Thursday, November 18, 2010

And then The SHOp arrives ... it must be Christmas

In the last issue of The SHOp the editors pointed out a frightening statistic. Each year they receive about 6,000 poems for consideration. They print sixty an issue and there's only three issues a year. 180 chosen from 6,000.
And that includes writers like Mahon, Heaney, Longley, Les Murray and others of such ilk.

I have a poem in this issue.
It's the second time they've published one by me.

Once is a fluke, twice ...
Thursday 18/11/2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Stinging Fly arrives

Just as the temperature here starts cranking its way to summer, and the air tightens with the promise of afternoon storms, the Winter issue of the Dublin based The Stinging Fly arrives.
It's always nice to be published, but getting poems into Journals I pay to read anyway, always feels special.
The Stinging Fly itself seems to be getting bigger and this issue adds graphic fiction to the usual excellent mix of poetry, short stories, reviews and articles.
16.16 17/11/2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pound, Eliot and the untold true story of 1066

Ladies and gentlemen, the Highly Esteemed Goon show brings you:
(sound of wet kipper hitting custard…)
1066: the Untold but TRUE story…Starring Russel Maximus Hood as Hereward the Sleepy and any number of beautiful actresses
as his historically irrelevant love interest…

sound of heavy thump followed by body falling to the floor.

Announcer; Mr Eliot and Mr Pound, thank you for joining us on critics forum.

Eliot: well, unless they go on producing great authors, and especially great poets, their language will deteriorate, their culture will deteriorate and perhaps become absorbed in a stronger one.

Pound: I agree: If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays

Sounds of scuffle, chairs falling. Eliot saying: really! This is most undignified. Pound saying; get me a phone, I want to talk to the president…

Spike: clears his throat…yes, due to budget problems there has been a change of cast…Wallace my good man…

Announcer: It was a dark and windy night

Spike; the Naafi had been serving beans again…

Announcer; stop it with these naughty post war jokes. No one will understand. It was a dark and windy night somewhere in not so merrie England. William the secretly reviled was feeling philosophical.

Spike: I didn’t know he had an Irish lover?

Announcer: Our regular listener will recognise that William the horrible is actually Count Moriarity in disguise; And we’d just like to say, Jim, on behalf of us all, thank you for listening. The cheque is in the post..

William: Bloodnock, you English are so revolting. You were revolting last year and the year before. I am going to kill you, but before I do, I am going to let you into ze secret. You might think I conquered England because my army was stronger than an English host weakened by two long and bloody battles…

Bloodnock looks surprised but says nothing…which is very difficult to do on radio.

William: The truth however….Minstrel, play appropriate flash back music:

Announcer: Scene: the white cliffs of Dover (you have to take my word for it) water, gulls, traffic. A gale is blowing
King Harold Seagoon the first and soon to be the last, is despondent. The Normans are massing across the channel. His time is running out. Where it’s running to nobody knows…

Spike: enough of these terrible punes…

Bluebottle: My captain, I heard my capitane call. Makes grand entrance. Waits for applause. Not a sausage. Sulks.

Ned; Ah suitably dark age greetings my grubby little alliterative half line. How goes the great work?

Bluebottle; it is finished my Captain. I read it to that Dorrisberga and ..giggles…goes bright red, stands on one legs and tries to wink. Falls over.

Ned; you naughty little nerk. That bag of jelly babies is yours. Read it to me, so that our language might be rejuvenated and fortified against the evils of Norman French.

Bluebottle: strikes impressive Nelson on His Column pose. Puts hand on chest under shirt. (giggles) Stands on one leg again. Is blown over the cliff clutching piece of parchment.

Sounds of falling object followed by distant splash.

Bluebotle(far off): I’ve fallen in the water (audience cheer) shut up you swine!

Neddy; Eccles, quick, jump in and save the poem

Sound of footsteps going away, then coming back…sound of falling body and distant splash.

Neddy: Eccles you idiot, what are you doing?

Eccles: (far off) Drowning.

Neddy; Here, use this box of holy relics I got from William the obnoxious. Use it as a float until I get help. I’m off to find a kipper for this sketch

Blue bottle; Don’t you mean a skipper for the ketch my Captain?

Neddy; needle nardle noo. it’s started already. (mutters as he exits)

Announcer; and now our scene shifts to the other side of the channel.

(frantic sound of packing, grunts groans, door slams shut, car racing away. Screeches to halt. sound of frantic breathless rowing. waves, gulls, boat scrunching ashore. Feet on sand)

Spike; (gasping) there has to be a better way…

Announcer; Count Gryppe type thin, pretending to be Blondel, insinuates himself in a suitably furtive Gallic manner into the throne room of William the bastard. Who is watching a ballet and eating pain au chocolate.

WTB: Wearily: is it finished?

GP: it is my chocolate-coated munificence.

W: is it a work of the highest quality, which only a few of the current intelligentsia will appreciate?

GP: it is so difficult that it will baffle critics, who will study it at the university of opaque theoretical waffle in Paris nine hundred years from now.

W: will it immediately invigorate our language and make us victors over those alliterating long haired fops?

GP; My lord, I have used the pluperfect, the passe compose and the past historic

W: you vile evil charmer. Your misspent youth in the public urinals of Calais has finally paid off.

GP: (gasps) The doctor, he told you everyzing?

W; He told me nathing…but on with ze story I don’t want you to die horribly before you have finished….the passé compose is passé, zey will respond with the simple past, zey even have an answer to our subjunctive ze filthy rotten swines

GP: evil manic genius type laughter. My lord, not only have I insinuated a few examples of the future tense…formed without auxiliary verbs…

W: gasps…victory is ours…

GP: but …Pauses for fanfare….(sound of wet kipper hitting custard) I have managed to use …..dah dah dah dah: the future pluperfect

W; sapristy nuckoes. ze war is won. Let us celebrate with the suitable gallic extravagance: Have another pain au chocolate. Do you like my tutu? (fades)

Announcer: and so on that fateful day in 1066, Harold Seagoon the Last was fatally wounded by a verb in a tense he was unable to recognise. The thriving culture of Anglo-Saxon England ..(voice fades out in dreary lecture style..)

Fade up Sounds of waves, sea gulls.

Bluebottle: Eccles my good man, do you think we are forgotted?

Eccles; We have been in the water for a long time

Blue bottle; yes, I think that Irish coast guard was a filthy rotten nerk…where are your papers he says says he and then splosh back in the whale’s bath without so much as a keel to row.

Eccles; that was days ago. Hey Bluebottle: I see land. Ooh, look, dem peoples are in the nuddy. All their bits are showing

Bluebottle: er Eccles my good man, it appears I have lost my national health service specs, do you see girls…
Eccles; Yup. Yup.

Bluebottle: oooooh, dieded we dided and wented to heaven…

Announcer: Ladies and gentleman and representatives of all other categories ; that concludes this episode of the highly esteemed goon show.

William: Hey, wait ze minute. Why fore are you all not ze French speeeking?

Gun shot. Gallic groan. Body hits floor.

Spike: has he gone?

Neddy: yes.

Peter: fancy a pint

Eliot and Pound: please!

Gun shots. Bodies hitting floor.

Spike: (warily) have they gone?

Neddy: yes, but I fear we haven’t heard the last of those two….

(11.37 27th of October)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

bad pun of the day

there were two birds sitting on a perch. One asks: can you smell fish?

(Courtesy of Trevor the Banjo).

Billy Collins': The Guest. Puzzling over value

The poem is published in the current review of the London Review of Books. I don't know how much of it I can quote legally: the first verse reads:

I know the reason you placed nine white tulips
in a glass vase with water
here in the room a few days ago
was not in order to mark the passage of time
as a fish would if nailed by the tail
to the wall above the bed of a house guest.

There are another 8 lines.

So what do we know about our speaker and his or her situation. He or she is a guest: knowing he or she is welcome: “I know the reason wasn’t…” The flowers are a reminder that time is passing, but s/he hasn’t yet “made themselves at home”.

So let us assume that there is a relationship where one person feels as though he/she is not really at home and doesn’t really understand why not: she/he notices details, but these details don’t tell the reader anything specific about the relationship or about either the speaker or the person who is being addressed. We learn ‘you’ puts tulips in a vase full of water…hardly strange behaviour: a vase without water or full of beer might be worthy of notice; the host doesn’t nail a fish above the guest’s bed (how strange they don’t do that…) and owns a glass topped table that is by the window of the room. That’s all we know about “you.”

