Tuesday, December 16, 2008

To Ireland I


A Gorgonzola sandwich (with mustard, of course)in Davy Byrne's most moral pub.
And a glass or two of Jamesons raised to the people I know who would understand the significance.

Monday, December 8, 2008


To Kenilworth Castle. Which has a walk on part at the end of Lady G. I used to walk there from Coventry, come to think of it.
At this time of year the low sun warms the red brick and cuts precise shadows across the lush grass. The dried out mere stretches off into the distance softened by ground mist. It's very beautiful.
Robert Dudley intrigues me. Everything: dynastic politics, the urge to power, pride, greed and possibly genuine affection were all pushing him towards the one women he couldn't have. So the ruined castle stands as metaphor. He took one of the strongest castles in medieval England and compromised its military integrity by converting it into a pleasure ground to seduce Liz 1. And after he'd almost gone broke entertaining her, she said no and left. The way we change ourselves to attract someone else, the way we get left stranded neither nor. Between the Keep and the apartments.
We escaped from the friendly ticket office where the only thing they didn't try and sell us was the castle itself and headed for the stables where they sell something they describe as coffee. Fortunately, there was a free concert of medieval music. The trio, called Nonimus, were excellent. Usually I start running when I see people dressed in tights and cloaks. I have sat through some hideous "medieval music", bad musically and worse historically, but these guys were excellent. A rare combination of enthusiasm, energy and musicality combined with a delightfully awful line in puns made this visit to the castle special. Chris and I were their only audience. People kept coming to the stable doors, looking inside and turning away. The fools. Hopefully their performances later in the day were better attended.
We bought the cd. What else can you do? It was well worth it. It even has a good version of the much murdered John Barelycorn.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Launch

24 hours in a droning tin can...now there's a challenge, find something poetic in international air flights.

We launched Lady G in the Herbert Art Gallery. In a space between the new Godiva gallery and George Eliot's piano. Mat Merrit was kind enough to turn up and read some poems to get the thing rolling. Then half an hour of Lady g, stories, some questions and it was all done.

The refurbished Herbert is a beautiful building. Given the amount of ugly post war buildings in Coventry there's a certain amount of suprise in that statement. More of that later.

Before the reading Chris and I walked down to see the Old Cathedral. It's illuminated at night and the way its broken walls and spires shape the darkness around it, adding shade and colour to a cloudless night sky was worth freezing for.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The dedication

Ok, so Lady G is dedicated to the Coventry City Library Service.

A bit odd?

I work in an educational system that regards literature as an unexploded bomb. I’m supposed to teach students how to recognise and defuse the text’s invidious and insidious ideology. Always the text, never the poem, or the play, or the novel

Reading as a kind of safe sex. In which nothing is risked and nothing created. Self defeating and pointless. Less than sex. At best a Rubik’s cube or cross word puzzle, a time filler. At worst, something to be avoided at all costs unless sanitized.

Don’t read writers that don’t agree with you.

Why we take readers and teach them to resist what they are reluctant to read in the first place is beyond me. It’s not just that I know the theory behind the methodology is flawed, it’s far more personal. I owe too much to books and libraries.

When I was very young, my father took me to the Central Library in Coventry. Having left school at twelve, he was determined we would read and write, swim dance and make music.

I still think four out of five wasn’t bad.

The Central Library in Coventry was a special place, right in the heart of the city. It was by the cathedrals and one bright day we were early enough to stop off on the way to look at the sunlight coming though the glass in the new cathedral.

The library itself was in an old building. The poetry was kept on an upper balcony you reached by climbing a spiral stone staircase. At the far end of the veranda, in an alcove, they kept the poetry books. There was room for one chair.

Browsing the library’s small collection I had myself a fine if erratic education. There were school book poets, and poets my parents knew, and the poets I discovered for myself. I can still remember reading Lawrence’s Pansies and thinking I had stumbled over something illegal.

Downstairs, in the fiction and history sections, there were worlds I could enter that were immeasurable distances from the one I lived in. Ways of thinking that I would never have encountered in my own life.

The record library was a later but an equal revelation. Alain Stival, the Bothy Band, Planxty, coming out of the speakers. Music I could have heard nowhere else because no one I knew, knew anything about them. Or if they did disparaged it as diddly dee music.

No one said; you’re the son of a migrant factory worker! These books and ideas can’t be yours. Literature is an elitist activity carrying the ideology of the ruling patriarchy. And thank God no one said, beware, you will encounter events, ideas, attitudes that will make you feel uncomfortable, make you think, may challenge your own assumptions.

So a thank you to the city libraries. For the education I got in them and the dreams they started.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The form

Traveling through Siberia, on the train, in winter. I heard this story:

There are places in Siberia that are so cold that if you step outside and open your mouth, your teeth will crack. As the first cold snap comes, if you stand on one bank of the river, and call across to the other, your words will freeze in the air and be trapped midstream. Only when the spring comes will they be free to move again, though by then their audience is gone. Mixed with all the other words that were spoken and frozen they go swirling down stream, confused, confusing, looking for someone to hear them.

This is how I thought of the sequence: disembodied voices, swirling, caught by the geographical space of Coventry. Like those Siberian conversations, they muddle together as the sequence progresses. Is it Tom or Leofric speaking? Who is this narrator who crops up occasionally, who is not any of the characters? As the second section progresses, it trails off, starts to repeat itself, as if the voices are being blown away, as if the speakers are trying to get the message correct, but only succeeding in making it more muddled.

The final words are Leofric’s. But Leofric never went to Samarkand.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Some voices, like the Roman soldier's, were hard to find. Others simply refused to speak. Here are two favourites I couldn't get into the twelve line format. The first amuses me, the second speaks for itself.

1) In 1678 the son of one James Swinerton played the role of Lady Godiva in the Godiva procession. So they dressed up a boy to look like an undressed woman.

2) In 1556, John Careless, a Coventry Weaver, was in prison for his protestant
beliefs. He was temporarily released, on his oath, to perform his role in his craft's pageants: 'The Purification of Mary' and 'The Disputation in the Temple". When it was over "he returned agayne into Prison at the houre appointed"
Two years later, having been transferred to London, he was burned for heresy.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A question of style.

Over at the poet’s on fire forum there’s a link to an article which describes, in a throw away comment, the ‘accessibility” of Seamus Heaney’s poetry as “Insulting”.

The second part of Lady Godiva and Me is set after the second world war, in a world I remember growing up in. I wanted to write about my parents' generation, and to honour what I remembered as their best qualities. It’s easy to revile the patriarchal discourse of the 1950s, and to forget that gender assumptions worked both ways. I had met men who went to war, in both 1914-18 and 1940-45. I knew they had seen and done things, believing it was their duty, that were beyond my ability to understand.

I remember men who worked foul jobs in car factories, a world away from today’s assumptions about careers and “self –fulfillment” and “self-expression”, because they had families and they lived by the mantra of “a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, food on the table.” True I worked in pubs and saw them drink and gamble and try to avoid going home. I watched marriages where there seemed no warmth at all and wondered how they ever got close enough to conceive their children. I saw women riding roughshod over men too tired to fight and men treat their wives like un hired help. I saw symbiotic relationships where the world was divided into His jobs and Her jobs so strictly an Inuit would have felt uncomfortable.

So I knew enough to avoid romanticising them, but I wanted to honour what I perceived as being worthy of respect.

