Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Paths of Survival, by Josephine Balmer.

Continuing the experiment;  celebrations of books I enjoy or admire as I read them. This one is very good, very enjoyable, and very worth reading. Clicking on the link below will take you to my web site and an extended bout of enthusing about the book....

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Jonathan Culler, Colin Simms, and celebrating poets.

In his 'Theory of the Lyric' (2015), a book which deserves adjectives like 'monumental' or 'magisterial',  Jonathan Culler drifts across an unexpected argument. Without explicitly saying so, he suggests that the minority status of poetry might well be the result of academic approaches to it. This is perhaps ironic coming from the academic critic who many years ago defined a competent reader as someone who had been trained to read literature as literature and to produce academically respectable, critical responses to poetry. He suggests it might be better for the health of poetry, if instead of always assuming a poem is something that HAS to be interpreted, we might consider a poem as something to be used, the way we use songs.

Pace Mr. Culler, whose book, incidentally, is well worth reading,  there are people who do 'use' poems the way they use songs: memorise them, quote from them, use them to say things more eloquently than they would manage in their own words. I do it on a daily basis without any kind of shame or angst.  However, it's not an approach that has ever been seen to have any kind of critical validity. We learn to read poems and 'read' and 'analyse' or 'read' and 'interpret' are treated as synonyms. We also learn to read in a critical culture where negativity, and suspicion are the dominant norms and finding fault the default, rewarded manoeuvre. The idiotic and deliberately offensive trashing of Anhaga in text is a fine example of a wannabe critic trying to be clever at the expense of a book he didn't bother to read. You can tick off all his appropriate attitudes as he flaunts them. But you won't learn anything about my book.

So as an experiment, I'm going to post on the website blog,,  celebrations of books I enjoy or admire as I read them. They won't be formal reviews.

Poets need patrons and publishers and partisans so there's a value in celebrating other writer works, if only the value of acknowledge the pleasure their writing provides. At some stage I'll tidy up and transfer some of the enthusiasms from this blog too.

The First book I want to celebrate is Colin Simms' Goshawk poems.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

I first heard his poetry, rather than read it, in the 1970s, on a crackling record.  He was reading with Allen Ginsberg and others. Ginsberg did a theatrical performance of 'The city of Yes and the City of No". I've forgotten the actress who read it,  but she gave an electric performance of 'Monologue of a Broadway Actress'. Which doesn't look much on the page:

Said an actress from Broadway
time had pillaged like Troy:
'There are simply no more roles.
No role to extract from me all my tears,
no role to turn me inside out.
From this life, really,
one must flee to the desert.
There are simply no roles any more!
Broadway blazes
like a hot computer
but, believe me, there’s no role-
not one role
amidst hundreds of parts.
Honestly, we are drowning in rolelessness...
Where are the great writers! Where?
The poor classics have broken out in sweat,
like a team of tumblers whose act is too long,
but what do they know
about Hiroshima,
about the murder of the Six Million,
about all our pain? !
Is it really all so inexpressible?
Not one role!
It’s like being without a compass.
You know how dreadful the world is
when it builds up inside you,
builds up and builds up,
and there’s absolutely no way out for it.
Oh yes,
there are road companies.
For that matter,
there are TV serials.
But the roles have been removed.
They put you off with bit parts.
I drink. Oh, I know it’s weak of me,
but what can you do, when there are no more people,
no more roles?
Somewhere a worker is drinking,
from a glass opaque with greasy fingerprints.
He has no role!
And a farmer is drinking,
bellowing like a mule because he’s impotent:
he has no role!
A sixteen-year old child
is stabbed with a switchblade by his friends
because they have nothing better to do...
There are no roles!
Without some sort of role, life
is simply slow rot.
In the womb, we are all geniuses.
But potential geniuses become idiots
without a role to play.
Without demanding anyone’s blood,
I do demand a role! '

Translated by John Updike with Albert C. Todd 

One of the strangest and most enjoyable nights of my teaching career involved taking a group of high school students, none of whom spoke Russian, to see Yevtushenko give a reading in Brisbane, of all places. He was mesmeric. 

Roy Risher, who sadly died recently, described a Russian Poet performing in his poem Bureau de Change.  It evokes my memory of seeing Yevtushenko.

That done, the amiable man beside me, appearing
fatigued beyond ever standing upright again,
murmurs his thanks then rises without effort
into an altered state, discernibly magnified
in voice and in spirit, head thrown back,
calling out his poems in their own language and
filing the hall with the cry of a cantor, a triumphant pleading.

