Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Flash light(n)ing

At this time of the year all the writers teaching in the department at the university are invited to deliver two lectures, one on a work or writer who has influenced them, and one on the particular work of their own so influenced.

With me, the first lecture is on Derek Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford', the poem influenced being 'Metro'.

The first lecture is about much more than the Disused Shed, it ranges through Mahon's poetry of the time, and concentrates on a few key ideas: the mushroom prisoners ("Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!"), the idea of de-objectified desire ("What should they do there but desire?"); the idea of community as something closed and demanding; the idea of the damaged centre (bombed Belfast) together with the idea of a possibly desirably bombed centre and how it relates to the periphery; the idea of a transferred loyalty to some aspect of Europe; and aesthetic judgment versus and/or combined with political judgment.

On all these matters I feel, and did feel back in the mid eighties when I wrote 'Metro', considerable resonance with Mahon, and some of the same themes run through my poem.

The second lecture is, necessarily, about 'Metro' (a poem that, for me, has certain dull connecting passages, but also some of my best, most vivid writing), but it is also a chance to say something about the nature of poetry and how poetry works with narrative.

The first lecture is more or less scripted, and indeed a touch long if I were to read the whole text, so I need to cut and improvise as I go which is always a slightly anxious procedure, but the second is impromptu with a few headings as guideline. I feel, and always have felt, much more comfortable with the second type of procedure. It means that if something occurs to me as I speak I can weave it in as it comes.

The image that emerged out of the second lecture this time has been developing in a half-conscious manner for some time, and is related to the post below on Kertész. In any case I kept returning to it as the controlling image. It was of the lyric poem as the capturing of a landscape or event as lit by lightning. For a brief moment or so you see everything, and everything has a significance that is not entirely clear. It is memorable. It closes. In that respect it is like the movement of a camera with a shutter. It's dark, the light floods in, then it's dark again.

This is not necessarily the mode of composition, of course, it is, rather, the mode of seeing that the mode of composition seeks to perfect. (By the same analogy, poems are photographs, novels are movies.) It explains why poems do or do not work. The lightning-lit landscape might be incomplete. Or there is, simply, no lightning at all. Lightning is not the same as natural daylight. The photo looks somewhat fantastical, but the electricity runs through us, and one can feel its approach the way we sometimes feel thunder approaching, through our stomachs,

This doesn't mean I have turned mystical about the art, but the effect is distinctly there in the best poems and we miss it when it isn't. The lightning effect is not mystical either: it comes about through the perceived sense of connection between language and the sense of reality. The connection feels electric. The two poles of what we say and what there is seem, briefly, to coincide. Then it's over, the light goes out, and language is just the stuff I am writing now.


Straight after the lecture (plus two brief tutorials) off to Cambridge for a reading at Michaelhouse in Trinity Street. We park in the Backs and walk through. Cambridge looks as idyllic as ever. I remember visiting it - we lived about thirty miles away - in my twenties and early thirties, book hunting. It was always someone else's idyll of course. It was the kind of privilege I couldn't even begin to resent because why, I thought, should anyone resent beautiful places or intelligence or education? It would be a privilege to be there, but someone has to be there, and, as Larkin said about Coventry, it wasn't the place's fault. Not entirely anyway. It simply wasn't my world, that's all, and never would be. I was an art school boy via the dreaded Harrow Tech, teaching in a school. The Idyll was Elsewhere in a land populated by Eloi. Needless to say I have been to many of the Cambridge colleges since then but the sense of being on other people's property has never left me. I am charming. They are charming. The weather continues, charming.

I read with young poet Kathryn Daszkiewicz some of whose work can be found on that link, as also here. She's good. The audience includes a number of scientists. They are very nice in that slightly spacy Cambridge way. Two young female scientists, one from India (I think) the other from Albania are enthusiastic and come up with New and Collecteds for signing. Aha, I think, my constituency! My patchwork good people.

C drives there, I drive back and just make it, yawning heavily in the last half hour. Full moon the previous night. Bad disturbed sleep.


Via the genius of David Morley, a good article I missed by A A Gill in The Times. It is what poetry needs most: enlightened enthusiasm from those without a personal stake in it. Unlike, I suspect, the gentleman commenting below Gill's article, who writes:

The BBC uses the term poet to mean anyone who has no reason to be on the airwaves. Poetasters and doggerel merchants all get called 'poet'. Nobody on a poetry programme ever says 'this is pretty awful'; they all nod reverendly at the emperor's clothes

I smell a disappointed poet. The terms 'poetasters', 'doggerel merchants' and 'emperor's clothes' are a clue. I suspect he means writers of light verse who are a pleasure to the nation. Nowt wrong with light verse when it is well written. It is still delight. Nor are there - unlike among the commodity dealer and production merchant community of visual art - any emperors. Check the condition of the poet emperors' shoes. Or indeed of mine.


Coirí Filíochta said...

John Ledbury from Kings Lynn was the poster, bringing to mind the Cyril Connolly quote about poets seeking prefferment:

Jackals snarling round a dried up well.

I googled him and think he might be a morris dancer, and his main bette noirs seem to be Ian MacMillan and Lemn Sissay, who he bashed on a Telegraph blog asking if Bob Dylan was a poet.


I can't think of any one piece which has fed directly into anything I have written (though no doubt there is one) - more the underlying musical datums, acoustic scaffold and linguistic watermarks of certain poets and poems, which act as the mark beyond one's reach to aim for - some of which over time, have managed to suss out what the sonic events and arrangements cause the instinctive attraction to them. Stripping back the mystic glide to reveal the metrical mechanism and arrangement in the furious paddling feet beneath the surface eyed.

The Symphony by Sidney Lanier, when I first encountered it, had an effortless quality to it, which after reading his fascinating bio, made more sense, as he was working on elucidating a metrical system based on musical theory.

I speak for each no-tongued tree
That, spring by spring, doth nobler be,
And dumbly and most wistfully
His mighty prayerful arms outspreads
Above men's oft-unheeding heads,
And his big blessing downward sheds.
I speak for all-shaped blooms and leaves,
Lichens on stones and moss on eaves,
Grasses and grains in ranks and sheaves;
Broad-fronded ferns and keen-leaved canes,
And briery mazes bounding lanes,
And marsh-plants, thirsty-cupped for rains,
And milky stems and sugary veins;
For every long-armed woman-vine
That round a piteous tree doth twine;
All placid lakes and waveless deeps,
All cool reposing mountain-steeps,
Vale-calms and tranquil lotos-sleeps; --
Yea, all fair forms, and sounds, and lights,
And warmths, and mysteries, and mights,
Of Nature's utmost depths and heights,
-- These doth my timid tongue present,
Their mouthpiece and leal instrument
And servant, all love-eloquent.

Coirí Filíochta said...

oops, should be *lead* instrument.

Gwil W said...

Today received the Bloodaxe 2009 catalogue. Is that another of C's masterpieces on the cover of The Burning of the Books? It's a scorcher! Other striking covers in there: Fred Voss (Hammers...), Ellen Hinsey, (Update...), Martin Carter (University...).
My favourite Bloodaxw cover is Mary Oliver's Wild Geese. But who am I to judge [;-]

George S said...

Yes, it's C's.

Hinsey is a good poet. Don't really know Voss and Carter. Covers are good though.

I'm not an Oliver fan as far as the poems are concerned. Too much sugar and spice I think.

Gwil W said...

Thanks George. I'll order yours when it's available and for now I'll google the others and see what I make of them. Sugar and spice is not my cup of tea either.