Monday, December 19, 2011


I do not teach truth as such; I do not transform myself in a diaphanous mouthpiece of eternal pedagogy: I settle accounts , however I can, on a certain number of problems; with you and with me or me, and through you, me and me, with a certain number of authorities represented here. I understand that the place I am now occupying will not be left out of the exhibit or withdrawn from the scene. Nor do I intend to withhold even that which I shall call, to save time, an autobiographical demonstration, although I must ask you to shift its sense a little and to listen to it with another ear. I wish to take a certain pleasure in this, so that you may learn this pleasure from me.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Attitudes to poetry part three: The Prime Minister's award for poetry

This from Australian Poetry:

The annual Prime Minister's Literary Awards will now include a poetry category. Collections of poems first published in book form between 1 January 2011 and 31 December 2011 are eligible for entry. The winning entry will receive $80 000 tax-free and the shortlisted entries will receive $5000 tax-free. This major award is a great step forward in recognising and promoting poetry's contribution to Australia’s literary landscape.

So firstly, honestly, without irony, best of luck to whoever wins it.

But I think it's obscene.

Many (most?) working Australians don't earn 80,000 after tax. And don't start on about "Writing is work and should be paid". That sum bears no relation to sales of poetry books in Australia. It's unlikely that any poet is going to earn that in royalties from one book in a year. (Most won't see that in a life time). The government might as well give a lottery ticket to every poet who publishes a book. (And given the way literary prizes are handed out, it'd be more fair as a comment on the quality of the book.)

WIll it encourage more people to read or buy more poetry books? No. WIll it help struggling independent publishers keep their heads above water? No. (They could split the prize. three quarters to the publisher on the condition they use it to publish new books and the rest to the poet.) WIll it help provide new paying markets for poets? No.

it will give someone the right to put a sticker on a book.

Apparently what it will do is allow Australian Poetry to continue to keep making bizarre statements like: This major award is a great step forward in recognising and promoting poetry's contribution to Australia’s literary landscape..

How does it do that by throwing an obscene amount of money at a single book? It only highlights the fact that in the Australian literary landscape no poet can make this kind of money?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The truth about writing

...and always the cutting out and the buggering about and the buggering about and the rewriting and so on...

Basil Bunting

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

what I learnt etc part three

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, the cabbage white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has — who knows so well as I? —
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

(Robert graves)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

what I learnt as a writer in residence part two

We talk about poetry in ways that are not only different to other arts, but which are detrimental to poems. I’ve never heard anyone say “Music sucks.” Or “Music is sooooo boring” or “I don’t like Music.’

I’ve heard people say “Folk music sucks” or “Wagner is boring” or “I love Bing Crosby and not Frank Sinatra”. But people talk about “Poetry” as if it were a homogenous thing: “I hate poetry”, ”Poetry is soooo boring/difficult/incomprehensible”.

We have a “peak industry body for “Poetry” in Australia.

And inside the academic discourse, teachers talk about “the power of poetry”. Poetry does this or that.

But it doesn’t.

If there is any “power” in poetry lies in the way individual poems mean something to readers. “Poetry” is a meaningless abstraction which cures warts, stops wars or infects readers with unwanted ideological viruses. And which doesn’t exist in the real world.

Oh, I also learnt I can still talk the hind legs off a donkey.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Steve said: "Bert Jansch Is dead".

We were tuning up, and I said, don't be stupid, that's not remotely funny....

But he is.


So I never met the man but I've been listening to him since I found "Rosemary Lane" in the city record library in 75 or 76. And I haven't been able to think of anything to say. Then I remembered Hopkins:

Glory be to God for dappled things
For All things counter, original, spare, strange;

and that about sums it up really. So thank you Mr. Jansch. And safe travelin'

Bit late but it needed saying all the same.
Thank you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What I learnt as a writer in residence part one

I was standing in a classroom, looking at the unfamiliar faces.
Nothing new there, I’ve been doing this for twenty five years. I know the drill. I know I’ll get out of here alive. I’m a total stranger, so there’s enough curiosity and generous courtesy to get me through the first five minutes. That’s all I need. I know that I’ve got a better than good chance of making the next eighty minutes work. The deviants up the back will have something to laugh at, the brightest in the class will have something to think about and I’ll pitch it in a way that keeps them all interested and entertained and informed.
I’m going to speak to five classes, and I know that if this school is like every other one on the planet I can guarantee that by the time I get to class number three I wilI have already have a vague reputation to live up to and I can use that to bank on.
I feel sick, but there’s nothing new there either: fear is a performance enhancing drug and I feel like throwing up everytime I walk into a class room, no matter how sure I am of the class or the material.
So what’s weird is that I’m not here as the expert English teacher, or the curriculum expert, I’m not even here as someone who knows a great deal about the history of poetry: I’m here as someone who writes poems and reads them. And I’m here to talk about poetry from that perspective to a group of kids who are five or six weeks away from the end of school and that means that statistically in the five classes I speak to there will be only one or two students who will ever buy a poetry book. The others might for a wedding or a funeral, but poetry is something they do at school and as far as they are concerned the sooner they can get away from both the better.
I don’t blame my profession. English teachers do what they do because it’s what they have to do. The people who write syllabi might not know their arse from their elbow but they have the power to impose their ignorance on all of us.
English teachers are not there to make poets, make students love poetry or train fledging literary critics.
But ……
I’m standing in a space that is utterly antithetical to everything I’m about to say…

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What is a poem?

‘Poetry is a verdict not an occupation’ or in the words of Pierre Bourdieu (1993. P.35): ‘The work of art is an object which exists as such only by virtue of the (collective) belief which knows and acknowledges it as a work of art’.

This is true of all arts, but poetry is unusual in that in the 21st century, not only does the writer have to negotiate critical judgements imposed by others who may not share his or her poetics, but writing a poem does not necessarily allow him or her to claim the title of Poet, and writing a poem does not necessarily mean he or she is producing Poetry.

The writing is nothing more than raw material, an offering to be ignored or taken up by the machinery of legitimization, whose patronage is based on numerous factors, none of them the value of the writing because it has no intrinsic value to anyone other than its writer, neither commercial nor cultural, outside the process.

It is simply scribble until it has been recognized by those with the authority to recognize it as a poem and then transformed into ‘poetry’ by the process of publication, review, critical reception, academic commentary and consecration: the process of institutionalization that characterizes the discourse of Poetry.

The value of the writing depends entirely on its acceptance into this discourse, and the fact that it is recognized or accepted first as a poem and then treated accordingly. The limitations of its stand alone value are easily seen from the reader or critic’s perspective in Fish’s ‘How to Recognize a poem when you see one’ (Fish 1980), and Richards’ discussion of his “Protocols” (Richards 1929). From the writer’s perspective in the often incomprehensible process where a poem, rejected by one journal is published by another and in the practice of some editors who accept the submission and then feel free to change the words on the page before publication without consulting the writer or even as a condition of publication.

The field exerts its own gravitational force, bending the trajectory of self-editing towards a finished product that will be more likely to have a chance of being accepted. The writer is constantly being told to study the market, read the journal before submitting etc. But even then there is no guarantee; most writers have looked at journals that have rejected their work and wondered why the pieces in the journal were accepted. However, as a writer there is little one can do about this process except accept it as a fact of life or become an editor or publisher.