And that left me with a problem of style.

The first poem I remember being aware of is Kipling’s Three Part Song. Grandfather read it for a dialect archive, and I have a digital copy of his crackly voice speaking in what is supposed to be broad Sussex. For me it has the same beauty as Kavanagh’s “Kerr’s Ass’, a poetry rising out of specific time and place. Place names that are their own poetries. A sense of self, tethered to landscape, given depth and resilience by history.

My father and his family, who were Irish, were Robert Service fans. And I can still recite the shooting of Dan McGrew from memory.

But I couldn’t write the type of poetry these people read. Kipling and Service won’t do as models. But I didn’t see the point in writing it in something that would be “modern” and unreadable to the people I was writing about.

Since this was about home, then one other home is traditional music. I came back to poetry on the back of the ballads. If each section of lady g is supposed to be a voice speaking, then ballad form seemed a natural choice. The surface would not be opaque, and the artistry would be in the architecture of the sequence. Like the Sherbourne, bubbling away underground you can follow it if you’re so inclined.

If you think that telling stories in a way that can be followed is an insult to the reader, then I have nothing polite to say.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Imagine how different the world was.

No photographs. No recorded voices. No twenty four hour news feed. No global geography worth the name. How limited knowledge and how awkward its diffusion. How poor its chances of survival.

The fact we even know there was a woman called Godgifu seems miraculous.

Unless you were a member of the court, you wouldn’t even know what the king looked like. The possibility of hearing his biological voice would be minimal. The families settled around Coventry would know the Earl and his wife, but that would be familiarity. How important context would be. How crucial the personalized links that verify your identity. Why your social role was such a definition.

And then think of how strange the world. Imagine distance measured by effort and time with no global context and no predictability. Drop an educated person down on the world somewhere and tell them where they are, and they’d have a sense of what lies in each direction. But for someone in Coventry? If you went that way you reached Winchester, or London, and if you kept going, the coast, and France and then the pilgrim routes. That way, north, York, the sea lanes to Denmark. Vague cosmologies; detailed where the route is personally known, vague where it’s only hearsay. And the world beyond the known route, fading into vagueness. Peopled by strange possibilities.

Everything passed by word of mouth and stored in human memory. So the man who tells you about the things he saw when he was traveling, passed on in a game of Chinese whispers, with no way of checking the truth or the source.

The traveler who comes to your monastery and says…have you heard about the Earl’s wife. Have you heard what she did over in Coventry?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"For the ones like us/ who are oppressed by the figures of beauty"

Reading about 18th century attitudes to the sublime (as you do) I came across this quote:
“The need to destroy the power of the beautiful other is an outcome of her very purity, her separateness from the perceiver’s interest. Thus as Mary Shelley presents it, the purity of Kantian beauty is a deprivation that inevitability evokes the enmity of the perceiver, who wants to punish it for its inaccessibility and distance. When woman is the embodiment of that beauty, she is at risk. (Wendy Steiner. The Trouble With Beauty. P17)

The header quote is from a Cohen song. It could just as easily be
"Beauty is the first touch of terror/and it awes us so much/because it so coolly disdains to destroy us” which thanks to google I’ve just learned, after twenty years, is a misquotation from Rilke.

Leofric and Tom can be read as representing two responses to The Other. In this case the Other is a beautiful woman. (Lady G doesn't have to be beautiful for my purposes, but it works just as well if we play along with that idea).

Leofric, in my version, loves his wife. She is God's gift to him. She makes him want to be better, to honour her or words to some such thought. It's like the two players in a duet where one is perceived as being so much better than the other. The positive and healthy response is to rise to the challenge, to want to play better, and in fact to play better. Leofric loves her because she takes his performance as a human being to somewhere he can't get on his own and because he has the self-confirming sense that the feeling is mutual, that he does the same thing for his wife. You could say he's the ideal adult male in an ideal relationship. A bit radical really, a happily married man who loves his wife and is loved by her. Not many of them in fiction.

Tom on the other hand (who seems to me to be very adolescent) experiences nothing but a revelation of beauty. He doesn't see a flesh and blood woman. He sees beauty with a capital B riding past and when he turns back to his little room that is both literal and symbol of his life, he realises he cannot imagine her there, cannot believe she would even give him the time of day if they passed in the street.

Instead of feeling enriched by his encounter with this Other he feels inadequate. He can imagine that body in his bed, but not at his table, or by his fire...and because of that he feels small and ugly and diminished...so he will quickly start to hate her even though she doesn't know that he exists...and his sexual fantasies about her will sour and become an act of psychic revenge. He is blinded to his own true nature. (Trapped in his little room, he doesn't see that he could just as easily step out of it) and to hers because he doesn't see her clearly enough.. Godgifu, for him, becomes Godiva. Like everyone else, he invents versions of other people, only in his case his version is an impossible ideal that diminishes him.
His ability to see clearly is destroyed.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How to make historical characters sound historical.

Robert Graves claimed that in his novel about the wife of Milton, he used no words that were not in current usage when his characters were alive.

It’s a splendid Gravesian maneuver. Who’s going to sit there with the OED and check every word? And even if you did, and found some evidence to challenge his claim, I suspect Graves’ ghost would come back and argue that the OED was wrong and he knew better. This was the man who delighted in proving that the details in the I Claudius novels could all be substantiated.

So how do historical characters speak? If you’re really worried about this then, since we know both Godgifu and Leofric spoke Old English, it would be theoretically possible to write their dialogue in that language. Except my OE grammar isn’t that good. But even if it was, who else would read it? And what would be the point?

There are popular routes to follow. Not OE, ME or NE but PHS-‘Pseudo Historical speak’. Throw in some thee and thous, a few God Wot’s and By our Lady’s, and someone somewhere will think you’re recreating the sound of a person in the past talking.

My problem is I wouldn’t be that someone. If you read any Middle English, or even just Shakespeare, neither sounds like PHS. And there’s a pedantic presence (come to think of it, he looks a bit like Graves), that reaches for the OED, or something like Crystal’s “Shakespeare’s Words’ and wants to point out that thee and thou not only have grammatical meanings, but also shades of social meaning, and most “pseudo-historical” misses both.

The other PHS move is to rupture the syntax: God’s Bones and teeth and toenails, knowest thou not, thou fiend most foul, Lady Digberry my good lady is to be my affianced, by our Lady ?

Even Joyce, in the Oxen of the Sun, mangles the ME bits. Graves was a stickler for detail. But even he doesn't make Claudius speak English in Latin word order.

No, the solution I think is to ignore the question. Or to say, you don't even bother trying. Since I am writing in Modern English (NE), my character will sound like they are speaking naturally in Modern English. If Peeping Tom swore in ME, then he can swear in NE. But he’ll swear like a modern person, not by god’s bits.
The historical background, where possible, functional, or necessary, will be accurate.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Males Look. Females are looked at.

And other cultural stupidities.

Early on, a conversation. How would the story be changed if instead of modestly risking shame, Godiva rode round town enjoying the experience? Wanting to be seen.

Easy answer: It would change the dynamics of the story entirely.

I found what claimed to be a legal definition of exhibitionism which read “a man who exhibits his genitals to a stranger in public”. Whether this is true or not, I was writing a poem so I could run with it. By this definition Lady G, being female, couldn’t be an exhibitionist in its sense of crime or perversion.