It could be argued that the fact that “I know the reason” which begins the poem and the “was not’ which qualifies it, is separated by four lines creating some kind of tension other than grammatical, perhaps performing the speaker’s doubt? ”I know you’d didn’t do it for this reason” suggests at least the thought that maybe he or she did. Later the same syntactic suspension occurs between “I did notice” and “my suitcase’? So the guest is not sure of his welcome, and he’s just realised he doesn’t feel at home enough to have unpacked the suitcase, but instead has it “by the door” ready for a quick exit?

Because it’s vague, I could come up with things that this is a metaphor for: early stages of a romantic relationship; a marriage, an aging poet addressing the reader, feeling that time is running out and the “suitcase’ (trans; word hoard) is still not totally unlocked……but we’re back with Teenage Cavemen. It’s almost a ready made metaphor you could use for any number of relationship situations without being specifically about anything. Ahaaa, I hear someone cry, this is so obviously a poem about……because white tulips are traditionally a symbol or …and Nine is a ….number and the fact that only two of them are dropping means….

It seems to me an example of a writer “being poetic” without actually offering anything to the reader than what must pass as a “poetic’ poem in some circles. The most arresting image in the whole thing, to which the only rhyme in the poem calls attention, the nailed fish, is not something that is really relevant; it’s something that is not.

Nagging at “content”, “meaning” and “trying to understand the situation” is obviously not the only way to read a poem. It’s usually a fairly limited one. But the writing here forces attention on content not only because it’s so vague (call it allusive if you want to be polite) but because nothing much is happening in terms of poetry. /I/ knows what’s going on. I don’t. And since I don’t care, what I’d like is something in the poem as a poem for me to enjoy.

In such a short piece I’d expect (Would you?) the writer to have chosen each word carefully. In such an old-fashioned first person lyric I’d expect syntax, diction and rhythm to be working together in ways they wouldn’t in prose. Heaney does informal syntax, but his poems at their best are held together with patterned sound and while the impression is a voice speaking to the reader the artifice itself is enjoyable.

But written out as prose The Guest doesn’t lose much.

Lines like “In a glass vase with water/here in this room a few days ago” are not interesting in themselves in terms of diction, syntax, rhythm or sound. Rhythmically the lack of any type of end stopping in the first verse paragraph keeps the eye moving, but it makes line endings redundant. How much difference is there between the printed version and this:

I know the reason why you placed
Nine white tulips
Here in this room a few days ago
Was not in order to mark the passage of time.

If poetry is about making words work then the diction here is consciously informal and uninteresting. The “grey light” of early morning, “the passage of time”, (both in the second stanza), if not clichés are too vague when placed beside “glass top table by the window” Why does it matter where the table is or that its top is made of glass? (On the other hand, the fact the suitcase in the last line of the poem is “by the door’ does seem relevant.)

Why “nine white tulips” (do we need to know there are nine and then two this important?) Or is “white” important. Why “even touching’ and not just ‘touching’? Why is the suitcase “only half unpacked“ and not just “unpacked”?

What does ‘as they lose their grip on themselves” mean in terms of flowers withering? What could it mean? Since the phrase is usually used about people, then are being invited to see the two wilting tulips as the guest and host but what could it mean that they are “losing their grip”? On what? Why?

Someone must have loved this poem; it’s published in the current edition of the London Review of Books. Which must be a prestige market. But for the life of me I can’t see the value of it. If this is "accessible poetry" (Collins sells well in the States. He's been American Poet Laureate.) ) when you push it the meaning isn't accessible at all: it evaporates, leaving nothing.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Seamus Heaney's "Human Chain": coming home via three quotations

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

(Eliot: Little Giddings)

not “to Know”, if to know means the “real truth” of something will be revealed to us, but to see the once familiar differently, to react in a new way based on new knowledge or experience. Or to discover that what we thought before we left has been confirmed.

So in the past year, as part of the new project, I have worked my way though the major sequences/long poems of the twentieth century. (There are a more of them than I thought) . It reminds me of traveling home on the Trans Siberian: large swathes of time and landscape I don’t remember, punctuated by intense moments: seeing Lake Baikal, the grey water steaming in the sub zero temperature, surf coming in to smack into snowdrifts, the Narnian beauty of sunsets, small villages all but buried under snow, like illustrations for European Fairy tales, the Chinese family who spoke neither Russian nor French or English but who managed to talk me into sharing their breakfast of boiled chicken feet and home made vodka…

But somewhere east of the beginning of Zukofsky’s “A’, about “A 9” perhaps, the images changed. I was back on the trans Kazak express, staring at an unchanging landscape, imagining trying to walk across the steppe, a tottering survivor of a massacre plodding onwards because he’d forgotten how to stop.

A long long way from Kerr’s Ass. Time to go home

And there was Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain waiting to be read.
But I had also been reading aggressive poetics:

Quote #2
…Establishment poetry is approaching the condition of journalism—"a form of writing as harmless as it is ephemeral": A generic "sensitive" lyric speaker contemplates a facet of his or her world and makes observations about it, compares present to past, divulges some hidden emotion, or comes to a new understanding of the situation. The language is usually concrete and colloquial, the ironies and metaphors multiple, the syntax straightforward, the rhythms muted and low-key. Generic and media boundaries are rigorously observed: no readymades or word sculptures here, no zaum explorations of etymologies, no Steinian syntactic permutations. As for Eliot's objective correlative, it emerges, in the mainstream poetry before us, as little more than a faint echo, an ironic tic.

Having read enough of this type of criticism I opened Human Chain and the first poem begins:

Had I not been awake I would have missed it

And I shut the book.

It took a while to see beyond the criticism of the quotation. Reciting Kerr’s Ass helps. Perloff may be a great critic, but it’s not the paradigm of the lyric speaker itself that is the problem but the way it is so easily abused. In the wrong hands it’s too easy, requires no great art or thought to churn out the formulaic “poem”. But open any journal or book and you’ll find poems ticking boxes that prove the writer is “having a poetic experience”. (The PE may be aggressively modernist, avant garde or lyric depending on which poetic the writer hangs his or her hat: Sooner or later everything becomes formulaic).

Heaney has never seemed a box ticker. It’s true that Human Chain has an air of familiarity about it; some of the poems feel as though they’ve been here before. The “Heaney topics” of rural boyhood, school, family and religion are ever present. At times his habit of using an unattributed pronoun as the subject of a poem becomes irritating. The poet knows who “he’ or ”she” is or was but the reader has no chance and the overworked pronoun collapses the poem into vagueness. One of the great defining characteristics of the man’s work, the sense that a voice is speaking directly to the reader, at times lapses into a syntax that produces lines and a stanza like ”flattened back/ against themselves/ a bit stand-offish’. Or the whole of “Canopy” with its opening stanza:

It was the month of may
Trees in Harvard yard
Were turning a young green
There was whispering everywhere.

Which never rises above a literate diary entry.

But having said that:
Quote 3#

The sight quenches, like water
After too much birthday cake.

(Thom Gunn: “Expression”)

In The Wanderer, wisdom is understood as intelligence looking back on experience in age. It’s not a popular ideal these days in cultures driven by the cult of eternal youth, so in one sense to say that these are an old man’s poems may not convey the intended compliment. And to stick 'wise' in front of old would only sound even more anachronistic.

At seventy, having survived a stroke, you shouldn’t be too surprised if the poet is in retrospective mode. The collection is ghosted by a sense of summing up and coming to terms. Each recent Heaney collection has contained at least one poem in memory of dead friends. Some of them are very good poems. Like the Old English poet, he can produce memorable poetry out of the specifics of a common sense of loss. He does elegy well. In this collection: ‘The door was open and the house was dark” with its lift towards its final memorable image is a fine example in this collection.

There is also that familiar ability of his to see things awry as in “Miracle’ with its arresting opening:
“Not the one who takes up his bed and walks/But the ones who have known him all along/And carry him in-“

After all the theory, after the poetics, the gabble of disaffected voices, the struck pose and the learnt strut, it feels good to come back to poems sturdy enough to walk in the day time, that celebrate rather than whine or denigrate or disappear into their own self serving ideological smugness.

Human Chain my be uneven. But that says something about the poetry. Its successes and failures aren’t hidden behind a hedge of conceptualized waffle. As verbal artifacts they succeed or fail. I suspect the success comes from the sense of recognition, of a shared experience spoken aloud.

Bunting said he had tried to make poems that would give pleasure but stand on their own without prop of theory or the support of party. He succeeded. So does Heaney. If nothing else there are poems in this collection that challenge the generalsied condemnation of Perloff's statement.

Monday, September 20, 2010

i.m Jerry Dixon part two

The Ballad of Tappen Falls.
(to the tune of any generic slow sleazy blues)

Jerry Dixon ran the South fork
With an English friend
He ran some evil rapids
He cheated death again
Then they paddled down the Middle Fork
And were not impressed at all
So the river quietly rumbled
Wait till Tappen Falls.