Monday, August 15, 2011

"Words Alone: Yeats and His Inheritances" by R.F.Foster.

I think one could fairly describe R.F. Foster's output as prodigious. The amount of reading that must have gone into his two volume biography of Yeats alone is almost frightening to contemplate. He somehow managed not to be buried by the details and he is consistently enjoyable to read. Neither of which can be said for Gordon Bowker's new biography of Joyce.

Two examples from Foster's new book: "Words Alone".

The first nails The Boys Own quality of Dracula while simultaneously taking to task some of the more outrageous readings of the book:

In many ways Dracula reads more like John Buchan on mescaline than anything Irish. Its primary identity is as English (or British) shocker rather than Anglo-Irish meditation-however wittily the count and his earth boxes may be interpreted as a metaphor for declining Irish landlords. 105

We could argue whether Uncle Silas is Le Fanu's "masterpiece". Foster's topic in chapter three, "Lost in the Big House: Anglo-Irishry and the Uses of the Supernatural" predisposes him towards the novel as it is always going to be more useful to his analysis than "In a glass darkly". But I like this:

Thus the Styrian lesbian Vampire Carmilla allegedly turns into an 'autochthonous manifestation of the female nation, reaching out from portraits and ruined castles to fascinate and destroy the expatriate English, confined, as Laura is in the novella by a sterile world of patriarchal rationality where no young men are permitted because no continuation is possible.' Perhaps the connection between nation and narration can be taken a step too far.

The reproof is in the juxtaposition of controlled syntax with what precedes it more than in the diplomatically phrased comment.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Australian National Poetry symposium: Free advice on how to be a poetry evangelist.

How to be a poetry evangelist, or an evangelist for Poetry

General Rules
1) Discuss Poetry, or Contemporary poetry: an idealized abstraction which is never the sum of all the poems ever written. Personify it, use a single verb and talk as though it had needs and desires.
2) Make extravagant claims for “Poets”: idealized characters who are never people who produce poems.
3) In both one and two follow the strategy instigated by Sir Phillip Sidney, and followed by Shelley, Emerson, Eliot, Pound, Gioia, et al: do not discuss specific examples. Do not attempt to support your claims for #1 with reference to actual poems or to #2 with the life/career/reality of any poet.
4) Above all know that millions of people aren’t listening, and anyone who bothers to probably believes whatever you’re going to say before you say it so relax and don’t worry about how daft most of what you say really is.
5) It helps if:
You either don’t know much about the history of poems, or you prefer the repetition of myths. Good myths for Poetry evangelists include:
a) Somewhere in the past Poetry had cultural, moral and political significance. If you are Polish, Russian or Irish this may not be such a myth but for the rest of the English-speaking world it helps if you just pretend it’s true.
b) Somewhere in an ill-defined past everyone read poetry and cared about it. (Be vague. The repetition of this myth even by people who should know better has almost turned it into a fact so it’s unlikely anyone will call you out on it).
c) Poetry is important. Vital. Crucial.
d) Poetry is important because it sustains the health or purity of a language. Without Poetry and Poets a language will decay and we all know what that will lead to!

In General:
1) You should avoid not only history but also linguistics, philosophy most modern literary theories and plain common sense.
2) You should lament the small size of poetry’s modern audience (make reference to 5b above), but as a good Poetry evangelist you should always suggest that that people who don’t read poetry are somehow in need of the salvation only Poetry can bring.
3) Make silly claims for poets. (Take Shelley’s Defense as your model. Study his final paragraph. Read Emerson). But keep main rule number two above in mind at all times. Never stop to consider why craftsmanship in arranging vowels and consonants makes anyone an expert in anything other than arranging vowels and consonants.
4) At some stage you should contribute to the debate about how best to turn kids on to poetry so “we” can save civilization as you know it. This allows you to make disparaging references to schools and over-worked English teachers. Any solution you offer should be as idealized and impractical as possible: this guarantees that trained professional educators will dismiss your suggestions as wildly impractical, which then allows you to denigrate them as “lacking vision” and confirm your feelings of superiority without ever having to take the risk of doing anything practical.
5) Use familiar terms vaguely. Blame “modernism” for Contemporary Poetry’s apparent lack of popularity. Be as rude as you like about academic criticism. Talk glowingly about a “truly popular poetry”.
6) Pretend that Poetry is something everyone should enjoy.
7) Never be embarrassed by either the silliness of your claims or the arrogance they imply.
Above all, keep in mind Peacock’s statement: continue to talk as though poetry is the be all and end all of intellectual life as it was in Homer’s time. Do not stop to consider that Peacock’s full statement frames this as a criticism. (Most editors seem to think Peacock was joking. Read him as if he were being serious. Use him as a good example of how not to be a poetry evangelist.)
And finally, do not, under any circumstance start from a realistic appraisal of the contemporary situation of poems as competing in a cluttered market where so much of what people used to use poems for has been taken over by other, more effective forms.
It’s easier if you stick with wishful thinking, historical amnesia and bad linguistics. Your audience, no matter how small, is sure to applaud.

This advice created after reading:
Sir Phillip Sidney’s 'An Apology for Poetry/The Defence of Poetry', Peacock’s 'Four Ages of poetry', Shelley’s 'Defence of Poetry', Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘The Poet’, Ezra Pound’s 'ABC of Reading', T.S Eliot’s ‘The Social function of Poetry’, Dana Gioia’s ‘Can Poetry Matter’, Les Murray’s 'Blocks and Tackles', Paul Dawson’s 'Creative Writing And The New Humanities' essays in 'The Politics Of Poetic Form' edited by Charles Bernstein and the Australian Poetry web site.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bunting, Persian, and Davis' 'Shahnameh'.

I’m reading Dick Davis’ translation of the Shahnameh. Partly because it is the subject of one of my favorite Bunting stories, partly to find out what impressed him so much about Ferdowsi, the author.

And it rolls. I had meant to dip into it and just read about Iraj and his death, the subject of one of Bunting’s poems. and then leave it for a later time when there weren’t piles of ‘things’ that have to be read.

The pile can wait. I haven’t had this much fun since I first read Malory in Vinaver’s edition of the Winchester Mss.

In “Descant on Rawthey’s Madrigal” Bunting relates how he was looking for second hand books along the quay at Genoa where he had previously found the Italian source for his poem “Chomei at Toyama” :

“I found a book-tattered, incomplete-with a newspaper cover on it marked ‘Oriental tales”. I bought it, in French. It turned out to be part of the early 19th century prose translation of Firdausi and it was absolutely fascinating. I got into the middle of the story of the education of Zal and the birth of Rustam-and the story came to an end. It was quite impossible to leave it there, I was desperate to know what happened next. I read it, as far it went, to Pound and to Dorothy Pound, and they were in the same condition. We were yearning to find out, but we could think of no other way. The title page was missing. There seemed to be nothing to do but learn Persian and read Firdausi, so, I undertook that. Pound bought me the three volumes of Vullers and somebody, I forgot who, bought me Steinglass’s dictionary, and I set to work.”

It's British understatement at its best. "There seemed to be nothing to do but learn Persian..." As though it were just a matter of making up one's mind and getting on with it with a minimum of fuss.

