Friday, December 20, 2019

The Poetry Voice Podcast is 100!

Who would have thought we'd get this far?

And so to celebrate, two readings, both from Lady Godiva and Me as shameless self-promotion.
In the first voices from the modern city. Clicking on the link will take you to the reading

In the second Peeping Tom speaks.

A second edition of Lady Godiva and Me is available from Amazon, the Book Depository, and from the shop at 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The pleasure of poetry: Phillip Pullman on 'Paradise Lost'

Philip Pullman on the Pleasure of reading 'Paradise Lost'.

Seems to me a level headed appraisal of what makes this poem great.

His comments about English teachers and poetry are sadly accurate. In their defence most are following the requirements of a syllabus which mandates the approach and seems to be written either by people who think a poem is a complicated way of passing on a 'message' or the poem is a form of carrier which, if not exposed and neutralsied by 'analysis' will infect defenceless students with  dangerous ideological viruses.

Monday, November 25, 2019

What does this mean? The nonsense people write about poetry. Hannah Sullivan's 'Three poems' and The T.S.Eliot prize. 3/3

This is the final post of a set of three.
Cards on the table.
I think the highest praise a critic can give a poet is to say: this poem is well made, and then explain in what way it’s well made. In the best criticism the critic or reviewer doesn’t sound like they’d like to write poetry but, having been condemned to prose, is throwing out mellifluous waffle and hoping no one is paying attention. 
I often wonder if anyone is paying attention or if part of the game is to let the eye sweep down the page, coming to rest on the occasional phrase but never lingering long enough to ask ‘yes, but what does this mean’. It sounds good; file it away, then use whenever possible. 
Here, as antidote, is a random extract from page 77 of a book I’m currently reading which I think is excellent criticism: Neil Corcoran’s study of David Jones’ 'The Anathemata'. 'The Anathamata' may or may not be a poem therefore it does push the boundaries of what is a poem. It uses language in a way that challenges the reader and works a complicated set of symbols and allusions to suggest a very complex attitude to time, culture, religion and history. Corcoran has been steadily confronting the baffling awkwardness of the work, and trying to explain its excellence:
‘Assimilating, and developing from, a range of formal models embracing both the medieval intricacies of Langland and the post-symbolist obliquenesses of the The Waste Land, David Jones creates, in the Anathemata, an altogether new and entirely individual sort of poem’. 
Even without the discussion which preceded this, and the explanation which follows, there’s no doubt about what the critic is saying. 
Compare this with:
‘’Three poems’ are a sensual encounter with language. The combination of Sullivan’s disciplined couplets and riot of language create a memorable mediation on living and dying.’
And the problem is obvious.
This quote about ‘Three Poems’ is from the official T.S.Eliot Prize website. A review posted before the judges made their choice. 
It is approved and presented as an ‘unqualified verdict’. 
Instead of approving the conclusion someone should have asked the writer to specify what a ‘sensual encounter with language’ might be? Or to give an example by quoting a passage from the poem. Poetry blather rarely comes with supporting evidence. Make a nice phrase: pass on.
It’s not clear if the poems, the reader or the writer are having the sensual encounter, but it’s difficult to understand what ‘a sensual encounter with language’ might mean, though it does evoke a grubby character with a pornographic novel. All encounters with written language are sensual…they involve at least two of the senses. 
An encounter with sensual language, or an encounter with a language of sensuality?  Leaving aside such waffle, there is, finally, some kind of comment on technique. But it too is problematic. It does no justice to the variety of forms within and across the three poems; not all the pieces are written in couplets. Disciplined couplets evoke Pope and Dryden. But couplets are a formal discipline, so in what way is it a disciplined discipline? 
What is a ‘riot of language’? One of Joyce’s lists? Gertrude Stein? Dylan Thomas piling on the adjectives? 
 A riot suggests something destructive and out of control and Sullivan’s diction and syntax never feels anything but controlled.  
There is no example given of language rioting in a disciplined couplet. 
And so it goes:
The poem ‘Trains a steady gaze on the details of urban existence’. (define 'steady gaze?'). ‘The personal and the public combine in the crucible of Sullivan’s language into a disciplined, structured object of terrible beauty’ 
Language was rioting a few lines earlier. This ‘crucible of Sullivan’s language’ produces an ‘object of terrible beauty’. 
Acknowledging, as one is presumably supposed to, the nod to Yeats, one wonders how this is an example of  ‘Terrible Beauty’.  Comparing the Easter Rising with Sullivan’s domestic is a disturbing failure of proportion. 
I have the feeling that the critic is trying to claim that thinking about life and death and seeing them as interlinked is somehow newsworthy or worthy of praise. But that thought is too ugly to pursue. 