Western Europe and the English speaking world have always had an odd attitude towards display for men. There may have been a time when dark age war lords went round bejangled and bejeweled rattling their gold rings and torques like a Christmas tree with a bad temper, but for the last several centuries competitive Male display has been displaced to signs of ownership and consumption. Look at my House, my Hummer! Look at the girl on my arm and the jewels I bought her. Dark suits, uniform drabness-with the maker’s name and the price tag what distinguishes- Male display is about achievement. Until very very recently, the male body has not been an object of display since the Greeks. Go look in your art gallery. Nudes. Female nudes.

For females it’s different. It's almost considered perverse in mainstream cultures to not want to be on show. From the sexualized pre-pubescent strutting her stuff in the pages of Barbie Magazine to the girls on the free 2009 Indy calendar dressed in the kind of swim wear they could never swim in, striking “provocative” poses you’re not meant to take seriously, from the fashions that suggest and reveal to the pictures of half naked smiling girls in the pages of the paper; to be seen, watched, admired, and then to need to be seen, watched and admired, to worry if you’re not: it's the cultural norm.

There are a lot of people making a great deal of money supporting those that take it seriously. Vast industries, fashion, cosmetics, media, all built on the tangled confusion inherited from the Medieval Christian church’s ability to complicate desire.

And with it comes the cult of Youth. You don’t just have to look like you’re nineteen. You have to act like you are. Nothing wrong with this when you’re nineteen. Hopefully you’ll grow out of it. One day you might be an adult.

But when you’re thirty nine? Shouldn’t you be living your age?

How difficult life is for those who object. Who don’t want to be pinned to a wall. For those with minds and voices and abilities who didn’t want to be judged on their appearance. For those who would grow old without fear of wrinkles.

It’s easy to forget it’s equally difficult for those who reject the only possible position the pictures offer.

Untangle that one.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cliches, voices, Uncle Charles

Writing a series of first person pieces, trying to covey a swirl of voices, creates problems I hadn’t faced simply writing individual poems. The first piece at the start of the second section, #5 is spoken by a Roman soldier at the Lunt. I knew he had to be there. I could see him, courtesy of those Ladybird illustrated history books, but for eighteen months all he’d say was, ”I’m cold”. In a silly Italian accent.

Sometimes characters simply wouldn’t work. There are a couple of stories I discovered which I wanted to use but they never felt right.

As I listened to my characters, trying to tune them on the page, I realized that some of them spoke in Clichés. The natural reaction is to recoil in horror, imagining the scathing career ending comments some critic (who will probably never read the thing) would make. But if you’re going to create a character, then you have to create his or her mental landscape, and it’s not just the syntax or the dialect that matters. Having them speak or think in way that’s forced and artistic for the sake of being “artistic” or “poetic” is false. Peeping Tom cannot sound like Geoffrey Hill.

So I took the risk with Tom, especially, in his modern versions, and allowed him to speak how I heard him speaking. Some of his images make my teeth hurt. He sounds to me like a lonely seventeen year old. But once I gave myself that freedom, Tom speaks some simple lyrics and he uses images, neither of which I would have allowed myself outside a sequence. But I think it works. He is a cliché, and so is some of his language. But I don’t think you can separate the two. Having said this, I did leave out about half a dozen pieces which just took the idea too far. They might make lyrics for a band, but as poems they sucked.

And then I read Hugh Kenner and discovered the Uncle Charles Principle.

And it all made sense.

Whether anyone reading it will see this remains to be seen.

Writers as Lady G, readers as Peeping Tom

There are many ways to read the story of Tom and Lady G, and I was more interested in wandering around the possibilities than in imposing a reading on the tale. One way of reading it was as a metaphor for reading and writing.

Lady G’s ride seemed a good paradigm for what happens when you write what appears to be autobiography, using the lyric /I/. In a sense you’re going to go naked through the market place, soliciting an audience by revealing self.

There are numerous writers who find nothing wrong in exposing themselves in public. But for me Lady G provides the role model; appear to reveal everything, convince the readers they are getting an insight into something personal and private, but remain covered, build layers, disguise, lie. I am not the /I/ that speaks as Lady G. No one confuses me with a dead 11th century Earl. Why then would you expect me to be the /I/ who is growing up after the second world war in part two?

Because you did, says the voice. But I swore no oath to tell "the truth". Only to be truthful to what I knew and understood. And in fiction the truth's an irrelevance if the story's good.

Exploit the voyeur in the reader.

Like all writing it’s a delicate balancing act: too much revelation is both embarrassing for the reader and likely to come back to bite the writer. Too little, and the impression of autobiography disappears.

All writers, or at least those who seek publication, are at heart exhibitionists. Which raises some interesting questions about the process. If I were sitting on the train going up to Brisbane(I’d be lucky to get a seat) and someone started asking me about my life, I’d probably feel deeply uncomfortable and shut the conversation down. But the same stranger could fork out his dollars and read the things I wouldn’t tell him?

Barthes famously asks “What matters who is writing?” Who are you writing to, might be a more interesting question


What was that about Institutionalised voyeurism?

"The 2008 Gold Coast Indy carnival roars into action today as the streets of Surfer's Paradise become the stage for a four day feast of perving and petrol fumes."
The Gold Coast Bulletin 23rd of October 2008.
The last three pages of their "free Guide to Indy" contains colour quarter and half page ads for sex shops and brothels.

Or was the relevant comment "I don't understand".

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


If you label Tom “a Voyeur”, you label him as perverse and criminal. But I think curiosity is a valuable human characteristic. And the V word blurs the distinction between extremes of behaviors.

The people lining the banks in the picture above have dropped what they were doing to come and watch the funny looking foreigners in their weird clothes. The FLF are about to begin Kayaking the Tripa river in Northern Sumatra. There is nothing perverse or criminal about their enthusiastic curiosity.

Traveling in Indonesia and Central Asia, you quickly learn that terms like private and personal are defined culturally and socially. It’s easy to forget that except for the very rich, it’s only in the past two hundred years in Britain that people have been able to afford the kind of buildings where different rooms are built for different purposes and you could expect to get through your day without someone seeing you doing something that today would be described as intimate or personal.

In some cultures curiosity is still seen as natural. In others, only certain types of curiosity are acceptable. And yet the English speaking world revels in a form of institutionalized voyeurism. Photographers with cameras stuck on a lens longer than my arm sit waiting for THE picture of the highly over paid human coat hanger. Look at the magazines on the rack. You pays your money and you get the juicy personal details and the "raunchy", "revealing".

But I suspect the act of writing presupposes certain types of curiosity too. Writers watch people. Over hear them. It’s about noticing little things and storing them away for future reference.
My version of Peeping Tom is that he’s curious. Not sick. Not criminal.

I’m no expert so I'm not sure where curiosity slips into Voyeurism, which is both a paraphilia and a crime. If you’re walking home at night and pass a naked figure in an open window, I suspect not taking a second look is an act of courtesy or repression. If you stop and watch, in the English speaking world, then you’ve consciously trespassed on a line we draw between public and private. Coming back the next day at the same time hoping to see the same thing is probably a sign of sickness, and having binoculars or your camera in your pocket would be inexcusable.

The issue of writing Tom was therefore complicated. It’s one thing to walk around in someone else’s head, and try to see his or her point of view. It’s harder to do it when the border lines between understandable and repulsive are so vague.