There’s a coda to the story. Bunting’s Persian translations didn’t impress Pound, and he doesn’t say if they read the end of the story of Rustam together. But his classical Persian took him to Persia. During the second world war he applied for a posting there:

“I didn’t hear a word of it spoken until I arrived in Persia and was called upon to interpret for a court martial. You can imagine how difficult that was. I hope they put the right man in Jail. Very fortunately it wasn’t one of those case [sic] where it would require shooting or hanging.”

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Yeats, Pound and Bram Stoker (!)

According to Roy Foster's life of Yeats, in the winter of 1915 WBY and Pound were at Stone Cottage reading, amongst other things, Dracula.

it's in a list containing Norse sagas and Doughty's 'Arabia Deserta'. Yeats I understand..Stoker came from Dublin, was significant in the london theatre..and there's Le Fanu, the occult, folklore.

But Pound?

What did he think of it?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Geoffrey Hill, 'Clavics' (part four).

Peter at Enitharmon Press, the publishers of Clavics, drew my attention to this:

He wrote:

"As you will be able to see on the Enitharmon website, I've tried my best to write a proper blurb for Clavics, but it wasn't done in time to go on the back of the book. And I can say it's pretty scary to try and nail his recent work. Only by nailing my colours to the mast have I been able to say something which avoids being completely bland, and I've no doubt that many people will take pretty major issue with it." (See his comment on "Geoffrey Hill, Clavics, (part one)" for the full quote.)

But if you go and see what he wrote, I think he's done a fine job. It contains statements like:

"Clavics is a celebration of seventeenth-century music and poetry, yet is confrontational and sometimes shockingly modern. From one line to the next you may be pulled out of a potently evoked moment of history, thrust up against the wall of sexual politics and strained meaning in contemporary language, and then dropped back onto a battlefield."

Which gives you some idea of what to expect


"Geoffrey Hill’s work is at the centre of a debate about how poetry should develop to find its place in contemporary society. Should it embrace the superficial potency of much of modern culture or turn back in upon itself with ever more complex layers of meaning? Should poetry attempt to gain a broader audience and engage ‘the market’ or consolidate its role as an increasingly obscure bastion of the intellect? Since his election to the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, Geoffrey Hill has not shied away from these questions in his addresses. Now in his first book since he took his place amongst the highest of poetry academics, he has provided his provocative answer."

Which puts the book in a context to suggest its larger significance. It also means someone who's never heard of Hill would know why they might find the book interesting, have some idea of what to expect and be alerted to the fact the man's work is seen as contentious.

(And I thought the copy of Clavics I had was a fine looking book, but I see there is a hand bound and slip cased edition. Books as beautiful objects containing beautiful things.)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699

In 1699, what would you do if someone offered you “A Willing-Tit”?

The Bodleian Library, which previously published Cawdrey’s “First English Dictionary,” has now published an equally welcome edition of “The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699” with an introduction by John Simpson.

It’s a great read, though not as sleazy as the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, and while claiming to offer explanations of Cant, it also includes phrases and other terms, some of which seem out of place.

For example: “Batter”: “The ingredients for a pudding or pancake, when they are all mixed and stirred together”. The OED gives examples of this from the fifteenth century. But Batter as a verb meant to beat against or bombard, and to call the stuff you beat “a batter” is an extension of meaning equal to Nooz’d: for “married”. The impression of words as static, solid objects independent of usage is a fantasy conveyed by dictionaries. Historical Slang dictionaries dispel the illusion. Not only do you get to see “standard usage” emerging from slang: “To box” is explained as “to fight with the fists” and “Bitter-Cold” is given what now seems an obvious explanation. The difference between “slang” and “standard usage” is one of convention.

The surreal effect of the dictionary is to create a context where the plainest of definitions start to seem suspect. “Rangle; when gravel is given to a Hawk, to bring her to Stomack”. Suddenly the nouns seem to be trying to hide. A hawk? It can’t be the bird? Rangle must have a hidden meaning that only an initiate, fully cognizant of the secret meanings of Gravel and Hawk can unravel. Which is off putting at first and then fun once you give in to it. (The OED explains Rangle; the gravel given to hawks to aid their digestion”). Meaning recedes down an endless chain of lexical paranoia?

If puns are the adulterers of semantics, then slang is often seen as the refuge for the demented escapees of the dictionary’s straight jacket, proof that Un Petit D’un Petit was right and you can make words mean what you want them to mean if you pay them enough. Proof too of the linguistic inventiveness of human beings and perhaps a counter argument to the idea that we are passive victims of the language we enter.

But Cant or Peddler’s French thought to be the secret language of initiate thieves, beggars, tramps and prostitutes, collectively called the canting crew. To modern ears, or mine at least, it has an odd mixture of menace, humour and daftness which I have been plundering for purposes of the current project.

Acoustically phrase and sense don’t always tally. It’s not just lexical meaning that changes but the feel of the shape and sound of the words. Something that may have once sounded downright nasty might sound silly to modern ears.
Darkman’s is the night, and the sinister Darkman’s Budge is a house creeper. That sounds rightly ominous.

The highest title in the twenty-five orders of rogues was a “Ruffler”, one step above an “Upright Man” who has a right to “Dells”. This just sounds suitably opaque to anyone who doesn’t know.

At times the words seem to have been deliberately forced in the wrong direction. “Well, you’re a dim-mort” sounds like an insult but is actually a compliment since a dim mort is a “pretty wench”.

But while I suspect the rogues and thieves of the 17th century would have been a scary bunch, the top man in the Canting Crew was called “The Dimber-Damber”.

“Right you, the Olli-Compoli says we’re taking you to the Dimber-Damber” just doesn’t sound like scary 17th Century Criminal talk. It sounds like something Sir Derek Jacoby would say during a visit to Makka Pakka and the Tombli boos in The Night Garden.

And a “Willing-Tit’? “A little horse, that travels cheerfully”. (and quickly to the OED in case “ a willing horse” means something other than a four legged animal.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

An ideal reader?

I would go fifty miles on foot, for I have no horse worth riding on, to kiss the hand of that man whose generous heart will give up the reins of the imagination into his author's hands-be pleased he knows not why, and cares not wherefore.
Tristram Shandy or Laurence Sterne or maybe both of them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The truth about literary studies?

One of the main items of business would appear to be A's objections to B's critique of C's hypothesis about what might happen if D's methodology were applied to E's analysis of F's theory of interpretation, this being the "current state of the question". Some of the participants could no doubt be found talking about poems and novels in familiar way but mostly after hours, in quiet corners, with a slightly furtive air.
John Harwood, Eliot to Derrida p18

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Geoffrey Hill, 'Clavics' (part three).

I'd forgotten the quote. I thought it was speak then of me...

Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
your favours not your hate.

Still,it seems appropriate.

it's a bold stance. It seems guaranteed to win more critics than admirers.

Look what happened to the guy who said it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Geoffrey Hill, 'Clavics' (part two).
The review was titled Clavics by Geoffrey Hill: discords and distractions. Written by Lachlan Mackinnon (June 3rd 2011).
I hadn’t read it when I wrote the last post.

It ends:

This book, all as easy on ear and mind as its opening, is really the sheerest twaddle. Hill has the courtesy to tell us at the outset that if "Distressed attire", his uneven style, "Be mere affect of clef", showing off in a strange key (I paraphrase), we should "Dump my clavic books in the mire/ And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff." The archly modified cliché feels stilted and invites our accord. Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.