At this point I wanted to give up.  It’s too depressing.
‘Language echoes through time but, like cancer cells, which ‘divide interminably’ the nuclear chain reaction generates itself; life and death are one and the same’.
Sullivan’s final poem does link giving birth to a death, but it doesn’t in anyway suggest ‘they are one and the same.'  
And it would be foolish to suggest they are. Try that line on someone who has been told they have weeks to live. A ruthless killer could give you a choice between life and death.  If they were one and the same, there would be no difference and no choice. 
And so it goes.
There are two other aspects of this blather worth considering. 
You get on crowded public transport. You’re the last one on and you take the only available seat. The passenger beside you suddenly launches into a long description of her memories of New York. She remembers wanting to masturbate, but the batteries in her vibrator, her pink vibrator, were flat. She remembers meeting an ex-boyfriend at a party, and accepting his suggestion, ‘one more for old time’s sake’, she describes their sexual antics in detail, who put what where and what she felt and thought before during and afterwards.
You may have got up and moved away before this, but your presence was a mere excuse. It’s not in any way essential for the performance.
If a poem is simply the poet dumping memories on a complete stranger, then ‘why are you telling me this’ seems like a fair question.  I wasn’t there, I couldn’t substitute for the vibrator, or supply some spare batteries. Graphic sex with little context is one definition of pornography? 
What makes memory into art is craft. Byron’s confession about 100 sexual encounters in one week at Carnival becomes ‘We’ll go no more a roving’.  Wyatt’s memory of a good night in bed becomes ‘They flee from me’.  
Without craft the poem is just a letter to a stranger telling her or him what he or she never asked to know in the first place. Without craft you’re left with content, and 99% of content is not that interesting. Pretending that poems are philosophical tracts has the unfortunate habit of proving they are not. 
Because there is so little discussion of craft, (because it requires the critic to do some work?) the focus on content is often embarrassing. The pink vibrator gets quoted, apparently to prove that ‘Sullivan throws entropy into the system and reminds us that no fairground ride goes on forever’. This leads to the quote ‘You are thinking of masturbating but the vibrator’s batteries are low….’ 
Later ‘It is hard to say if there is progress in history’ is worthy of quotation because it strikes a ‘note of uncertainty’. 
At some point I was expecting a critical voice to praise Sullivan for her technical ability. Or at least to recognize her technical ability. This is the T.S.Eliot prize winner. Eliot, like Pound, fetishized technique. And got so far away from the egocentric confessional poem he created his own form of personal thumbprint. 
Instead there is, from Dust jacket to website, an apparent need to see ‘Three Poems’ as some kind of response or dialogue with either The Waste land, ‘Pound’nEliot’ or ‘High Modernism’. 
This does Sullivan a vast disservice. Instead of dealing with her poem, she is conscripted into a narrative that allows the reviewer or critic to sound erudite while continuing to say nothing important about her work.
‘The final sequence ‘The Sandpit After Rain’…debunks some of the more portentous aspects of High Modernist poetry.’ 
This is the same critic who wants to believe this poem is a thing of ‘Terrible Beauty’ meditating on life and death.
So portentous can be ‘of momentous or ominous significance’; ‘miraculous amazing, awe inspiring’; or ‘self-important or pompous’.
Which meaning is being used here? I’m going for the third. But then, isn’t describing memories in great detail while assuming a stranger will be interested, an obvious act of self-importance? 
Debunking the portentous aspects of etc is hardly new or news worthy. The habitual dragging of Tom’nEz into the discussion seems to gloss over the fact that we’re three years off the centenary of The Waste Land's publication. Writers have been ‘debunking the more portentous aspects of High Modernist poetry’ since about 1922. 
The poetry of Eliot’nPound can be read as personal responses to a culture that was irrevocably damaged by the first world war. But some of the tropes and techniques of those poets are as dated as the conditions they were responding to. To say instead of ‘I can connect nothing with nothing’ that ‘everything is now connected’ is not radical poetry or engagement with an antiquated set of poetic tropes, but simple observation.  
Sullivan is interesting because she avoids the tired trappings of modernist/post-modernist poetics. She’s interesting because she puts the personal front and centre within the context of a well-written, knowing poetics. 
One of the great millstones around the neck of anyone reading and writing poems today is criticism which says nothing about the poems it pretends to discuss. Having to ask, ‘What does this mean?’ indicates a failure of critical prose. It’s a shame to have to ask it so often.
End of exasperation.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The nonsense people write about poetry. Hannah Sullivan's 'Three poems' and The T.S.Eliot prize. 2/3