If those were English words the sounds we're hearing
would need to be a thousand years old. 
(Roy Fisher, Bureau De Change)

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tom Pickard's Winter Migrants. Carcanet (2016)

Tom Pickard’s Winter Migrants. Carcanet (2016)

This isn’t a review: I want to celebrate this book because it is the most enjoyable new poetry I’ve read in a long time.

My test of a slim poetry book (78 pages) by a single author is can I live with it for a week? Can I read and then reread and not feel the urge to read anything else. And then if I put it aside and come back to it, does it still hold my attention? Most modern single author collections of poetry fail this test, miserably.

I bought Winter Migrants as soon as it was published and I’ve been rereading it ever since. In terms of my test it’s an excellent book.

It’s split into three parts: two sequences: Lark and Merlin, and from Fiends Fell Journal and a third section made up of individual poems.

Pickard’s poetry has almost always been the record of one intelligence moving through time and recording what he encounters in precise language.

a wren
perched on a hawthorn
low enough to skip the scalping winds,

sang a scalpel song.    

This first poem from Lark and Merlin is a good example of an elegantly spare, stripped-down or stripped back poetic. It belongs to what Donald Davie once celebrated as ‘a poetry of right naming’. The poet works to find the best word to describe the world he lives through.

When Alice complained to Humpty Dumpty that he was making the words do too much work, he boasted that he paid them extra for their efforts when they turned up on a Saturday for their wages. Presumably there's a small queue at Pickard's on a Saturday and he is also paying them overtime.

While I was rereading Winter Migrants I was also reading Baker’s The Peregrine. Both books have the same detailed observation of movement and light, landscapes and their wild inhabitants. Ruskin would have approved of both writers’ honest attention to detail. However, while Baker’s prose overloads the reader, Pickard’s poems have the advantage that everything unnecessary has been left out. What I envy most is his ability to capture the effects wind has and describe its movement over a landscape. In this he’s as good if not better than Ruskin at his best, though he also has the added advantage of brevity. 

Sometimes minimalism doesn’t leave much for the reader to do except admire the poet’s skill. The Sequence solves this problem. Lark and Merlin might be a record of a relationship. There’s a she/you and an I. But the subject is absent. There’s no biographical context (factual or fictional) to distract from the poems. And I don’t understand how this works, but the absence of the subject creates the space which holds the sequence together.

It also allows for the complexities of shifting power within a relationship, the confusion as well as the celebrations:

She asked about my heart,
Its evasive flight;
but can I trust her with its secrets?

and does the merlin, in fast pursuit of its prey,
tell the fleeing lark it is enamoured of its song?

or the singing lark turn tail
and fly into the falcon’s talons?

Fiends Fell Journal mixes prose with poetry. The blurb describes it as a Haibun, but the alternation of Prose and Verse you find in medieval Welsh and Irish texts feels more appropriate to the wild landscape. It is the record of an intelligence moving through that landscape and taking careful note of everything seen, felt and heard. It might sound like a strange compliment, but it’s a very honest poetry and prose which doesn’t fudge itself by pretending to ‘poetic thoughts’. It would be easy to do the prose badly as poetic pose but he avoids this.

The final section of the book contains an assortment of poems on a range of subjects and in a range of styles, from the effective satire of ‘Whining while dining oot’ which puts the boot into a certain type of regional poet, to lamenting a death, ‘Squire’; to expressions of frustration with his contemporaries, the marvellous ‘To Goad My Friggin Peers’.

At the end the book returns to the sparser tone of its beginning with ‘At the Estuary’ and ‘Winter Migrants’ both short sequences.

Nothing I’ve just written does real justice to the pleasure of reading Winter Migrants. Which is really what makes Pickard stand out. He’s very very good, but he’s also entertaining and thought provoking, and enjoyable.

He reminds me what poetry was probably like before it was turned into a ‘pedant’s game’: it was worth reading.

(And as a PS. As someone who has often grumbled about the absurdity of blurbs on poetry books, the paragraph on the back of this one is a model of how a poetry book could be treated.)


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and 'Goodbye to All That'

In the light of Graves' War Poetry (See previous blog post).