It sounds more like a bad tempered report card from the days when teachers were allowed to vent their spleen about an annoying pupil than a considered review.

Joyce said that all he required from a reader was a lifetime’s attention. Hill’s poetry demands the same. It’s not easy, not comforting, you can’t sit there and smugly tick off all the familiar tricks of the published poet knowing you’re supposed to applaud and feel good about your ability to identify.

There is the feeling of a glowering moral and ultimately religious intelligence at work, helped along by a succession of almost comically dour author photographs, which I suspect some readers and critics find off putting because moral and religious seriousness is supposed to have vanished with post-modernism into the world of mindless religious fanaticism of whatever kind you don’t like.

So Hill is awkward.

But why shouldn’t a man have a conscience and a religious faith and why shouldn’t he use poetry to explore it. Especially when it’s a man who doesn’t trust the surface of words and explores what it means to speak that faith using them? I don’t share his faith, I'm fairly certain I'm immoral by his standards, I'm absolutely certain he'd find what I write pitiful, but that doesn’t mean I can’t give him space to speak his faith, or engage with the questions he raises. Or enjoy the way he does it.

His refusal to engage in what he once called “the frustrated mating dance” of autobiographical confession also means there’s none of that comfortable consoling, ah yes, he’s silly, just like us, nonsense.

I would put him in the same bracket as Joyce because comparing either to another writer is pointless. They do what they do. Comparing Hill to Yeats or Eliot or Milton or Pound or anyone else diminishes him and them. Like them, there’s a substantial body of work that is worth returning to. There is, like any body of work, parts that feel lesser than the rest. Trying to discuss what works and what doesn’t is probably the highest attention a reader can pay a writer.

But unthinking reverence is just as bad as automatic denigration. Once the conversation gets polarized the work gets lost.

I am not reverent, but speaking as a reader, I’d rather read a poet like Hill being ambitious and perhaps failing once in a while, than someone trotting out the usual safe “poems’ which blur into one another and are easily forgotten. An artist without ambition, or making a big thing of not trying too hard, makes me nervous. Why “pretentious’ came to be regarded as such a damning slur is an interesting question.

As a reader, I’d also argue that some poets are worthy of constant renewed attention because the work they have done feels, for all its familiarity, always slightly beyond of my reach.

There are those who don’t like this feeling.
Says more about their egos than the poems.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Blurb wars; Geoffrey Hill, 'Clavics'.(part one)

For reasons unknown I own a copy of every book of poems Geoffrey Hill has published since the Penguin collected of 1985. Which I also have.

(Reasons unknown is not a cliché but a good catholic confession of guilt. I own a copy of every studio album and solo live album Bert Jansch has made (over twenty hours worth if my computer is to be believed) and if you have a bottle of Bushmills handy and a few spare hours I will bore you silly by explaining exactly why I admire the man and his music. I’m not sure I could do that with Hill’s poetry and no, for the record, I don’t like 'Mercian Hymns'.)

Still, this is about blurbs.

Clavics, his new book, has six quotes by way of Blurb.

There are quotes from A.N.Wilson, Peter McDonald, Eric Orsmby and Michael Dirda on the inside of the dust jacket and quotes from Peter Levi and William Logan given pride of place on the back. All six tell the reader how great Geoffrey Hill is. Peter McDonald is quoted as saying: ”The most important and original body of poetry since Yeats”. Michael Dirda simply states: ”Geoffrey Hill is the greatest living English poet”.

Not one quote or comment is about the poems in Clavics itself. This has been a characteristic of Hill’s books (at least of the editions I own) since The Orchards of Syon in 2002. Apparently his publishers think it is enough to state that Geoffrey Hill is great and His work important. I’m not denying either.

But of the six quotes on the back of Clavics only one, by Michael Dirda, doesn’t turn up on another book of Hill’s in my possession. The Wilson, McDonald and Ormsby can each be found on three of the last four books. The Logan quote was first used way back in 1998 on The Triumph of Love. The Peter Levi in Canaan in 1996.

Without Title (2006) raised the recycling to a new level. A different quote is attributed to Peter McDonald. Ormsby’s quote appears again. The other quotes are referenced not to individual writers but to publications. One of them had been used before on Hill's previous book and another;”The most important and original body of poetry since Yeats” is actually by Mr. P McDonald who is thus quoted twice on the same book cover.

Now, I would hazard the opinion that those last four books; Clavics, A Treatise of Civil Power, Without Title and Scenes from Comus) reflect a falling off in the power of the poetry found in the magical sequence of four books that began with Canaan and ran through to The Orchards of Syon. It may be indicative that Orchards of Syon is the last book of Hill’s that I have which has a comment from a critic about the poems in the book. (It’s from George Steiner who offers a useful way of thinking about what is not an easy poem to come to terms with.) And I think it’s reflected in the fact that none of the blurbs of these recent books have anything to say about the content of them. They simply keep telling the potential reader these same people think he’s really good and his work is really important.


After The Orchards of Syon did the actual content of the books become irrelevant? Was there nothing new to say about the poems? No one new to say it? Were the pomes somehow beyond scrutiny? Are lines like ”meritocrats are crap meteorites” and “No intercept from zero frisky dawn” clues from a cryptic cross word or lines from “The Greatest Living English Poet” writing in Clavics? Could you even imagine Yeats writing something like that?

Does it matter that Clavics is said to be an “Elegy for the musician William Lawes”? when I deny that anyone given the book without that information could ever work it out? (And I do know who William Lawes was and I even have some of his music…). Does it matter that Clavics is metrically very clever in an obvious way which may well nod towards George Herbert, if it produces lines like the above?

Or can a poet reach a point of eminence where what they write is no longer important because there are enough people ready to find value in whatever they write?


Friday, May 27, 2011

Never Explain-your reader is as smart as you are

Bunting again. Good advice, although one might observe, perhaps unfairly, that if your small circle of readers are called Louis Zukofsky, Ezra Pound, and W.B Yeats and later Hugh Kenner, David Jones and Hugh McDairmid, it would be easier to believe this. How many critics and editors believe the corollary; that the writer is at least as smart as they are? When Hugh Kenner first encountered Pound's poetry, he knew something worthwhile was happening but his highly developed critical skills didn't allow him to "appreciate" it. He didn't chuck Pound's poems in the bin and dismiss them: he accepted the challenge and revised his critical skills until they allowed him to deal with what was strange and new. Unless the critic, the reviewer, the reader, are willing to do that, any talk of "originality", is meaningless.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I like that said Offa, sing it again.

The poet as makar. Not as sage or seer, or recorder of the human condition or shaper of texts suitable for the educational system, or cultural analyst or popular entertainer, or even as spy. These, and many other activities are all valid but peripheral.

The poet as someone who makes or composes poems. Poems as constructions , as patterns of words which when heard (or in our culture, predominantly read, but nevertheless finally heard in what might be called ‘the Inner ear’) give us the experience of something we label as poetry. And which other sorts of verbal expression do not.

