Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rain and Ruin: a critique of my Wife's Lament

Many thanks to David Lumsden who has posted up an excellent critique of my 'compressed' version of The Wife's Lament on his blog, Sparks from Stones.

Monday, April 28, 2008

'Night Blue Fruit' on the Guardian Unlimited

Some years ago, I first came into contact with performance poetry at a Coventry 'open mic' night called Night Blue Fruit. It took place monthly at a venue called the Tin Angel on Medieval Spon Street, a tiny, smoky and disreputable bar on a street corner, where members of the public wandered in and out at intervals, gloriously inebriated but happy to listen to a poem or two. (Or not happy, in which case they would be cheerfully ushered out again.)

While we read our poems to a crowded room, in would stagger women on hen nights doing the conga, pub-crawlers, drunken revellers in various states of undress, bearded ancient mariners, lovelorn musicians, poet-environmentalists with bodhrans.

It was not unknown for such visitors to suddenly declare they loved me while I was in the middle of a poem; once, a very drunk woman offered to kiss me and take me home. She was removed shortly afterwards.

As a homage to this marvellous and carnivalesque place, this haven for poets and performers of all kinds, I rushed home one night in a daze of enthusiasm and wrote a long poem in bouncing Skeltonics entitled "Night Blue Fruit at the Tin Angel".

I loved writing it and I loved performing it even more, especially on home ground. The roar of applause the poem received at its virgin reading at the Tin Angel is indescribable. For some months it adorned the walls there, parts of it were used on posters advertising the event, and it was even published in the local lit-mag, Avocado, which was often distributed at the open mic.

And now it's Poem of the Week on the Guardian Unlimited book blogs, courtesy of poet Carol Rumens. This is what she had to say today about the poem, and also about my new version of 'The Wanderer':

- 'While less coarse and explicit than the tale of the malodorous ale-wife that inspired it, "Night Blue Fruit at the Tin Angel" still has plenty of verbal punch. Skelton probably owed his style to mediaeval Latin poetry, but his work also recalls the vitality of Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter. The latter is clearly a fruitful influence for Holland. Her forthcoming collection, Camper Van Blues (to be published by Salt in October) has as its centre-piece a strong, female-perspective version of the Old English poem, "The Wanderer." The versification is musical, the occasional alliteration delicately shaded in. It never sounds forced.' -

Carol Rumens on the Guardian book blogs' Poem of the Week (April 28th 2008)

Night Blue Fruit is sadly no longer at the Tin Angel, but at the Liquid Cafe Bar in the City Arcade, Coventry. It's on this Thursday evening from 8pm, in fact, for those interested in a superb and intimate night of live poetry, spoken word and occasionally music.

Here's the original 'Night Blue Fruit at the Tin Angel' post, where I discuss the actual writing of the poem, and its inspiration.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Bone Dreams

I'm very excited to be off to the Bone Dreams Conference in Oxford tomorrow, which will look at connections between Anglo-Saxon culture, language and literature and the 'modern imagination' - encompassing films, novels, poetry and even comic-books.

To honour this occasion, and because it saves me having to write some well thought-out blog piece for Raw Light, I'm leaving you with this little poem from my last poetry collection, Boudicca & Co (Salt, 2006). It's a version from the Anglo-Saxon poem known to us as The Wife's Lament - though 'wif' in Old English means woman as much as wife, so that title may be a little misleading.

The original poem is far longer than my version, and far more complicated in terms of narrative structure and point of view. That's why this is a version rather than a truncated translation. It's 'inspired by' the original, to be accurate, though some of these lines and images do come directly from the Anglo-Saxon text.

Note: The line at the break, 'Wherever he is', should actually be indented, with no stanza break, the capital W falling just past the end of the sentence above. But it's a bit of a faff, doing the HTML formatting, so I'll just leave it to your imagination to see the line properly.

The Wife's Lament
a version from the Anglo-Saxon

I don’t belong here, alone in the dark
under these cruel hills. Briars pull
at my clothes where I lie
under an oak all night long, and still
he does not come. Light
burns my feet, so I walk, walk,
walk under this oak, through these caves
of earth, older than grief.

Wherever he is,
on the other side of the world perhaps,
lost in ruins under the rain,
he may be calling my name too. Light
falls more sharply where he is.
My lord, my prince, here I must sit
all summer long under this oak,
deep in the earth, rocking with grief.
My sweet, I know you would come
if you could. They broke us apart;
that’s why, under this dark hood, I weep.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Horizon: the editor's blog

Since it's some months until the first issue of Horizon Review- due out this September - I thought it might be nice to keep people up-to-date with how the magazine is shaping up.

