband, who turned up some fifteen minutes later armed with oil, water, a tow-rope.

Turns out the head gasket had blown, there was a leak somewhere and the cooling system was completely empty. And the car had only been back on the road for six weeks after a spell of some five months on SORN, due to too-expensive repairs to the exhaust and the heater matrix. So once again, Jane is without wheels.

However, checking my emails when I finally stumbled in, I discovered that a piece of short fiction I wrote for the US market a few years ago had been shortlisted for some American fiction award in 2007. It didn't win, unfortunately, but it's always nice to know you were shortlisted for some prize or other. Something nice and something nasty to round off a complicated week.

Looks like the kids and I will be walking to school for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Forward Book of Poetry 2008

In his foreword to the Forward Book of Poetry 2008, Chair of the judges, Michael Symmons Roberts, describes the anthology as 'a snapshot of this year's poetry'.

But what sort of snapshot is it? Certainly not 'Six Young Men', but the more typical contemporary assortment of styles, themes and voices, jostling for space in a book running to some 150 pages. And is it possible to pick out predominant or repeated themes over this extended body of poetry? Michael Symmons Roberts mentions 'water', and that's easily confirmed at a glance. But what of styles, forms and themes as opposed to pure content?

I see, in the foreground of this snapshot anthology, two things: firstly, a preference for narrative rather than simple lyricism, closely followed by a tendency towards elegy, in tone as much as actual content.

We may have safely entered the twenty-first century, but we are still in the noughties, the uncomfortable era of zero, in an age where we still have two rather than one to contend with. The noughties would appear to be an occasion for story-telling, to look back at the past, attempting to celebrate, lament or understand it. And as we near the teens, we'll be increasingly under pressure to look ahead rather than back, to break established ties with the poetry of the last century (indeed, the last millennium) and forge new themes, new poetries.

But for now, in this see-saw between nothing and something, our keywords appear to be nostalgia and, perhaps not so surprisingly, conservatism.

For those who missed the memo, the poets shortlisted for the last Forward Prizes Best Collection were Eavan Boland, John Burnside, Luke Kennard, Jack Mapanje, Sean O'Brien (eventual winner, with The Drowned Book), and Adam Thorpe. Best First Collection shortlist consisted of: Joanna Boulter, Melanie Challenger, Daljit Nagra (eventual winner, with Look We Have Coming to Dover), and Eleanor Rees.

The Best Individual Poem was won by Alice Oswald with her beautiful and epic 'Dunt', a poem for a nearly dried-up river. The other shortlisted poets in that category were: David Harsent, Lorraine Mariner, Carole Satyamurti, Myra Schneider, and Jean Sprackland.

Obviously, I can't possibly discuss all these poets, nor the extensive list of commended poems. Nor am I interested in discussing the winners in particular (I've already covered The Drowned Book on this blog, reviewed Daljit's debut in last summer's Poetry Review, and consider 'Dunt' to be one of the most important single poems of this century so far). Instead, I'm going to focus on those highlights which tap into my own thoughts and prejudices about contemporary poetry.

Going back to my observations on narrative, elegy and nostalgic conservatism as keynotes of these Forward Prizes, how do two new(ish) poets, Luke Kennard and Eleanor Rees, fit into that?

At first glance, they don't appear to, except perhaps for the category of narrative. Kennard is adventurous, nonsensical and entertaining, Rees is hard-edged and pithy: in this short selection, Kennard writes about ... well, your guess is as good as mine ... while Rees creates a quasi-mythological landscape where terrible things happen to passive, indifferent women. And in this selection at least, both poets lean towards the story-telling element of poetry.

Luke Kennard's work though does demonstrate conservative tendencies too - if you take conservative here in its associated meaning of controlled and limited; his frivolity appears excessive at first, but it's not the emotional excess of a Ginsberg, howling and letting it all 'hang out'. It reminds me in places of some of TS Eliot's playful non-sequiturs (c.f. 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree' from Eliot, versus Kennard's 'May I never have to bury another leopard' in a list-style poem called 'The Journalist's Prayer'). His poetry mocks serious intent with delightful frothy nonsense, and not even the 'nonsense' we're used to from the likes of Ashbery and Prynne - it lacks that complex allusive density and air of academic pretension. Rather, Luke Kennard is a dazzling young descendant of Frank O'Hara, out to lunch with Ionesco and other proponents of the Absurd, and unlikely to be footing the bill.