Gael Turnbull, 'The Poet as Makar' from The Star you Steer By.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The evils of academic writing: AMITAVA KUMAR: DENIS DUTTON IS DEAD

Subtitled “Theory vs. Academic writing”

A blog entry about good and bad writing. It begins by making the usual criticisms of writing from the field of literary criticism. It quotes some good examples of bad writing. But jargon is not the only academic sin. Every discipline has its own vocabulary. The idea that writers operating in say, Narrative theory, writing for their peers, should make immediate sense to casual readers unfamiliar with the discourse and lexicon of the field is baffling. The relevant question is not; “Is the passage difficult to understand?” but “Does it make sense to the intended audience?”

There are I think worse sins. And it’s interesting that in a discussion of good and bad writing so many of these sins are treated with approval.

There’s a good example in this piece. This paragraph is taken from a long quotation so it's not by the writer of the blogg:

Now the best academic writing knows what many different disciplines converged on around the beginning of the 20th century: the observer is an inseparable part of the system under observation. The yardstick and its wielder are part of the measurement; the speaker and what can be spoken are reciprocally joined. Great academic stylists embrace that fact, and they use it to turn the prison house of language into something more like a beachside cottage. They know that any rich attempt to represent the world “out there” participates in those same world processes, and their style reflects that rich reflexivity. Without forgoing their search for external or even objective facts, these writers foreground their own voice and the ways that their words strive to take the curse of inescapable linguistic mediation and make a blessing of it. As Bakhtin so beautifully puts it: Every act of depicting is itself a depiction. What we say speaks us, and we are part of the truths we can formulate.

Where to start? There is so much wrong with this elegant paragraph. “We are part of the truths we can formulate”. Does that mean anything more than we believe what we think is the truth? Does it mean that all “truths” are automatically equally invalid, or suspect?

Now the best academic writing knows what many different disciplines converged on around the beginning of the 20th century: the observer is an inseparable part of the system under observation.

There are three things happening here. A dogmatic value judgment “the best academic writing”, which blandly asserts what then becomes the defining quality of “the best”. The unnecessary personification which denies the human agency of writers, making conscious choices. And finally the casual assertion which avoids any kind of qualification “part of the system under observation”. All systems? With equal consequences?

This was the defining discovery of Quantum physics at the beginning of the twentieth century: measurement and observation affect the behavior of the sub atomic particles being observed and measured and therefore the measurement of a particular photon is unrepeatable Socio-linguistics and European Anthropologists realised much the same: enter the village to observe, interview the speaker, and you will affect their behaviors and speech. But the quantum rule doesn’t apply to macroscopic objects and academic disciplines like the latter two developed strategies to deal with the problem.

It is obviously not true of all systems. There are numerous things one can measure and observe without affecting the thing observed and being measured.

When academics in the field of literature went cherry picking in other disciplines to offset the fear of their own irrelevance and lack of “scientific rigor” they often failed to observe the qualifications, methodologies and contextual limitations of the disciplines they raided. Bad linguistics, bad history and sloppy philosophy suddenly became acceptable parts of literary discourse and the fact the historian, linguist and philosopher might object became irrelevant.

But a poem isn’t changed by the act of reading. Counting the words on the page doesn’t change them. I can read the book and pass it on to another reader and unless I vandalize the page the words remain the same. Being human, I may disagree with another reader over value and meaning, but that doesn’t change the words. Years ago Stanley Fish was claiming that because different critics disagreed about a poem’s meaning and used the same evidence to support their reading: there was something fundamentally flawed with literary criticism. But as his critics pointed out, what he willfully ignored was that readings of the same poem can be compared, because the words on the page don’t change and part of the task of criticism is to establish the criteria by which those different readings can be assessed. (Donald Davie picking Micheal Schmidt for thinking the Bull in Briggflatts is called ‘Rawthey’ is a small but interesting example that answers the question "can you misread a poem?")

The yardstick and its wielder are part of the measurement; the speaker and what can be spoken are reciprocally joined.

The beautifully balanced phrase uses the semi colon to conflate two separate issues and elevate the second clause to the status of scientific fact. The first part continues to slur the quantum physics argument to make it sound as though measuring anything is always going to be subjective, unrepeatable and unverifiable. The second clause is demonstrably wrong. What “can be spoken” does not rely on the individual speaker. What the individual speaker is capable of speaking relies on the individual speaker, but “what can be spoken” relies on the limits of a language at any given historical moment operating in a social and cultural context.

This academic characteristic, the habitual use of the fine sounding but empty phrase reaches its height:

Great academic stylists embrace that fact, and they use it to turn the prison house of language into something more like a beachside cottage.

Which “fact”? The 2 previous separate statements have become one “fact”. And while it’s a fine sounding sentence which the mind and eye glide over, what does the metaphor mean? Is it a good thing if you turn your prison into a beachside cottage? Are you still under house arrest; still limited and peripheral? And why a beachside cottage? Is that the kind of place most people live their daily lives? Or do these unnamed “great academic writers” use language as a comfy refuge on their weekends and holidays?

Exam question 1:

Is language a “prison house”? (Note to student: do not fall into the obvious trap of quoting either Wittengenstein or Benjamin Lee Whorf in your answer). If you could break out of "the prison house of language" where would you escape to?

Depending on how one counts “words” there are anything between a quarter of a million and three quarters of a million words in the OED. This doesn’t include “words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary. ( So the rich dialect and slang vocabularies of your own local world should be added to that number.

Exam question #2
What exactly is it you can’t say with that many words?

If it’s a prison, and I think the metaphor is inappropriate, it’s a bloody huge one.

And so on. There are worse things in the world than bad syntax and an overuse of technical vocabulary.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Blurb Wars revisited: Tom Pickard, 'Tiepin Errors', BB and BS.

I recently read the blurb for a collection of poems which was so tangled in its own imitation of ”critical jargon” that the writer could claim, apparently without irony or humor, that the poet creates metaphors from syntax. I spent so much time wondering how I could create a metaphor without syntax that I forgot everything else about the book.

So it was refreshing to pick up Tom Pickard’s Tiepin Errors, and read this quote on the back. The fact that the quote is attributed to one Basil Bunting means it’s also functioning as an endorsement: “approval and envy” means a great deal coming from who it does.

I’ve just been reading his poems with approval and envy. His ear for rhythm is exceedingly delicate, his syntax strong and terse, and his vocabulary free of any fancy work. He seems to able to select at will the detail which creates a whole scene or action, He has made several unusual forms his own.

This is my ideal blurb. It clearly states why a reader might find the poems of interest as poems. You do need to be tuned into those key terms; rhythm, syntax, vocabulary and why they might be crucial and appreciate the kind of poem it endorses. But read the poems, and it is a fair description. Examples could be given from the collection to support each of those claims.

However, the publisher obviously thought more was necessary and the page slides away from Bunting’s precise compliment into a different register altogether: the register of the anonymous blurb writer:

Tom Pickard’s poems of love, sex, politics and war are searing in their directness and emotional power. His political poetry is unflinchingly honest…

It’s hard to believe that this is targeting the same potential reader. It’s an almost parodic example of a use of language directly opposite to the one the Bunting quote admires or performs.

Leaving aside the problem of distinguishing between love and sex or politics and war, what is ‘searing’ doing in that first sentence? It’s the kind of vapid qualifier you hear on the news or in celebrity interviews….how does a poem sear? What does it sear? If it’s the reader, why would you want to read something that did that to you unless you were a paid up member of the masochists union. Why does ‘Honest’ need an adjective and why “unflinchingly”. How do you tell if a poem flinches or it's honest?