 George Simmers, in his excellent Great War Fiction Blog, discusses Siegfried Sassoon's running commentary on Goodbye to All That which Sassoon had drawn pasted and written in his own copy. Sassoon, to use English Understatement, was not that particular book's biggest fan. The link below takes you to the blog. There is also a link in his post to the TLS article Simmers is discussing.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Tom Pickard interviewed by Poetry London

TP: All my creative life I’ve been cutting back to make the work as spare as that landscape. There’s a great pleasure in being able to create something from nothing, or apparently nothing. When snowed-up for six weeks at a time you learn a lot about yourself and your environment. I love that sense of emptiness, like when the tide’s out in an estuary, a world that contains everything and nothing at the same time. I’m happiest working on those very tight, short pieces – to pare back to almost nothing and still remain with something.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Robert Graves, War Poems, edited by Charles Mundye, Seren 2016

Robert Graves, War Poems, edited by Charles Mundye Seren 2016

With the centenary of the First World War comes an inevitable reappraisal of the poets of that conflict. Graves’ position as a war poet has always been tenuous. Although Goodbye to All That may be one of the indispensable prose works about the war, Graves’ poems written during the war have never had many advocates, even amongst those who admire his later poetry. It’s difficult to disagree with Douglas Day’s assessment. The chapter in Swifter than Reason which discusses the poems printed here is called ‘Juvenilia and the War’ and ends: ‘If Graves’ poetry of this period suffers from the inevitable naiveté and enthusiasm of youthfulness, it is also hindered by being attached to a worn-out tradition’.  

Mundye is well aware of the criticisms. If he doesn’t meet them head on, he argues a case for the poet and his poems:

The poems themselves are expressive of contradiction, often resolute, fearful, absurd, ironic, knowing, ignorant, and elegiac in isolation and combination. Graves gives us reassurance and terror; friendship, murder, and slaughter; graphic realism and escapist fantasy, and more and more the sense of any simple division between such categories collapse, as they slowly bleed into each other in intensifying and metapmorphosing nightmare (p.45).  

This collection brings together, for the first time in one edition, all the poems Graves wrote during the war and then those he wrote about the war in the course of his long writing life. In doing so it gives a reader the chance to see those poems as a coherent whole. Throughout his long career Graves was a great reviser and deleter of his own poems.  Mundye prints them in their original form.

The book probably isn’t going to elevate Graves into the canonical ranks of ‘War Poets’ but at least it becomes obvious why that’s not going to happen. The poems record the collision between a young man whose upbringing had not prepared him in any way and the experience of that first fully mechanised war. Geoffrey Hill, in one of his Oxford lectures has described the error of taking highly eloquent personal testimony and generalising from it. But in Graves’ case, it is difficult not see him as a representative of a public school generation who went from games and prep and worrying about the legitimacy of same sex friendships to finding themselves as junior officers in the trenches leading men much older and with much more varied experiences.

Read in sequence the first three collections, ‘Over the Brazier’, ‘Fairies and Fusiliers’, and the hitherto unpublished ‘The Patchwork Flag’ are far more disturbing than the more well- known poetry. They are the work of a painfully young man. By all accounts, his own and successive biographers, Graves was an awkward, unhappy school boy who didn’t fit in at Charterhouse school. If the public school system was there to provide the empire with manly stalwart chaps, Graves’ was a flawed product. Like many of his class and generation he went straight from school to the army and joined up just before his 19th birthday. He was (prematurely as it turned out) declared dead on his 21st. Mundye gives the biographical information though without the details of the intense complexities of Graves’ adolescence.

Some of the poems printed in ‘Over the brazier’ were written while he was still at Charterhouse school. They read like school boy poems. Edward Marsh, who Graves was introduced to by George Mallory, himself an unhappy presence at Charterhouse, said they read like poems from the 1860s. When Graves went to France he took the everyman Keats with him. Some of the poems in ‘Over the Brazier” were written in that book and the malign influence of Keats is evident in some of the poems.

In ‘The Dying Knight and the Fauns’, which Mundye suggests was written about 1910,  the poet sees the dying knight:

Where the weary woods were sighing
With the rustle of the birches
With the quiver of the larches…

It’s formally good but the adjectives and adverbs are as heavy handed as the sentiment, as in Jolly Yellow moon with its refrain:

And the jolly yellow moon doth shine.

It took Graves a while to get rid of the oh gosh and golly how lovely diction. But at the same time, Graves’ technical control is there from very early on. Fairies and Fusiliers performs a strange split: literally poems about Fusiliers and poems about Fairies. Presumably Graves expected his fellow officers to read his poems. Sassoon wanted more Fusiliers and less Fairies. He accused him of not feeling deeply enough. But I think in this Sassoon was wrong.