Yet despite his emphasis on the poem as sleight-of-hand entertainment, a political agenda is not entirely missing from Kennard's work. One of the two poems reproduced in the Forward anthology is a lengthy poem about a murderer, split into five page-long sections. This being a Luke Kennard poem, of course - he's almost a brand now, you notice - we're not in Carol Ann Duffy's intense 'Psychopath' territory here. Instead, the concept of the murderer is mocked, as are our knee-jerk reactions to the word, and indeed to the poem qua poem:

I take the murderer for coffee.
'Make sure you don't murder your coffee!'
I joke. He likes my jokes.

Later I swing a plank into his face:
This is to stop him enjoying himself –
Which is integral to the rehabilitation process.

His mouth trickles blood like a tap quarter-turned.
He likes my analogies. 'Hey, Murderer!'
I yell, 'Murdered anyone recently?'

and so on.

This poem develops into a filmic narrative, with the narrator as slightly barmy social commentator, a sinister and uneasy note behind all the jokes. See his full collection from Salt, The Harbour Beyond the Movie, for more of the same. The fractured nature of such narratives, their slippery subtexts and unfunny frivolity, may perfectly capture a certain disturbing note in the Zeitgeist, but is it poetry?

Or rather, since definitions of poetry are no longer definitive and such questions no longer applicable in the minds of most readers, is this the kind of poetry we want to take us forward into the twenty-first century, already war-scarred and in danger of planetary meltdown? Answers on a Martian.

Eleanor Rees' work feels far more like the model the 'reader on the street' - if there were such a thing - would be accustomed to associating with the word 'poetry'. The two selections here from her Salt-published Andraste's Hair demonstrate a lyrical gift that aims to be sparing and allusive, making the most of silence and the white spaces of the page, and in these two poems at least, her intent has a high seriousness. (This is not necessarily a good thing either; I'm merely noting it as I go along.) These two pieces also feel very carefully written, everything controlled, the poem balanced in both hands like a bowl brimming with milk that mustn't on any account be spilt: again, conservative.

If you know Yves Bonnefoy's work, Eleanor Rees - a Liverpudlian - seems to be coming from that rather interesting side of the lyrical tradition, which also shares some territory with Basil Bunting: although potentially an urban poetry, markers that might designate a poem as urban are carefully sidestepped or disguised here, with 'natural' objects taking precedence over the man-made, creating a quasi-mythological feeling of timelessness:

An open moon; burr of grass.
Last reaches of the split day
ending, the last
quiet pitch heard
in deep woods. Wet sod of dirt.
Scent of the sun's fire
passing field ruts and furrows,
seedlings, coiled roots, hedgerows;
flight of night-bird
turning tail into a sea breeze
beak battened to the north.

This poem, entitled Night Vision, has an elegiac tinge to it ('where are your bones, baby? Where are your bones?') and a deeply apocalyptic view of the cityscape (reminding me in places of Jacob Polley's powerful urban imagery) as here, in the closing lines of the poem:

Back alleys of the city burn.
Night boils outside the window.
The streets smoulder as the morning comes.

In terms of narrative technique, there are connections to be made here between Eleanor Rees' poetry and that of Alice Oswald's 'Dunt' - not least in terms of their similarly daring use of white space, hard to reproduce on a blog (particularly in poems from Oswald's last collection 'Woods Etc'). The longer quotation above from Rees' Night Vision displays a desire to get away from 'everyday' conventions of language and to be filmic instead: short bursts of language, concentrated, often lacking definite and indefinite articles, a narrative made up of mini-scenes, mostly uncommented-upon snapshots.

For comparison - though I originally said I wouldn't discuss it! - here is a similar technique at work in Oswald's 'Dunt':

Little hobbling tripping of a nearly dried-up river
not really moving through the fields
having had the gleam taken out of it
to the point where it resembles twilight.
Little grumbling shivering last-ditch attempt at a river
more nettles than water. Try again.

If 'Dunt' is an environmentalist's dream poem, recounting the tenacity and sheer persistence of nature attempting to revive and heal itself even when it appears that all hope must be lost, Rees' title poem for her first collection, 'Andraste's Hair', featured in the anthology, is a complex and unyielding narrative on the fractured relationships between people within a community, and between nature and that community: a woman's hair is burnt in a wood by three unspecified people; she does not struggle; the next day, a plait of hair is lying on a woman's bed, shorn; she carries it through the woods to the river; a boy cries some time later, hearing a song in the woods.

I have a few personal theories about such stylistic and thematic tendencies in current poetry - theories which will no doubt become altered as time passes. Urban and rural traditions within British society are changing and blurring all the time. We can't rely on them anymore for guidance and reassurance. We can no longer second-guess what the future holds by studying the past. The planet is in danger; ergo, we are in danger.

In the Forward anthology, poets like Oswald, Kennard and Rees seem to be presenting us with their own individually-conceived pictures of life in the twenty-first century rather than an overt message: a series of images, in fact, behaving much like a reel of film. This filmic poetry looks to the past for perspective but can't hold onto it; some of it looks to the future but can't envisage it. Or perhaps dare not. It regrets. It alludes. It entertains. It even confronts, at times, and in its own way.