We’re in the world where the nouns go hobbling round in need of crutches because no one is really listening anymore. The kind of person who is solicited by this slush is not used to paying attention to words So why is it on the back of a collection of poetry that demands and rewards attention?

PS; Great title, great tie, and for what it’s worth, Bunting was right about the poems.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tom Pickard's "More Pricks Than Prizes'

I feel bad that I bought a second hand copy, but the press‘s website wouldn’t take my money for a new one and, frustrated, I went to and they threw this at me.

Having apologized, it’s unusual to find a book, especially such a short one, which explicitly contains the criteria that should be used to evaluate it.

Both are quotes from Basil Bunting who has a staring support role in the story of Pickard’s arrest and trial. The first is from an essay Bunting wrote which criticised Malcolm Muggeridge: “It is agreeable to fancy that some day it may not pay a man who has material for an essay to swell it to the length of a half guinea book by verbose repetition and argument round and round…”

So perhaps the best thing I can say about “More Pricks than prizes” is that there is probably enough material here for a thick autobiography of Pickard and a biography of BB, and it has been compressed into 68 pages.

In a letter sent to Pickard while he was awaiting trial, Bunting wrote: “Keep objective; your own unhappiness is not capital stock but what your eyes see and your ears hear is...” The unhappiness is certainly recorded but there’s no wallowing in it. Pickard has “kept objective”.

In “Moab Is my Washpot”, Stephen Fry records a similar series of events. But in Fry’s version, being arrested for fraud and going on remand is all a merry jape, and while he calls attention to what a scallywag he was, there’s a sense of unreality about it all. I can’t be the only person who keeps thinking the title is really “Moaning, I’m a tosspot” (to the tune of tell them you're a womble). (And no, I don't know why I bought it or read it)

Pickard tells his story and still manages to step aside. Bunting’s admonition put into prose; emotions first-but nothing in the poem except facts or things. Which given this is autobiographical is no mean feat.

But it’s not a case of dumping the facts on the page and leaving them to the reader. (‘Nennius’ did this in the ninth century and it wasn’t even a good idea then). The facts and things have to be selected and manipulated. There’s a sequence which describes Pickard and his friends’ attempts to find enough second hand books to refill crates that had held “a ton” of Ugandan cannabis. It could have been a scene from “softly softly”: dodgy dialect lads, with flat caps, in a dark London alleyway filling a battered transit: it could be an episode from Black books: with Bernard perversely trying to stop them from buying his useless stock. Instead it sparks an alliterative riff, which threatens to run through the whole alphabet, about books and their writers. It manages to be funny; it manages to show off; it conveys the enormous amount of books they had to buy, and it puts the boot into types of books and types of writers and the publishing industry. It evokes “Sittin' in a sleazy snack-bar/ Snuckin' sickly sausage rolls”. But it never loses sight of the reality of what’s going on.

Art, in fact. Technique.

I think his description of crossing the iron curtain in a train is going to stick in my head for a long time.

Nuff said.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What the Chairman told Tom-the value of poetry

You can read the poem here

Finally a copy of Tom Pickard’s “More Pricks than Prizes” of which more later. And a very enjoyable rainy afternoon reading it. I assume, probably incorrectly, that he is the Tom in Bunting’s “What the Chairman told Tom”.

Anyone who is interested in poetry has met the Chairman at some stage. Part of the fun of the poem is the sense of revenge. His ignorant dismissal of the art and its practitioners, his self appointed status as judge of the merits of not only Tom’s work but of his person, is justly ridiculed. But lurking in the joke is an unanswered question: Why should the Chairman care for Poetry?

As far as I know Bunting never answered that explicitly. He offered possible, partial statements at different stages of his life about “the value of poetry” but he seems to have avoided the temptation (if he ever saw it as such) to be as emphatic as either Pound or Eliot on the subject. (if anyone can correct me on this please do).

There’s a paradox in the writing of the latter two on the subject. It’s partly an inability to reconcile two contradictory ideas about poetry and poets: the inheritance of Shelley’s over inflated waffle which elevated THE POET to a position of supreme human preeminence, and their own rigorously argued belief that the duty of the poet, as a poet, is to the poem. From the latter it might logically follow that the purpose of writing poetry is to write a good poem and as Pound said the public can (and will) do what it wants with the end product. There is the art, and there is its value in the market place, and Pound’s insistence was that one does not define the other. Discussing the function of poetry, Eliot takes it for granted that the primary function of poetry is to give the reader the pleasure that only poetry can give.

But to leave it there meant stepping down from the silly Post Shelley idea of the poet as someone of crucial importance and neither Eliot nor Pound seemed to lack a sense of their own cultural and historical significance. Rather than make claims for “The Poet”, they both made claims for the social, cultural, historical and linguistic importance of “Poetry” which implicitly elevates the poet and affirms his [sic] value. That their claims were untenable hasn’t stopped successive generations from repeating them, and acting as though they were empirical facts. They have fortified the Evangelists ever since.

Poetry is an art, and there are numerous art forms. It gives pleasure and it entertains. It offers a pleasure and a form of entertainment that are all its own. Not stand up comedy, nor song nor drama. But if you’re not entertained, and it doesn’t give you pleasure, that doesn’t mean you’re unrefined or in need of remedial help.

The chairman’s mistake, in the poem, is to assume knowledge and expertise where he has none. He sounds like those “experts” on education who are experts because they once went to school. And his arrogance, and his fault, is to bolster his self-importance by denigrating something he doesn’t understand. ANd he is justifiably ridiculed.

On the other hand the Poetry evangelicals behave as though they need to convert the benighted masses, if the world is to be saved. Like Eliot and Pound, they make claims for the importance of an abstracted “Poetry” that is far beyond the reality and capabilities of poems and their producers. Because they like “Poetry”, they feel they are an elect, and that everyone else should like it (and preferably the poems and poets they like as well. The evangelicals are nothing if not clubby). But if the Chairman is arrogant in his dismissal of poetry, it seems equally arrogant to act from the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong or ill educated with someone who doesn’t like your favorite art form.

Entertainment and pleasure have negative connotations; they can sound selfish and trivial. But ‘entertainment’ doesn’t have to be mindless and pleasure doesn’t have to be selfish, or self centred or trivial . If you’ve ever used an art to entertain anyone, ever created something which has given a stranger pleasure, you know there’s nothing trivial in the process. It’s hard work.

The final paradox of the poem is the last line. “Go and find work”. Poetry doesn’t pay. It won’t feed the family. It’s not work in the form of paid labor. However, as Bunting knew, and as Pound kept insisting, Poetry is not a hobby, but work. It requires “sharp study and long toil”.
But that doesn’t mean anyone owes you a living while you’re doing it.

Q: Why should the Chairman like poetry?
A: There’s no reason.
Q: Why should he care for poetry.
A: No reason.

Friday, April 8, 2011

He said what?

'I want to come to a concluded view about the issues that I've raised, before I'm drawn on that particular point,' Mr Smith told reporters in Melbourne on Thursday.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Poetry in High schools: a parable.