The river waited patiently
for the best part of a week
Jerry said: “there’s nothing on this river
Half as Bad as Devil Crik
And these things that you call rapids
They are really rather small"
And the river quietly rumbled
Just wait till Tappen falls.

A bozo in his Duckie
He was out to have some fun
He took his cigar stub from his fat lip
Asked “Can I make that middle run”
Jerry tried hard to dissuade him
Said he’d stand no chance at all
If he stuck his rubber duckie
In the hole at Tappen Falls

The right had line looked obvious
Scouted from the bank
But poised above the rapid
Our Jerry’s mind went blank
He did the main drop sideways
To the wonder of us all
And that’s how he got stuffed
In the drop at Tappen Falls.

He was trashed, chewed up, spat out
Rock spotting upside down
He saw God at the bottom
As the boat bounced round and round
And lined along the river
All the bozos said, with awe:
Oh so dat’s de way you do it
When you kayak Tappen falls.

So the South fork of the Salmon
Is white water at its best
You got Rooster Creek and devil creek
To put skills to the test
But underestimate the middle fork
You’ll hear the river call
For a dose of True Religion
Stuff up on Tappen Falls.

Nuannaarpoq: a verb meaning to take extravagant pleasure in being alive.

I wrote this at camp the night it happened. And have resisted the urge to edit it. Even doggerel has its place.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

blurb wars revisited

A statement about Bunting's Collected, quoted on the back of Makin's book:

"Bunting is a great master... anyone with an ear or an eye will immediately appreciate his extraordinary lyric gift and his acute visual sense." Craig Raine, New Statesman (ellipsis in the original)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

I.m Jerry Dixon

Some men should have mountains named after them, except in Jerry’s case it would have to be a restless mountain, with ice and snow sheeting off its face in winter and water cascading in spring, and at its base there would have to be a huge, roaring river raging though a spectacular gorge. It would be the kind of place that attracted people like him.

So one story though there are so many:

That summer, he and I paddled the Main and then the South and Middle forks of Idaho’s salmon river system. Coming off the South Fork, which he and I had run with no permits, no back up, and after that first night at George’s place, there had been just the two of us and the bears and the rattle snakes and the river, we met up with friends to run the Middle fork.

We had been comparing the Middle Fork's rapids to the South fork and were unimpressed. It’s always a good recipe for a disaster. Arriving at Tappen Falls we only got out to scout because there was a group of tourists with their bright inflatable rubber duckies looking at the falls.

A fat man with a cigar in his mouth asked Jerry if he could run his rubber duckie through the main hole.
Jerry spent some time dissuading him.

We scouted what seemed the obvious line for kayaks and I took off: hit an eddy line we hadn’t seen, and in my four metre kayak was faced with "water fall sideways" or "water fall backwards". Much to everyone’s amusement I choose backwards, demonstrated the rock splat/pivot below the drop and tried to look like it was all planned.

Dixon, following, did it sideways, flipped, bounced his helmeted head along the rocks, and finally rolled up.

Watters was laughing so hard at our disasters he wrapped the raft on Little Tappen, so we pulled over to have lunch. A very fat man with a thick cigar in his mouth, wallowed past us in a bright yellow duckie.

Hey, he bellowed to Jerry, are you the guy who kayaked Tappen upside down.

No said jerry, waving his hand down river, he’s gone on down stream. Heluvva boater though, helluva boater.

He was. And it was my privilege to have known him.

So: Go light, Go fast, Go far.

And remember: If you need to ask how hard it is; you shouldn’t be there.

Monday, September 6, 2010


Mr. Graves, who read his own obituary, knew about such things:

The Persian Version
Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer's expedition
Not as a mere reconnaisance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece - they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.

Robert Graves

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Reported in today's paper:

"and because of our drawdown from Iraq we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offence" said President Obama.

Presumably a continued offensive against the English language.

Did some highly paid speech writer sit there thinking, Oh god, if we say withdrawal someone might think we're withdrawing, so if we say Drawdown no one will know what the F&&& we're talking about and it'll be smooth sailing at the polls?

In future will we see it conjugated. When we drewdown in Iraq, while we were drawdowning.

What's even more depressing is the journalist who reported on this speech used the word outside of reported speech as though it were a normal phrase and the Australian editor who published this nonsense didn't stop and challenge it.

There again, this is the nation that once said its marines were advancing towards the rear.

Sometimes it's funny...Only sometimes....

Monday, August 16, 2010

Word games

She said: "I hate my car." A little while later she declared: "I hate my body."
So she donated her car to a friend and walked everywhere.
When she tried to donate her body to science they pointed out she'd have to die first.

When she said "I'm going out in five minutes. Are you coming with me or not" I pointed out it was raining outside.
When he told her "I'm going out of my mind" she said she had to resist the urge to ask"Where to?"

Sunday, July 18, 2010

attitudes to poetry part two:The Stinging fly and Bunting.

From Dave Lordan’s review of “identity Parade: New British and Irish poets” in the Stinging Fly issue 16/volume two summer 2010-07-18

The poems here are nearly all beautiful in the sense that they are very well-sculpted and clearly and sonorously expressed. Sometimes, however when confronted with such apparent technical faultlessness I am put in mind of Ron Silliman’s question of ‘what is more deadly than a poem that seeks to be told it’s beautiful?’ What I find lacking are formal and thematic reflections of our commonly experienced fragmentation , confusion, disturbance, upset, instability and insecurity. By and large the senses of all prevailing danger, irredeemable human failure and imminent total disaster that characterise the zeitgeist are not well communicated here…” (p123)
“Our commonly experienced….”
[resist the urge to list all the things that are more deadly than a poem….]

The eerie near total absence of political poetry in our era of neo-imperialism, neo-liberalism and climate change is also deeply troubling, but not suprising. The cultural and intellectual scene overall is far less radical and interesting than it was even twenty years ago and it apt that the general retreat from commitment and strong ideas and concurrently from passion, risk and invention, should be reflected in poetry. (p123)

“The general retreat from commitment and strong ideas…..”

Compare with Bunting, replying to this request (Poetry 1972):

I wish to publish a special issue of Poetry protesting the acceleration of the undeclared Indo-Chinese War and shall be grateful to consider any poem on this terrible and topical subject that you might wish to contribute as soon as possible. I am not an American citizen , but this is not an American issue. IT is of global importance.
Poetry is a matter of life and death.
Daryl Hine

Bunting replied:
Poetry does not seem to me to have any business with politics. Whatever thoughts the war in Vietnam puts into my head, they are not as could be well expressed in verse. …
There’s not a soul who cares twopence what I or any other poet thinks about the war, Nixon, Wallace, marijuana, pills, oil spills, detergent advertisements or the fog from Gary. We are experts on nothing but the arrangements and patterns of vowels and consonants, and every time we shout about something else we increase the contempt the public has for us. We are entitled to the same voice as anybody else with the vote, no more. To claim more is arrogant.
So I won’t be contributing to your special issue.

in a short talk that prefaced the reading he gave at Keats' House in 1979 Bunting said:

Poetry hampers itself when it undertakes advocacy, however indirectly… Poetry that advocates obscurantism, or on the other hand naïve slogans of liberalism is a nuisance to everybody who can read. What I have tried to do is to make something that can stand by itself and last a little while without having to be propped up by metaphysics or ideology or anything from outside itself; something that might give people pleasure without nagging them to pay their dues to the party or say their prayers.
It’s brought me just what I expected from the first: nothing….and after sixty years of fairly good work without pay I haven’t even a house of my own to die in.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Attitudes to poetry part one:salt

I have been researching the attitudes and assumptions that underwrite the production, publication reception and consumption of modern poetry. And the history of their development. It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds.

I was thinking that Salt’s 2009 “just one book” campaign would be a good example and so went to their website to see if I there were details I could reference.

So I was feeling guilty, not because I didn’t buy a book, but because I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been if any other business had tried the same line. Imagine the car producers in Coventry in the sixties and seventies: Humber, Roots, Triumph, Chrysler, Rover going public: ”We are going broke because no one wants the cars we make. SO if everyone would just buy one car we can stay in business and continue to make the cars you don’t want.”

Their disappearance was devastating: not just on the families coping with unemployment, but in the broader sense where schools stuttered, trying to sell the future to kids who knew there wasn’t one: the precinct with its shut and empty shops, even Woolies, shrinking and then finally going.

So feeling guilty for the cynicism, I went to the website, read this and gagged.