Watching I understand. Curiosity I understand. But voyeurism? Especailly the high tech, premeditated kind? When the landlord is accused of having drilled holes into the bedroom he’s just rented out to a couple so he can install cameras, or when a man is arrested and found guilty of having pin hole cameras in the toes of his shoes, so he can take pictures up women’s skirts and then publish them on the web, we’ve come a long way from curiosity, and something sinister and intrusive is happening.

So far in fact that “up skirting” and “down blousing” are not only ugly new words but ugly new crimes, and moves have recently been made in Australia to acknowledge them as such and make sure there are punishments in place.

Tom watches Godiva riding past. In my version, he’s not a voyeur. But I'm not sure the distinction works.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The definitive Love scene

Herzog’s Nosferatu. Again.
There’s a throw away line in the commentary. Something to the effect: I don’t have love scenes in my films, but this is the definitive one.
He’s describing the scene where Lucy sacrifices herself to kill Dracula.
A man, desperately lonely, wanting only to end centuries of solitude, consuming the object of his affection, destroying what he loves in the act of loving her. A woman, sacrificing herself, passively dying to kill the man, but with such a strange tender affection.
This is the definitive love scene?

Ciaran Carson For all we know

Ciaran Carson wrote one of my favourite books: Last Night’s Fun. It’s a love letter to traditional music, beautifully written, idiosyncratic, and it introduced me to Joe Cooley. I feel I owe him just for that. He’s also written prose novels, at least one of which puts him up there with Flan O’Brian (about as ‘up there’ as it gets in the real sub-Joycean atmosphere.) He’s translated The Tain, another favourite book, as well as The Inferno and he’s written a body of poetry that is distinctive. Enough of the blurb.
The poetry took me a while to like. It was easy to admire. It was only when I realised that if Seamus Heaney and Liam O’flynn are a perfect paring, then the obvious Carson link (in my limited knowledge) would be to Seamus Ennis.

So Last Night’s Fun is my key. It’s a love letter, but it’s an oblique one. The same is true of the poetry. What’s not being said, what’s hinted at, suggested, alluded to is as important as what is being detailed. And because it’s not there on the page, it ghosts the reading process.
Beneath the surface dazzle and the play there’s an austere seriousness. Beneath the austerity, there’s a playful passion.
So logically, if your man decides to write a story in poems, he's choosing the form for a purpose.
For all we know…think of a musician, Ennis, showing off, but within the limits of a traditional form. The limitations are what define the player’s skills. This ain’t no dream of “free form self expression’. The framework creates the space, like a musical phrase creates a meaning for silence.
And so the narrative of For all we know is a poet’s answer to “why bother telling a story in poems”. Characters enter, reappear, slide. Events are described, then re-described, and the images fold and loop and move on. Because this is Carson, I didn't expect a straight narrative like the Monkey or Freddy Neptune.

I’m sure that if I knew anything about how a fugue works, I would understand more. But it reminds me of Herzog’s Nosferatu and the way the landscape suddenly becomes a character in the story, or the first three minutes of Suspiria where nothing happens but it happens in away that’s deeply and memorably disturbing

Monday, October 20, 2008

Naked vs Nude

That phrase: rode naked.

It’s the juxtaposition of the two words. Rode, not walked. Lady Godiva walked naked round the streets of Coventry. Nope. Doesn’t work. Rode; elevated; on show. Public. Not hidden or obscured in the crowd. A combination of dignity (rode) and potential shame (naked.). Humiliation A perversely ?erotic? combination which reveals something sick at the core of European thinking about women.

Rode naked.

English preserves a distinction. Nude always means without clothes. (Why “in the" nude?) It has ‘elevated’ connotations because of the institutionalized perving of the art world. Naked, however, has a range of meanings. A General is naked if he steps outside without the insignia of his rank. The OED quotes examples of people being ‘naked in their shifts”.
It’s possible that Lady G rode naked, clothed simply without the trappings of her rank, but then as the Earl’s wife she had no rank and so no insignia. (Tennyson gets this wrong and uses it in his poem). But naked also has connotations of vulnerability and exposure that nude doesn’t. You’re supposed to look at a nude.

“Leofric rode naked through the streets of Coventry” would probably never have created much of a story.

In Medieval Europe the naked body is problematic, but the naked female body even more so. Even now the issue of public nudity is tangled. As far I’ve been able to find out, it’s not illegal to ride round Coventry without your clothes. You can only be charged with a breach of the peace, or indecent exposure. And indecent exposure is far more than just wandering round naked.

The complexity is evident everywhere you look. Indy is about to roar around Surfer’s Paradise, but the big debate is whether the State Government is right in trying to stop the number of women standing on hotel balconies exposing their breasts for the audience below or for passing helicopter pilots. Apparently “flashing your tits” on a hotel balcony during the Indy race is “Ok” and anyone who objects to such "good clean fun" is a wowser. Shouting “show us yer tits” to passing women during Indy is apparently not a sign of retarded emotional and mental growth but "good clean blokey fun". As usual there are numerous people who want to defend their right to behave in an appalling manner.

At the same time the suggestion that airports install xray security which presents security officers, those well known friendly airport people, with an image of the passenger which is basically a shot of them naked, is causing concern. Everyone who walks through the screens will now basically do their own brief naked stroll in public. It redefines invasion of privacy.

And if you want to take the contradictions further then imagine the uproar if the model for the painting on the Blog’s header took a stroll “in the nude” round the art gallery where the picture was hanging when it first appeared.

Peeping Tom

One of the attractions of writing poetry about a historical subject is that you’re writing poetry not history. You can wander through areas where a lack of qualifications is no problem, and make links which no rational historian might accept. I extended that privilege into the world of the paraphilias: Voyeurism and exhibitionism.

Peeping Tom is a later addition to the story. He first appears in the 16th century, although the voyeuristic element has been introduced in earlier versions where it was Leofric who was perversely enjoying the sight of his wife.

The savagery of Tom's punishment feels as though we have slipped sideways into Grimm’s grimmest. Several commentators have pointed out at that he acts as a scapegoat to displace the charge of voyeurism. The man looking at the painting, the reader imagining the story, is not Peeping Tom, is not guilty. The picture is of a nude, not a naked woman, the viewer looks with the educated gaze of the connoisseur. The story of the ride is a tale of courage and compassion, not a work of pornography.

What the commentaries don’t do is reflect on how the arrival of Tom changes the story and shapes the image of Godiva.

The most powerful woman in your world is going to ride past. Naked. Do you look, or turn away.

1980s, Mrs. Thatcher? Wouldn’t look. No way, no how.
2008, Anna Bligh, Qld Premier is about to ride down the road. Nope.

Tom’s act shifts the story so that Godiva is suddenly worth looking at. So much so that he jeopardizes the deal. Godgifu, was short or tall, thin or fat. For all we know she had a face like the back of a shield wall. Enter Tom, and suddenly Godgifu becomes Godiva, becomes an object of desire. Just as people create ideal versions of people they don't know well. No longer an individual; an inhuman ideal.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Still the world is wondrous large,- seven seas from marge to marge-
And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu,
And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

Here's my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roared where Paris roars to-night: --
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And -- every -- single -- one -- of -- them -- is -- right!
Kipling. In the Neolithic age

Contexts: Contemptus Mundi

Throughout the first section of Lady Godiva and Me, a Contemptus Mundi preacher intrudes. I hope his voice is distinctive. I find him utterly repellent, and writing him was unpleasant, but he is the essential context in which any medieval story operates.