 Looking for enlightenment, I went to the T.S.Eliot Prize website to read what was written there. 

‘Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is an astonishing debut, challenging the parameters of what poetry can do.’
The first part is undeniable. As a first collection Three Poems is impressive. 

But the second part is everything that is wrong with poetry blather. It sounds like an intelligent judgement has been made and offered as praise. In reality, beyond the fact the words have denotations, it’s meaningless. 
But firstly, that assumption that ‘challenging the parameters’ is automatically a GOOD THING. This is the twentieth century’s critical legacy; the idea that answering yes to ‘has this been done before’ somehow removes the obligation of asking ‘was it worth doing’?   

The assumption that it is A GOOD THING ignores the fact that there are fine poets who spent/d their careers getting better at writing poems without dabbling in ‘experimentation’. There are great poets, Yeats and Larkin as two well-known examples, who never pushed a ‘poetic boundary’ in their life. There are others who were so committed to pushing the boundaries they produced work that no one could make head nor tail of. 
Hold on to that thought.
In statements like this ‘poetry’ usually means one of two things; the sum total of all the poems written and published, or ‘the poetry I read and approve’. The first usage is rarer than rocking horse droppings, the second ubiquitous in critical discourse. 
Therefore, if I were being generous, I could translate the phrase ‘challenging the parameters of what poetry can do’ to mean, ‘this is not quite what I usually read but it’s close enough for me to recognise it and different enough to surprise me’.  But since I don’t know what the critic reads, the statement has no public value. 
If I wasn’t being charitable I’d say the phrase has no public value as a critical statement at all unless it takes ‘poetry’ to mean ‘the sum total of everything written’. In this case, it obviously does not. 
What are these ‘parameters of poetry’ and what can’t ‘poetry do’. 
Eliot, this is the T.S. Eliot Prize remember, wrote the historical sense was ‘nearly indispensible to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year’. He could have written 'poet or critic'. 
No one can read everything that’s been written in English, but critical amnesia underwrites so much of poetry blather. The desire to reach for the complimentary phrase obviously takes preference over any attempt at accuracy. 
For readers taking their curiosity for a walk amongst what’s been published since the 1900s, it becomes obvious that the range of what has been published is astonishing. It also becomes obvious that ‘poetry’ is not a thing with definable ‘parameters’. 
In terms of form we’ve gone through everything from the most rigorously formal to the least. We’ve had the New Formalism and LANGUAGE poetry, we’ve had the minimalism of the Imagists and the sprawl of the Beats. We’ve had non-narrative narratives and anti-lyrical lyrics. We’ve had poetry of clarity and poetry where the syntax does a passible imitation of a contortionist eating its own trouser seat. We’ve had the modernists preaching the egoless poem and the self-centred exhibitionism of the insta poet. We’ve had the erudite and the deliberately ignorant. We’ve had theology and pornography, politics and philosophy. We’ve had everything up to and including Goldsmith’s ‘Traffic’. It's what makes 'poetry' such a fascinating, inexhaustible field.  
Any safe definition of ‘poem’ or ‘poetry’ has been repeatedly challenged. Even Faber weren’t sure if ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anaethamata’ belonged in their poetry list; the Cantos incorporate dull prose, Williams incorporates bits of correspondence in Paterson. The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Goldsmith transcribed the traffic reports from his radio and no less a critic than Marjorie Perloff was willing to take him seriously.   
The truth is that ‘poetry’ is simply whatever gets published as poetry, and not just by Faber. 
So given that range, in the 21st century how can ‘poetry’ have ‘parameters’ that can be 'challenged'? Given that range, what hasn’t already been done? And given that range, what is there in Three Poems, that hasn’t been tried before? 
I don’t think the answer to that last question, ‘nothing’, detracts in any way from the book. 
Onwards to part three, the officially endorsed description.   

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The nonsense people write about poetry. Hannah Sullivan's 'Three poems' and The T.S.Eliot prize. 1/3

What follows are three encounters with poetry blather, related to Hannah Sullivan’s award winning Three poems.  It is not about Sullivan’s book, but about the way people write about poetry. 
I read a lot of poetry books, but sometimes, reading an award winning, highly acclaimed modern collection, I can’t see why the poet or the poems have earned their accolades.
I assume the fault is mine. I go online and look for reviews to try and discover what I’m missing. Often this involves wading through the sludge of poetry blather in search of an enlightenment which is rarely forthcoming. 
I had this experience reading Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems
Sullivan’s book seems to come out of Faber Central. The kind of book the poetry society choses for its book of the month, I could see that it was well-written, but I couldn’t see what made it stand out so much that it won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2018.
I went looking for enlightenment and have been reminded that people who should know better write a lot of nonsense about poetry. If poetry is at least the art of using words carefully, why is that people who write about it don’t seem to able to do the same.
Surely professional academics, reviewers or critics should be able to explain why they think a book is good without resorting to waffle.
So here are three encounters with Poetry Blather.
1)   The Dust jacket.
‘In Three Poems, readers will experience Sullivan’s work with the same exhilaration as they might the great modernizing poems of Eliot and Pound, but with the unique perspective of a brilliant new female voice.’
If that is a considered judgement it should sustain considered judgement? 
I suppose the Eliot Pound reference is mandatory given this is Faber and the book won a prize with T.S.E’s name on it but it’s an unfair comparison to lumber any poet with. Those two really did break the moulds.  
The exhilaration of reading Pound and Eliot is well attested. People recorded their initial excitement in their memoires and autobiographies. You can track the reception in books like T.S.Eliot: the Critical Heritage.  
Readers and critics were (and still are) split between those who recognized something new was happening and welcomed it; those who responded with genuine, intelligent dissent and those who resorted to mockery and dismissal. There were those who thought Prufrock was a joke, the Wasteland incomprehensible, and if we’re honest, the verdict is still out on the Cantos. 
But the split was part of that exhilaration, it was genuine and these poets (and others) were creating work that was different in form, diction, syntax and content to the poetry that was being written and read at the time. Even today the Waste Land and some of the Cantos remain exhilarating and strange. 
There are poems and poets who can still produce that kind of startled, initially baffled response. Make up our own list, mine, at random, would include Deep Step Come Shining, Slinger, The Monkey’s Mask, Tooting Idyll, For all we know, The Battlefield where the Moon says I Love You, the work of Maurice Scully….all works that left the main stream and take their readers somewhere different.  
But nobody who reads any reasonable amount of poetry is going to be startled or surprised by anything in Three Poems
And then what does/could ‘unique perspective of a brilliant new female voice’ mean. I can imagine some poets I’ve read being described as having a ‘distinctive voice’, but what’s that adjective doing before ‘voice’.
Unlike ‘masculine’, ‘female/feminine’ is invariably a positive term in literary discourse. It usually means the critic has made a mental list of qualities she or he approves and then labelled them as feminine. Rocks are masculine, water’s feminine. 
Leaving content out of the conversation, because the idea that the writer thinks there is a specific, appropriate, exclusive ‘female’ content is too ugly to contemplate; what, in the 21st century, would identify writing as  ‘a female voice’?   
Theoretically and practically gender can now be seen as a cultural construct and a performative which goes beyond the simplest of male/female binaries.  ‘Female’ is not a stable universal description outside of biology. 
I’m fairly sure that the linguists have buried the idea that there is anything more than culturally contingent learnt differences between men and women’s speech. The theorists went searching for ecriture feminine and ended up in a dead end. 
I also thought we’d had a century of writers trying to earn the right to write how they wanted, about what they wanted, not from within some restrictive box labelled ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.
So, in what way is this poem written in a ‘female voice’. Is the blurb writer claiming, implicitly, that they can identify an author’s gender by syntax and diction alone?  
And my god, given what’s been written over the past century or so, what would be a ‘unique perspective’ on lived experience? 
So the dust jacket didn’t help. 
In the next installment, considering what the judges said.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Susan Watson’s ‘The Time of the Angels’ in 'Long Poem Magazine' issue 21

