Friday, October 31, 2008

Just spent a week in south-west France on a family holiday - took the cheap Ryanair flight to Carcassonne. We took a day trip by train from there to Toulouse. Cold, wet and windy, just like home, Carcassonne's 14thC fortress tremendously impressive, the town like something out of Madame Bovary - what little was there closed after 6pm, and it felt very provincial (tho welcoming and relaxed). Watching vast flocks of starlings circling the town in the dusk to roost in the trees of the main square, as shop-keepers closed their shutters and took their wares indoors, it occured to me that one of the attractions of France to certain English people - myself included - is nostalgia; partly, I think, for a time when Britain was not totally at the mercy of the free market. Carcassonne was full of small family businesses and locally owned patisseries and cafés - not a Starbucks or Cafe Nero in sight. In Toulouse I found several excellent independent bookshops of the type that have simply disappeared from the UK. One in particular had a huge stock, and I managed to pick up books by two poets I'm interested in - the Morroccan francophile poet Abellatif Laâbi, and Edmond Jabès. What with John BR's book delivery last week, I don't know when I'm going to find the time to read all this stuff.

Friday, October 24, 2008

My family and I had the considerable pleasure this week of playing host to John Bloomberg-Rissman and his wife Kathy on part of their UK vacation. We did the tourist things, like visiting Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, that we don't normally get to do. John does a good job of keeping me up to date with developments in American poetry, and he arrived with a gift of a pile of books, some of which I'll maybe get round to reviewing, or at least mentioning at some point. They were:

Ron Silliman, "The Alphabet" (a 1000-page life's work)
Lyn Hejinian, "My Life"
Christian Bok, "Euonia"
Hannah Wiener's Open House
Jared Schickling, "Submissions"
Donna Stonecipher, "Souvenir de Constantinople"
Gertrude Stein, "A Reader" ed. Ulla E. Dydo

Plenty to get my teeth into there. The last book mentioned should cure my shamefully superficial knowledge of Gertrude Stein, a writer who seems bigger and more important the more I find out about her.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The BBC recently reported on one Ammon Shea, who spent a year reading the Oxford English Dictionary - 20 volumes, 21,730 pages and 59 million words. Here are Mr. Shea's thoughts on the experience, with the word 'dictionary' replaced by 'poem':

"I've always enjoyed reading poems and they are far more interesting than people give them credit for. And I think everything you find in a great book you would find in a great poem, except for the plot.

"All the normal emotions - grief, happiness and loss - exist in a poem but not necessarily in the order that you would think."

The article includes a quote from Auden: "For a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways."

That last phrase could easily have been used by one of our more innovative poetry practitioners to describe their poetry - the notion that the reader of a poem is at least as responsible for the meaning as the writer. This got me thinking, in a digressive way, about Auden's poetry. I've thought for some time that his repudiation of poems like 'Spain' and 'September 1 1939' was wrong-headed in the sense that it regarded the poem's literal message as paramount. If one believes that a poem can be "legitimately read in an infinite number of ways", then it doesn't make sense to repudiate a poem because of its literal message. Nevertheless, I admire Auden for his moral stance.

This train of thought brings to mind another poet, one whose achievement seems ever more slender with the passing years: T.S. Eliot. I've always thought it shameful that Eliot never publicly renounced the anti-semitic passages in his early poetry. I appreciate of course, that my views on this may contradict my previous views on Auden, and that there seems no easy answer to this vexed question, which raises the further question of whether poetry, made out of language, can ever really be divorced from the "real world" and the things it references.