The Christian Church undoubtedly saved civilization in Northern Europe, if by civilization you mean more than just living in towns. It also provided an ideal of social behavior, based on the first ten commandments, which made life something more than a vicious little grudge match.

The cost however, was a guilt culture, institutionalized misogyny, and at the extreme, a belief that the best life you could live would be one where you died immediately after you were baptized. And a context which was so intolerant of dissent that for a thousand years people were burnt, tortured, murdered, and persecuted, for disagreeing over the interpretation of some Hebrew Folk tales.

That old joke that Catholics don’t believe in life after birth is grounded here, as is the distrust of the body, and the cultural awkwardness about sex and gender we’re still living with.

Whether or not guilt cultures actually work is a fascinating historical question. In theory, wanting to do something, but knowing it’s defined as wrong, you experience a sense of guilt and stop. Macbeth at 1.7 would be the classic rebuttal. You can know all the moral reasons for not doing something, and if you want it badly enough, they won’t stop you.

Which eventually leads towards peeping Tom. Shame cultures work the other way round, what prevents you is fear of being caught and being exposed. Tom doesn't feel guilt, Lady G risks shame.

Though in the later versions of the story, she really risks very little.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reinventing the past

The Latin legends, like the picture, prove the fact that we reinvent the past by viewing it through the lens of our own assumptions. The 19th century pictures of Lady G (and she was a popular topic) show her in a Coventry that never existed and certainly doesn't look anything like the settlement that would have been there in the 11th century.

For the ride to have occurred we need a town, a developed community, a market place and a charter of Liberties. While Leofric and Godiva probably did have a residence in the 1050s, the "town" was an agricultural community growing up around the religious foundation. (Two years ago, at a talk on Coventry's archeology, the pre conquest, post roman settlement was described as 'obscure".)Think West Stow with a church. While riding round something that looked like West Stow is easier to imagine the real reason why I'd bet a stack of currently devalued Australian Dollars she didn't do it, is that a free noble-woman in Anglo Saxon England possibly enjoyed legal and economic status that wouldn't be regained until the late 19th, early 20th century.

The flaw in the whole story, is that any taxes or tolls levelled on the people of Coventry, that weren't the King's, (and which couldn't be tampered with) went to Godgifu herself. She 'owned' the settlement at Coventry, not Leofric.

Unlike married women for the next eight hundred years, an Anglo-saxon wife could hold land in her own right. While not as rich as her husband, Godgifu was the wealthiest woman in England at the time of the Conquest.

Writing over a hundred years later, the first tellers of the tale simply couldn't imagine a world where married women held land independently of their husbands. Presumably neither could Tennyson, eight hundred years or so later...

Which raises the obvious question. Where did such a story originate?

The territory

In terms of narrative possibilities, there are two bench mark texts for an Australian reader: The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter, and Freddy Neptune by Les Murray. They also represent two poles on a line representing the obvious approaches to using ‘poetry’ to tell a story.

Freddy Neptune is a novel in any sense of the word, the central character is uniquely memorable and Murray gives him a definite voice. Except this novel is written in eight line stanzas. As a performance, it’s spectacular. (And daunting). But the question that haunts it is does writing it in eight line stanzas, no matter how beautifully controlled they are, add anything to the narrative? Would the story lose much if it were told in prose?

The Monkey’s Mask, which has been filmed, consists of separate, short poems each with its own title. A first person narrator, PI familiar from Chandler, jaded, on the margins, hired to find a missing person. It’s got sex (lots of it), some pointed comments about poetry in Australia, and manages to keep within the recognizable limits of the genre of the detective story while nudging at its edges. You can give it to someone who doesn’t read poetry and they’ll enjoy it, though perhaps not the elderly maiden aunt or “Disgusted of Milton Keynes.” It’s difficult to remember how stunning it was the first time I read it, soon after publication, and not have that reaction coloured by the books she’s written subsequently, which tend to fossilize all that was good about the Monkey.

But the same question: does the narrative gain much by written in what is a sequence of poems? Porter is an expert in walking the dog, in taking the line as close to clipped prose as it can be without letting it fall into prose. (Actually the first book of hers I read, Akhenaton, is in some ways my favorite)

These two provide the bench marks. So you can put Quiver against the Monkey.

There is I think a third possibility, that you use poetry to tell a story in a way that only poetry could. Which brings in For all we know. Next time.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On Being Published

He sang it like that, which is much the best way of singing it, and when he had finished, he waited for Piglet to say that, of all the outdoor hums for Snowy weather he had ever heard, this was the best. And after thinking the matter out carefully, Piglet said:
“Pooh,” he said solemnly, ”It isn’t the toes so much as the ears”.


Pooh began to feel a little more comfortable, because when you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and other people look at it.

The Legend begins

The VCH states that the earliest surviving version of the story of the ride occurs in the Chronicle of Roger of Wendover (who died in 1237).

It’s written in Latin, by a Monk, and the time lapse is important. Because it’s written in Latin, I have to rely on someone else’s translation. So this is taken from the VCH Warwickshire which I compared with Donoghue, who quotes other early versions.

If you compare these with Tennyson’s 1842 poem, then there are some significant differences. There is no Peeping Tom and far from doing a deal with the Townspeople to stay indoors, Leofric stipulates that she has to ride “through the market place of the town, from one side right to the other while the people are congregated and when you return you shall gain what you desire.”

Accompanied by two “soldiers” “the Countess mounted her horse naked, loosed her hair from its bands, so veiled the whole of her body except for her brilliantly white legs, passed through the market place unseen by anybody.”

The key to the whole story, I think, is not the fact that her name has been Latinized, or she’s been given a title, or the impracticalities of covering yourself with hair while riding a horse (on a day when obviously there was no wind).

It’s the assumptions that Wendover and Tennyson share that are revealing. In six hundred years, what doesn’t change in the story is the power imbalance between Godiva and Leofric.

She has none, except her ability to nag him, while he has the right to impose or to remit taxes and tolls on the people of Coventry.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The History

Godiva is the Latin form of Godgifu. Women’s names in Old English do not end in A in the nominative. That simple act of renaming, which ignores cultural and linguistic conventions, is the real clue to the process by which an historical character came to be associated with something that probably never happened.

Godgiefu, or Godgifu, God’s gift, did exist and she did play an important role in the development of Coventry and late Anglo-Saxon England. She was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia.

Not much is known about her except her connection to Coventry and the fact that by 1067 she was one of the wealthiest women in England.

She and her husband founded, or reestablished, a religious institution where Coventry now is, in about 1043, dedicating it to St Mary, St Osberg and All Saints.

There had already been a convent there which had been sacked by the Danes in or about 1016. Its Abbess, Osberg, had been martyred. Little is known about the early foundation or its abbess, except that she died and courtesy of Godiva and Leofric her head ended up on the alter in a jewel spangled box.

The couple were noted benefactors, and amongst the things that they were supposed to have donated to their new establishment was a reliquary holding the arm of Saint Augustine of Hippo.

Stumbling over such little gems of information is what makes doing research for a project like Lady Godiva and me so enthralling. But while it sent me spinning off on a productive sidetrack for now the digressions can wait.

Although her dates are sketchy, she outlived Leofric.
Before he died there is some evidence that that Coventry may have become their chief residence if not their permanent home.