Susan Watson’s ‘The Time of the Angels’ (p.61-68 in Long Poem Magazine issue 21, spring 2019.)

Warning: Enthusing in progress…

Susan’s Watson’s poem, or sequence, is divided into pieces of varying length and form, each with its own title. The prose introduction states that in 1979 its author was writing an honours thesis on Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’. It also refers to ‘the‘end of an era’ marked by the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979. The poems are written in third person ‘because I wanted to distance myself from the nameless young woman reading.’

Literary criticism and autobiography made into public art.  It’s a very impressive balancing act.
Of all the poems in the magazine, I read this one first for a very superficial reason. If I were to take one book to a desert Island, I’d take an untranslated Malory. This is the only book I’ve written poems to and about. So, there’s an element of envy in the admiration that follows.

There’s also a personal irony; in 1980, I was planning to write an honours thesis on Malory. I was gently but firmly told to do something else. Had I been allowed to follow my obsession, A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2019) might be about Malory, Lollards and the War of the Roses and not Laȝamon, Anarchy and the legendary history.

I start with this because I recognise the quality of Watson’s reading of Malory.  There are other fine poems in the magazine, but this one stands out. 

The first poem in the sequence is called ‘Why she began to fall in love with the works of Sir Thomas Malory’. It stands as an overture to the rest of the sequence. Each of its irregular, short stanzas presents a reason ‘why’, but each introduces ideas and images that are picked up, extended and passed on as the sequence unfolds. This means the intelligence is there, in the architecture, where it should be if a sequence is to be more than a collection of random pieces.
This first poem begins:

'Because of the narrative voice
a plain voice threading beads'

The first two lines announce the validity of the reading, and the writer’s skill: the unobtrusive metaphor is effective as a description of Malory’s style.  The idea of things in sequence, like beads on a thread, how they can be similar and yet vary, how repetition can be a form of variation, are all important ideas in what follow in the poem.

As a reading of Malory, the sequence provides interesting ways of rethinking the book. Malory’s knights eagerly fewter their spears and charge at each other before the hat has time to drop. Sir Thomas obviously loved to write about their endless foynings and slashings. But as Watson points out the ‘customary moves’ of this ‘courtly love dance’ repeated so many times, like those almost identical beads on the thread, lead up to the sudden shock of their disappearance in the combat between Mordred and Arthur.

At one point Watson describes the act of academic writing:

She’d already explained all the things
That blood meant and means
In those customary terms that she had borrowed  

which felt like a great sheet of iron
preventing things she really thought and meant

But the poems, not being essays, have the freedom to move around those sheets of iron, to explore and suggest possibilities, to make their own links.  

Initially, Maying reads like a reflection on one of Malory’s most famous passages, alternating its long lines, some about the passage, some evoke the physical reality of reading, but then the piece bends gently to suggest something about Malory himself while perhaps also suggesting something about the poet’s life and choices at that time. To get that many things happening coherently in a poem is a tribute to the writer’s skill.

Guinevere is perhaps Malory’s great creation. She is his great contributions to English literature. It’s hard not to wonder where she came from. And it’s hard not to occasionally feel the author is suddenly speaking in his own voice about things outside the story. In the post-modern world of dead authors and author functions one might feel awkward advancing such an idea in an essay,  but the Maying opens a space for reflection:

'Also she likes
the sudden subtle taste of cinnamon in the raisin cake, this voice, this brief scenting of a voice: Sir Thomas Malory Knight

Her idea of essayists:
men sitting in towers looking down, judging, but not like this. What had happened, what made those lines flow out just then?'

As Watson writes, ‘Contrition and sorrow lie lightly under the surface of those words’, leading to the final line, ‘ So he had forgiven her then’.

It’s done lightly, and well. The cinnamon in the raisin cake is another one of those metaphors you might miss if you weren’t paying attention.

The danger is that if the reader isn’t interested in Malory, the poem could sink. However that is not the case here because the sequence is more than just ‘a reading of Malory’.

Even in Maying there’s a feeling of life choices being considered by the narrator: ‘Adventures’ or the quiet of books; a withdrawal into the library or the risk of riding out.