To that end, Chris Hamilton-Emery at Salt Publishing has created an editor's blog for me which I'll be hoping to update as regularly as possible.

I'll still be posting here on my personal writing blog, no worries there!

But if you're interested in the ins-and-outs of what it's like, putting together and launching a new online lit-mag, the editor's blog at Horizon Review might be worth the occasional look.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Horizon Review

I was recently offered and accepted the editorship of Horizon Review, a new online literary magazine coming out of Salt Publishing. The first issue is due to be launched in September and my inbox at Salt is now open for email submissions.

Some of you may know that I edited a poetry magazine called Blade back in the nineties. Needless to say, I'm really excited to be back at the helm of a literary magazine again!

You can visit Horizon Review online to read about my plans for the magazine, look up submissions rules and guidance, and find out more about Salt Publishing. Please note though, if you are thinking of submitting work for the magazine, that all submissions must go through my Horizon email address, which you can find on the Salt website.

From the Horizon Review pages ...

The name of this new magazine, Horizon, was also the name of a groundbreaking literary review edited by Cyril Connolly back in the 1940s. I've always been fascinated by the history of literary reviews, the 'little' magazines; such ephemeral things - yet charged with astonishing intensity and potential to create change ...

Horizon Review publishes poetry, short stories, essays, articles and reviews on contemporary literature and art. The magazine appears twice yearly.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Postscript to Epic Poems (& 'The Lyric Principle')

While tidying my study yesterday - yes, the annual clean-out has finally occurred - I found a note I'd made and lost some months ago of a superb quotation from 'On Poetry and Poets', a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot.

The quotation I'd noted down is from 'The Music of Poetry' (see how closely Paterson follows in the great man's footsteps?) and is relevant to me in connection with my last few posts on Alice Oswald and the writing of a long poem and on the structure of three modern epic poems. The following should serve rather well as a postscript to those entries:

'It would be a mistake, however, to assume that all poetry ought to be melodious, or that melody is more than one of the components of the music of words. Some poetry is meant to be sung; most poetry, in modern times, is meant to be spoken – and there are many other things to be spoken of besides the murmur of innumerable bees or the moan of doves in immemorial elms. Dissonance, even cacophony, has its place: just as, in a poem of any length, there must be transitions between passages of greater and less intensity, to give a rhythm of fluctuating emotion essential to the musical structure of the whole; and the passages of less intensity will be, in relation to the level on which the total poem operates, prosaic – so that, in the sense implied by that context, it may be said that no poet can write a poem of amplitude unless he is a master of the prosaic.'

Plus, the footnote accompanying that last point:

'This is the complementary doctrine to that of the 'touchstone' line or passage of Matthew Arnold: this test of the greatness of a poet is the way he writes his less intense, but structurally vital, matter.'

Now, you have to admire Eliot's mastery of prose - let alone the prosaic - in the passage I've just quoted. For a start, it's highly Latinate, in a way we rarely see anymore, not merely in his word selection, but more interestingly in his sentence structure, with its elegant asides, caveats and micro-clauses. But beyond that, his ability to make good solid sense, even with all that scaffolding in place, is what allows his criticism to stand out from other twentieth-century critics and to continue in its relevance to poets today.

This, of course, is the crux of that whole passage, at least for the purposes of my own earlier discussions on the writing of long or epic poems: in a poem of any length, there must be transitions between passages of greater and less intensity, to give a rhythm of fluctuating emotion essential to the musical structure of the whole ...

This seems to indicate that epic poetry follows the same pattern as other works of literature of any length - i.e. novels, theatrical dramas, screenplays - and that this is done, not simply to accommodate Eliot's nod to musical rhythm, though that is hugely important in the overall scheme, but also for our comfort as readers/listeners. Unending conflict and other excitements begin to be unpleasant, and eventually ludicrous, if suffered at length. (You often see impossibly manic sequences in comic films, for instance, to great effect.) So in a longer poem, a poet needs the quieter movements to recover from and prepare for the heights.