Their granddaughter was twice a Queen. First of Wales, then married to the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, probably in a move designed to appease her bothers, whose activities in 1066 probably didn’t make Grandma proud. She was alive after the conquest, recorded as one of the richest women in England, and was buried by Leofric’s side in Coventry.

And the ride?

Remember that mistranslation.

The Legend

The Legend.

The story most people know is the one Tennyson tells in his poem of 1842. (I’ll return to the poem, and its own peculiar version).

The poor of Coventry complain to Lady G that they are starving. Moved by pity, she asks her grim and heartless husband, Earl Leofric, to lift the taxes. He refuses. She nags him. Exasperated he says “I’ll lift the taxes if you ride naked round the city”.
Before she does this, she does a deal with the townsfolk. They will stay off the street and keep the windows shut while she rides round, clad in nothing but her hair.

One dastardly individual, a tailor called Tom, tries to bore a peep hole so he can watch her riding past but his eyes are blasted, in Tennyson’s version by “the powers”, and fall out before he gets to see her.
She rides round the city, returns, and Leofric lifts the taxes.

Did she do it?

Monday, October 13, 2008


(I've just realised I can still do the Shooting of Dan Mcgrew from memory.) Two things before mapping territory.

1) Some of the most interesting modern narratives seem to be in Asian Cinema. Even a not so great film like "The Grudge" repays attention in this respect.

If you imagine a narrative as ten events. Strung out in chronological order they'd obviously go 1-10. In something weak like a Friday 13th sequel, 1 is usually wasted in filling in the background. "The Grudge' is far more ambitious. It starts at 5, with no explanation at all, progresses to six, then flashes back to four, and so on til the hopefully terrifying climax manages to be simultaneously the exposition and the climax.


2) At the heart of "Old Boy", "Audition", "Retribution" is an essential ambiguity lacking in many films. Who to sympathise with? It’s something our Will would have loved.

The speaking /I/ of the poem: think Chaucer's games, Browning's performative dissonance. Add examples.


I assume that people will go on composing single lyric poems until the sun goes nova. But whether the collection of single lyrics has much of a future is a different matter. I don’t mean I won’t wait for my favourite poets to produce their next collection which I will buy and enjoy, I’m just wondering about all the other collections, staggering under the weight of their overwritten blurbs, endorsed by this or that famous name no one out side the small precious circle has heard of, which I read once and never reread.

As a reader, my test of a poem is whether or not I’m willing to write it out, in long hand, into the book in which I keep poems I like or which interest me. And this twelve months there have been few new entries by living poets.

Especially in Australian journals, I’ve started noticing the little tricks everyone (inc me) is using that makes their piece of writing “poetry”. And it's starting to make writing a single poem almost impossible. Which isn't a bad thing as that's not what this project is about.

In terms of money spent and value gained (for a reader), the narrative seem the way to go. And since that’s what I’m working on, it seems that right about now I should be thinking about how a narrative, told in “poetry” would differ from a narrative told as prose.

So map the territory. (And don’t forget Lawman and the 'roman a tiroirs' or however you spell it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Devil in Love

Thinking of ambiguity and seduction.

Jacques Cazotte was executed during the French revolution. Nothing ambiguous about that. His literary output was slight, a few tales read today by specialists in 18th century French Literature, and Le Diable Amoureux, The Devil in Love.

The latter haunts the spaces between the medieval fable or narrative, the folk tale or fairy story proper, and a modern short story. It’s one of those pieces, like a good fairy story or a bad horror movie, which escapes itself and becomes something far greater than it should be.

Alvaro, a young nobleman, raises the Devil, who (eventually) takes the form of a beautiful girl who calls herself Biondetta. The Devil seems to have fallen in love with Alvaro, and does everything she can to make him reciprocate. Alvaro is caught between his affection and desire for Biondetta and the nagging feeling that he can’t trust the devil to tell the truth. Is she really so in love with him, or is this just a ruse to win his soul? The story turns on the tension between Biondetta’s attempts to seduce Alvaro, and Alvaro’s attempt to get his mother’s blessing for their marriage before succumbing to his desire.

In purely narrative terms the ending is not good. The story crashes into bathos. Cazotte may have planned and discarded a sequel, and he certainly changed the original ending at the suggestions of friends. However, becuase the ending doesn't provide the usual neatly wrapped bunch of answers, the ambiguity of the story is only strengthened.

Since this isn't an attempt at a logically rendered opinion, I don’t feel I need to defend my interest in the story. The intro to the Dedalus European classics is sniffy, describing it as “pale and hesitant” in comparison with later tales of diabolical bargains. But what sets this one aside is the ambiguity at its core. We know Faust is screwed. We know the usual fictional devil is out for his soul at all costs. But what happens, if for once, the devil is genuinely in love?
Neither reader nor Alvaro can know if Biondetta is genuine in her passion. As in Carmilla, there is no way of resolving the issue.

Dublin Detour part two

Carmilla may be the best vampire tale ever written. Like most vampire tales the ending is anti-climatic, the good guys win, the vampire is destroyed. Unlike Dracula, it’s never entered the mainstream and attempts to film it have been awful.

But in the middle of the nineteenth century, Le Fanu plays sophisticated games with his narrative. Today it’s usually described as a lesbian vampire tale. Very naughty, very trendy. But Le Fanu was too good to be so obvious. (And would he have got away with it if he was? Good Queen Vic reputedly had only recently declared there was no such thing)
Carmilla is a vampire, and she is attracted to the female narrator. Though in what way, other than as a food source, remains ambivalent.
The narrator can't decide but records her confusion. Unlike Uncle Silas, there is no evidence in the narrative to qualify Laura's confusion. This produces a feeling that everything is slightly out of focus. It's made worse because a modern reader knows so much more about literary vampires than Le Fanu's original audience and can't help but wonder why the narrator is so slow. (If he had thought his audience knew as much as a modern reader, the long exposition would have been omitted as unnecessary. (Although Hollywood doesn't seem to have learnt this lesson.)

As in Uncle Silas, the reader probably picks up the clues much faster than the narrator does, who remains innocent right to the end. You could read it as a lesbian story, but you can just as easily see it as one of those over wrought expressions of Victorian female friendship. Because both options are possible, the story has an unsettling ambivalence, like The Devil in Love, which is far beyond the usual hot house sexuality of modern vampire novels.

Le Fanu inhabits the margins, the space where decisions and definitions are not easily made. Like the Lady’s invitation to Gawain, Carmilla offers the reader the opportunity to do with the story as he or she wishes.

The first of many Dublin Detours. Pt 1

Narratives, narration and ambiguity ..all for the new project. Of which more later.

A slight Detour to Dublin first then back to /I/.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula has never been out of print since it was first published in 1897. Its “hero” has apparently appeared in more films than any other literary character. (Favourite vampire film? Herzog’s remake of Nosferatau ). There’s a minor industry about the book itself. How it was written, its literary sources, its possible historical and geographical links, its relationship to the actual vampire folk lore of both Eastern Europe and Ireland, the links between what is known of Stoker’s life and some of the book’s lurid passages.

How many people read the whole book is a different matter. The first four chapters are brilliant, after that Stoker never really deals with the essential narrative problem he’s created for himself. If Dracula is a threat to world peace and civilization as we know it, how come such a bunch of obviously unimpressive “heroes” see him off so easily?
Still, the story escapes its limitations to live in the collective imagination. Which can’t be said for his “ The Lair of the White Worm”, though Ken Russel’s film version is gloriously silly.