People fall in love with a book. The academic essay rarely manages to capture the untidiness of recognition and obsession but ‘The time of the Angels’ as a whole, effectively conveys the way a book inflects the world of the reader, providing new ways of thinking and seeing, while the world inflects the reader’s way of seeing the book.
In ‘New year 1979’ the gothic arch on gothic arch, leading away down the corridor, is both a physical description of a place, but also an image of Malory’s narrative. Since everything is predicted at the start, the story leads inexorably to its final point, like the vanishing point in a drawing of perspective, but the doors leading off, opening and shutting, are like the strange sub texts that bubble under the stories.

The world in 1979, in England, was cold, and threatening. The poem is dusted with snow. Margaret Thatcher was about to come to power. Although Woods didn’t quote it, her description of going to the polls, and her feeling of frustration, evokes Malory’s denunciation of the English: Alas! Thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme.

What I initially thought was my only criticism of the poem, on reflection, might be an example of how good it is.

The sequence ends:

'Was Merlin there in the polling booth?
He’d never have told her 

She’s taken the aventureset out on a quest, without knowing,
chosen the man she’d marry.'

 I initially thought the last two lines are the only point in the sequence where an ambiguity suggests something hidden and personal. ‘The man she’d marry’ has made no appearance in the poem, unless we’re still with metaphors and the man is Malory. But on reflection the stanza underlines the difference between the book and lived experience, and allows the subject to exit the sequence.

In Malory you know how the story ends from the start:

Because of the prophecies
Like setting books down on a table
Those things must happen[…]

But life isn’t like that. Merlin doesn’t turn up at the polling booth (though political pundits would like to pretend they have the power of prophecy). There’s no one to tell you how the story ends. Encounters are random and meaningless until they are given significance in retrospect.

The paragraph introducing the sequence says that ‘this is part of a longer poem’. I would very much like to read the whole thing.

End of enthusing

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Waste Land, a complete reading.

I recorded a complete reading of the poem for 'The Poetry Voice Podcast'.  For me an opportunity to enjoy the poem without thinking about it as something that has to be analysed or understood, which affirmed not only how good it is, but how entertaining it is as well.
He was good was Mr. Eliot.

Friday, August 23, 2019

How to write a poem

The Irish Poet Austin Clarke:

Robert Frost had been given an honorary degree in Dublin, and after the conferring was introduced to Clarke.

'As we sat together on a comfortable sofa in Newman House, he asked me what kind of verse I wrote. Having been rarely asked such a question I was confused, and then suddenly, thinking of the 'strong man' whom I had often seen on his 'pitch' near St Martin's in the Fields, replied: 'I load myself with chains and try to get out of them'. 'Good Lord!" exclaimed the wise octogenarian poet, 'You can't have many readers'.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A Presentment of Englishry

Print extracts and sound files of me reading some of the shorter pieces are now available at

The Legendary History, which these poems are based on, is one answer to the question: What does it mean to be British, or English. And the Medieval response was not as simplistic as some of the more recent political attempts to answer that question. 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Gerald of Wales, Three stories from the Journey through Wales.

On this week's The Poetry Voice Podcast my version of three stories from Gerald of Wales' 'The Journey through Wales' one of the most readable of 12th century texts.

You can hear them read here:

The first one is a brutal mini tragedy, it starts like this....

He stepped out into unobstructed wind,
shut and barred the door, half-dragged, 
half-carried the defeated child towards 
the parapet. His fumbling hand felt stone

felt for the edge and end of stone, found space.
Footsteps on the stair, pounding at the door.
A small crowd in the courtyard, pointing 
to a blind man and a child on the castle’s 

highest tower. The castellan was pleading: 
‘Give me back my son!’ and demanding 
to know how the prisoner had escaped.
Blinded and castrated, for a reason

no one could remember, he’d been there so long
he’d been allowed to grope his way around. 
No one thought he could be dangerous.
‘Give me back my son, my only son, my heir,

and I will set you free.’ ‘Castrate yourself,’ 
the blind man raged. ‘Castrate yourself or 
I will toss your son, your only son, onto the stones below.’
The gathered people saw the blade descend and groaned.

‘You’ve done it?’ called the man. ‘I have.’
‘Where does it hurt?’ ‘In my groin, ‘You lied.’ 
The blind man moved the child closer 
to the edge. ‘Wait,’ screamed the lord, ‘this time.’ doesn't end well....

The poems were first published in The High Window. They are now available in A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2019) available from online book sellers and direct from www. liamguilar. com

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Poetry Voice Podcast is fifty!

Despite Illness, howling dogs, screeching parrots, unwanted door knockers, the Australian Tradesman's strange habit of trying to listen to his portable radio while operating power tools and wearing the compulsory ear protection, not to mention hail storms, gale force winds and other natural disasters....The Podcast has made it to fifty episodes.
You can subscribe on iTunes. Just search for The Poetry Voice in their podcasts, or you can hear it at 

You can also request poems.

So to celebrate being fifty,  this week's episodes will be ...different. Here's the first.

So far there's poetry from Old and Middle English, poems in translation from Poland to Palestine, well known poems, poems that should be well known, pieces so small I had to do more than one to make the podcast and some long pieces. Most enjoyable to read? 'The Rime of The Ancient Mariner' and David Jones's 'The Hunt'. Surprises? How awful some poems sounded. (They never made it to the podcast) and on a positive note how Bunting's 'Villion' and Pound's Canto ll swing.

A full list of the fifty episodes listed by Poet.