“Support the good work here. Don’t let Salt fall. If the recession is going to take things down, let it be motor manufacturers, let it be bad banks, let it be chains of fast food restaurants. We can lose a few of them, but we don't have enough small independent and daring publishers like Salt. I think I can be a little more forthright than Chris and say ‘Just six books’. Buy dozens why don’t you? It’s a great list. And apparently you will help the economy in many subtle ways too complicated for studious folk like us.” — GRYFF RHYS JONES

“We can lose a few of them”!!! Who does he speak for? Who are these “Studious folks like us”? Obviously not people who have jobs. Or intelligence despite their study if the last sentence is anything to go by

Then I thought maybe it was a joke. Someone poking fun at the whole thing. Irony.

But I’ve never been good at being “Outraged from Anywhere”.

I cut it and pasted it and put it in the file as a prime of example of what I’m studying.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Graves on Pound

So they were both equally dedicated to the craft of writing poetry, both professionally obsessed with other languages and both equally daffy in their own ways.
I prefer Graves' version of nuts which is a gentler old fashioned kind of lunacy.
There's a story he told about meeting Pound in T.E Lawrence's "rooms" at University. Pound was visiting Lawrence who was an expert on things provencal...
Lawrence; Pound, Graves: Graves Pound. You won't like each other.

This is Mr. Graves on the Cantos
It is an extraordinary paradox that Pound's sprawling, ignorant, indecent, unmelodious, seldom metrical cantos, embellished with esoteric chinese idiographs-for all I know they may have been traced from the nearest tea chest-and with illiterate Greek, Latin, Spanish and Provencal snippets (the Italian and French read all right to me but I may be mistaken) are now compulsory reading in many ancient seats of learning. If ever one comes across a relatively simple Blake-like passage in the cantos, sandwiched between direct quotations from history textbooks and snarling polyglot parenthesis , this is how it sounds. Forgive me but we are all adults here...

Quotes from cantos

even Whitman's barbaric Yawp was hardly as barbaric as that. But remove the layers and layers of cloacinal ranting, snook-cocking, pseudo-professional jargon and double talk from Pound's verse, and what remains? Only Longfellow's plump, soft ill-at-ease grandnephew remains!

Maybe Lawrence was right.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pound's Cantos

There are the alps said Basil B. You can go the long way round to avoid them, or you can sit and wait for them to crumble.
Not me I said, I'll go straight through.
so I did.
1-95 without much pause. five days. The pain killers helped.
With no footnotes or translations or other critical waffle.
and there was much bad history and poor economics and some rancid ideology and vast swathes of boredom and once in a very long while a bit of jaw dropping poetry.
Compare/contrast Pound's editing of The Waste Land, which I have also been mulling over. Available in facsimile. How removing chunks of it turned a good but rather uninteresting poem into a piece that still unsettles with its strangeness.
Pity he lost that crayon.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Peter Makin and the art of good criticism

So I looked up Peter Makin, or his work, having been annoyed by the footnotes to Bunting on Poetry.(see Bunting On Wyatt several posts ago) I still don't appreciate Makin's editing of that book, but his book about the shaping of Bunting's verse is fascinating reading.

Here is a fine reader, nagging away at the simple question: how good was this man's poetry. And if it was good could it possibly be great and if it were great how can that be verbalised. Like the illuminations of the gospels he discusses, it's slightly obsessive, and bordering the fringes of a gentle lunacy, but like the illuminator, the final product is clear sighted and impressive.

He begins with the poems; not the theory or the poetics, and reads carefully. And he takes on the objections to his method.

And you begin to realise, if you had been living on the moon had had never stopped to think about it before, how difficult is that question: is this a good poem? How hard it is to answer it. But he performs the fact that it can be answered: not neatly in a five second sound grab or some kind of trendy slogan that could be assimilated into the next best selling "how to write a poem". He swerves, backtracks, takes Bunting to task, stops to marvel, finds faults, but all the while heading, if not inexorably, more like Graves' flying crooked Butterfly, towards an answer.

Observing what he calls “ ‘the seduction scene in Briggflatts’ he states “This scene does without a great deal of what we might expect to find in such a description.”…
Comparing it to a scene from The Rainbow he writes; But the addition of detail would add nothing if the centre, the essence, were poorly conceived. With a mass of denotation-like the venetian painters with all their skill in modelling-a writer may only make clearer his weakness. Bunting’s scene is cut down to a few flat planes. They undress; he runs his fingers though his pubic hair; they talk through the night; she washes him. From these sections, we infer the solidity that is needed”

(Peter Makin (Bunting: the shaping of his verse. 1992 p 225/6))

(I’d have thought that "thatch of my manhood’s home” was hers, not his? but the freedom to dissent here is part of the effect of the style. The fact we might see it differently doesn't detract from the success of the suggestion. It may even be a criteria that measures the skill of it.)

How much detail is too much: how much too little? What is admirably terse; what is too private?

Good criticism illuminates the text it discusses and for the would be writer, forces an encounter with hard practical questions.

And Makin does a good job of showing why so much of the Stanley Fish ("is there a text in this class/How to recognise a poem when you see one") style of approach to poetry, for all its sometimes enjoyable pyrotechnics, is a facile dead end. Both for the reader and the writer.

Friday, April 2, 2010

To criticize the critic

Not the done thing apparently.

But if I'm going to consider "who is speaking" and the sincerity typos sooner or later I run up against the idea that what is really at stake is the indvidual's response to the poem. And the dangers of taking a subjective reaction and passing it off as an objective, measured response.

So i've been domesticating the argument and thinking about the reviewer who described parts of Lady G as “embarrassingly unconvincing.”

What does that mean? Does it tell the reader of the review about the poem or the critic? And what as writer could I learn from this? How do I make my poem more "convincing".

The story of Lady Godiva’s ride though the city as told by twelfth century latin chroniclers is historically unconvincing because it claims to be truth and there are too many reasons why it couldn’t be.

If you claim to have kayaked the Herbert river from its upper reaches to where it becomes tidal and don’t mention or remember that below the main falls there is a series of falls which must either be paddled at great risk or portaged at some risk, then I will be unconvinced.

In both cases I can measure the claims against an objective knowledge. ANd the claims are undermined by their own inaccuracies.

So our critic is saying he’s met a First century Roman Legionnaire and knows they don’t speak like this? I don't think so.

let us give the critic the benefit of the doubt, a courtesy he doesn't extend in his review: surely he doesn’t think I’m stupid enough to pretend this is what a real Roman legionnaire said in the first century standing on the ramparts of the Lunt?

So given that it’s not a truth statement, and given the fact that this is not a warped attempt at mimesis which can be measured against the real thing, what does it mean to say it’s unconvincing?

our critic apparently find this embarrassing because? The only real evidence is:

“A green hill “does Dumb Insolence” (more schoolboy attitude than war)”

Sitting there at his computer, wouldn’t you think he'd check his own understanding? How long would it take to type “dumb Insolence” definition into Google? If he had, the first thing he’d have read on the search results page, without even bothering to open the link would be:

Dumb insolence is an offence against military discipline in which a subordinate displays an attitude of defiance towards a superior without open disagreement. It is also found in settings such as education in which obedience and deference to a teacher is expected but may be refused by unruly pupils

Had he bothered to check further he would have found out that in the British military, it was a court martial offence and in time of war punishable by firing squad.

Why did he think his understanding of the term was the only one? Or assume that I wouldn't have checked it before using it?

Instead he declares of number 5: in tones that remind me of my English teacher (which is not a compliment) : “it should have been left out of the sequence”.


Did he take the time to consider how this piece fits into the sequence, because after all this is a sequence, not a series of randomly collated bits, with its own architecture: those veterans sipping tea in part two had just come out of the British military and it might have been a part of the vocabulary passed on to the /I/ growing up in the migrant city. His teachers, many of whom were ex-military might have carried that vocabulary into the school grounds and Adrian Mitchell's poem did a lot of the carrying (and mutating: the sullen ten year old says "They don't like it/but they can't do you for it") .

He might have considered what those twelve lines were doing there, what that speaker might be there to represent and how his statement might be seen to qualify or at least challenge, or be qualified or challenged by the hopes of the later migrants who wait for the city to be made familiar in their children’s stories.

But given that he didn't check "dumb Insolence" I have reasons to doubt that he considered any of these things.

I am unconvinced.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Varney The Vampyre

The good news; it's far better than I expected.
the bad news: 1166 pages...
It's literally bigger than War and Peace
(But much more readable.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When in doubt

read T.S Eliot.
Open the book and start the conversation: Three voices of poetry, in the second one the poet is speaking in his proper person...invite others, here's Bunting in support (he isn't too keen on Eliot but they can be polite to each other) claiming that Wyatt rocks because he is writing about personal events and real people, Graves (what are these two doing together?) agrees: the poet is the poem and the sick poet writes a sick poem. But Northrop Frye is arguing that you should never confuse the appearance of sincerity in literature with the thing itself, and since the boy is a medievalist by training and preference we'd better hear from A.C.Spearing arguing that the sincerity typos is a creation of the middle ages, though while the poets may have realised it was a literary game their audiences, or their readers after they were dead, certainly did believe in it.