However, before Stoker, Ireland was home to one of the greats of the 19th century Ghost story, Sheridan Le Fanu.

I am old enough to remember sleeping in a room which had no convenient light switch. In the dark the house creaked and settled, responding to weather. A wardrobe door opening suddenly, the tree at the bottom of the garden shifted the lights from the next street across the walls and ceiling. In the terraced house voices filtered through the walls, rose from the street outside, tangling themselves in the edges of sleep. All the clichés of the horror film.

Le Fanu wrote ghost stories for an audience who had even less access to the bright antiseptic lights available now in bedside lamps or reading lights. At his best, he plays on the fear of the sounds at the door, the blurred and half glimpsed sight at the window. The tales inhabit an indeterminate world where you’d never be sure if you were in a courtroom in hell or just having a detailed nightmare. No gore. No porn. Just the story worrying at the hinges of your comfortable sense of safety, exploring the half lit space between irrational fear and logic.

His Novel, Uncle Silas is a cumbersome beast, but one I like for a variety of reasons.
The first is the weird sense of déjà vu the intertextuality creates. It’s hard not to make links to the first part of Kidnapped, The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Dickens…. Like the ghosts in his own stories, all these characters and narratives are flitting round the edges of Uncle Silas while you read giving the story a dreamlike quality, an odd familiarity you can’t quite put your finger on.

What distinguishes it from most of the others is the game Le Fanu plays with the narrator. The story is told in first person, and though this means both reader and narrator have access to the same information, the narrator consistently and obviously makes the wrong interpretation of the evidence. It's a subtle way of creating a character. You don’t have to read a plot synopsis to see that Uncle Silas can’t be trusted, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to realise that the narrator is about to be murdered, because she insists on interpreting everything in the best of lights, consistently misreading the signs you may even begin to feel she deserves it.

The same technique plays a major role in Le Fanu’s masterpiece, Carmilla.

That /I/ again

Because both the language and literary fashions went in a different direction, Gawain and the Green Knight is nowhere near as accessible without a gloss as Chaucer. In translation, like a lot of medieval alliterative poetry, it loses a great deal, but since I think of writing as a performance, then I’d say Gawain is one of the great performances in English poetry.

I need to think about it in terms of narrative, but for now, although it’s one of the minor pleasures, I've always liked the total ambiguity of the lady's invitation: Ye are welcom to my cors/yowre awen won to wile, which potentially means everything from the polite and meaningless, “I am at your disposal” to the literal “My body is at your disposal”.

Which leads to the Devil in Love.

Rethinking tom

or apologising perhaps. Reading the complete works is a bit like reading the complete lyrics for all of Dowland's song books.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The non anxiety of influence


who is that rare thing, a good critic who is generous.

"When poets turn to the great masters of the past, they turn to an image of their own creation, one which is likely to be a reflection of their own artistic inclinations and procedures."

"At the desk every poet faces the same kind of task, that there is no secret that can be imparted, only resources of one's own that are to be mastered."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Poets and critics

It's hardly a stunning thought, but so much of the study of literature since it became institutionalised has been in the hands of people who don't produce it.

But that probably accounts for the history of the past hundred years.

Borges puts it this way, in "This Craft of verse" Lecture one.

"I have spent my life, reading, analyzing, writing (or trying my hand at writing) and enjoying. I found the last to be the most important thing of all..."

"Whenever I have dipped into books of aesthetics, I have had the uncomfortable feeling that I was reading the works of astronomers who never looked at the stars. I mean, they were writing about poetry as if Poetry were a task, and not what it really is; a passion and a joy."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

versions of Beowulf

Ok, so I said I wouldn’t do it but I did. I watched the animated version. It was a dvd. It was free. I wasn’t doing anything else. (Enough excuses?)

I don’t understand why anyone would jump up and down and complain that “they’ changed the story. Every culture retells the stories of the past to make sense of them. Most people’s knowledge of Beowulf is through translation, or picture books, which are both retellings.

What’s interesting is that both the recent filmed versions have gone out of their way to reduce Beowulf, to make him flawed and fallible. (Okay, I left the ‘Thirteenth Warrior’ out, but as long as you ignore the Beowulf parallels that’s a mindless but entertaining piece. If you don’t, you get stuck wondering how something that sounds like Bulywyf can be a man’s name).

It seems odd in a society that worships physical heroes, pays them millions to kick or run with a ball or swim up and down a chemically infested pond, these films should seem so worried about a character who is famous for his courage and strength.

The one filmed in Iceland turns him into Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe in chain mail, the sea monsters he fights are your everyday eels that are still chewing his calves as he staggers out of the water. (At least the scenery was awesome.) In the animated version our Cockney hero lies about his prowess, lusts after his lord’s wife, screws monsters, begets dragons, gets cooked.

Why is that an industry which churns out films about totally unbelievable action heroes (Any Arnie movie, Die Hard, James Bond, Mission Impossible etcetc ) and has no problems with monsters (King Kong, Godzilla, Alien, Predator, Vampires, Zombies) is so determined to reduce the medieval hero and so blind to the fact that Beowulf is not really Arnie in his Predator role meets King Kong in the mead hall...but an argument about the costs and limitations of the values it celebrates?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Reading #3

The world is going to end in fifteen minutes. I haven’t read your favorite poet, but I’d like to. Which poems should I read?

Having had this sprung on me, I’ve been ticking off my possible answers.
I get to Anglo-Saxon, and you’ve only got fifteen minutes, but yes,no problem. Middle English; no problem.Anonymous;indeedy.

Even childhood friends like Yeats and Service and Kipling.

I can even do this exercise with poets whose work I don’t feel any affection for but whose poems I acknowledge as good.

But then what happens with Graves? My favourite poems may not convince you of his quality. “They Flee from me” followed by “Whoso List to Hunt” and “Blame Not My Lute” will sell Wyatt. But “Flying Crooked”, “Counting the Beats", “The White Goddess” Incident at …..and any of the moon poems may not work.

I know the theory, that my reactions to individual poets and poems are based on psychological and experiential factors but while that may account for the slide
from knowing something is good to it having a long term personal significance, it doesn’t account for the third move, where the poet and his or her work takes on the qualities of a long term friendship. With all the shifts and settling, the fallings out and fallings in, the baffled affection, irritations and love such a relationship involves?


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Reading #2

Wandering through Amazon...as one does, I was surprised by some of the reviews of Seamus Heaney’s work. One “reviewer” dismissed it as boring and pointless, another said it was good but irrelevant, another complained that the later poems in the collected are “difficult to understand”.

I wonder what the purpose of such “reviews’ are for the person posting them. Does claiming a poet is “difficult” mean anything? Or saying “I don’t like this” say anything about the work in question?

Coleridge said the mark of good criticism is that it points out, for intelligent readers, qualities in the work they might miss themselves. Stating the obvious: telling someone something is bad when it’s obviously bad, or simply giving an unqualified and uneducated opinion, are both equally pointless.

Which makes me realise how rare good criticism seems to be. There are reviews, and opinions, and critical theory, there’s blogs and customer reviews, but not much in the way of the kind of criticism that sends you back to the poem or the writer with renewed interest or understanding.