Anon (15th Century ) ‘I sing of a maiden’
Anon Old English, From The Battle of Maldon.
Anon. ‘Dom Niperi Septoe’ or ‘The Dairy Maid’.
Anon. From Old English ‘The Dream of the Rood’
Atwood Margaret ‘Marrying the Hangman’
Balmer  Jo ‘The Librarians’ power’
Boland Evan ‘Quarantine’
Bunting Basil ‘Villon’
Byron  ‘To Thomas Moore’
Campbell Joseph ‘Two Poems’
Carroll, Lewis  ‘Jabberwocky’
Carson Ciaran ‘Five sonnets from The Twelfth of Never’
Cavafy C.P ‘Ithaka’
Coleridge, Samuel, 'The Rime of the ancient Mariner' 
Daniel Sam to ‘To Delia’. The first sonnet.
Darwish Mahmoud ‘Lesson From the Karma Sutra’
Dawe Bruce  ‘And a good Friday was had by all’
Eliot T.S. ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
Feaver Vicki   ‘Judith’
Guilar Liam 'Lute Recitals'.
Guilar Liam ‘Laȝamon Remembers ireland’
Guilar Liam ‘Presentment of Englishry’
Heaney Seamus ‘The Given Note’.
Herbert Zbigniew ‘The Envoy of Mr. Cogito’
Hewitt John ‘An Irishman in Coventry’
Hope A.D. ‘The End of a journey’
Jones David ’ ‘The Hunt’
Kavanagh Patrick ‘Kerr’s Ass’
Kipling Rudyard  ‘Danny Deever’
Kipling Rudyard ‘A Three part song’
Kipling Rudyard ‘In the Neolithic age’
Laȝamon ‘The prologue to Laȝamon’s Brut’. 
Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, The conception of King Arthur.
Longley Michael ‘Laertes’
Macniece Louis ‘Cradle song for Eleanor’
Mahon Derek  ‘Everything is going to be allright’.
Meehan Paula 'My Father perceived as a vision of Saint Francis'
Mew, Charlotte  ‘The Farmer’s bride’
Milne A.A ‘Disobedience’
Pound Ezra ‘Canto 11’
Rossetti Christina  'A chily night'
S.Vincent Millay Edna, 'Bluebeard'
Saunders Lesley ‘Ephemera’
Saunders Lesley ‘Praise song for a pair of earings’.
Service Robert ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’
Shelley Percy 'Ozymandias'
Sidney, Sir Philip Sonnet 1 from ‘Aristophil and Stella’
Tennyson Alfred  ‘Ulysses’
Thomas Dylan ‘Lament’
Thomas Edward ‘The Gallows’

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Casket by Andy Brown

Casket by Andy Brown. Shearsman Chapbooks, 2019. (31 pages)

I like this short collection very much.

The Casket in question is the The Frank’s Casket, a ‘whalebone’ box dating from the eighth century, covered with Runic inscriptions and almost cluttered with intricately carved and often enigmatic scenes.

For readers interested in Old English Poetry, the Casket is accidentally iconic. The cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Michael Alexander’s ‘The Earliest English poems’ (1966), which contained those ground breaking translations of Old English,  was a slightly blurred image from one of its panels. It is a pleasure to see the thing in the British Museum. And astonishing to see how small it is.
Brown’s chapbook consists of five poems, or five short sequences, one for each of the side panels, one for the lid. It’s very good.  I like the way it ghosts Old English.

Each poem begins with the relevant runic inscription and takes off from there. A note from the author explains the runic alphabet. Each rune has an equivalent letter and what Brown calls a ‘pictorial’ value… the word for Fish in runic script also contains the values for ‘wealth’ ‘ice’ ‘sun’ and ‘torch’’.  ‘To write the following poems I determined the sequence of images yielded by each runic word, and then used these images or variants of them, to write the poems’ (p.5).

As a concept, it’s interesting, but it puts conceptual intelligence into the architecture of the poems, where I think it should be. Whether or not you can map the runes directly onto the poems, and how much latitude Brown allowed himself in that ‘variants of them’, would require far more time than I’m willing to dedicate to the effort of finding out. Unlike so much 'conceptualised poetry', the poems in this collection stand as poems.

The collection is thematically linked by the last line ‘…this shared and ever constant now’. The chapbook presents ‘the place where I live’ (coyly unspecified in a book about place)  as a palimpsest: modern golfers play where Britons and Saxons fought. On the water, New Foundland cod boats set sail and pass Danish raiders and ‘Dunkirkers’ coming home, while Flemish privateers have landed to burn the town.  Glimpses of history mingle with scenes from the present, graffiti’d bridges and frozen allotments, trail bikers and fishermen.

The poetry itself is skilfully written. The first sequence, ‘Whalebone’ picks up the echo of Old English alliterative verse. The Anglo-Saxon line with its triple crash and bang doesn’t sound good if sustained in modern English, so Brown’s handling of it here is skilful, evocative of Old English, giving the poem an onward movement but without sounding heavy handed:

This unforgiving trade, when the ice
Of February frets the core and fingers
And the sun’s declining disk smoulders
Barely bright enough to light the creek. 

The nod towards Old English is also beautifully done towards the end of the fifth section. One poem, beginning ‘I sing’ blurs the distinction between the Casket, its maker and the poet, since all three are ‘singing’:  the lines evoke the epigrammatic mood of Old English. 
This leads to that most Old English of poems, ‘the thing speaking’….(’prosopopoeia’ is not a word I get to type very often.)