Assuming you have any heights, that is ...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Notes on Three Epic Poems

This is in response to a request made on the last blog post for me to expand on some ideas I've had about the structure and composition of long poems, largely with reference to a piece of scrap paper on which I scribbled a few notes the other week. So, as you can imagine, there may need to be a little creative 'filling in' of the blanks if I'm to construct a coherent argument from my scrap.

I'm not sure if T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets can be categorised as an 'epic' poem, but I'm going to consider it as such for the purposes of this post. The other two long poems under discussion here are Alice Oswald's Dart and Christopher Logue's War Music.

Each of the highlighted links above will take you to a site where you can read an extract from the work in question; in T.S. Eliot's case, you can listen to a recording as well. The Dart link also gives some interesting information on the genesis and researching of the poem.

Back to my scrap of paper. Basically, I am in the process of writing a long poem on Warwick Castle, and although I've actually begun writing it in 'note form', I am still not sure how the finished piece will be constructed. Though each day that passes brings me nearer to deciding that.

One day, I began wondering how other poets had gone about constructing their long poems, and naturally enough reached for the nearest scrap of paper so I could begin making some notes.

My apologies to any academics who have come to this blog hoping for erudite insights into the construction of epics, but my mind works in a fairly haphazard and approximate manner when thinking about poetry. Such inaccuracies are vital, of course, because they allow me room to breathe, creatively speaking.

Here is what I wrote:


continuous structure (i.e. one discrete poem)

non-linear narrative

fluid interweaving of times, places & historical periods

many voices: rarely the poet's own; marginal notes to indicate change of speaker

similar rhythms & line lengths throughout, with occasional shifts for light and shade, and to develop 'characters'; extended lyric approaching the fluidity of music - or water


War Music

divided into books or sections, based on the original (but one poem thematically)

straight linear narrative, with asides

'authorial voice' - not the poet's own. Also reported speech and dramatised mini-scenes/sequences

alternating rhythms, loose pentameter, close to speech patterns, exclamatory, staggered lines, more like dramatic verse than extended lyric


Four Quartets

4 poems in 5 sections each

interweaving of times and places, historical events

poet's own voice, also instances of reported speech or allusions to other poets and writings

stable base rhythm & line length with serial departures; free verse skirting iambics and dactylics, alternating movements to achieve balance, short with long, an attempt at music

What I drew from the loose threads and observations above - not looking at the actual poems behind them but recollecting them as best I could, so I apologise for any mistakes - was a far stronger sense of what it entails to write long. It also allowed me to see, if not how I should go about it, at least how I shouldn't.

For instance, I had originally thought of emulating the very clear-cut structure of Four Quartets. But in the process of exploring these other options, I realised how unsuited that would be to my own poem, and perhaps to my personality. Such a defined form would eventually feel like a straitjacket. I was also aware that the publishing history behind these four poems didn't fit my vision for the Warwick Castle poem, which will be considerably shorter and less suited to being written in 'sections'.

Similarly, while the dynamic power and dramatic range of War Music were very tempting, Logue's style wasn't quite right for me. The publishing in 'sections' business was out, and I love a broad canvas, but perhaps not that broad.

So the short straw fell to Dart, in the end. However, there were still doubts. Was this more fluid, all-of-a-piece, poem really the way to go? What if I began that way and found I couldn't sustain the poem without a more defined narrative structure to hang my poetry on?

In my frustration, I began wondering whether it might not be simpler just to combine the best elements of all three, but couldn't see how to do that without creating a sort of Frankenstein's monster of a poem.

Perhaps a long poem was simply beyond my scope, anyway; I might end up writing the first fifty lines and run out of bottle.

I wasn't really sure which way I was going to swing until the other day when I started looking again at notes taken during an interview at the Aldeburgh Festival, where Alice Oswald - an inveterate country walker, especially at night - had advocated the use of 'field notes'. Which was, I suddenly realised, precisely what I'd been doing as I began to write my own long poem.

Almost by instinct, I hadn't launched in there with a definite form or structure or even voice in mind, but had come at it sideways, employing a more fluid and ad hoc approach ... that of taking 'field notes' towards the eventual poem. And perhaps the poem will end up being the field notes, nothing more.

NB. POSTSCRIPT to this entry available here.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Notes on a Long Poem

The River Dart

I was at a 'live' interview with the poet Alice Oswald at last year's Aldeburgh Festival, where she was discussing her inspiration and writing methods.