For Graves menace is never a character off stage waiting to make an entrance. The enemy in the trench on the other side of no man’s land is not as dangerous as having to live with yourself in a dug out. Menace is woven into everything. As Kersnowski demonstrates in The Early Poetry of Robert Graves, it tends to ripple through everything. By the time he wrote Poetic Unreason in the 1920s,   Graves came to see that meeting that menace and dealing with the trauma it caused was the therapeutic function of poetry for the poet. 

Mundye’s introduction is good at identifying what is unique to Graves.  The first poem in Over the Brazier, ‘The Poet in the Nursery’, describes a child pulling down a book of nursery rhymes and becoming obsessed by them. At the same time as the immature Graves pads his lines with unnecessary adverbs and adjectives and inverts word order, some of the characteristics of his later verse are already present:

The book was full of funny muddling mazes
Each rounded off into a lovely song
And most extraordinary and monstrous mazes
knotted with rhymes like a slave driver’s thong.

That final simile might be a young man losing control of his matter for a rhyme, but the abrupt contrast between ‘lovely song’ and ‘slave driver’s thong’ is an early example of the way Graves acknowledged that what is terrifying and threatening can also be attractive. And vice versa.

Part of the reason for Graves’ absence from the pantheon of ‘War Poets’ is that his poems don’t fit neatly into an ‘attitude’ which can be conscripted into someone else’s purposes. As Mundye points out, he wasn’t a ‘protest poet’. His reaction was much more varied. There are  ‘anti-War poems’. 'Armistice Day, 1918' is a good example. But he was proud of his regiment for the remainder of his life. This was the man who told Wilfrid Owen to cheer up and, criticised by Sassoon for being young and lacking depth of feeling, responded that he was young. (Both quoted by Mundye.)

It’s possible to argue that the poems of Sassoon and Owen describe the world they saw for those that weren’t there. It’s a journalistic approach to the horror. Graves on the other hand, records the effects of processing that horror. The nightmares, the ghosts that appeared, the dead friends in the crowds. It’s too neat a distinction to be pushed too far, but it’s workable.  

“The Patchwork Flag’ was never published, and its publication here might seem like reason to buy the book.  However, if you think you’re going to read a hitherto unseen collection of Graves poems you’ll be disappointed. Although Graves decided not try and publish the collection, almost all the poems in it were later published.

On the other hand, as Mundye argues, the poem that would have been the foreword to the collection sums up Graves poetry at this time:

Here is a patchwork lately made
Of antique silk and flower brocade
Old Faded scraps in memory rich
Sewn each to each with featherstitch.
But when you stare aghast perhaps
At certain muddied khaki scraps
And Trophy fragments of field-grey
Clotted and stained that shout dismay
At broidered birds and silken flowers
Blame these black times; their fault, not ours.

 They are a patchwork. Summing up the case for his subject Mundye ends:

His Charterhouse poems in Over the Brazier are an unsuspecting gateway to hell: the domesticity of his later patchwork metaphor is a brutal reminder of how early family life for a whole generation was punctuated by shell-shock memory of blood and fragmentation. As Blake before him, Graves explores both innocence and experience, with the complex interconnectedness of the two bringing out the terrors of the latter all the more clearly.  

In discussing the poetry written by men and women who lived through times most people are grateful they never had to endure, there’s a humane tendency to shy away from discussions of quality. It takes someone of the stature and bloody mindedness of Yeats to say the unspeakable and point out that Owen’s poetry, as poetry, is not always good poetry. Graves’ war poems, with a few exceptions, are not well known because they are not memorable. While Day probably over stated the case in the chapter mentioned above, his judgement still seems broadly correct. These are a very young man’s poems and they are written out of a tradition that was out of date before he was born.

If you have any interest in Graves the poet the book is probably indispensable. Mundye’s essay and notes are worth the price of admission. The book probably needs to be read against On English Poetry (1922) and Poetic Unreason (1925) which are Graves' attempts to achieve some kind of critical distance on his experience. 

  But if you’re not interested in Graves, then I don’t think the book stands alone as a collection of poems worth knowing. On the other hand, if you’re intrigued by the question: what would it have been like to be a young infantry officer in the 1st world war, then the unsettling patchwork of these poems offers an unsettling answer.