Which means, that realistically is there a difference for the reader between a first person poem or narrative and a dramatic monologue. If I read Mr Last Duchess I know that it's not the duke speaking but Browning putting words in his mouth. But If I read Heaney's Digging...I'm reading the words of a speaking character called Seamus Heaney who is the creation of a poet called Seamus Heaney. And the fact that x number of poets could be imagined saying the content of those lines undermines the whole autobiographical nature of the poem.

Back to TSE. I'd forgotten how much fun this is.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Bunting, Wyatt, editors.

Bunting on Wyat (sic) .
(In Basil Bunting on Poetry ed. Peter Makin

It’s interesting when poets I admire admire the poets I admire. And I think Bunting nails some of the things I like about Wyatt‘s verse. He also suggests something that has always intrigued me. Wyatt is regarded as one of the first English poets to go to Italy for his models, and to bring back not only the sonnet but Petrach. But Wyatt Englished Petrach, or Wyatted him, in way some of his successors failed to do. To put it in Bunting’s Northern voice:
“The cruel mistress of Wyat’s poems is not someone to despair over. He is quite ready to give her the chuck if she goes on refusing him.”
To give her the chuck...You can hear the poet saying "bugger this " in "whoso list to hunt" and then compare it to the Petrach piece it's supposed to be "translating".

The other difference is that, despite the forests of Tudor pine in the collected, Wyat’s women seem far more real than Petrach's. As Bunting says, Laura was an excuse for poetry.
“There is hardly ever any reason to remember where Wyat found his material; and indeed for the most part  he found it in his own head (the translations are not so many); or he found it in the eyes of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Darrell, and the other ladies who felt the force of his love and his poetry.”
Those naked arms, long and small, in They flee from me, seem to belong to a real woman.

Or to put it another way, in Wyatt’s poetry an individual voice wrestles with conventions and refuses to be stilled by them.

What I really don’t like about “Bunting on Poetry” is the editorial apparatus. Peter Makin may be a renowned Bunting scholar (I’m guessing he is) but be fusses round the text like a child worried about the impression a beloved but wayward parent is going to make at the Sunday school party. Extended end notes refute, challenge support and explain Bunting’s comments as though Makin wants whatever is said to be RIGHT. It’s a very odd way of presenting material. I’d have preferred the book of lectures without the intro and footnotes which could have been published as “What Bunting Should Have Said”. And that would be a book I wouldn’t pay for.
Though you could imagine someone doing it to Pound's ABC of Reading, or of Graves' lectures. “There is no evidence to support Graves’ suggestion that Anglo- Saxon poetry is based on the rhythm of oars, so what follows is really rather silly and you should go read Professor Bosti Fidget’s unreadable but seminal disquisition on the influence of post colonial feminist economics in the post roman provinces on the development of alliterative metres.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shearsman’s new version of Tottel’s Miscellany

The miscellany (1557) was the first printed anthology of English poetry in English, one of the first examples of possibly dodgy editing practice and a wonderful book. Although it named Surrey on the title page, it also published Wyatt beyond his immediate circle of friends.

This edition, published on my birthday no less, is wonderful in the literal sense of that much overused word. Unlike the usual meaningless blurb the back cover is used to provide most of the necessary background information. This in itself deserves praise. My only real quibble with the whole book is that the afterword isn’t signed and we can’t thank who ever edited this version.
Tottle began with “The printer to the reader”:

That to haue wel written in verse, yea & in small parcelles, deserueth great praise, the works of diuers Latines, Italians, and others, do proue sufficiently.

The lyric was coming of age. Although there are beautiful anonymous pieces from the middle ages, with Tottel the short poem steps up, sometimes with the writer’s name attached, to be considered as “deserving great praise”. This new edition makes it possible to see the moment as it was.

As the quotation makes obvious, the spelling hasn’t been modernised. This isn’t a problem. I’m also grateful to the anonymous editor for deciding not to reproduce the heavy black type of the original. My second hand copy of the Scolar press facsimile is now almost unreadable.

In “The Modern Poet” Robert Crawford, discussing how the presentation of poetry has become subsumed into the academic process, points to the way modern editions of poetry from the past are likely to be edited by scholars who are academic experts in their field. This produces a familiar book where the poems, squashed between the critical apparatus, are presented as objects for study. The penguin Complete Wyatt has 262 pages of poems in very small font on grainy paper, squashed between 66 pages of introduction and 178 pages of notes.

I confess to being a compulsive reader of footnotes, endnotes, introductions glossaries forewords, afterwords and all the familiar paraphernalia of the critical modern edition. So there’s a delightful sense of unfamiliarity to open the Shearsman edition and find nothing but the poems on the page. Set out in a readable font on good paper, the book is slightly bigger than the usual paperback and that makes for a decent sized page.

At first sight it’s actually odd. The poems aren’t jostling for space or competing for attention. Stripped back to what it was, the book invites the reader to pay attention to the poems. This is what I imagine Graves meant when he said poets and readers need “clean reading copies” of poetry. And I like it. It’s pleasant to read. Rochester please?

It’s hard not to start by looking up favourite poems. Doing so misses some of the odder little pieces scattered about.
But being a fan of Sir Thomas, to page 48 to read the tottled version of “They flee from me”. What Tottel did to Wyatt has been well known since the mss versions of the poems were discovered in the 20th century and has been discussed at great length.

This means that modern editions of Wyatt usually include the almost obligatory discussion of “How to read Wyatt” with attendant attempts to show the editor’s favourite version of the metre or method Wyatt may have been using. Fortunately this edition does not do so and resists the urge to correct Tottel.

Reading the Totteled version not as a foot note or as extracts in a long essay is a strange experience. Tottel added titles. I haven’t read them all but he seems to have used third person titles to introduce first person poems. So the piece I know as “They flee from me” ”The louer sheweth how he is forsaken of such as he sometimes enjoyed”. (Which is an advance on the penguin complete’s LXXX)

I can see why people may prefer this version of the poem although the stanza break makes little sense. The poem lacks that familiar jaggedness (highly technical term!) I like in Wyatt. Instead of being forced to think about how to speak the lines, they just toddle along.

But the Tottel version not only adds words but changes them. The sarcasm of the ms “kindly”, which is in keeping with “I have leave to go of her goodness’ has been replaced by the more obvious “unkindly” and the understatement goes out the window. The last line in Tottel’s version is almost bland compared to the bitter whine of “I would fain know what she hath deserved.”

There’s nothing new to say about Tottel or Wyatt and if there is I’m not going to be the person saying it. So all this to say having a good reader’s edition of Tottel presents poems as things to read and enjoy not to study. Anyone interested in English poetry, or in the short lyric poem, should buy this book.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Leofric's family...the events of 1065

With so little evidence the Historian is forced to fit what is available into which ever grand narrative he or she prefers. It’s the only way to make what is a scattered mess into a tidy story. The generally accepted master narrative of the 11th century is that the families of Godwin and Leofric vied for power, possibly at the expense of the Anglo-Saxon state and the unity and strength of the kingdom.

Richard Fletcher, who was after all writing a book about Blood Feuds, could write about the events of 1065: “ For Edwine and Morcar it was an opportunity not to be missed. Here at last was a chance to hit out at the hated sons of Godwin” (Bloodfeud. p161). Victor Head in his “biography” of Hereward wrote: “it is tempting to see in this [the exile of Hereward] evidence of the political intrigues that marked the years leading up to the Norman Conquest and to a large extent contributed to its success.”
Reading backwards family politics becomes a reason for the Norman success and for Edwine and Morcar’s recalcitrance in 1066 and later. That backward reading is supported, consciously or otherwise, by later medieval history where great families did split the kingdom all ends up and by earlier Anglo-Saxon history where Mercia and Wessex and Northumbria were kingdoms vying for political dominance. And by the assumption that two families, both alike in dignity, must have been each other’s throats.

Baxter suggests that the earls were in fact both powerful and vulnerable, hard working administrators who may not have been quite so geographically focussed as we would suspect and that the continued strength and prosperity and peace of the kingdom under the anointed king was in their best interests.

But not being an historian, I can indulge in some whatiffery. Is there any reason to suppose that the Godwinsons and Leofwinsons did hate each other? Or saw each other as rivals? If so for what?

But first a quick recap on what is known about the Northumbrian uprising in 1065.