You are an unwilling visitor to a country whose language you do not speak. You know very little about the place and don’t know if the part you are stuck in is characteristic of the country as a whole. You might be on an island the size of Bali or in a country the size of Siberia. Via and interpreter you are told that the only way out is to hire a car, but before you can do that, you have to pass a written test which shows you know the local road rules.

The test procedure is explained to you as follows:

Step outside the test centre and flag down any passing vehicle. You will see some disreputable types lurking near the exit. They will try to get your attention before you get into a car. You will ignore them; everyone else does.
The driver will accept you as his or her passenger, and take you on a circular route of his or her choosing and deposit you back where you started. During the drive, which may last up to one hour but no more, and which may go anywhere the driver pleases, you will not be able to ask any questions. Your task is to infer the whole country’s road rules from the little you observe.

When you return, ignore the scruffy people at the door. You will be given a written test. When you have finished your paper will be placed in a device which sends it randomly to one of three rooms. Depending on your results you are taken to one of three doors. Behind one of them your hire car is waiting.

What they do not tell you is that the test consists of one of two papers chosen at random. One is a blank sheet with the words “What are the road rules?” written at the top in your own language. The other asks: “You have two hours to explain why scrungeblobs are not allowed within fifty zorthopeks of the disfustilator. Give at least seven reasons why this is fair.”

There is no way out of the room unless you write on the paper. You will notice that the “random” device sends most papers to the room on the left. Through the frosted glass you can see it is has the most markers. What else they don’t tell you is that it is staffed by people who know as much about the road rules as you do. This is actually a good thing: if you sound like you know what you’re talking about, they will be too scared to call your bluff. Otherwise whether they tick pass or fail depends on the time of the day, what they had for lunch, how bad their night was, or how bored they are. Behind the other doors lurk those markers who think they know the road rules, and those who think the ones who think they know the road rules have got it wrong. They will both fail you.

Whether you pass or fail is also irrelevant. The first door, through which most people exit, leads to an airport departure lounge where you are flown home, never to return. Why would you want to? The middle door leads to a long tunnel which eventually leads back into the largest of the three rooms where you will find a desk with your name on it and you will be paid to mark papers. You will not have learnt what a scrunglebob is, nor will you have seen anymore of the country. The third door, through which very few pass, leads to the hire care.

And the last thing they don’t tell you is that it will only take you on exactly the same route you went on earlier. Endlessly.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Faber's promised new edition of Bunting goes missing, yet again.

It seems that yet again Faber have put off, or put back the publication date for Don Share's new edition of Bunting's Collected Poems. Given that two thirds of whatever they publish will be forgotten in twelve months it seems bizarre that they keep shunting the publication date of this one.
As the blurb on the amazon page says:
An important work of literary scholarship which highlights, for the first time, the achievement of a neglected modernist master
And for once it's not hyperbole. Anyone want to argue Bunting is not "A Master"? That his reputation may rest of one great long poem and a fistful of smaller ones, doesn't invalidate the claim. The Blood axe collected is nice, and does the job, but the new Faber one promises to have a scholarly apparatus. I don't need notes on the Northumbrian History in Briggflats, but I know zip about Persian literature and I would love to know what's going on in parts of The Spoils and in many of the Overdrafts.

It is revealing about the way the field works. Here we have a writer who is regarded (by some) as one of Britain's best poets in the twentieth century and twenty five years after his death there's still no thorough scholarly Collected. Or rather there may be one, but it looks as though Faber ain't publishing it any time soon.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hug a medievalist day, with thanks

This from the New Yorker.

by Macy Halford

Today is International Hug a Medievalist Day. Do I really want to hug a medievalist?, you wonder. Yes! you do. Medievalists are the best kind of historian, in my opinion (which is why I majored in medieval history in college): they are always very interested in the body, the bawdy, and the beautiful, by which I mean they have a profound interest in the nitty-gritty of Western culture—in its material composition and the spiritual and intellectual urges that give rise to it. Perhaps because they delight in details and see worlds within them, medievalists are uniformly possessed of an excellent if slightly juvenile sense of humor, which becomes more pronounced when they drink and their inherent social awkwardness wears off. They drink most nights, usually at dimly lit pubs or sitting in tight clusters on the floors of grad-student apartments, and they prefer to drink red wine or ale. The caveat to this is that at least once a year, in every medievalist cluster, someone has the idea of hosting a medieval-themed party, at which they serve a) mulled wine b) mincemeat pies and c) some multi-animal mishmash like turducken. If you are very unfortunate, someone will attempt rabbit stew with cinnamon and mace, which no one will eat. But such comical failures are part and parcel of the medievalist lifestyle.

Read more
(I have never had the idea of hosting a medieval themed party, though I did once participate in an all night reading of Beowulf which was lubricated by some devastating ale brewed, we were told, to an Old Icelandic recipe.

So here's thanks to all the saints and scholars, the gentle lunatics and social misfits, the straight geniuses, the professional teachers and the ones who didn't mean to but did, to all those who preserved the field, the antiquarians, archivists, librarians, the amateurs when there was no profession, who have , one way or another, helped and hindered along the way.
Many thanks.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"I'm so happy now Saint Patrick's day is over".

All together now:

I'm so Happy now Saint Patrick's day is over
And all the silly hats are thrown away
And all the plastic paddies have gone back into the clover
But I know they'll return another day.

(Saint Patrick's Dance in San Fernandao)

Although, we did have a good time. For once we played all night and weren't swamped by the noise of drunks telling irish jokes in fake accents.
But I can't connect it to the people I grew up with.


For Brendan, who told it this way:
There’s these two fellas, see
they’d come across after the war
he and his misses, and the friend.
They worked on the production line.
You know the kind of character
who drinks his tea and has his breakfast
while the misses cut him sandwiches.
When he came home from work,
his tea was always on the table,
he never knew or cared where it was coming from.

And then of course, she ups and dies.
That left him and his mate.
The two of them, without a clue!
But there’s this neighbour, down the road,
came across from Galway, in the fifties,
He put them straight.
Gave them tips for making stew.
And then the factory shut down.

I went there, once, After his misses died.
He said: You know, I’d like to top myself.
But if I did, they’d send me down below
and she’d be up above,. We’d never meet again.
I couldn’t stand that. I told him about tins.
There’s good stuff in them cans these days

Monday, February 21, 2011

Australian Poetry

I've been studying the defences of poetry In English from Sir Philip Sidney to the present day, wading through the remarkable sludge of silliness that characterises them: bad history, wish fulfillment, ludicrous claims, a willful refusal to deal with poetry as the sum total of poems, poets as the people who produce them or the world as it is. Why this nonsense has ever been given credence is a fascinating question in itself.

So it's great to see we have a national body to support poetry in Australia, but why does it have to open with a claim like this:

Australian Poetry’s vision is to excite all Australians about Australian poetry and poets

ALL Australians? anything that excites All Australians.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Cantos again

Revisiting The Cantos, having discovered the version I had read doesn't have all of them. Enjoying them a lot more the second time round.

And i find this, lost in the back:

M'amour, m'amour
what do I love and
where are you?
That I lost my center
fighting the world
The Dreams clash
and are shattered-
and that I tried to make a paradiso

I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise
Let the Gods forgive what I
have made
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.

that I lost my centre/fighting the world seems an apt epitaph for Pound's career. But what published writer wouldn't ask let the gods forgive what I/have made/Let those I love try to forgive/what I have made. No matter how good it seems at the time, it is never good enough in retrospect..