Snatched from the creature’s warmth
And brought into the sun
I’ve made this voyage to artful box 

This sounds like the beginning of one of the Exeter book riddles. But ‘For month’s I knew the workman’s hands’ leads into the bone’s description of how it became a casket and we’ve moved from riddle to something more affecting. My candidate for ‘the best piece in the book’.
The last fourteen lines in the chapbook seem to offer some kind of conclusion, but I think they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. The tendency of OE to epigrammatic, generalising is captured in

We have the measure of our lives all wrong
it’s not this time of flesh and blood alone,
but the slow millennia of dissolution,
when skin and bone return to whence they came

But the sudden shift from the previously specific ‘I’ to the vague ‘we’ and the equally generalised statement which slides off the fact the Casket has, after at least a thousand years, most definitely not returned to whence it came, might be the only flaw in the collection.. 

My only reservation may be irrelevant and whether you see it as criticism or observation depends on what you want from the poems you read.

As a reader of poems, and buyer of poetry, there are thousands of books to choose from. But increasingly I feel it doesn’t really matter. There are varying degrees of technical competence but at the end of some collections I wonder if life would have been any worse for not reading them. 

The problem facing writers and readers of contemporary poetry is that lurking, ‘Nice.. but so what? ‘

Bunting wrote ‘Then is now’ and produced Briggflatts . Eliot spun whorls with time past and time present being simultaneously present in time future. David Jones started with the idea of a past permanently present in the language and built In Parenthesis and The Anathemata. The idea of ‘a shared and ever constant now’ has been the starting point of some major poetic writing.

If you read Casket, you’ll never look at the Frank’s casket the same way again. Which is a good thing, though looking at the Frank’s Casket is not something most of get the chance to do very often.

If you live in Britain and don’t realise you are living in a place with a deep and varied history, some of it still visible around you, the collection might wake you up to that fact.

But if the last fourteen lines offer a conclusion, they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. For all the verbal skill, there’s a step not taken, and ‘so what?’ is doing a passable impersonation of Grendel, lurking on the edges of the reading. Whether you let him or not depends on you. If you let him in, the effect is disastrous.

I don’t know if this is an observation or a criticism.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

C.S.Lewis on Obscurity in Poetry

Reading David Jones, the complicated question of obscurity: what it is, how you deal with it, what effect it has on reading and value, is never far away.

Here’s C.S.Lewis, discussing the Arthurian poetry of Charles Williams and teasing out different categories of ‘obscurity’.  He describes four types, admitting that the boundaries between them can be blurred.  Endearingly, he wrote: ‘the extreme indulgence towards obscurity which characterizes the taste of modern readers is not very likely to last’. He was writing in 1948. 

1)    Obscurity may come from slovenliness of syntax. Poets, as well as prose writers, may construct sentences which are difficult to construe. Lewis calls this kind of Obscurity a vice. His example from Williams is ‘‘‘who fly the porphyry stair’ is intended to mean ‘who fly up the porphyry stair’. But by the nature of the English language it cannot do so. This is a bad fault.’
2)    Obscurity may be deliberate. No poetry worth the name can be perfectly translated into prose. But the poet may choose to write poetry which makes not perfect translation but any translation impossible. This is legitimate. 
3)    Privatism. This occurs when the reader, however sensitive and generally cultivated he or she may be, could not possibly understand the poem unless the poet chose to tell something more than he has done in the poem. Lewis’ example is that he has been told he is wasting his time trying to puzzle out lines in a poem because the explanation lay not in the poem but in events which had occurred in his informant’s house. ‘In so far as the poem was addressed to a circle of friends such privatism is a not a literary fault at all; in so far as the poem was exposed without warning for sale in the shops it seems to me to be simply a way of ‘obtaining money under false pretences’. He goes on to state that ‘if I do not desire a law against this form of cheating, that is only because such a law would be too difficult either to frame or administer. The thing involves such a blend of dishonesty, puerility, and discourtesy, such a denial of ‘co-inherence’ such a reckless undermining of the very conditions in which literature can flourish, that no punishment such criticism can inflict would be sufficiently severe.’ 
4)    Unshared background. Lewis’ uses the Waste Land as his example. If you have never read Dante or Shakespeare certain things in that poem will be obscure to you. ‘But then, frankly, we ought to have read Dante or Shakespeare, or at least the poet has the right to address only those who have’.  Williams assumes you know the Bible, Malory and Wordsworth pretty well, and have at least some knowledge of Milton, Dante, Gibbon, the Mabinogion and church history. Lewis sees this as legitimate. But when Williams assumes that you know ‘Heraclitus as quoted by W.B Yeats’ or Eliot assumes you know ‘From Ritual to Romance’ the difficulties are becoming less obviously legitimate. However, as he points out, the things referred to are accessible. You could read RtoR. This is not the same as selling a poem which only works for those who know ‘the colour of your nurse’s hair, the jokes of your preparatory school, or the favourite sayings of your aunt.’ ‘Yet is it obvious that there will come a point at which you use in your poetry scraps of your own reading so intrinsically unimportant and so very unlikely to be shared by the best readers [if any] that you have become guilty of privatism’.