After ten years or so, the people of Northumbria had had enough of Tostig. While he was away at the southern court they rose against him. The uprising was well-planned. The rebels entered York on 3rd October and killed Tostig’s retainers. Having declared Tostig an outlaw, they offered the “Vacant Earldom” to Morcar, the youngest brother of Eadwine and son of Aeflgar. Morcar accepted, and marched south with his new people, joined by his brother, the fighting men of Mercia and their Welsh allies. Harold Godwinson acted as an intermediary between the king and the rebels. Rather than bring them to heal by fighting, as Edward may have wanted, an agreement was reached which legalised what had happened. Morcar was confirmed as Earl of Northumbria, Edward agreed to follow the Laws of Cnut, and Tostig was isolated. Outraged, he claimed his brother had manufactured the uprising and Harold had to clear himself on oath. The rebels did a bit of Harrying around Northhampton where Tostig had estates, and then went home. The had entered York on the 3rd, the council finished its deliberations on the 28th and Tostig was offered a choice: accept or be exiled. He chose exile. Before speculating about skulduggery.

Edwine and Morcar's father was dead. So was their grandfather Leofric. But Godgifu wasn't. I wonder what Grandma G thought of all this.

1) The rebellion, which is usally simply narrated and explained, was outrageous. The Earl was the King’s appointed deputy in his earldom. To throw him out was an act of gross disobedience. In a top down society, no matter how interdependent the parts of the hierarchy, to overthrow your king’s appointed officer was novel. King’s had exiled earls, but not at the request of the people they were supposed to keep in line.

2) There’s nothing odd about the rebels' choice of Morcar. They obviously needed a candidate to replace Tostig. You don’t just rock up to Morcar’s front door in the aftermath of your rebellion and ask “how’d you fancy being earl of Northumbria’ to which he replies : ”Cor, I’d like that. Hey Edwin, bro, I’m marching south against the King, wanna get some homeys together in a posse and ride with me?”

Choosing a local replacement for Tostig was not a good idea for several reasons. Firstly it would isolate the northumbrians between the Mercians and the Scots; secondly, if Fletcher is correct, while there were candidates from old families in the area, they tended to have enemies who were candidates from other old familes; at least they could all regard an outlander with mutual suspicion and hostility. Morcar was the ideal choice: While planning the uprising they were hardly going to approach one of Tostig’s brothers; as a son of Leofric he had had what passed as training for Earling: secondly, his elder brother had an army.

3) Tostig’s actions after his exile suggest he was following a well known script without quite realising that the world had changed. He probably remembered his father’s banishment and had heard enough stories about it. The pattern, which Aeflgar had worked twice with minor variations, meant you went away, gathered an army, found an ally, roughed up the locals, then gathered enough supporters to make the King take you back. King Harald’s Saga is not a reliable historical source, but it’s interesting that in the dramatic confrontation between the two brothers before Stamford Bridge, Harold offers Tostig a third of England, including Northumbria. Tostig says it’s a pity he didn’t say this last year, and then asks what English Harold will give Viking Harald. The reply ”seven feet of ground” sums up the bind Tostig put himself in.

4) If Tostig was playing a well known script the context had changed in subtle but important ways. Godwin had been exiled for refusing to harry Dover. He had good will in the bank when he came back. Tostig had been evicted by his own people and they didn’t want him back. When he raided along the coast he was seen off by Edwin and Morcar. There was no popular rising in his favour. Godwin had faced Edward. Tostig now had to face his brother. And while Aelfgar had made treaties with the Welsh, Tostig went and made his with a man even the Vikings thought was a hard case, who wouldn’t be happy to see Tostig reinstated in York and then sail home. He wanted the crown of England. And that changed everything.
But the question that intrigues me, is did Harold “do his bother good and proper” in 1065? And does the concept of family feud obscure something else.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Leofric's family...a digression

Before the dirty deeds and misdeeds of 1065…
One of the problems of 11th century history (or one of its delights) is the dearth of available records.

Within a hundred and fifty years of the conquest the number of people who could read an Anglo-Saxon manuscript may have been less than the number who can do so today. Add to that the problems caused by the monastic habit of “Creative Copying” of older charters and documents, outright forgery, destruction and loss of manuscripts over time and then accelerated by the dissolution of the monasteries and what we can know of whole decades is pitifully small.

As the earliest story of Lady G attests, the problem is compounded because the Normans of the 12th century and those who came after weren’t that well informed about the Anglo-Saxons of the Eleventh.

We know Earl Aelfgar was exiled twice. The first time is mentioned in three of the versions of the chronicle although each gives a slightly different version of the story and none gives much of an explanation.

But almost all that is known about the second time is contained only in the Worcester version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 1058.
Here Earl Alefgar was expelled, but he soon came back again, with violence, though the help of Gruffydd. And here came a raiding ship-army from Norway. It is tedious to tell how it all happened. [the entry continues with the actions of Bishop Aldred and other ecclesiastical figures.)

It is tedious to tell how it all happened. It was cold, he was bored, hungry, his fingers hurt and his back and eyes ached. How was he to know anyone would care in a thousand years time?

Hereward the Wake is a hero of Romance, the epitome of English resistance to the Norman invaders, a subject of ballads (he was?) but all the Chronicle says about him is in the entry for 1071 which begins…Here Earl Edwin and Morcar ran off and travelled variously in woods and in open country…Edwin is killed by his own men and the surviving rebels, holed up in Ely, surrender…”except Hereward alone, and all who wanted to be with him; and he courageously lead them out.”

Now, the gaps are so huge you are free to fill them any way you wish.

If you want to argue that he must have been a three toed Nergle from the planet ZIpthith who landed in Ely by mistake, thinking the monastery was a rest and recreation area and the monks were organic orgasmatrons (mark 4 ambulant) you are welcome to do so. It’s about as sensible as arguing that he must have been a son of Earl Leofric. Summarised and possibly supported by Heard in his biography of Hereward, the arguments, based on the novel by Charles Kingsley and a "history" written by a Lieut-General Thomas Netherton Harward in 1896, who thought he was his descendant. make my Nergel thesis seem a model of rational argument.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Earl Leofric's family #2

Eadwine and Morcar, the two surviving sons of Aelfgar, (lady G's grandsons (she was still alive) had their army destroyed at Fulford Gate and then disappear from the evidence until their submission to William after Hastings. If they fought at either Stamford bridge or Hastings there is no evidence, but if they fought at Hastings then they must have “slipped away”.

Their careers after the conquest are depressing: held as virtual hostages, they seem to have tried to operate within the new regime the way their Grandfather and Great grandfather had adapted but failed. There is even a story that William promised Eadwine his daughter.

They rebel, apologise, are pardoned, rebel again. Eadwine is killed by his own men and Morcar, having submitted yet again, plays out his life as a prisoner. Though pardoned by William on his death bed, he was re-imprisoned by William 2 and probably died in the same prison as Harold’s last surviving brother. He’s last heard of as a prisoner around 1086.

As Baxter writes is an ironic end to what is often seen as the great family feud of the 11th century.

Baxter shows how the sorry post conquest career of the boys may not have been simply the result of their character. As he explains, the conditions that allowed the earls of pre-conquest England to be powerful were gradually disappearing. The Earls were no longer able to protect their people; their powerbase was being eroded as their influence at the local level was being steadily diminished. A lord who could neither punish nor protect, reward nor promote, (to put it in terms Baxter doesn’t use) wasn’t worth fighting for.

One other major factor had changed: The King. The great magnates of pre-conquest England seemed to simultaneously muster armies and try to avoid civil war. When Godwine and Aelfgar returned after exile they did so with an army behind them, but in all three cases they were able to negotiate their return with limited bloodshed. When the Northumbrians threw Tostig out, they marched south in force with Eadwine's Mercians and some Welsh supporters, but Harold negotiated rather than raise the army and fight. There was no suggestion that Edward’s status as King was under treat. Perhaps his authority and his ability to force his subjects to do his will was under pressure but there was no attempt by any of these to actually topple the King. Heroic poetry might obscure the fact that most of the time men didn't like fighting unless they had to.

(There may have been some very underhand goings on In the immediate aftermath of Tostig's expulsion...but even so it would have exploited a general reluctance to fight a civil war... see next post).

However, William knew his position was tenuous. Any challenge to his authority implied a threat to his position. The evidence also suggests he and his men were more than happy to fight.
Next post, Revealed, scandalous political dealings in the 11th Century!

Earl Leofric's family #1

The Earls of Mercia
By Stephen Baxter.(OUP 2007)

Having sacrificed an arm and a leg to buy a copy, I have to say it’s been worth the pain. Although you’d think they'd get a decent proof reader to check a book like this. Grumble aside, this is history as careful consideration of evidence, written by someone who knows the limitations of the available evidence and keeps his arguments firmly grounded in it.
It avoids the kind of half informed wishful thinking that characterises some books about the 11th century.
This strict focus on the evidence leads to two paradoxical results.
The first is to show how very little survives from a century. The second, despite the scarcity, or even because of it, the players still emerge.
And in some cases, the evidence is incriminating in ways that speculation cannot be.