But does it exude intimacy and passion, the sort of poetry we might - for instance - associate with some of the great political poets of the twentieth century, such as WB Yeats or Allen Ginsberg? Does it need to possess those traits or is it time to leave rawness and strength of feeling behind? Most importantly, does it engage?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

TS Eliot: On Influence & the Tyranny of Readers

In discussion with Roddy Lumsden after an ecopoetry debate last week, I put forward the hope that my new book of poetry represented a new direction for me. Roddy, with his usual cynicism, responded that poets often think their latest books represent new directions, when they rarely do.

Looking at my manuscript of Camper Van Blues again in the light of this conversation, I couldn't manage to divide my poetry from my personal desire to move on, and so was unable to reach a decision on the question.

Having to face the possibility that my wish to grow and develop as a poet, although powerful and sincerely felt in itself, might not be enough to make it actually happen, made me turn for comfort and guidance to that old stalwart in my life: literary criticism.

TS Eliot, writing on 'Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry', tells us:

"When a poet alters or develops, many of his admirers are sure to drop off. Any poet, if he is to survive as a writer beyond his twenty-fifth year, must alter; he must seek new literary influences; he will have different emotions to express. This is disconcerting to that public which likes a poet to spin his whole work out of the feelings of his youth; which likes to be able to open a new volume of his poems with the assurance that they will be able to approach it exactly as they approached the preceding."

So, if we accept Roddy Lumsden's comment at face value, and take it on board alongside TS Eliot's above, this suggests a certain poetic complicity at work.

If development has stalled at a particular point in a poet's career, has the poet failed to move on because of some inherent limitation, or are they afraid to move on stylistically in case their readers - editors being among the first and most influential of those - refuse to go with them?

The full text of TS Eliot's 'Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry' is available as a free e-book at Project Gutenberg.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Brendan Kennelly: On Poetic Influence

I was at a poetry reading the other night, where a talented friend of mine read some brand-new poems, most of them still only halfway to their final destination.

But one of the phrases in one of these poems made me look up at him suddenly, having heard amidst the ongoing construction work, clear as a church bell across still fields, a snatch of true 'finished' poetry.

Afterwards I went up to my friend and told him how particularly achieved I thought that piece. Rifling through his sheaf of papers, he found the poem in question and handed it to me. To my frustration, it was laid out in incomprehensible fits and starts: here one word, there a brief stanza, great acres of white space, a solitary ampersand below, another couple of words far out to the right margin, all in lower case.

I asked what on earth he was about, laying out the poem like that, and he began to tell me, with great shining enthusiasm, of the avant-garde poets he'd been reading and how important he now realised it was to get the poem's spacing right for the rhythm.

I wanted to punch him.


The marvellous Brendan Kennelly, in an essay on Derek Mahon's Humane Perspective (collected in Journey to Joy: Selected Prose, Bloodaxe 1994, p. 129), has this to say about influence:

'There is an influence that is bad, a bad influence. It is born out of unquestioning adulation and encouraged by undiscriminating indifference. Such admiration is no good to anyone. It is rarely a helpful source of imitation. There is an influence that is half-way there, sloppily absorbed and turgidly reproduced. In such instances, the imagination becomes a gaping mouth. This influence is lazy. Periodicals and magazines are full of it. I think it is a peculiar poison of much Celtic Twilight poetry, for example, the fleas that Yeats talks about. And then there's an influence that is worthwhile. Plutarch on Shakespeare; Shakespeare on Shakespeare; Ibsen on Joyce; Blake on Yeats; Hazlitt on Keats; Godwin on Shelley; everybody on Eliot; these are examples of fully absorbed influences which are inseparable from growth. People often talk disparagingly about influence but it should not be so, because any true original is derivative. He is derivative from himself through others. He willingly submits himself to certain instinctively chosen influences until he emerges into himself. The thing is to see where the derivative self ends and the new original self begins.'

My italics.

I wish I had written the above; I have certainly thought it often enough, or something very like it, and to find my own feelings echoed in a book by a poet I know and greatly admire is a wonderful thing.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

David Morley's Online Workshop

I was very saddened recently to learn that David Morley - see my blog review of his 'Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing' below - has been struck down with Type 1 Diabetes. However, with fighting spirit, he will still be hosting the Guardian's online workshop this month, which you can find here.

There's also another review - rather lengthier than mine! - of his book, amongst several others on creative writing, by Jeremy Treglown, which first appeared in the Financial Times on January 19th 2008 and which David has quoted on his Warwick University blog this week.