Monday, December 19, 2011

On Saturday I met with Clive Allen and Adrian Buckner in a cafe on the campus of Nottingham University. The meeting was one of our regular ones at which we bring a poem of our own to discuss and critique, and also, one by another poet. My poem by the 'other poet' was Shakespeare's poem beginning "Let the bird of loudest lay...". The poem in question, usually titled (though not by the author) "The Phoenix and the Turtle", has been one that I've re-read often in recent weeks and which I've been somewhat haunted by. You can read the poem here.

Part of the appeal of this poem is that it's enigmatic and unclear - one reads it as through a glass darkly. Compared to the other poems of WS, it has an unmodern quality: the session of birds and the allegorical figures hark back to Chaucer and the medieval period. But apart from its distance in time, the poem treats its subject matter obliquely, and has a number of puzzling lines. Much ink has been spilt over the possibility that it has coded Catholic sympathies, and there's a convincing theory that the two eponymous birds represent Roger and Anne Line, a married couple, Roman Catholics, who were separated when Roger was exiled for his beliefs, then died abroad. Anne was arrested for harbouring catholic priests and was hanged at Tyburn in 1601, the same year this poem was published. There are remarkable correspondences between this story and the poem; for example, the Lines were known to have taken a vow of celibacy within their marriage, and were childless; in the poem there's the puzzling lines:

Leaving no posterity:--
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

as well as this:

Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt the turtle and his queen;

"Distance and no space" is Euclid's definition of a line, something WS would have been aware of from his schoolbook geometry. Despite these correspondences, the evidence is not conclusive, and there are other theories, none of which are ever likely to be finally confirmed. While hauntingly beautiful, the poem remains elusive; were there contemporaries - a select few perhaps - to whom its coded messages were clear? Or are there no coded messages, but a deliberately elusive poem by a supremely skilled writer? Further, how many of us twenty-first century readers can enter the mind of renaissance England to read the poem as contemporaries would have read it? Have the intervening periods - The Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism, the age of science and technology - changed us so much that what we read now is analogous to a translation? I'm reminded, in all this, of a short piece of writing by by Jorge Luis Borges: "The Parable of Cervantes and The Quijote". The parable talks about how the opposition in Cervantes' novel was between "the unreal world of the books of chivalry and the ordinary, everyday world of sixteenth century Spain". The parable continues:

"They did not suspect that the years would smooth away that discord, they did not suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight's lean figure would be, for posterity, no less poetic than the episodes of Sinbad or the vast geographies of Ariosto.

For in the beginning of literature is the myth, and in the end as well."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"..for me, poetry is the great unsettler. It questions the established order of the mind. It is radical, by which I don't mean that it is either leftwing or rightwing, but that it works at the roots of thinking. It goes lower than rhetoric, lower than conversation, lower than logic, right down to the very faint honest voice at the bottom of the skull. You can hear that voice in a letter written by the 16th‑century poet Thomas Wyatt to his son: "No doubt in any thing you do, if you ask yourself or examine the thing for yourself afore you do it, you shall find, if it be evil, a repining against it. My son, for our Lord's love, keep well that repining …"

Alice Oswald, on why she withdrew from the TS Eliot Prize.

To read the full article, click here

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Assent" magazine, published by the university of Derby has just published a review of "Variations on Painting a Room", written by the Reviews Editor, Julia Gaze. It's a print magazine, so the review's not available online as yet. Ms. Gaze, like Ian Seed in his review, focuses on The Book of Random Access, and it's becoming clear to me that, at least in readers' eyes (which is what counts) that section of the book is the most significant. What's interesting to me is that it's the part of the book which I wrote most quickly - at a rate of about one prose poem every two days. I also wrote it while my mind was largely on other things, during a busy domestic and professional period of my life. I typed and wrote the poems during brief breaks at my desk at work, while sitting at the front of a class (I train IT staff), while waiting to pick my kids up from various places, and while doing the washing up, gardening and cleaning. I've discussed a similar aspect of this work elsewhere on this blog, but it still fascinates me, the creative process. Having the conscious miind distracted in some way seems almost a requirement of artistic production.

R.I.P. Christopher Logue

I've blogged about Logue in the past, and the "Cold Calls" section of his Iliad has been reviewed on Litter. Of course, now he's passed away, that version will never be complete, but, as I've said before, it seems appropriate for our post-modern condition that our age's translation of Homer should be fragmentary and incomplete.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I've been having an interesting discussion over at the blog of Canadian writer Conrad DiDiodato. The discussion started with the following quote, on Conrad's blog, from Eliot weinberger:

"The United States doesn’t have the class of literary supplements that you find in Spain and many other countries… Criticism, in the United States, has been reduced to ‘recommendations’, which arrive through reviews, blogs and Twitter. Prizes have become the standard validation of literary merit. I can’t think of a single American critic to whom one can turn in search of ideas …" (read the full quote here)

We then discussed the high quality of reviews and essays in the French press, and I introduced Conrad to Pierre Assouline's blog. We do have the TLS and the London Review of Books, which, although they're pretty conservative, do carry quality critical writing. But in the broadsheets, reviews of poetry, at least, are largely reduced to ‘recommendations’, witness this recent 'review' in The Guardian. The blogosphere seems to be the place for a wider range and more in-depth discussion of poetry. But even here, there's a problem; namely, that in the age of Facebook and Twitter, poets are very likely to know each other, if not personally, then virtually. On-line communications lends itself, indeed, possibly requires, comforting compliments and regular praise, to keep communication flowing with someone you've never met; or, conversely, unrestrained, anonymous venom. Neither of these things are conducive to objective, disinterested critique. Maybe we need more critics who are not poets, and therefore untrestrained by the need to butter up publishers and other poets. But such people are rare; maybe it just needs a bit more courage and objectivity from poet-critics.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Some poems and photographs in tribute to Theodore Enslin, by fellow poets and friends Ed Baker, David Giannini, and John Phillips, as well as a poem by the poet himself. In addition, there is also a link to a brief obituary (and an excerpt from same) and a recording of Brahms Intermezzo, Opus 18, No. 2, which Theodore Enslin requested be played in lieu of a memorial service or other type of observance.

All available here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Stride magazine's Editor's Picks 2011 includes my "Variations on Painting a Room" - along with lots of other good stuff. I'm very pleased. Thanks to Rupert Loydell.

Review - The Best British Poetry 2011

...this anthology [implies] that contemporary poetry is a single homogeneous entity. In reality, it isn't; there is a division between the poetry of, say, Carol Ann Duffy and that of Maggie O'Sullivan, and it's not just due to official acceptance or funding of one over the other; it's to do with the philosophies and assumptions which underlie the poetry; put simply, Duffy and O'Sullivan have different notions about what poetry is. Such divisions are intrinsic to the post-modern nature of poetry in the twenty-first century. To deny that there are 'schools' or movements in poetry, and instead to assert that it's all one, (and that the finest work will somehow rise to the top - as 'the best' tag implies) is to deny the very energies which drive much poetic production.

To read the complete review, click here