So firstly the cleaning up. I wish I’d had this when writing Lady G.
The family tree in two posts and then the more juicy stuff.

Earl Leofric’s father was Leofwine, and as Baxter says this means the Leofwinsons were the great survivors of the 11th century, holding almost continuous (though varying) office from 994 to 1070(ish). For four generations the family served nine kings representing four different royal dynasties. The Godwinsons are sexier, a family of delinquent power hungry nutters makes much better subjects for a story, but it may be better, sometimes, to serve in heaven than rule in hell?

Leofric’s grandfather is shadowy though it’s possible he is named in ‘The Battle of Maldon’ which is ironic given his grandsons’ action.

Leofric had at least three brothers, two of whom came to violent ends. Northman was executed in Cnut’s purge of 1017 although his father wasn’t. Eadwine died in battle against the Welsh in 1039. Confusingly there was also a brother called Godwine who lived til the 1050s. He’s the one who launched an attack while his son, Aelfwine, was a hostage of the Danes. Aelfwine, Leofric’s nephew, having lost both his hands, “lived out his life in the hut of an oxherd”.

Leofric and Godgifu had one son, Aelfgar. There seems to be no evidence of a daughter or any other children.

Aelfgar , who doesn’t seem to have inherited his father’s…. tact, pinballed around the 1050s in a series of banishments and returns. He is known to have had three sons and one daughter.: Ealdgyth, Eadwine, Morcar and Burgheard. The idea that Hereward the wake is a member of the family is a romantic fiction and Baxter advances the case that it is more likely that he was one of Morcar’s men.

Although at this distance it’s impossible to “know” much about Ealdgyth, the bare facts of her life provide an insight into the reality of being a member of such a powerful family. Her uncle had died fighting against Gruffudd but she married him. Dealing with the Welsh was an English problem but the border made it particularly a Mercian one. The fact that her brothers were known to have welsh allies suggests they weren’t always at each others throats. She may have been part of the price her father paid for Welsh support in his two “returns” to power. (The facts open up into speculation. Did she speak Welsh? Or did Gruffudd speak English, or did they require a Latimer? In such a marriage was conversation even necessary? )

Gruffudd was killed in 1063 after Tostig and harold raided deep into Wales. (His own men sent his head to the English). In early 1066 she married the man responsible for his death; Harold which makes her the last queen of Anglo-Saxon England. If you subscribe to the family enmity and feud version, then in theory at least it should have stopped here, not in the bathetic end of Morcar (see next post).
She had a daughter by Gruffudd, and a son by Harold, though the latter didn’t live to see him. It’s possible that if William hadn’t already been married he might have been her third husband.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

" A meme about books"

I stole this from Barbara Smith. But it's about books. How could I not?

1. Which book has been on your shelves the longest?

An oxford pocket dictionary bought in 1971 to start high school. If dictionaries don’t count then a now very tatty paperback copy of Michael Alexander’s translation of Beowulf.
2. What is your current read, your last read and the book you'll read next?

Currently reading ‘Hereward the Wake” It's awful so i blame Linda davis. Just finished The Pen Friend by Ciaran Cason and The monk. (who reads one book at a time?) Next non work read is Varney the Vampire though I think I have to read Butler’s Gender Trouble First..

3. What book did everyone like and you hated?

Don’t often hate books. I hated Eagleton’s “How to read a Poem” with the kind of hatred that is dangerously close to irrational loathing but I don’t know if anyone else liked it.
4. Which book do you keep telling yourself you'll read, but you probably won't?

The fairy Queen. I get about half way through and crash.
5. Which book are you saving for "retirement?"

why save a book?
6. Last page: read it first or wait till the end?

Depends. Most often or not I read the last page first.
7. Acknowledgments: waste of ink and paper or interesting aside?

I always read them. When I was kayaking it used to be a way of finding what some of my friends were up to…All the poetry I’ve published has been read by friends before it ever saw the light of day and some of their comments have been invaluable. Especially with the longer sequences it’s a big ask getting someone to read and comment. So I always try and say thank you.
8. Which book character would you switch places with?

I can think of three characters I’d like to swop with and three books I’d like to be in: I want Thursday Next’s job please. (what reader doesn’t). or to be the River Rat in Wind in the Willows or Lucas Corso in The Dumas club. Then I’d like to be in The House at Pooh Corner; At Swim Two Birds , and Ulysses. (Actually, I’d like to be Ulysses. The whole book.)

 9. Do you have a book that reminds you of something specific in your life (a person, a place, a time)?

Too many
10. Name a book you acquired in some interesting way.

All the Russias by Henry’s an old old book. I did a slide show at bill’s Adventure bookshop in Maleny and instead of paying me he gave me that and a couple more beautiful books. Best payment I’ve ever had for shooting my mouth off in public. (He also had a first edition of the Ascent of Rum Doodle which he didn’t give me.)
11. Have you ever given away a book for a special reason to a special person?

I tend to buy specific books for those kind of people.
12. Which book has been with you to the most places?

 Probably that Pocket dictionary and Beowulf if we’re talking houses. Copies of Ulysses (I’ve killed a few) have probably clocked the most air miles. Mandeville and Basho did the trans Siberian. My paperback of Byron’s Don Juan did the whole Russian/Central Asian trip so I think it has done the most land and river miles and probably been read in the weirdest of places.
13. Any "required reading" you hated in high school that wasn’t so bad ten years later?

 I hated it all and still can’t read a lot of it. I don’t remember liking anything we had to read except for Othello. My teacher put me off Keats and it wasn’t til I was at uni that I reread bits of it and saw it might have some value. Going the other way i loved Lawrence's Pansies when i first found them (we "did" some of his poems for O level. Didn't read them for years. Recently i found a cheap copies of his collected poems. It still sparks.(and no i don't like his prose or his attitudes)
14. What is the strangest item you’ve ever found in a book?

Creepiest was a lipstick smudge on a copy of Shadowland that I swear wasn’t there when I started reading that page. I buy a lot of second hand books so I’ve found everything from letters to flowers, ferry tickets, plane tickets, postcards blank or otherwise. None of them seem strange really
15. Used or brand new?

Both. I don’t’ care. . I like the second handedness of second hand books. I like the marginal scribbles and the underlining. I like the idea of an ongoing conversation with people I’ll never meet. I also love the smell of second hand books. James and I were actually sniffing a set in a book shop when we realised the owner was watching. Expecting to be embarrassed, he said: if you like that, try this..and gave us some first edition Arabian nights to savour…Book sniffers of the world unite!
16. Stephen King: Literary genius or opiate of the masses?

Neither. Damn good at what he does if you like what he does. I prefer early Straub.
17. Have you ever seen a movie you liked better than the book?

Yes. Lair of the White Worm. The film is bad but it’s a vast improvement on the book.
18. Conversely, which book should NEVER have been introduced to celluloid. Ulysses. Stoker’s Dracula. (Polanski’s version of the Dumas club is so bad it’s really a different story.)
19. Have you ever read a book that's made you hungry, cookbooks being excluded from this question?

Can’t say so.

20. Who is the person whose book advice you'll always take?

I’ll take anybodies.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The monk

Found shamelessly reading The Monk.

It’s awful. The editor’s introduction (reprinted from the 1906 edition) gets it right:
“There is food for thought in the case of a man of mere average ability who, on the strength of one crude production written in his teens, was able to find publishers and a market for a miscellaneous series of works that would daunt the hardihood of the most indefatigable researcher to read now …but was regarded as among the leading men of letters of his day.”

Mathew Gregory Lewis was so famous for his book that he was known as “Monk Lewis”. He knew Byron and Moore.
Written in 1795 before the author was twenty, (like Vathek, except Beckford could write) the book attracted such praise and blame that the second edition was “expurgated” by the author.

The writing is awful. Not “awful by modern standards” but just “awful”. It’s hard to believe that Byron admired the book; though possibly it was the idea of openly admiring such a shocking story that was attractive to his lordship. (Actually given B’s biography there may have a been a bit of self identification at work).

There’s a certain sour attraction to the main plot line. And it’s obviously a very English assault on the perceived uglyness of the Catholic church and some of its institutions. (Which links it to Melmoth but Maturin could write) )
Ambrosio the monk begins life as a paragon of religious virtue and the story traces his slippery descent from fornication with another monk..( a woman disguised as a monk, or a devil disguised as a woman disguised as a monk) to destruction by the devil himself. On the way he becomes an obvious candidate for the Group W Bench with mother killing, sister raping and sister stabbing along the way, before being caught and mangled by the Inquisition and then signing a pact with Satan who admits he’s been after him all along, sinks his claws into his skull, flies him up to a great height and drops him.