Having just reread Graves, Richards, Elliot and Cleanth Brooks for work, before launching into the various modern isms, I miss their attention to detail, their wide reading and their knowledge. (In Graves’ case I love his sense of being obdurately wrong-headed and reveling in it). Reading Hughes on Wyatt and Coleridge, or Heaney on any number of poets, I learnt something that made rereading the poems a renewed pleasure.

Good criticism can be generous, or weirdly iconoclastic (Graves), but it all stems from a desire to understand based on the assumption that revelation may not be immediate. That patience and revision are as much the critic’s tools as the poets. And that being a careful reader is just as difficult as being a good writer.

When Mathew Arnold claimed that without great criticism you don’t get great art, he may have been right. The informed discussion of the questions: is this good, in what ways, why; how does it relate to what is before it and around it, seems essential if poetry as art is to develop. But criticism seems to have been replaced largely by theorizing. And while I like theorizing, it asks different questions which don’t help me as a writer.

Literary Criticism was always a well-informed conversation about a shared fascination. Sometimes it sounded more like a brawl in progress, but I wonder if writers, looking back on the start of the twenty first century, will see the failure to produce outstanding critics, as the way this period failed the next generation of writers?

The love child of the lack of well-informed, critical judgment is the modern Blurb. It always surprises me that people with reputations in the poetry world will trot out the usual clichés no matter how irrelevant. How many poetry books promise that in this new collection the writer redefines/renews language, will change/challenge the way you perceive the world, will reinvigorate/reinvent poetry, is a striking/startling new/original voice? You know the book does none of these things. Your disappointment is guaranteed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Two statements.

1) “Teenage Caveman” is a terrible film. The dialogue is awful, the plot is silly, its attempts to cover up its failings with pornography embarrassing, its costumes are ludicrous. All in all, it’s a bad film.
2) “Teenage Caveman” is a metaphor for the transformative nature of sexual activity. Adolescents must successfully negotiate this rite of passage from primitive superstition to enlightened self-awareness. Not all will successfully do so, and those that can’t deal with the experience will self destruct or be turned inside out.

The writer writes, but the critic performs. These days anything can be the subject of the critical gaze. What limits the performance? How do you know the real answer is One not Two. When do you know the stack of cushions in the art gallery is a stack of cushions and not a profound statement about the corrupt nature of modern society?

WYatt #2: An approximate toxology of Pine

Wyatt may have written two or three of my favourite lyrics, but reading through his complete poems is not pleasant.

The pine simple.

This is a pleasant state of prolonged expectation in which the individual anticipates the Looked For Event (hereafter LFA) in the certainty that it will happen. Should the LFE eventuate, the pleasure thereof will be heightened by the spice of anticipation. Should the LFE not eventuate, the individual slides, inexorably into the next stage:

The Pine Extended:

The individual is now properly referred to as “The sufferer”. Doubt has eroded certainty and replaced it with hope, although it is a hope which is in itself characterized by certainty. The sufferer still believes in the LFE. Although this stage can continue for a long time, it is often characterized by the sufferer’s increasingly futile and somewhat strident attempts to bring about the LFE. If the LFE still refuses to eventuate, then there are two possible courses of progression: The sane sufferer throws his or her hands in the air and discovers something better to do with his or her time time. They may reflect with some bemusement upon the experience, the predicament they found themselves in, and some of the things they wish they hadn’t said or done…but there is no real lasting harm. On the other hand, the less sane sufferer slides towards stage three:

Terminal pine or the interstitial agony of non being.

This is a definable illness. By this stage certainty and hope are replaced by a paradoxical belief that the LFE will not happen which simultaneously exists with an increasingly profound desire that it will. The sufferer is strident and manic, and prone to violent shifts between the two mutually exclusive extremes. In the interstitial space created by this paradox the sufferer is trapped. Without professional help, unless of course the LFE happens, the suffer is on the slippery slide to

Post pine terminal sadness:
The sufferer at this stage has lost perspective, can appear irrational and is usually becoming prey to a terrible loss of self respect. Actions and words will cause great embarrassment to all concerned when viewed in the cold light of retrospective objectivity…or by any third party. This can either turn inwards to self loathing (which may be mild or require professional assistance) or towards resentment towards the other. While the modern piner irrationally accepts this, suffering is complicated by his or her awareness that such an attitude is totally unfair to the other person, accentuating the loss of self respect and encouraging a sense of self loathing. …… leading to

Tudor Pine;

The total abyss of pine. Diseased, irrational, pained and hurting. SOme fo Wyatt's poems are so confused that they announce that because he loves the lady, the lady is obliged to respond positively. Resentment when she avoids this weird illogic overcomes common sense and the sufferer ends up indentifying his or her self as the victim, assumes he or she has been deliberately victimised and requires both sympathy from everyone else and vengeance on the unsuspecting other. At which point I want to shake Wyatt and say: "She doesn't like you. Leave her alone".
WHich requires thinking about that /I/ yet again.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wyatt: They flee from me

What intrigues me here is the pronouns. The poem opens with one, but there is no antecedent to tell us what or who “They” are. In fact, if you wanted to be deliberately obtuse, you could claim there is little within the poem to say that this is a poem about women in general and a specific woman in particular. ( Though I think it would be really obtuse to ignore the evidence in the second stanza: her “gown/shoulders/arms” and ‘her’ actions:’ softly said’ ‘sweetly did me kiss”. Could you read it any other way?) The juxtaposition of the unreferenced third person plural against the solitary first person adds to the ambiguity. Who is in control of the situation. And who is speaking to us.

The dream like dislocation of the first verse however is a product of the pronouns, and the odd slippage in the metaphors. “Wild, Seek and stalk/gentle/tame/ meek. ‘take bread at my hand” all seem more appropriate to animals. But ‘naked foot” is undoubtedly human.
If you ripped the first stanza out of context and called it “Cats’ you might wonder at ‘feet’ but it might not be too outrageous.
“They Seek Me” says our poet. (Incidentally there is nothing in the poem to gender the speaker but it’s really hard not to call it ‘him’.) The speaker is, throughout the poem, passive (or presents ‘himself’ as passive, which amounts to the same thing here) and that too adds to the dream like quality: things are happening to him which he registers but doesn’t interpret or understand. (or claim to understand). ‘Put themselves in danger ‘ raises even more questions than the poem answers. Is the speaker dangerous? There’s something not quite….well…there’s a lot of ‘not quite’ happening in this piece, which is why I think it works so well. Everything is not quite, but it’s quite enough to know in rough outline.
The contrast between verse one and two in what appears to be specifics, is one of the poem’s strengths. If we come into the middle of a vague recollection, and then we are given a very detailed specific picture(which on inspection isn’t that detailed: interesting how much info the reader is asked to supply). Like a genuine memory, we get a recalled moment which suggests so much but actually doesn’t.

The last stanza seems to falter. The obvious attempt at sarcasm doesn’t work because it’s undermined by the “they” in the very first line. Here is a speaker who claims he’s popular with the ladies, who then seems to want our sympathy because one has dumped him. Doesn’t work. In fact, its hard to see how you could sympathize with the speaker. I suspect you’re not meant to. More on the /I/ later.

Ovid on Real and Implied

My morals, believe me, are quite distinct from my verse
a respectable life style, a flirtatious muse
and the larger part of my writings is mendacious, fictive,
assumes the license the author denies himself.
A book is no index of character, but, a harmless, pleasure,
will offer much matter to delight the ear.
Tristia Book 2 trans Peter Green