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Battle Abbey and Baker Street (Folks go on pilgrimage and sometimes get lost)

My parents never owned a car. When I was little my gran did, so once, when she visited, I talked her into taking me to see a local battle field. We got suitably lost in green Midland lanes. I had a Lady Bird book with garish pictures of archers in leather jerkins straining their long bows against a very blue sky, and pictures of mounted knights, lances levelled, plumes fluttering, all the usual romanticised medieval nonsense that attracted young boys.

We arrived at the field. It was empty except for a tractor. No thundering cavalry, no sky darkening shower of arrows.
Just a field and a parked tractor.

I’ve done a lot of travelling since then to see historical sites and objects. I’ve often wondered if the experience you have is due to the place itself or to what you take with you. Would you know if it were the wrong field? The wrong couch? Would you know if the Book of Kells was the real object or the facsimile if they didn’t tell you?

This trip home we managed to get to Battle Abbey. It’s one of my favourite places on the planet, partly because the curators have left the battle field as a field. You walk around it. There are stations, each with a board, a picture, and some information that gives a version of the battle which is as good as any version. There’s no twit dressed as William the bastard to annoy you. You can stand where the Norman’s must have jostled and mustered before setting off up the slope towards the waiting English. Unless you’re spectacularly unimaginative you can see the dark line of the English army stretched along the ridge waiting for them. The imagination is given space.

The question remains though: does my reaction to this place depend on the fact that I have read the accounts of the battle. I’ve read the historians’ discussions of the accounts. I’ve written about Battle and about the battle. My maternal grandfather’s family comes from here and some of his family worked as gardeners in the abbey. My great uncle Ivor claimed to be the last person to be born inside the abbey walls.
Or it is that the place resonates with what happened here. The history of a country changed. Would you know if they’d put the abbey on the wrong ridge?

As a counterpoint, we went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker street. This is at the other end of “how to deal with the past”..It’s the shonky end: the “you have to go all the way through the souvenir shop to buy your ticket and then walk back out past all the tat just to get to the museum’ end.

There was no historical character called Sherlock Holmes, and 221 Baker street may have been a lodging house in the 19th century but neither Holmes nor Conan Doyle lived there. SO what you get is something like a film set, or a reconstruction of a 19th century lodging house. But this is not the fireplace where Holmes sat working his way though a two pipe problem, and this is not the sitting room of Dr Watson, just a room filled with things that are named in the stories.

I like some of the Holmes stories. I also think Jeremy Brett did for the film version what Suchet did for Poirot. I can watch him even when the story is silly or so familiar I know what the next character is going to say.

But 221 Baker street is dead and cold: a set of rooms in a draughty house unredeemed by the waxworks in the top storey or the man dressed as no Sherlock Holmes you've ever imagined or seen saying"Hello, my name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my bedroom. Please feel free to take a photograph if you have a camera." The fictional Holmes would have despised the redundancy of that last clause.

Perhaps there is a difference.

9.34 pm

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Exeter book. (Folks go on pilgrimage)

At a rough reckoning, a version of what we describe as Old English was spoken in England for at least five centuries. For at least four of those, some of the English were literate.

From that four hundred years only four manuscript “books’ of Old English poetry have survived, one of which is known as the “Exeter Book” ; the micel englisc boc given to the cathedral library by Leofric, the first Bishop of Exeter, who died in 1072.

The book’s survival is an accident and it’s not reassuring to dwell on how small its chances must have been. It has been damaged (the poem the ruin is ruined by fire) and traditionally it has been claimed that the book has been used as a chopping board and a beer mat. From the twelfth century onwards, until the book was studied in the early modern period, it is unlikely that anyone could have known what it contained, since the reading of Old English was a lost skill.

So the fact that you can see the thing in the Exeter Cathedral library meant a visit was compulsory. Last time I was there the Library was shut. This time we were luckier: two days after we saw it, the library was closing for twelve months.

We were welcomed by a volunteer assistant who clearly enjoyed the opportunity we provided for her enthusiasm and the librarian who, though trying to work while we prattled, gave up his time to our questions.

Until it moves to its new home, this irreplaceable national treasure is kept locked in a thing that looks remarkably like a portable spit roast, kept company by a unique document from the Domesday survey.

Think medieval manuscript and one tends to think of illumination and elaborate art. The Exeter book is unadorned apart from the large letter that signals each new poem. This is simply a large book, with large lettering, ideally suited to be read while placed on a lectern. A functional book.

But affecting as an object. You’d have to be unimaginative to fail to wonder about the hand that wrote it out. (Krapp and Dobie argued that the “poetical parts’ of the MS are the work of one scribe.)

Cold hands in winter, carefully copying by candle light, watching the letters marching evenly to fill each page. Sore eyes, a sore back and the damp smell of scratchy woollen clothes. Writing as a form of devotion or meditation, an act in the service of a God who to judge by some of the riddles, had a ribald sense of humour. I used to envy Pete his archaeology, his ability to touch things that had been owned and used by people; words seemed evasive. But here was something tangible.

And I hoped the man who wrote it wasn’t in a monastery where there were vows of silence; I could imagine him hurrying to some communal space eager to pass on the latest riddle he’d copied out: and his satisfaction of knowing that when the book was used, it was his hands that had made it possible.

Most old English poems survive in only one version. And the “Exeter Book” contains most of the poems a student of Old English Poetry or anyone browsing a book of translations is most likely to encounter other than Beowulf . No Exeter Book and no “Elegies”: no Seafarer, Wanderer, Wife’s lament, no Deor, Widsith, fewer riddles and the disappearance of my favourite Old English poem: Wulf and Eadwacer.

So here’s to him, the nameless scribe who copied the anonymous poems. Literature is the work of people: not theoretical abstractions.

And my thanks to librarian and his assistant for making us welcome, not only for allowing us to see the book but for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with two strangers.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

blurb wars revisited:Annie Freud

Nice to return home and find the world still providing free humour. This is from the back of Annie Freud's new book, a PBS choice no less:
"Freud has invented almost a new kind of writing; neither "found" nor "made" in the conventional sense, these poems are profoundly moving, and startling in their boldy unfashionable lack of irony."

Apart from the usual cliches: "profoundly moving", that 'almost' is a work of twisted genius.
Either she has invented a new kind of writing, or if it's not a new kind of writing and therefore she hasn't invented anything.

If it's "almost a new kind of writing" then it isn't new and there is no invention to celebrate.

The blurb burbles to a finish with this sentence:
"In the end, this is a book about reality and its representations, and the truth and lies we tell ourselves."

Homework; think of all the books you've ever read to which that statement could be applied. Then ask yourself what exactly it means.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The staffordshire hoard

And so, briefly in Birmingham, and the opportunity to see pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard. There’s a beautiful set of pictures on Flikr but what they don’t prepare you for is the size of some of the items

Now cleaned and on display, these pieces are about the size of your thumb nail, yet adorned with intricate patterns and shaped to hold minute pieces of fitted garnet.

History is usually the story of the sword wielders, not the sword makers, but these pieces were made by consummate craftsmen, working without the benefit of magnifying glasses or strong artificial lighting, on a scale that is so small as to be breath taking. A small toast to those nameless masters of the intricate.