There’s lots more: sub plots on sub plots…a Bleeding Nun, villains in way side inns, a pregnant nun, who is killed then found alive, brothers losing sisters and finding them, a lover who after losing his lover and finding her raped and stabbed takes up with a conveniently good looking nun who isn’t a nun …You could troop the colour through the plot holes..(Rosario the monk who is actually Matilda who is actually a devil is examined by the convent doctor who doesn’t seem to notice his patient is a woman and this doesn’t surprise Ambrosio.)

So, Le Fanu is still leading hands down. There is only Varney the Vampyre left to consider.

(According to Brewer's "to win hands down" comes from racing where a jockey who is taking it easy has his hands down and one who is trying hard has his hands up).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coventry June 1604 (The early joys of dictionaries)

27th to be precise
Robert Cawdrey (who?) signs the epistle to his book:

A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and vnderstanding of hard vsual English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, latine or French.

Which will be published in London.

The first monolingual English dictionary, with "hard usual words" set out in alphebetical order. Hard to imagine how revolutionary the idea was. The attempt was not to explain all words, just the hard ones. As simon Winchester pointed out when Shakespeare was writing, he could consult books on history. There were atlases, prayer books, missals, biographies, romances and pamphlets. There were guides to rhetoric. There was even a book he could use to check his classical allusions. But he had no way to find out if his use of the word Consanguineous meant what he thought it did. Nor could his audience, on hearing the word, go home and find out what it meant by consulting a dictionary.

No dictionary. No coffee. He do it the hard way.

Consanguinity is in Cawdrey. Not that his little book was always so useful.

Crocodile. beast.

However Cawdrey's book was so novel that he had to explain why he'd written it. He also had to explain to the reader how it was set out:

If thou be desirous (gentle Reader) rightly and readily to vnderstand and to profit by this table, and such like, then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of Letters as they stand, perfectly without booke, and where every Letter standeth: as (b) neere the beginning, (n) about the middest, and (t) toward the end. Nowe if the word which thou art desirous to finde, begin with (a) then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with (v) looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with (Ca) looke in the beginning of the letter (c) but if with (cu) then looke toward the end of the letter (c).

(yes he does spell beginning two different ways.)

The book has only recently (2007) been given a modern printing. It's the beginning of the great tradition of English Dictionaries (what little that's known of Cawdrey suggests he was as awkward and odd as you'd expect which is another part of the tradition) ) ; but what a beginning, and in Coventry too.

Anti Blurb wars part three

Leonard Cohen; Hallelujah-A new Biography

The blurb claims this is “Authoritative but often wryly amusing…” but more importantly: “featuring numerous new and exclusive interviews with some of Cohen’s key Associates and including brand new research which reveals previously unreported details Leonard Cohen; Hallelujah-A new Biography will remain the standard work on the man for years to come.”

So let’s see: “Authoritative” could mean any number of things.
the author does have a tendency to lay down the law about what is and isn't good about the songs or individual records. But unless you're the kind of person who wants to be told what to like, it's a bit tedious.
There’s already a very good biography of Cohen, by Ira Nadel called Various Positions. It’s more a literary biography than a piece of glib rock journalism but the list of people Nadel interviewed and consulted is a long one. The only real criticism you can level against it is that it’s almost hagiographical.

So wouldn’t you expect a book which is claiming to be “the standard work on the man” to be driven by its own agenda which would necessitate the writer moving away from what is readily available? Wouldn’t you expect it to include some interviews with the man himself, conducted by the writer? How do you write an authoritative biography of a living subject if you don’t ask him or her the questions that are driving your biography.

"So Wordsworth, what does it feel like to have been instrumental in killing off one of the greatest talents in English poetry?"
"Harold, what the hell were you thinking?"

If you simply cobble together your work from the answers to other people’s questions aren’t you just retracing the well known tracks? Wouldn’t you think that maybe interviewing the ex wife, or some of the women who figure so prominently in the songs might be a good idea? (it would be the one way to improve on Nadal’s biography). Footman did neither.
So the blurb says:
“numerous new and exclusive interviews with some of Cohen’s key Associates”
There are 200 endnotes to the biography section of the biography. Of these 5 are credited as “interview with the author[Footman]”. Is five numerous? It’s easily outnumbered by references or quotes taken from either Nadal’s Biography or Harry Rasky’s book.
"Exclusive" perhaps but “Some of Cohen’s key associates”…so if you know Cohen’s story think of “key associates“ ..Sharon Robertson, Jennifer Warnes, Rosco Beck.. or Marianne, the ex wife, the “real Suzanne”, Anjani Thomas, Dominique Isserman…? People he knew on Hydra/Nashville/Montreal?
As far as I can make out the “original interviews’ were carried out in May or June 2009 and the book was published in November 2009. Which suggests a lot. The subjects of the "numerous and exclusive" interviews were John Simon John Lissauer, and Stephen Scobie. (Scobie’s work on Cohen has been a long term academic project which actually treats the man’s work with the attention it deserves but nothing he’s quoted as saying here is of that standard.)
I’m not sure what the “previously unreported details” can be since most of the information in this book is taken from previously published and often readily available material.

I think there's a point where blurbs move from being overblown and funny towards being dishonest.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


One of the first Kayaking courses I ran. A week long residential course for adults. In Cornwall. Great place but not for a kayaking course. Anyway.
We're in the pub on the last night going round the table: "What's your best moment?" (leading up to "What do you suggest we change?")
She was twenty three, and had come on the course with her husband on a "let's do something weird and different" impulse.
Her answer: "Being In a field". She paused and thought about it."The one that had the real cows in it. I'm gonna remember that for a long time."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The point of all this slang…apart from the pleasure of it.

(In the canting tongue to open the door is “to dup the gigger”. “To mill the ken” is to rob the house…I will find a way to use these phrases!)
I started out looking for the source of a phrase and was surprised to find that its origins were mid 20th American, not English as I thought.
There’s an undoubted attraction to language that is indigenous to place and time. Barry Lopez went so far as to suggest that genuine mental health is tied into the usage of a language that is organic to the place where it is being used. And certainly Seamus Heaney et al have made their localised dialect a cornerstone of their practice.
In England, language spoken under a cloth cap with ferrets down its trousers always seemed “authentic” in a way that FSE never did.
But when I came to write Lady G I thought about making it specifically west midlands and realised I couldn’t. It’s true that you can argue that the man from Stratford wrote the plays of Shakespeare because so many purely Warwickshire words and expression turn up in them.
But Coventry was a migrant’s city. In some ways it always had been.
According to the VCH, after the war the percentage of incomers to the city was disproportionately high. The people I went to (RC) school with had parents who were Irish, Polish, Yugoslavian, Lithuanian, and 'Slovakian. Neither of mine were born there. There must have been some English but the swirl of voices was anything but indigenous.
This was compounded by our English teachers who laboured under the now unfashionable idea that teaching the children of NESB migrants Formal Standard English was a door opening activity. (“Sir, may we use contractions in our stories?” ”Only in Dialogue, and only if it is essential!”)
So apart from the fact that the way I say Bus and Road betray my place of origin, I have no local dialect to fall back on, no “thole” to make a fuss about. Damn. But then it occurs to me the attraction of the local in a world of mass movements is a kind of romantic nostalgia. I'd love to know how many people live and die in the place they are born. I'm betting it's not the majority. How many of Heaney’s readers have stuck their hands up a cow’s arse?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Even More joys of Slang

The excitement of discovering that what you thought the phrase meant is exactly what it 1811

Slang dictionaries remind me that whatever the rules are, the words will always escape. They don’t remain tied to their classifications as parts of speech, and they certainly don’t rest in the comfort of a neat dictionary definition. Nor will they be tied down to the ball and chain of etymology.

It’s reassuring though to find phrases I thought I’d misheard, misremembered or which had simply been misused. I’d come to the conclusion that Cupboard Love must have been a mistake (perhaps for covert love) but no, it’s there and it meant what I thought it meant. As does/did Mumchancing.

It’s even more reassuring to find out how much hasn’t changed. Phrases that needed explaining in 1811: Kick the bucket, out of kilter, a lazy man’s load, lop-sided, queer street, toddle etc etc meant the same thing 150 years later and were still colouring the speech of adults and children alike.

And then there are the phrases used today which needed explaining then and which, if you stop and think about them, don’t make any more literal sense now. Boxing. A shop lifter. To sit bolt upright. To be taken in.