The point where 3 becomes 4 is obviously harder to define than problems of syntax. But I wonder. How many readers do you need to share your background before you're free of the charge of  'privatism'? And i wonder how many poets, with established reputations, have been guilty of privatism, and got away with it because no one was willing to admit they couldn't understand the poems but were too intimidated by reputation to admit their own educated incomprehension? 


Sunday, June 23, 2019

Charles Williams on the difference between Wace and Layamon.

'The style of the two poets was very different. Wace carried on the culture and medieval splendour of Geoffrey. Layamon wrote under the poetic influence of the older poets, of the Anglo-Saxons. Wace is busy with courts and progress; Layamon with heroes and fighting. There is in Layamon something not unlike dialogue and exclamations: where Wace gives silk and the polish of steel, Layamon gives cloth and the weight of steel.'
(Charles Williams. Arthurian Torso. p223)

If the modern jury is out on Laȝamon's debt to Old English, the balance of that last sentence, and the aptness of the judgement, are both impressive.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Post modernism is just Medievalism rebranded?

What are the differences between Early Medieval and Modern Writers part 2

What follows is part two of a working hypothesis. It’s a work in very slow progress. And since this is a blog post and not an essay, I’ll skip to the conclusion. The full-length version might appear on the website at some stage. I also want to follow up the last post and consider what happens when one tries to imagine turning the story of Rowena into a film but that’s for another post.


In the previous post I noted that Geoffrey, Wace and Laȝamon all seem to make the same mistake in allowing Auerelius or Ambrosius to accuse Vortigern of having murdered A’s father.
If you have an obvious contradiction in a story, then the writer might have overlooked something, was doing something very clever, or was simply inept. When you have three writers ‘making the same mistake’ something different is happening.

So backtrack a bit and begin with 2 well-known examples.

What our three early medieval writers didn't do.

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago and Roderigo move onto the stage. They are in the middle of an argument.

It’s a simple, effective trick to make us imagine that the conversation started before the play did. And that illusion is an essential part of modern, post-Shakespearian, assumptions about how fiction works.

This illusion, that characters are more than just words on a page and can be known as real people, reached it critical apogee when A.C. Bradley asked ‘How Old is Macbeth’ or ‘Did Lady Macbeth really faint?’  This, and similar questions, have been the subject of subsequent critical derision: epitomised by L. C. Knight’s famous ‘How many children has Lady Macbeth?’ but they are a testament to the power of the illusion that Lady Macbeth is a ‘real’ person.  

If they are no longer considered ‘credible’ critical questions, both New Criticism and Post Modernism having rendered them suspect, they are exactly the kind of ‘character background’ modern writers are encouraged to develop while writing their novels. 

Pace the critics, we remember Lady Macbeth because she does seem real. Literary conventions and learnt reading practices combine to lead us to wonder why she does what does and why she is the way she is. The illusion is that something happens between the Banquet scene and the sleepwalking scene, to bring about such a radical change in her state of mind.  She has a life off stage which we can somehow access and discuss. Or argue about.

As I’m rewriting the story of Vortigern and Rowena, I feel obliged to treat her as a coherent character, with a biography that stretches back before the story starts, and comes to some kind of conclusion in her death. Childhood? Upbringing? Hengist pitches her at Vortigern but how did she feel about that? What does she even think of Vortigern? What did they talk about on their wedding night? How did they talk, given that they don’t speak each other’s language? What is her relationship with her father? Does she have any kind of relationship with Vortigern beyond the contractual sex of their marriage?  And if she does, how is it affected by her murder of Vortimer?

What our Writers Did.

None of these questions seems to have interested Wace or Laȝamon as they revised Geoffrey. And I think that suggests something different about their attitude towards the story.

Rowena is not a ‘fully rounded literary character’ in the modern sense, whose biography we might expect to follow to its conclusion as though she were a biological entity. She is a proper noun accumulating verbs and nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. All that is important is what she does, relevant to the downfall of Britain.

She has no life off-stage. She only exists in the words that describe her speech and actions. Bright shards of incident and dialogue. This is strictly true of modern fictional characters, but the illusion of modern fiction is that these are just the visible parts of the life and a reader can fill in the gaps. Modern writers work at making that illusion.

In the ‘Brut’ there are no ‘gaps’ for the audience to fill. Asking ‘Why is Vortigern evil, what motivated his career before he is first mentioned’ is an irrelevant question. He is his reported actions and nothing more.

It follows from this that there is no character development and no sense that characters are able to learn from their ‘experiences’.   

Laȝamon's imagination sees Rowena in focus in the scenes where she is important, but that’s all. She has no opinions, no feelings, and no attitudes that can be explored.  She is a noun, the subject, object, even indirect object of sentences.  It’s not that her death happens ‘off stage’. 

There is no ‘off-stage’. She doesn’t die. She never lived. She is simply no longer part of the linguistic event.

And this, to return to the previous post, explains the ‘inconsistency’. It’s not inconsistent because the process doesn’t acknowledge let alone aspire to consistency. Constantine’s story exists only in the words and phrases used about him at a particular stage of the text: not in the past of the story. Not five pages back. There is no coherent ‘biography’ to disrupt. The rhetorical and emotional possibilities of Aurelius’ anger take precedent.

Which is very strange. And very different. And has multiple implications for the way a story works.

 A presentment of Englishry, stories from the Brut and about its writer,  a necessary lead up to the story of Vortigern and Rowena, is now available from the Book Depository, Amazon, and the Shearsman website. Signed copies are available from ,