For those who don't yet know her work, she has published three books of poetry and edited a recent anthology entitled The Thunder Mutters: 101 Poems about the Planet. However, to my mind, her most ambitious and achieved work to date is her book-length poem 'Dart', which is about the River Dart in Devon and those who live and work along its banks or on the water itself.

During the Q & A session at the end, I asked Alice Oswald how she had managed to keep the feel or pulse of such a long poem constant during the writing of 'Dart'.

She replied that 'the poem evolved as I evolved', adding that the poem changed moods just as the river did, not fixed in one particular form or mood, but remaining fluid during the writing process.

Fascinatingly, this idea of the river enjoying thought and a sort of human personality tied in well with her later observations that the river itself was 'an eye by day, looking out, reflecting back' but by night, 'almost like a mind'.

Later Oswald had this to say about the connection between the rhythm of a poem and the poet's thought processes: 'It's hard when writing not to allow rhythm to boss you about. Writing is a sort of destructive activity; it crystallises your thoughts.'

She then described the particular writing habits she has developed which allow her to avoid that locking-in of the poem as it's being written. For problems of self-limitation Oswald advocates: 'Blind field note-taking. Just jot down whatever you're thinking, feeling. It holds a record of the place that you can have access to later.'

Now, some of you will be aware that I recently committed to a lengthy new project myself, a long poem - or possibly a sequence of poems instead, if I bottle the epic narrative - on Warwick Castle through the ages.

Hence the blog post title 'Notes on a Long Poem.' Though it could as easily read 'Notes Towards a Long Poem' or even 'A Long Poem Composed Entirely of Notes'. Because that's how it's being written. As a series of field notes - not in prose, but odd lines of poetry or little runs of lines of poetry, along with multiple squiggles and arrows - taken down at the time of visiting Warwick Castle or in the immediate aftermath of visits.

Not in conscious imitation of Oswald, of course, because it was only after I'd made several days' worth of notes that I recalled her comments at Aldeburgh, but as a rough-and-ready, stop-gap method of getting the words down, any words down, that would prevent the essence of what I wanted to realise on the page from getting away from me.

I can't say if the method will be successful, since that won't become clear for some months, perhaps even years, but certainly instead of a strong visceral reaction to the genius loci, and a vision on the air as I walked up through the portcullis gate into the inner courtyard, I have page after page of notes towards a poem, or poetic notes, or a poem in note-form.

No doubt as I begin to unravel them, invent or work out the connections, smooth over rough patches and bring them nearer to a 'finished' form, I'll discover whether this truly is the groundwork for a long poem, or merely another sequence.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Oxford Sunday Times Literary Festival, & other delights

Apologies for being so silent this week. I've been very much occupied with non-internet business, including a few days away from home at the Oxford Literary Festival.

I had a great time in Oxford and am still recovering somewhat. I stayed one night in Christ Church itself, which is a beautiful and stately - though rather sinisterly imposing - college. I had the devil's own job getting through the gate on arrival, security there being tighter than at Buckingham Palace. But their cooked breakfast was good!

On the Festival front, I attended several live literature events around the town, including an important ClimateX collaboration with poetry performers from Hammer & Tongue. The night before that, I witnessed the best live act I've ever seen: the magnificent Chloe Poems, whose powerful delivery and emotional range I cannot praise highly enough. (This interview does not do her justice as an artist.)

Later I had the amused pleasure of listening to three Grumpy Old Men read their poetry, i.e. Tom 'Troubles' Paulin, Jamie McKendrick and the admittedly not grumpy but rather lovely Bernard O'Donoghue. A very different act to that of Chloe Poems!

Plus, I spent many happy hours bent over books in the Radcliffe Camera, researching an article I'm writing for PN Review on the relevance of Old English to the world of contemporary poetry.

On returning home, I found sick children and a sudden inspection of our rented house pending. Since I'm the sort who likes to hang up her clothes on the floor, this last has proved particularly wearing on the soul.

I also had to go straight back out again that night to hear Mario Petrucci read in Coventry, a poet I've known since we met on an Arvon course in 1995, when we were both still unpublished. A few of us went for a curry afterwards in a backstreet balti house, which worked out at roughly a fiver per head. Astonishing value, and a fabulous poetry evening to boot.

No time to relax though once this dreaded inspection is over. I'm now reviewing another book for the excellent Tower Poetry, plus a few more for Poetry Review, and I still have a novel to finish this summer.

Not that I'm complaining, not a bit of it. As the lovely Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson) says in Almost Famous: 'It's all happening!'

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